Favourite books this year
Here are some books that made an impression on me in 2017.
Unlike last year, I have read far fewer books this year that talk directly about religion, though many of them indirectly speak to both religion and culture. And as the list of books is eclectic, the highlights are similarly eclectic. For full disclosure, a couple of these books were experienced through the medium of audiobooks.
Note: These are numbered for convenience, not in order of preference.
1. Prisoners of Geography
I’ve heard for years about “geo-politics” - the idea that geography affects war and peace, trade, country boundaries, etc. This book provided an interesting overview of the subject and answered quite a few of my questions, as well as exposing me to geographical regions like South and Central America that I’ve never really considered. While it stops (just) short of geographic determinism, it does make it clear that in the context of geography there are far fewer happy options than a cursory look at a map would suggest.
Here are some examples: A river can provide a helpful boundary - unless it’s easily bridgeable. Or it might provide a trade route - but only if it’s navigable. Mountains can provide a defence against invaders, particularly if you are in a highly mountainous area like Afghanistan (“the graveyard of empires”). But they aren’t so helpful if your enemies control the mountains surrounding your country. Similarly, open plains make transportation, trade, and interacting with your neighbours much easier - but they also make it easier for invading neighbours to catch you by surprise. Access to the oceans can be very helpful, but not so much if you have cold water ports that are frozen much of the year or if your neighbours are able to blockade your ports. Climate affects the types of foods and animals produced, and can encourage (or inhibit) certain pests and diseases. Depending where you are, activity may be shut down by summer, by winter, or by a rainy season. Desert too can be a helpful natural defence, or a boundary to expansion, depending on which side of it you are.
Creating artificial nations by drawing straight lines on a map is unlikely to recognise these geographic factors.
The book had answers to questions like why China are interested in Tibet, why Russia are interested in Ukraine, why the US has bases around the world, why France and Germany need to work together (and why Germany invaded France in both world wars). And a lot more.
And finally, I think I knew intellectually that Africa is bigger in real life than how it’s shown on the standard Mercator projection, but this book made me pay attention to how big Africa really is.
2. Why I am not a Christian
Earlier this year, I read a collection of essays by Bertrand Russell, with the title essay being “Why I am not a Christian”. The essays seemed to have a particular clarity, logic, and bite. However, while I had chosen to read the book because of that title essay, I realised that I preferred other essays in the book: essays that were about society more than they were about religion. Though I don’t know the full context, some of them felt just as relevant today as they did then. And, just to show how much sense my reading choices make, I then proceeded to read nothing more by him for the rest of the year…
One essay, about “nice people”, I find both amusing and dead on point. I won’t try to summarise it, but it can be read here.
Another one, Freedom and the Colleges, was written in defence of academic freedom, shortly after he was found ‘unfit’ to teach philosophy by the New York Supreme Court. In it, he talks about the danger of democracy if majority opinion is used to stifle unpopular minority viewpoints. A couple of quotes:
Toleration of minorities is an essential part of wise democracy, but a part which is not always sufficiently remembered.
Let it be remembered that what is at stake, in the greatest issues as well as in those that seem smaller, is the freedom of the individual human spirit to express its beliefs and hopes for mankind, whether they be shared by many or by few or none. New hopes, new beliefs, and new thoughts are at all times necessary to mankind, and it is not out of a dead uniformity that they can be expected to arise.
And one quote from the essay that just made me laugh:
A respect for the will of the majority is more harmful than respect for the will of God, because the will of the majority can be ascertained.
3. A man on the moon
When I was young, there was a time when I was fascinated by space and read everything I could get my hands on about it. At the time, I was actually living in the US, and so “space” basically meant NASA. Then suddenly I got bored by it all.
In subsequent years, I read a fair amount of Sci-Fi (particularly the Big Three of Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke), but it was much the same as any fiction. I read it for plot and character, not because I had a deep desire for man to reach the Moon, or Mars, or to conquer the galaxy.
Over the past few years I’ve rediscovered my original fascination with space, which has led to reading a lot about it. Hopefully soon I’ll be able to blog about the many space ideas I’ve been accumulating. Maybe this review can be a taster for next year…
This year my favourite space book was A man on the moon (Andrew Chaikin). It was written after extensive interviews with 23 of the 24 astronauts who circled the moon (12 of whom walked on the moon). As a result, it contains the human perspective: the wonder of leaving Earth and approaching an alien world, as well as the stresses of being under the public eye or working round the clock in the simulators or trying to get everything ready for launch. But it also has the many (to me) fascinating engineering and scientific details: what they were trying to achieve, and how each mission was a step towards their goals. Far too much to write about here.
The mission was launched by President John F Kennedy in 1961, shortly after America had put their first man in space. He set a goal for the nation: to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. This was at the height of the Cold War, and at that point the USSR was ahead of America in the space race.
It was truly a national project, and some of the numbers involved are staggering: Though only 24 astronauts went to the moon, 400,000 people were involved in the project in some way, and at its peak it was using nearly 5% of the US national budget. And, while it was a daunting goal, it was one that the nation ultimately achieved.
As part of its “human” side, the book explores the many different motivations of the astronauts involved. Most of the astronauts had been test pilots. Some wanted to have fun, and to fly the best and most exciting vehicles around. Some wanted to be explorers, to push the boundaries and set foot on a new world. Some wanted to serve their nation, patriots who wanted to wrest back control from their enemy and make their nation top nation. Some wanted to assist the scientists to better understand the geology of the moon and how it got the way it is.
On the technical side, I enjoyed the flashbacks to a different era like “The original lunar module computer had 33,000 words of memory” (sounds a lot, right?). I also like seeing the steady and logical steps from orbiting the moon (Christmas 1968 - rare good news to close a bad year), through to landing on the moon (July 1969), then to undertaking longer missions and driving a rover (July 1971). Each of these things were steps into the unknown: The astronauts had spent a lot of time training in the simulators, which were pretty good, but when stepping into the unknown it is difficult to simulate everything.
As a software developer, I am fascinated by failures and how they are dealt with. Apollo 13’s failure is of course the best known, but every mission had unexpected failures that needed to be dealt with. These highlighted mission control’s vital role: While the astronauts got most of the glory on the moon missions, mission control was heavily involved in the routine running of the mission as well as in resolving unexpected events. Several of these failures involved computer issues, included repeated warnings and computer restarts that threatened the original Apollo 11 landing.
My favourite averted failure (a hardware failure fixed in software) was during the Apollo 14 lunar landing. As they prepared to begin the descent, diagnostics began to show a faulty signal on the abort switch. The software teams had to figure out the necessary changes to the software to bypass that switch. And then the software changes had to be entered by hand by one of the astronauts. Nothing like working under a bit of time pressure…
That’s the technical side, but the human element is equally fascinating. The different ways that those involved expressed their wonder at what they saw and experienced, or insisted it was just another job. The different perspectives they gained on our world from leaving and returning to it.
Different astronauts picked up different tiny details of what happened and what it meant to them. Also things that were harder in lower gravity or when working through a cumbersome space suit. Even the mundane matter of dealing with moon-dust: Lots of moon-dust that got everywhere. Honour and glory is all very well, but it involves a lot of sweat and toil and sleeplessness.
Then, once they returned, they had to deal with a new celebrity status. They were engineers, pilots, technical people doing a job, and several commented how difficult it was responding when people asked “What does it feel like?” The general public expected them to respond in a certain way, and not all of them could.
Finally, tying in to my post yesterday, one of the celebrities who died in 2017 was Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon. It was watching his documentary The Last Man on the Moon on a plane last year that convinced me I needed to know more about the Apollo program.
In some ways the Apollo program is long-past history: It is nearly 50 years since the first moon landing, and those astronauts still living are in their eighties. However, to me it remains a fascinating story of human ingenuity pushing into the unknown in the face of great obstacles, and I hope to learn more about it next year.
4. A long view of history
I love reading about history. The two books that particularly stood out this year were The British Empire (Stephen W Sears) and Mediterranean: Portrait of a Sea (Ernle Bradford). Not entirely for themselves (though they were both interesting), but for the much longer-term view of history they portrayed. Often, a history book will cover a particular war or a particular period in depth. But I think seeing the bigger picture allows us to see much more of the ebb and flow of history, of patterns repeating, of seemingly significant events becoming insignificant or not having the intended result.
In the case of the British Empire, the period covered was hundreds of years: from forays into the Americas, to exploring and colonising a large percentage of the world (including Australia), to taking mandates from the League of Nations after WW1 (empire under another name).
In the case of the Mediterranean, the period covered thousands of years and a multitude of civilisations: Phoenicians, Persians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Crusaders, Ottomans, and finally, yes, the British Empire.
In both cases, some parts of the history I knew well and so noticed the occasional over-simplifications. But I think there is value in that different way of thinking. Empires came and went, enemies rose and fell, and one generation’s significant victory was the next generation’s false dawn. No victory (or defeat) was really final - a new generation might rise up determined to avenge or to change the balance. Short term decisions were made that had unexpected long-term consequences. And short term strategic or military advantages become difficult to maintain long-term, as others learn from them. In fact, many of those who turned against particular empires had been trained within those empires.
For example, a common pattern in the Mediterranean was deforestation for farmland and for ship-building. In the short term, this made the land more productive and kept the inhabitants safe. In the long term, the navies sunk or rotted, and in many cases the farmland turned into desert.
A final quote from the Mediterranean book about the long view of history:
It is still too early to see the twentieth century in perspective. The modern historian inevitably labors under the disadvantage of being too close to his subject. Events, names, and reputations, which bulk large to a contemporary historian are often seen, from the standpoint of later centuries, to fall into quite different categories from those into which he assigns them. To gain any real objectivity, at least a century must separate the historian from his subject. In the overall history of the Mediterranean Sea, for instance, it may well be found that Gaiseric the Vandal, or ‘Amr, conqueror of Egypt, are of more significance than Kitchener of Khartoum or Mussolini.
Given the attention he receives, I hesitate to say it, but maybe President Donald Trump will similarly end up a tiny footnote in the history of the American nation or of the Western world.
5. Night Moves: An Ex-Preacher’s Journey To Hell In A Taxi
Pat Green had been a pastor on the liberal end of Christianity. He knew all about the right way to help people:
I had read books on urban renewal and been to conferences about human trafficking, homelessness, addiction, poverty, and race relations. I was a social justice expert. Or so I thought. My bubble was about to burst.
His stories in this book come from his experience as a taxi-driver on night-shift. He quickly came to recognise that the night was a completely different place:
I now knew that the rules of the night were the rules of the night. I now knew I did not know as much as I thought I knew. I did not know a better way. After that night, I did decide to stop pretending I had the answers. I decided to allow the night to teach me instead of me trying to fix it.
And I think this is one of the key messages from this book: Many come from outside to “fix” people, without taking the trouble to first understand them. This can go disastrously wrong.
The book tells many different stories, showing the variety of passengers who travel at night and the lives they live. The author’s care for the people of the night really shines through, and some of the stories are deeply moving. Yes, some of them are disturbing or confronting. But they are also real, a reality that can’t be legislated away or swept under a carpet.
Again, this list is numbered for convenience, not in order of preference. I think they would be quite difficult to compare, since each of them is very different and I have very different reasons for liking each one.
1. Anna Karenina
Anna Karenina is one of those books that I love, but have great difficulty describing why. While there is plot development over the course of the book, from early on it felt like it wasn’t getting very far, but that every minute was worth reading. I think it is that he manages to beautifully describe the human condition through characters and situations that make sense.
Several of his characters are thinkers with very different views on the world, so some of it is very thought-provoking. Six months later I still haven’t solved some of the conundrums I found in it…
It even provides a quote that suits me fine once ripped out of context:
Really, if it interests you you ought to study it.
One of those thinkers, Levin, is my favourite character, and arguably as central as the titular Anna. He has many questions about the world, and though he comes to many interesting realisations he has few real answers. As well as a thinker he is also an unbeliever, and Tolstoy treats his unbelief much more compassionately than say Dostoevsky might (though I was unconvinced by Levin’s sudden transition to believer).
This book has long been considered a contender for the “greatest novel ever written”, and I would highly recommend it.
2. The Count of Monte Cristo
It seems that everyone knows that The Count of Monte Cristo is a revenge novel, and many simplified versions have been produced. But the complete and unabridged novel is so much more. It is a powerful story, with a complex plot that twists and turns in unexpected ways towards the seemingly inevitable denouement. And through it all strolls the enigmatic count himself, frequently seeming super-human, but at some turns seeming strangely human and fallible.
3. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
When I was in school, I started reading the Hitchhiker series, and lost interest after a few books. Earlier this year it accidentally came across my radar again, and I realised that I had never really understood the books. So obviously it was time to read the entire series properly, which I did. I’m also currently reading The Frood (by Jem Roberts), which contains much more about the creations of Douglas Adams, how they fit into his life, and many ideas which were tried and discarded (some very good).
Douglas Adams dealt with ideas, many of them crazily hilarious in their inversion of our norms. It is possible that I laughed out loud more reading those books than in the rest of the year.
However, in his works, the ridiculous gives way to the insightful or the sublime without giving the customary notice. His ideas were based in reality, and sometimes in taking an idea way over the top he points the reality far better than a conventional non-fiction treatment might. I’ve studied usability, and his many comments about products from the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation set off interesting usability triggers. Similarly, his description of the difficulties of error-handling sounds a lot like descriptions I have given in training at work (though it is of course much funnier). Many of his ideas were in the areas of philosophy, religion and science, and after re-reading the books it made sense why a seemingly serious person like Richard Dawkins would like a noted comedian like Douglas Adams so much.
The entire series is eminently quotable, but I’ll limit myself to a few interesting characters and concepts:
- Marvin the Paranoid Android
- The Infinite Improbability Drive
- A proof for the non-existence of God (yes, it’s ridiculous, but I submit that it’s no more ridiculous than the apologetics methods it’s drawing on).
- The Answer to the Meaning of Life, the Universe, and Everything (and the interesting idea that it’s not possible to have both the question and the answer in the same universe).
- The Total Perspective Vortex (an idea which is actually very similar to Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “cosmic perspective”).
- God’s Final Message To His Creation, written in fire in letters thirty feet high on the far side of the Quentulus Quazgar Mountains. This sequence is awesome in its combination of religious imagery and tourism to create a pilgrimage ethos.
- Australia winning the Ashes (OK, though this happened this year, I don’t think Douglas Adams mentioned it. However, curiously enough the Ashes do turn out to be part of the Galactic Krikkit problem).
- And, last but not least, 42. Unless of course it should be a towel…
4. An Elephant for Aristotle
Apparently, Aristotle wrote about elephants as if he had seen an Indian elephant. Inspired by this, L Sprague de Camp wrote the story of how Alexander the Great gave Leon of Atrax a mission: To transport an Indian elephant to Athens as a gift for Aristotle.
First and foremost, the book is a relatively light-hearted travel story. Yes, they encounter many trials over the year the mission takes, but they mostly came through them in good order to achieve an appropriate happy ending.
I understand that transporting an elephant is not simple at the best of times. In this case, the elephant had to walk the majority of the way, including river crossings, and the troops guarding them had to be prepared to pass through sometimes hostile territory. What sets this story apart is its focus on people from different cultures and backgrounds having to work together. Under Leon, the core leadership group contained a Persian warrior, an Indian elephant-keeper, a Syrian merchant / caterer, a Greek troop leader, and a Greek philosopher. The most obvious effect of this is the many different dialects used, represented in this book by different English dialects.
But there are also far-ranging discussions on topics like democracy, religion, race purity and caste, ethics, sexual taboos, and marriage customs. As it turns out, each of the different cultures has very different ideas about what is right and what is wrong. One of the roles the philosopher plays is to be open-minded and make sure these topics are discussed rather than erecting barriers. And over time the core leadership team do learn to work together, though it wasn’t always so easy getting along with the many people they meet along the way.
I think history shows that our Judeo-Christian norms are not the “natural order” of the world. Things are different in different parts of the world, they have changed through time, and they are continuing to change. This book provides a useful reminder of that, while also being a fun read.