#+TITLE: 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

* 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

* PS.
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


* Footnotes

[1] I find it fascinating to read book reviews after reading a book,
just to see what someone else[2] found remarkable in the same book.

[2] Possibly just a past version of me.

[3] Fine, also Vim. And Atom.

[4] I can always dream.