Sunday, January 29, 2012

Teach Us to Sit Still
by Tim Parks
-Jacket copy: "Overwhelmed by a crippling condition which nobody could explain or relieve, Parks follows a fruitless journey through the conventional medical system only to find relief in the most unexpected place: a breathing exercise that eventually leads him to take up meditation. This was the very last place Parks anticipated finding answers; he was about as far from New Age as you can get. As everything that he once held true is called into question, Parks confronts the relationship between his mind and body, the hectic modern world that seems to demand all our focus, and his chosen life as an intellectual and writer."

Me: Mindfulness helps Parks get over crotch pain. It was easy and interesting to read and moving and didn't feel like bullshit. The stuff about how a life of writing and thinking affects one's body over the long term -- tensing muscles, stresses -- seemed true and important to keep in mind. As it ended, though, I would have liked to hear more about whether he was able to make peace with the conflict he experienced between mindfulness and the writing life. If at all. Obviously he wrote the book; how did mindfulness inform the sitting down to write? But maybe that's beyond the scope of this book.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Thinking, Fast and Slow
by Daniel Kahneman
- There seem to be several other books on similar topics, but is the first book I have read about biases and heuristics, so a lot of this was new to me. I really enjoyed reading it despite all the potentially boring discussion of studies and story problems. This seems like the book to read.

I've often thought that I'd love to write/read a "how to" book that talked about basic decision making and thinking, and the stuff in this book would be valuable for a book like that -- the easy errors to avoid, etc. I'm predicting that a lot of this book will stick with me for a long time, like the thing about how predictions are almost always wrong.

Incomplete list of things to remember: don't jump to conclusions from small sample sizes, don't jump to conclusions period, regression to the mean, What You See Is All There Is (WYSIATI), halo effect, priming, question substitution, repetition=familiarity=positive feelings, System 2 is lazy, experiencing self vs. remembering self, experts in low-validity environments are worse than random chance, Wall Street is bullshit, get the outside view, formulas and checklists beat intuitions...

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Franco and Hitler: Spain, Germany and World War II by Stanley Payne

La conquista de Alhucemas, o En el Tercio está el amor by Juan Bautista Ros Andreu (for class on Fascism in Spain)

Madrid de corte a checa by Agustín de Foxá

Tras el aguila del Cesar: Elegia del tercio, 1921-1922 by Luys Santa Marina (class)

Ultra Violet: 10 Years of "Violet Days" by Chris Monroe (starred review!)
You Are Not a Gadget
by Jaron Lanier
-This should be read alongside What Technology Wants, because these guys are friends and seem to be thinking of each other when they write. In both books, I think the presentation of arguments could have been stronger. I was very sympathetic to the overall "humanism" in Gadget, versus the techno-mysticism of What Technology Wants, but Gadget was at times too disorganized, too undercooked. It was like, "...and another thing...and another thing..."-- rants with inchoate arguments. Kelly's book was better organized. But both are full of over-generalizing and hippy logic. (I wish arguments were like objects, and that you could easily lay them out in front of you and arrange things and put together a structure more to your liking. A mix of Minecraft and a word processor. I'm sure there's gotta be an app for that.) Here at is a good collection of responses to Lanier.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012


^ loved reading
# did not like

The Great Gatsby ^
by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Swann's Way
by Marcel Proust

Game of Thrones ^, Clash of Kings, Storm of Swords ^, 
Feast for Crows, Dance of Dragons #
by George R.R. Martin

The True Deceiver
by Tove Jansson

The Pale King ^
by David Foster Wallace

Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives #
by David Eagleman

The Metamorphosis and other stories
by Franz Kafka
(Sammy Harkham edition)

The Looking Glass Book of Stories ^#
by Various, ed. Hart Day Leavitt
Also: New Yorker stories, and misc. short stories in collections which I didn’t finish.

Obviously the list is short this year because George RR Martin dominated with 5 giant books. I’ll admit that I loved escaping into the unpredictable and empty plotlines, but I wish I had spent a lot of that reading time on better, meatier stuff. They’re candy. But it was easier to read these books while I was in the middle of Ganges #4 and in the hangover period after than to read more demanding books; it can be dangerous letting something rewire your brain in the middle of a big project. That’s what I told myself. Still, I wish I had read more Proust or Kafka instead. (Did not like the show.)

by Steven Johnson

Pulphead ^
by John Jeremiah Sullivan

Moonwalking with Einstein
by Joshua Foer

The Memory Chalet ^
by Tony Judt

Moby Duck
by Donovan Hohn

Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline ^
by Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton

All of the books in the nonfiction category are more or less recommended. (Lousy abandoned books are not listed.) I learned a lot. I finally read Moonwalking after an article by Foer first introduced me to the idea of memory palaces in an article back in 2007. I've been obsessed with the idea and the meta-idea ever since. Memory palaces was a theme this year: Tony Judt used memory palaces to help him compose the essays in The Memory Chalet, which are wise and moving. This may be the first year in a while that I didn’t read anything about climate change — a conscious choice -- though Moby Duck was somewhat eco-apocalyptic. Cartographies of Time is great. I knew when I saw Saul Steinberg in the first few pages that it was going to be great. I can't recommend it highly enough, if you're interested in that kind of thing.

The Creative Habit
by Twyla Tharp

Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection ^
by John T. Cacioppo & William Patrick

Find Your Focus Zone #
by Lucy Jo Palladino

My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey ^
by Jill Bolte Taylor

Pragmatic Thinking and Learning: Refactor Your Wetware
by Andy Hunt

The self-help category is comprised of books I found at the library when I’d wander around on a break from writing or drawing. The self-help section at this library is huge, many times the size of, say, the painting section. I got a lot of help from Loneliness — one of the most significant books of the year for me. My Stroke of Insight taught me (finally) to understand and begin thinking in the right/left brain model. Creative Habit and Pragmatic Thinking also both have a lot of good stuff in them. There were some lousy books too, but those aren’t listed here because I barely read them. You can tell pretty quick with this type of book whether it's going to be good or not. Focus Zone is listed because I actually read it, and it was somewhat helpful, even though it wasn't very special. 

What Do Pictures Want? ^
by WJT Mitchell

On Trust: Art and the Temptations of Suspicion ^
by Gabriel Josipovici

The Book of God: A Response to the Bible ^
by Gabriel Josipovici

Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing? #
by Leszek Kolakowski

The Grand Design #
by Stephen Hawking and Leon Mlodinow

What Technology Wants
by Kevin Kelley

This blog post here got me to read two books by Gabriel Josipovici, for which I’m very grateful. They’ll be with me for a long time. I had read WJT Mitchell’s other books in college (I have re-read Iconology, though — 3 or 4 times!) and one day I was like, “oh yeah...what is he up to?” I really enjoyed the riffing and thinking in What Pictures Want (2004), and recommend his work to any intelligent comics reader who likes thinking about the nuts and bolts of these things, or really anyone who likes thinking and reading. What Technology Wants was a good sprint through a generally optimistic argument about technology, and humanity, but it was maybe too optimistic for me. A lot to chew on. I'm going to have to think more about it before I figure out what I think. The Grand Design didn't really grab me, and Why Is There Something was an unremarkable intro to philosophy.

* * *

In terms of pure reading enjoyment, for me The Great Gatsby was #1, followed by Josipovici, then WJT Mitchell. Proust and Kafka are in their own category of, I don’t know, “the sublime” or something. Other books, like Loneliness or My Stroke weren’t masterpieces but did teach me big ideas that will probably stick with me and improve my life (“technologies!”). I liked Cartographies and Book of God so much that I bought them after reading library copies.

Many of these books were found at the library, either on the book sale shelf, or just browsing around.

I started a few other books that I never finished -- you know how it is. Maybe next year. I'm not listing comics or graphic novels because they should get their own post, as should Internet reading. (Also, for the record, I'm not listing the research reading I did for various projects.)
UPDATE 1/1/12: It just occurred to me that the title What do Pictures Want? contains a play on the word "want" (desire/lack -- Mitchell points this out himself several times), but What Technology Wants does not contain this double meaning, and reading that book you can see how it couldn't. I'd love to see Mitchell review and play with the ideas and ideology of Kelley's book.

Also, I had somehow forgotten about Cartographies, so I added that.

(Cross posted to the Balloonist.)