Once again, my favorites of the books I read during the past year, plus some that weren’t favorites but worth noting nonetheless. (Previous posts: 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, and 2015.) The Covid-19 pandemic continues, though halfway through 2021 we were at least allowed to browse the public library in person again, which the kids and I are fond of. It is still rather empty, a shadow of the lively pre-pandemic space, but I’m glad to be able to wander through aisles and find random books.
A non-book-related highlight of the year was a trip to Iceland in September, post-vaccinations and at the end of the kids’ summer break. In addition to glaciers and waterfalls, we dropped by a public library and, as at many places, I was impressed by how a country of 300,000 emphatically keeps its language alive. I thought I should read something Icelandic beforehand, and so I checked out Independent People by Halldór Laxness (1934), a long, absorbing novel about a sheep farmer in the early 20th century, barely eking out a living but fiercely independent to the point of pigheadedness. It gives a great sense of how immensely difficult life used to be, and how removed from these discomforts we’ve come in a century or so. The author won the 1955 Nobel Prize in Literature; I had never heard of him before. I also read parts of The Sagas of Icelanders, also excellent, and almost science-fiction-like in its portrayal of a very different world, in which vengeance, violence, and a fondness for poetry filled people’s days. I lugged it across the Atlantic, but it seemed like one could buy the book in every store in Iceland.
Other notable fiction: The few times I’ve attempted anything “cyberpunk” I’ve been frustrated, but Snow Crash (Neal Stephenson, 1994) is really very good. It’s the satirical, surreal story of the protagonist, Hiro Protagonist in fact, in a struggle to save an anarchic future world run by corporate franchises from a human-and-computer-infecting virus based on ancient Sumerian language. It’s hard to describe in any way that makes sense, but it’s fun and clever.
I was also reminded that Terry Pratchett’s books are brilliant and hilarious. Thud!
Magic and Mystery in Tibet by Alexandra David-Néel (1929) is amazing . The author, who spent 14 years in Tibet in the early twentieth century, recounts her experiences with Tibetan monks and mystical practices. The descriptions of religious life and also the intense physical and mental efforts their practitioners put towards them are fascinating, as are the insights into individual people and social practices. (Education seems especially harsh from a modern perspective.) David-Néel is curious about mystical or magical practices, and recounts her observations with a skeptical but open mind, reflecting her time period. These observations include an encounter with a lung-gom-pa, a practitioner of trance-like high-speed long-distance running; one wonders, if this culture had been allowed to survive, what we could learn about psychology and physiology.
From a similar time, but a very different place: George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) is a memoir of being poor — very poor — in Paris and London. It’s shocking from a modern perspective to see how tough poverty was. Orwell at one point goes 60 hours without food and sells all his spare clothes, both things that don’t seem uncommon for the time.
My favorite nonfiction book was The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium by Martin Gurri (2018; originally 2014). I took pages of notes while reading it that could turn into a post themselves, but for now some key points: Information used to be rare, now we are awash in it. (Yes, this is obvious.) Entities with a near-monopoly on information, like newspapers, used to be authoritative because of this near-monopoly. The abundance of information and ease of communication undermine authority, often by making its incompetence clear. However, there’s nothing constructive that is replacing old institutions. “My story… concerns the tectonic collision between a public which will not rule and the institutions of authority progressively less able to do so.” The public has a desire and a capacity to mobilize, but neither the interest nor capacity to replace authority with anything substantive. “The public opposes, but does not propose” — one of my favorite lines, which highlights the incessant static of tweets and complaints devoid of constructive aims, or any understanding of what construction involves. All this gives a dismal “threat of perpetual turbulence” and “… a perpetual feedback loop of failure and negation” that borders on nihilism. Gurri describes all this quite compellingly. His thoughts on what to do about this aren’t very inspiring, however. Still, it’s a fascinating book — rather like Darwinian evolution, it makes a lot of seemingly disparate things make sense.
Two books I was disappointed by:
Science Fictions: The Epidemic of Fraud, Bias, Negligence and Hype in Science by Stuart Ritchie (2020) describes many of the problems currently plaguing science — a lack of replicability, sloppy statistics, overhyped results, perverse incentives, and more. As a description of these important problems it’s clear and compelling, but there’s little new for those of us who have been following this topic for years. It would have been good to also have more of a discussion of the many ways in which science works well, but that’s perhaps asking for a much larger book. Unfortunately, as a prescription for what to do to solve these problems Science Fictions is severely lacking. The author basically states that we should have better procedures — an emphasis on transparency, less hype, etc. If it were that easy, we’d already do it. Perverse incentives, a resistance to criticism, and an overproduction of scientists underlie all the problems Ritchie writes about, as he nicely notes in the bulk of the book. Unless these are addressed, the solutions (like rewarding Open Science initiatives) that Ritchie outlines will not have much of an impact, or will just add layers of bureaucracy on top of existing structures. Still, it’s a book that needed to be written.
Every Life is on Fire: How Thermodynamics Explains the Origins of Living Things by Jeremy England (2020) is an extremely odd book that attempts to describe aspects of non-equilibrium thermodynamics for the general reader, muse on the origins of life, and comment on supposedly illuminating analogies from the Bible (really). I wanted to like this — there do need to be more and better pop-science accounts of complex systems, statistical mechanics, and other vibrant areas of cutting-edge science that are under-represented in popular media. However, it has many flaws. The science writing isn’t great — while England manages to write well most of the time, he lapses into jargon quite often. The figures especially seem to have had little thought given to them. In one sketched graph, for example, an axis is labeled by a W with a dot on it, which physicists will know is the rate at which W is changing, but which will be opaque to everyone else. The theological writing is worse — strange and simplistic bits tacked on to each chapter that comment on analogies between Biblical events and physical principles to argue that the Old Testament provides a useful framework for thinking about life. The arguments are so vague one could have taken any book as the foundation, not just the Bible — any set of myths would work, or even your favorite young adult fantasy series. At least it’s an idiosyncratic and unique book!
This is a good spot for my obligatory plug of my own upcoming popular science book on Biophysics, available Feb. 8, 2022, which also explores intersections of physics and life, but stays well away from theology. (Ethics makes several appearances, though.) It’s So Simple a Beginning; my post is here, and the publisher’s site is here.
Comics and Graphic Novels
I learned that there are Blade Runner comics, and they’re quite good! I read all three volumes of Blade Runner 2019 and the first volume (just published in 2021) of Blade Runner 2029. Lots of rainy, dark cityscapes, and replicants. The artwork is beautiful.
Also notable: the nonfiction Hostage by Guy Delisle (2016), the true story of an aid worker held captive for months in Chechnya. Not much happens, but the fear and tedium of this is the point, and it’s captured well in pictures.
Somewhat related, the University of Oregon Art Museum had an exhibit on Comics Journalism, and an evening talk/interview with Joe Sacco, pioneer and master of the genre — and UO alum! It was great. I’m about to start reading Paying the Land. Perhaps that will appear on next year’s list!
A bottle, based on one in Realism Challenge by Mark Crilley.
— Raghuveer Parthasarathy, December 31, 2021