< expLog

Books I found fascinating in 2016

After publishing vaguely unsatisfactory laundry lists over the past several years, I'm restraining myself to a select few for 2016.

The impact of each of these books was of course defined by my own inner book, and you might take away something completely different from them[1].

How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read / Pierre Bayard

…an age that reads so much that it has no time to admire, and writes so much that it has no time to think.

Almost every time I read a book, I find additional books I would like to read. At the same time, all the books I have read slowly fade away from my memory, until I go back and re-read them.

Put another way, I will never be able to read all the books I want to read — and, as the author recommends (or rather, absolves), nor do I need to. As Professor Bayard suggests — and gives various examples of — it is enough to be able to place a book correctly in your web of knowledge to infer its contents. His ideal non-reader is a Librarian who has the indexes of several books memorized, and can quickly infer (and perhaps look up) whatever they need.

This also maps particularly well to syntopical reading — described in How to Read a Book — where the best way to build up knowledge about a particular subject is to skim several books about it, and then isolate the ones worth reading, if any.

The book is well written and translated — there's an enjoyable undercurrent of humour throughout, with descriptions of several movies and books that are worth reading.

And of course, there was the constant sense of delight in reading about reading.

Street Fighting Mathematics / Sanjoy Mahajan

Unsurprisingly enough, given my comments on the previous book, I've already forgotten most of the approaches mentioned in SFM even though I attempted several practice problems — mainly because I don't use them on a daily basis.

That said, SFM has made me much more comfortable with approximation — and quickly estimating the error bounds — than I've ever been. I only wish I'd read SFM while preparing for the IIT entrance exams. There are several tricks in here that I'd never imagined.

For example — applying dimensional analysis to calculate an integral (!). I'll be revisiting this book again to go over the remaining problems at some point.

It's available for free online from the author.

Notes on the Synthesis of Form / Christopher Alexander

Recommended by Kent Beck, Notes quickly clarified why to approach design in a modular, decoupled manner with an elegant thought experiment (which I won't replicate here).

He describes the resilience and utility well structured and easily customized designs by comparing primitive houses where you can easily create a window or wall against permanent buildings that must be carefully designed up front, and will then (almost) never change.

I couldn't help but think of emacs[3] as I read these notes. I believe one of the primary reasons it's still so popular is how easy it is to reshape the editor on the fly; as opposed to other more strongly defined IDEs and editors.

The View from the Cheap Seats / Neil Gaiman

Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. And discontent is a good thing: people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different, if they’re discontented.

The View is essentially a collection of recommendations by Neil Gaiman — essays he's written about books, comics and art, as prefaces or otherwise. There is a clear love of reading that comes across every time I've read or heard him talk about books and that makes reading this even more pleasant.

I realized that if I'm ever short of reading material[4] one of the best sources is to just look at what my favourite authors read.

As just one example, I ended up reading Shatterday by Harlan Ellison as a by-product, and found a new favourite. Each story in prefaced by an introduction by the author himself, making the book even more fascinating.


I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that there is still a woefully incomplete laundry list available at /books (some habits are hard to break).