Archive for the ‘Non-Football Books’ Category
Hey, I’m actually doing a quarterly installment at the end of the quarter, even if it doesn’t go up until the morning after. Thanks, Buckeyes!
For those unfamiliar with this thing, I read books. Some of them are about football. Most of them are not. I then occasionally mention what I thought about some of them, but don’t mention others. I try to mention the interesting ones, or the ones about which I have something I want to say. My tastes are not those of other people; what I write in these posts is what I thought about the books, not necessarily an attempt to put them in a broader context or to say what I think other people might think about them.
Since this post covers the books I finished in the fourth quarter of 2016, I will also include my customary list of the favorite books I finished in the calendar year.
I kind of liked Nate Jackson’s Slow Getting Up, but Fantasy Man: A Former NFL Player’s Descent into the Brutality of Fantasy Football didn’t do a single thing for me. I wouldn’t have finished it if I hadn’t been able to breeze through it quickly. The Rookie Handbook: How to Survive the First Season in the NFL by Ryan Kalil, Jordan Gross, and Geoff Hangartner did little more for me; I didn’t disenjoy it, but rather just didn’t get anything out of it.
The early Tampa Bay Buccaneers provided some great natural material for The Yucks: Two Years in Tampa with the Losingest Team in NFL History, which Jason Vuic plumbed reasonably enough.
I’m not sure how much was new in Lars Anderson’s The Mannings: The Fall and Rise of a Football Family, whether in general or to me specifically, but I still enjoyed my time with the book. If you’re not familiar with Archie’s story (the book covers him and each of the three sons, but Archie is more the primary focus), then I recommend the SEC Stories documentary.
I’d write my own review of S.C. Gwynne’s Hal Mumme biography The Perfect Pass: American Genius and the Reinvention of Football, but why should I when I can just point you to Chris Brown’s comments instead? I second Chris’s note that it seemed like Gwynne downplayed how Mumme’s Kentucky tenure went sour and add the post-Kentucky portion of his career is barely covered, and second Chris’s comment about football going in different directions, though there’s no doubt the Air Raid’s influence has helped change the college game in particular.
Mostly genre. I did mostly enjoy Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, though to my way of thinking it’s more a novella than a proper novel (his longer Arthur & George sits unread near me as I write this). I also enjoyed Robert Harris’s Cicero trilogy (beginning with Imperium) enough to finish all three books. I also finally read Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince, which, uh, okay, sure, whatever, maybe it would’ve been great for many 7-year-olds, but I’m kind of beyond that.
Mini-theme of space, or at least it felt like that when reading overlapping parts of Rowland White’s Into the Black about the first Space Shuttle mission and This New Ocean: The Story of the First Space Age by William E. Burrows. I found both interesting enough if you have an interest in the topic, and there really wasn’t that much overlap. If I was reading the two sequentially, I’d read the Burrows first and skim even more than I did the passages in White about rocketry and general space program background.
A brief taxonomy of political books by quality ordering:
Level 0: Treats all conclusions as self-evidently and obviously correct, without recognizing the existence of possible counter-arguments.
Level 1: Recognizes the existence of possible counter-arguments, but does not engage with them.
Level 2: Recognizes the existence of possible counter-arguments, engages with them, does not make a good case for somebody who does not already agree should agree.
Level 3: Recognizes the existence of possible counter-arguments, engages with them, successfully makes a good case for why somebody who does not already agree should agree.
Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction is at Level 0 and is therefore strongly anti-recommended. Pity, because (1) there was no need for this to be a political book at all, and (2) even if O’Neil was determined to make this a political book, it could have been much better. Very disappointing.
Tim Harford may be my favorite pop economist writer, and I greatly enjoy his More or Less podcast, but Messy didn’t stand out in the genre the way his other books have.
Collections of essays on different, even if related subjects are almost definitionally hit-or-miss, and the same is true of Stephen Wolfram’s The Idea Makers. The people covered are all interesting enough and mostly, though not all familiar names even with a general knowledge of math and/or computing history, but they range from historical profiles where Wolfram does detective work (just how important was Ada Byron Lovelace, really, and what did she do?) to personal reminisces. Perhaps not valuable without an interest in the general topic, but Wolfram (with whom I was just extremely generally familiar) is a useful enough guide.
Taxonomically, I would classify Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive as a self-help book, the personal utility of which is highly unpredictable and extremely variable. Most books I would classify as self-help I find worthless, but some are quite useful. Some of those books I found worthless others found extremely valuable, while they found the books that I enjoyed worthless. I mention it here solely because it was not as obvious as normal that it is what I would classify as a self-help book.
My 2016 Favorites
Brief overview notes, also noted in my past end-of-year reviews: I try to read a balance of fiction and non-fiction. For my fiction reads, I tend to prefer plot-heavy narratives. Beyond minimums, literary quality is a plus but not a priority. Genre is ok. For the most part, the fiction I read suffices and clears my palate for other reads, with few of my choices reaching or even aspiring to particularly high heights. Non-fiction is a hodgepodge; a minor concentration on football, some history (broadly defined), mostly popular rather than academic, but no single driving focus.
New for this year: I’ve decided to classify this as a “favorites” list rather than a “best” list. This is a change in description rather than a change in classification or methodology. Like past lists, this is a listing of books I found particularly memorable that met some vaguely defined quality threshold. I don’t want to look back in five or ten years and think “What on earth possessed me to like this terrible book,” but I am absolutely not declaring these are the most technically excellent books I read in 2016.
Fiction was mostly genre not worth recommending more broadly. In a previous recap, I noted Don Winslow’s The Power of the Dog and its sequel, The Cartel, about the Mexican drug wars from the mid-1970’s onward with a DEA agent protagonist, describing them as James Ellroy-esque in how characters overwhelmingly range from shades of gray to black, but much more narrative and much more readable, and epic in scope. Not “literary fiction,” and perhaps not even Tom Wolfe-esque “literate popular fiction,” but maybe a slight step down from there.
Non-fiction… in that same recap post where I noted Winslow’s novels, I mentioned Martin Gurri’s The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium, a 2014 book that said much more about the strange happenings of 2016 than anything else I read (favorite “2016 was weird” tidbit: people who had a favorable and unfavorable view of capitalism both broke roughly 50-50 on the Brexit vote). The most distinctive book I read in 2016, always a useful marker, was Robin Hanson’s The Age of Em. I will also single out Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens.
Aside from, of course, Football Outsiders Almanac 2016, my favorite football books included the aforementioned The Perfect Pass, Monte Burke’s Saban, and Amy Trask’s You Negotiate Like a Girl. My favorite sports title was Andy Glockner’s Chasing Perfection.
My least favorite non-fiction book I finished in 2016 was O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction. My least favorite fiction book I finished in 2016 was the nonsensical Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. I gave up on nine books in 2016, including three novels by Paul Murray (An Evening of Long Goodbyes, Skippy Dies, and The Mark and the Void) because I thought I saw enough there he might write a book I really, really like one day.
Things to Read
This is a more interesting section when the previous installment came more than six weeks ago. The Amazon Unread list of physical books (I have a lower threshold for e-books) from 2016 still includes Rob Vollman’s Stat Shot, James Gleick’s Time Travel, and Adrian Goldsworthy’s Pax Romana, and only those three titles. I did in fact over my Christmas travels begin Ron Chernow’s Washington, but just barely so. War and Peace remains on the unread pile, something I’m pretending will change in 2017, a mere decade after its purchase.
As always, you should still read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (up 53 cents to $9.60 for the paperback as of right now!) if you have not yet done so, and, of course, de gustibus non est disputandum.
When I last did one of these posts, I had the vague ambition that I might resume doing it quarterly. Alas and alack, that was seven and a half months ago. So, a bit of a change.
This post: covers books I finished in April-September 2016, and dismisses them in as few words as I feel comfortable with. Normal caveats apply: I don’t mention everything I finished, just the ones I decided to talk about, with a focus on the interesting ones, and with only modest correction done for my tastes versus the tastes of other people.
I was yet once again involved in writing a book and did not mention it here. Yes, I’m bad at promoting myself. I wrote the Colts and Texans chapters in Football Outsiders Almanac 2016, the annual tome previewing the season from those of us at FO. It’s mid-November and I don’t reflexively cringe when I think back to what I wrote in either chapter, so maybe it’s possible they weren’t terrible (or I was too mealy-mouthed and didn’t say anything interesting).
Jeanne Marie Laskas did some great reporting, but the book Concussion didn’t do much for me, as familiar as I already was with Bennet Omalu’s story (I haven’t seen the movie).
Alex Kirby’s Speed Kills is a very high-level overview of Chip Kelly’s offense; useful for what it is, but know what it’s not.
So You Think You Know Football? is a terrible title, but a useful book if you want to know more about NFL rules. Much better for that purpose than Mike Pereira’s After Further Review, which I reviewed over at FO thanks to a copy provided by the publisher.
I’ve stayed away from Nick Saban-related material, but I did enjoy Monte Burke’s Saban.
I finally read Sean Gilbert’s The $29 Million Tip, which would have been a much more useful thing to do when he was running against De Smith to head the NFLPA; I may discuss this book in more detail if/when I ever write that really long Roger Goodell piece I would have published last month if I wasn’t lazy (actual status: haven’t bothered to start the serious research).
Amy Trask’s You Negotiate Like a Girl should be your Christmas gift to the football-loving corporate attorney in your life; I can’t comment on how others would receive it.
My fiction reading is mostly highly narrative fluff, often genre, and generally not worth commenting on. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child will be on my “worst of 2016” short list. I did start Robert Crais’ series of Elvis Cole mystery novels (and then stopped a couple books in; I’ll probably get back to those at some point) and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books (Watch good, Rincewind much rougher going).
A lot here, some of it good.
My favorite part of Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World was about the diffusion of knowledge across the Mongol Empire; more support for Ian Morris. But also see this review noting the anthropologist Weatherford puts himself on shaky historical ground at times.
Even though I don’t really know anything about basketball, I enjoyed Andy Glockner’s Chasing Perfection, though I should note it’s more a team-focused book than the individual player development-focused book I was expecting.
Roger Crowley’s Conquerors was an interesting look at the early days of Portugal’s overseas exploration.
As an admitted philistine, I’m still searching for a book about art I’ve actually enjoyed; Timothy Brook’s Vermeer’s Hat, despite some interesting moments, did not fill that niche. People who actually like art may like it more.
Tonio Andrade’s The Gunpowder Age was very interesting on the history of Chinese firearms. A useful corrective at least on that. Maybe I’ll get enough into the 1500-1800 period to the exclusion of other things to write long pieces on the subject.
I want to nitpick anything non-legal/technical Cass Sunstein writes, so I of course wanted to do the same to The World According to Star Wars. Maybe best if you love Sunstein or haven’t read him before, and are only sort of into Star Wars. (Disclosure: In the before time, in the long long ago, I had Cass for Administrative Law.)
Sapiens by Yuval Noah Hariri is a very interesting book on the history of homo sapiens. Very much worth a longer consideration in a different project.
I enjoyed Ben Wilson’s Heyday: The 1850s and the Dawn of the Global Age-Minnesota’s not really a state you (or at least I) mentally think of when it comes to having a boom, but it really did go from 6,000 people in 1850 to 172,000 in 1860 (2000-10 equivalency ~75,000 to 1.7 million).
Greg Milner’s Pinpoint was an interesting look at GPS.
Robin Hanson’s The Age of Em is a very strange book; in a way, it reminds me of my version of team blogging, only actually rigorous and comprehensive, except my blogging got regular anchors to reality in the form of actual moves and games by the team. Hanson’s work does not and cannot, so he’s building up an idea of a future he recognizes is unlikely to take anything that close to the shape he envisions, while still considering his future more plausible than the alternatives. At a minimum, it’s a fascinating intellectual exercise, plus there’s always the Straussian reading.
Things to Read
The Amazon Unread list of physical books (I have a lower threshold for e-books) from 2016 includes Rob Vollman’s Stat Shot, James Gleick’s Time Travel, and Adrian Goldsworthy’s Pax Romana. I got almost 200 pages into Peter Wilson’s The Thirty Years War before the NFL season began; my reading of heavy non-fiction tends to die from September through January, so books like that, plus Andrew Roberts’ Napoleon and Ron Chernow’s Washington remain on the unread pile, as does War and Peace. You should still read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (still just $9.07 for the paperback as of right now!) if you have not yet done so, and, of course, de gustibus non est disputandum.
Once upon a time, I read books and wrote reviews of them. Book review posts were staples in the Before I Only Wrote About Football blogging days, and were my most regular non-link posts in the early days of this site. Earlier this decade, I wrote reviews-many short, plenty longer-of every book I finished for a blog that nobody else can read. Yet, for one reason or another, I eventually stopped doing that. I switched from full reviews of each football book to capsule reviews in a quarterly post. I started out writing the quarterly post at the end of the quarter. Then a couple weeks after the end of the quarter. By now, it’s been nine months since I posted here about anything I read (and it’s been several years since I’ve written a book review for The Locked Site).
I know I’m quite likely never going to go back to writing about football books the way, but I do want to try to return to the quarterly recaps. After so much time, though, I just want to get everything up to date. Thankfully, I didn’t read that much the past nine months by my standards. In my last book review post, I mentioned the second quarter of 2015 was my least productive reading quarter (in terms of numbers of books finished) since the first quarter of 2010. Third quarter 2015 was my least productive third quarter since 2009 and fourth quarter 2015 was my least productive fourth quarter since 2009 (I note by quarters because my reading has tended to follow seasonal patterns; since I started keeping track by month in 2004, I finish on average 20% more books in July and August than you’d expect, while I finish 26% fewer in June). For the year, I finished 79 books, my lowest total since 2009, and the 9 football books I finished was the lowest total there since 2006. (By comparison, I averaged 117 books per year in 2011-14, so 79 books was for me a 33% drop.) We’ll see what the rest of 2016 brings. In 2010, I finished more books in April than I did in the entire first quarter, but I surely won’t replicate that this year.
Anyway, time for the nominal purpose of this post, telling you what I did actually read. Football first, then non-football, my 2015 favorites, and a look at the unread list.
Once again, I was involved in writing a book but failed to talk about it here. Yes, Football Outsiders Almanac 2015, the annual tome previewing the NFL and college football seasons from us at Football Outsiders came out. I wrote the Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers, and Tennessee Titans chapters. One day I should really talk about my FOA writing process and give a behind-the-scenes look at what I wrote about, why I wrote about what I did, how I wrote the chapters, and some stuff like that. Today will not be that day.
I mentioned in that previous book review post Chris Brown sent me a review copy of his second book, The Art of Smart Football. It’s Chris’s work, so of course you should read it. Like his first book The Essential Smart Football, it’s a collection of essays, most previously published. For me, it wasn’t as essential as Essential, because more of it was familiar to me. Some of the Grantland (R.I.P.) pieces also missed the graphics a digital product can have that a physical book cannot.
When the NFL made all-22 accessible to the public in 2011, one lament/request I heard from fellow outsider fans with an analytical bent was they really didn’t know what they were looking at, and it would be great to have somebody knowledgeable explain to them what was really going on. Alex Kirby’s Every Play Revealed 2 gives you that kind of guide for the Patriots-Seahawks Super Bowl. It’s probably best read in conjunction with a re-watch of the game itself. I ended up not having the time to do that, alas, and just read the review PDF Alex sent me. He’s done similar books for other games, and they’re probably worth picking up if you really want to study that game. Now if we can just get a consortium of people to do it for every other NFL game…
Thursday evening, I was listening to Bruce Feldman (mostly) talk with Kevin Sumlin about RPOs and the one-back clinic, so it’s fitting that tonight I finally get to writing about Bart Wright’s Football Revolution: The Rise of the Spread Offense and How It Transformed College Football, a history of the spread offense that includes the influence of Dennis Erickson and said one-back clinic. Not a coaching book, but a lot of good interview work and a book I wished I’d read soon after it came out (in the fall of 2013). Recommended.
I wanted more than I got from Brady vs. Manning: The Untold Story of the Rivalry That Transformed the NFL by Gary Myers.
I was a big fan of John U. Bacon’s Three and Out, and though about Michigan thought that book could be read quite profitably by people with no connection to the Wolverines or Ann Arbor. Endzone, I thought, was a book that appeals much more to the UM devotee and wasn’t as broadly interesting.
Writing a biography about a living subject who doesn’t cooperate with you is an interesting task. The living subject means that there are contemporaries around, many of whom are probably willing to speak, plus contemporaneous records are generally extant and not too difficult to locate. But you’re still in some ways missing the most important voice. Keith Dunnavant’s Montana is fine for all that, though I’m reminded of my comment on his Bart Starr biography, America’s Quarterback, that was kind of the inflection point for when I got bored with football books.
I wasn’t as big a fan as everybody else seems to be of Adam Lazarus’s Best of Rivals on the Joe Montana-Steve Young quarterback battle when I read that a few years ago. I was a much bigger fan of his Hail to the Redskins on Joe Gibbs’ great Washington teams, plus there’s a great Gibbs quote I want to use in a longer piece I’m still in the planning stages on. Recommended.
NFL Confidential: True Confessions from the Gutter of Football by Shmavid Shmolk, er, “Johnny Anonymous” was a suitably breezy and entertaining book by a player about a team-season, in the instant case David Molk on the Eagles’ 2014. The veneer of anonymity is paper-thin; the travails of the third-string center who ends up playing probably would’ve been enough to identify Molk with even minor work, a Monday off day is a give-away for Chip Kelly and the Eagles, and picking out Jason Peters and DeSean Jackson, among others, was pretty easy. Ball Four it ain’t, but it’s in line with Slow Getting Up as far as recent NFL player memoirs go. The better question is what would a book like Ball Four look like these days? I don’t know, really, but has anybody attempted to write a book like Dryden’s The Game since that came out 35 years ago? That’s a niche I’d like to see filled.
As long as you’re not expecting a full biography or anything more than a quick airplane read (which I mention because this was, in fact, where I read it), Bill Polian’s The Game Plan delivers what you might want. But while I bet he could’ve, Polian wasn’t interested in writing a great book on the NFL.
I finished Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale out of sheer cussedness to see if I would enjoy it any more, if it made any more sense, if it was any better. Nope, and a couple pages at the very end of academic satire were not enough to carry the rest of the work for me. Very strongly anti-recommended to people who share my tastes (see infra).
Jo Walton’s The Just City was an interesting novel about an attempt to set up Plato’s city in the “real” world with people from various stages of history. I forgot if it was in this book or the sequel The Philosopher Kings that Walton had a character note they didn’t get many people from the Enlightenment or later (beyond the POV female character from Victorian England), (a) for which I credit Walton and (b) #TeamEnlightenment. Being science fiction, this is of course a trilogy, and I plan to get the third volume from the library when it comes out as well.
A friend of mine recommended Sean McMullen’s trilogy beginning with Souls in the Great Machine after I asked for books like Anathem in my last book review post. There’s an interesting premise here, which carries the first book, and an interesting change of scenery does the sequel The Miocene Arrow well, but I wasn’t a huge fan of the concluding volume Eyes of the Calculor (a 2016 finish, but it’s not worth breaking up the review for that). Recommended for genre fans.
I did read non-spec fic fiction in the final two quarters of 2015, but not much of it and nothing to recommend.
I was hoping I’d finish Michel Houellebecq’s Submission before the year ended so I could just declare it my favorite fiction read of 2015. But I didn’t, and if it had really deserved its place there, I probably would have. I didn’t enjoy it was much as I did The Map and the Territory.
I suspect I would have enjoyed Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard more as a dramatic performance than as a book.
Some actual non-genre novels I liked Don Winslow’s The Power of the Dog and its sequel, The Cartel, about the Mexican drug wars from the mid-1970’s onward with a DEA agent protagonist. James Ellroy-esque in how characters overwhelmingly range from shades of gray to black, but much more narrative and much more readable, and epic in scope.
But if you want genre fiction, I did enjoy Daniel Abraham’s The Dagger and the Coin series. Five books, concluded satisfactorily with the just-released The Spider’s War. And am I the only one who sees the outlines of an alt-universe Anakin Skywalker in Geder?
Based on the reaction of my then-6-year-old niece, the start of Chapter 12 of Ian Toll’s Six Frigates on the early U.S. Navy is one of the funniest things ever put to print. She seemed particularly amused by Toll’s use of the word “private,” describing a letter sent by President James Madison. More … mature readers will find it a well-done history of the time period, capably conveying both the on-land and at-sea machinations, something not often done in naval histories.
I was unsurprised to see Ashlee Vance’s Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future make many best of 2015 lists. I’m personally hesitant to put biographies of people who seem like they’re still in the prime of their careers there, simply because I want to be sure the best books of a year to still be really good five years later. But anybody who writes a Musk biography in 2020 or 2050 will have to engage in some way with Vance’s work.
Economist books: I enjoyed both Alvin Roth’s Who Gets What – and Why: The New Economics of Matchmaking and Design, focusing on his work on auction designs, and Richard Thaler’s more specifically a memoir Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics. Greg Ip’s Foolproof: Why Safety Can Be Dangerous and How Danger Makes Us Safe I didn’t love as much as others seemed to (I seem to recall seeing it on more than its share of best of 2015 books), but it’s still solid.
Phillip T. Hoffamn’s Why Did Europe Conquer the World? was a book I’d been waiting on for a while, since discovering Hoffman’s work into seventeenth century France years ago. It was good, but wasn’t as much of an addition to the literature as I hoped it would be. I’m not quite sure I’d go as far as R.Albin’s review, but nor would I say he’s wrong.
I read and enjoyed but didn’t love David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing about a decade ago, but had put off reading his Paul Revere’s Ride for some time for no very good reason. Like Crossing, it does a fine job of putting the epochal historical event sometimes shrouded in myth and mystery into time-specific context. It shouldn’t be your first book on the American Revolution, but it can profitably be read with just a basic knowledge of the American Revolution and probably can profitably be read by those with a great interest in popular histories of the American Revolution.
The Russians are coming: Bill Browder’s Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice was a nice mix of personal memoir of doing business in Eastern Europe and Russia in the collapse of Soviet hegemony and then in Putin’s Russia, where the life of enemies is cheap. David Hoffman’s The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal has its own Moscow betrayal and killing but it set a quarter-century or so earlier, as Adolf Tolkachev spies for the U.S. and then is betrayed and executed.
The problem with a book like North Korea Confidential: Private Markets, Fashion Trends, Prison Camps, Dissentors and Defectors is it’s difficult to judge just how good a job Daniel Tudor and James Pearson did of giving us a glimpse into the normally-forbidden and highly-restricted Hermit Kingdom. The available evidence seems to be as good a job as one can. If you can trust it, it’s quite an interesting look at a very different world. If you can’t, then, of course, it’s worthless.
I didn’t enjoy Matt Ridley’s The Evolution of Everything as much as I did his The Rational Optimist; the two books aren’t the same, but I recall a broad thematic similarity and Optimist seems like a better sell. David Starkey’s Magna Carta was a thin book, but did a good job of putting the 1215 document in more context. After Dan Jones’ The Wars of the Roses, I didn’t get as much out of Michael Jones’ Bosworth 1485: The Battle That Transformed England, and probably wouldn’t have finished it had it been longer. As a fan of the novels of Frederick Forsyth, I enjoyed his memoir The Outsider: My Life in Intrigue; his take on Biafra remains quite interesting, though I lack any context for it (or any detail of the conflict in general).
I’ve only finished 7 non-fiction books this year, and 4 of those were about football. Fortunately, two of those other three are worth discussing.
I’ve previously noted I greatly enjoyed Randall Munroe’s xkcd comic and his earlier What If?, where he answers absurd hypothetical questions seriously. His latest book is Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words, where he explains (with the aid of illustrations) complicated things using just the one thousand most common words. It’s a clever concept, I believe first expressed in his Up Goer Five comic. In book format, though, my overwhelming impression was that it’s just a clever concept and fine details are normally expressed in specific technical jargon because that’s the best, clearest, and most economical way of doing so.
The nature of my project here precludes me from going into too much detail on Martin Gurri’s The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium. But this 2014 work is a superb analysis of the basic fault lines in American (and other) society, as demonstrated in the current Presidential election campaign and many other things. Not exactly a casual read, but worth working through and considering. Quite likely to end up on my best of 2016 list, and would have topped the best of 2015 list (infra). For a glimpse of Gurri’s thought and analysis, see this recent post of his on D***** T****.
Best of 2015
Brief overview notes, also noted in my past end-of-year reviews: I try to read a balance of fiction and non-fiction. For my fiction reads, I tend to prefer plot-heavy narratives. Beyond minimums, literary quality is a plus but not a priority. Genre is ok. For the most part, the fiction I read suffices and clears my palate for other reads, with few of my choices reaching or even aspiring to particularly high heights. Little stands out among my 2015 fiction reads. The most memorable for me was Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality by Eliezer Yudkowsky. I repeat my earlier warnings, that this is the most Not For Everybody, Your Mileage May Vary thing I’ve ever mentioned on here and if you start it, and you’re not enjoying it by chapter 8-10, give up. The Walton books were interesting, but I’ll wait to judge those until the final volume comes out. Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem was interesting, but (a) it’s the first volume in a trilogy, (b) I didn’t make any headway into the sequel when I checked it out from the library, and (c) series in progress (at least the English translation thereof). I wish I had non-genre recommendations, but I don’t.
For the third straight year, picking my favorite non-fiction read is quite a challenge, and this feels like an even bigger challenge than it was the past two years. Looking over the list, the standouts in my memory include James Whitman’s The Verdict of Battle (though I am somewhat loath to recommend this more broadly), Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, plus the aforementioned Paul Revere’s Ride and Six Frigates. But I’d put all of them a notch below my 2014 favorites.
Aside from, of course, Football Outsiders Almanac 2015, my favorite football reads of the year were Wright’s aforementioned Football Revolution and, idiosyncratic in some sense it may be, Ran Henry’s Spurrier. I finished entirely too many books I disenjoyed in 2015, including The Handmaid’s Tale and Ernest Cline’s Armada, which I finished out of curiosity to see if it really was that awful. It was (following my Dan Brown parallel, if Ready Player One was his DaVinci Code, Armada is more like his Inferno). I gave up on at least eight books in 2015, including both The Remains of the Day and The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro.
The Things to Read
Over the next month, I’ll be spending a great deal of time preparing for the 2016 NFL draft. I’ve already acquired Optimum Scouting’s draft guide and Nolan Nawrocki’s NFL Draft 2016 Preview, plus depending on when I get this post up may have already received my pre-ordered copy of Matt Waldman’s Rookie Scouting Portfolio. Dane Brugler‘s forthcoming draft guide is also on the must-buy list, and of course I’ll be supplementing all of those with Lance Zierlein’s draft profiles for NFL.com. Anything else I end up getting, I’ll note on Twitter, and if you want to send me your draft guide, just hit me up.
My book buying tends to go in spurts. Lately, I’ve neglected that I’ve been in a long-lived reading rut, and my acquisitions in the past nine months that I have not yet read include, among others, Dan Drezner’s Theories of International Politics and Zombies, Timothy Brook’s Vermeer’s Hat, Tonio Andrade’s The Gunpowder Age, Monte Burke’s Saban, Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life, Andrew Roberts’ Napoleon: A Life, and Ben Austro’s So You Think You Know Football?, titles like Alex Kirby’s Speed Kills, Peter H. Wilson’s The Thirty Years War, and many more sit waiting to be read while forthcoming books like the conclusion to Walton’s trilogy and James Gleick’s Time Travel (due out in September and pre-ordered) await in the distance.
As always, War and Peace sits on my end table waiting for me to finally get around to reading it, you should still read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow ($9.07 for the paperback as of right now!) if you have not yet done so, and, of course, de gustibus non est disputandum.
May and June are annually Football Outsiders Almanac writing season, so after April is devoted to draft preparation, I don’t tend to do much football reading in the second calendar quarter of any given year. Most years I read only one or two books about football during that span, reserving my reading time for books about other subjects. Most quarters, I write separate posts about my football and my non-football reading. For the second quarter, and especially considering it’s the evening of the 27th of July and I’m just getting around to writing a quarterly recap, I’ll be combining my normal separate quarterly recaps.
2Q 2015 was no exception to my normal football reading trends. The only football book I read was On the Clock: The Story of the NFL Draft by Barry Wilner and Ken Rappoport. My favorite book on the draft is Pete Williams’ The Draft. On the Clock did not come anywhere close to challenging Williams’ work for that crown, even though there is room for a work to surpass it.
For various reasons, 2Q 2015 was an unproductive quarter reading-wise even on the non-football front. I only finished 15 books, my smallest total since the first quarter of 2010. Additionally, two-thirds of those were fiction, where I trend to prefer highly narrative reads. Only two of the ten novels I read are worth mentioning, and I loved neither. Dan Simmons, who has written some books I’ve greatly enjoyed (Hyperion) and some I haven’t (Drood), ran an excerpt from the novel that became The Fifth Heart on his website a few years ago, and I found it intriguing. The final book, I found those with an interest in Henry James and/or Sherlock Holmes would probably like it much better. My James reading experience was brief, abortive, and non-recent, while I’ve never been a Holmes fan. More clever than enjoyable, though if you’re a fan of James and/or Holmes, you may find it more enjoyable than I did.
The other work of fiction is Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves. This is a difficult book for me to review. Stephenson is probably my favorite (living?) novelist. I have previously said that the world is comprised of two groups of people, those who have read and enjoyed Cryptonomicon and those with whom it is probably not worth having a casual conversation. I now like Anathem almost as much, and more in some ways. I’m currently (very, very slowly) re-reading his massive The Baroque Cycle. Reviewing Seveneves as a Stephenson hardcore, it’s my least favorite book of his in the past twenty years (I wasn’t a big fan of Snow Crash, which other people love, and it’s been too long since I’ve read Zodiac). Frankly, it seemed like a bit of a waste; a much less talented, less imaginative writer than Stephenson could have written a version of Seveneves that was nearly as good, which I would not have said about his other books (seriously, who else could have written Anathem and made it good? I want to read this person). That said, even inferior, not nearly as funny as normal Stephenson is still much better than standard fare SF, so I liked it even though I found it greatly disappointing. Recommended to people who have already read better books and still need more to read, perhaps?
My non-fiction reading was nearly as lame as my fiction reading. Adam Zamoyski’s Rites of Peace: The Fall of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna is mostly about the diplomatic maneuverings leading up to the fall and the Congress. The most interesting part is the great social swirl around the Congress, something you get absolutely no sense of in the twentieth century. Were there parties at Yalta, at Potsdam, surrounding the formation of NATO, around the Rio or Kyoto Earth summits? Did the principals interact there and do any business? Was anybody sleeping with anybody else, who was also or had previously or would go on to sleep with somebody else? These people are generally absent from current histories (I haven’t read, say, MacMillan’s Paris 1919), which could be a reflection of the transition from hereditary aristocracy and monarchies to largely non-hereditary and/or democratically-elected leadership and a tendency toward shorter, more directed meetings with more frequent trips home rather than very extended, open-ended meetings where most people are around for more or less the duration. I didn’t love it enough to recommend it more generally, but I do recommend it if you have an interest in the subject. Good chapter length, too, which is often a problem in books of this sort.
I’ve loved some of Bruce Schneier’s past books. Beyond Fear and Liars and Outliers were some of my favorite reads in the years I read them. I was more skeptical about the premise of Data and Goliath. Sadly, my fears were mostly founded. The first half is a useful overview of the current age of mass surveillance; the second half is more political in nature, along the familiar lines of “what the world should be like if everybody adopted the author’s preferred policy tradeoffs.” As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve generally read more than enough of that kind of book. Intelligently discussing the counterarguments and overcoming them will make that kind of book worthwhile anyway, but Schneier acknowledges the counterarguments and didn’t handle them (Bret Stephens’ America in Retreat manages the former, but doesn’t succeed at the latter task, and I wouldn’t have bothered to finish it if it was longer than it was).
Stephen Weinberg is a distinguished physicist. My past fondness for Paul Johnson (haven’t read any of his books lately) indicates I have a fondness, or at least an openness toward whiggish history. But I still did not really enjoy To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science, Weinberg’s almost antiseptic take on moments in scientific discovery from the Greeks through Newton, at which point modern science had been discovered and Weinberg didn’t have to make any declarations that might annoy his friends. Not awful, but not as interesting as I’d hoped.
With my work on Football Outsiders Almanac 2015 pretty much done, I’m about ready to start reading about football again. Chris Brown sent me a review copy of his new book The Art of Smart Football, Alex Kirby sent me a copy of his book Every Play Revealed 2 breaking down the Pats-Seahawks Super Bowl, I’ve begun Bart Wright’s Football Revolution, there’s a whole new crop of football books coming out soon, and, hey, I’ll get to read what everybody else said in FOA2015 as well.
You should still read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow if you have not already done so.
I read some about football. I read more about other things. I told you about the football books I read in the first quarter of 2015. Now I will tell you about some of the more interesting of the other books I finished that quarter, but not about the uninteresting ones or the ones I don’t feel like discussing.
Most of my fiction reading is unremarkable, read solely for personal enjoyment and relaxation and not sufficiently interesting to be mentioned here. In the first quarter, I finished the final two extant volumes of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. If my appetite for television dramas in a year ever exceeds the 13 hours in a season of The Americans, I could start watching Game of Thrones without fear of spoilers for current books.
There’s way too much out there to actually read, so it’s crucial to develop heuristics that help you pick and choose what to even start reading (unless you’re Tyler Cowen and you just read the first 25 pages of every book you possibly can). Explicitly didactic fiction? Normally a big no-no and a huge turn-off. Fan fiction? Apply Sturgeon’s law, then apply Sturgeon’s law again, and apply Sturgeon’s law once again for good measure. Yet I still read, and on the whole greatly enjoyed, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality by Eliezer Yudkowsky. This is the most Not For Everybody, Your Mileage May Vary thing I’ve ever mentioned on here. Familiarity with the Harry Potter books is somewhere between greatly enjoyment-enhancing and absolutely essential. If you start it, and you’re not enjoying it by chapter 8-10, give up. If you love it like I did, settle in for a very long ride. Personal favorites include chapters 37, 45 (duh), and 93.
The death of Singaporean elder statesman Lee Kuan Yew got me to finally finish Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights. I’d left it sitting unread on my phone for a while since it was just a collection of clips from other things LKY had done, and when I read a book I’m preferably looking for arguments longer than a couple paragraphs at the most. I got it on a Kindle deal, and even at the $1.99 or whatever I paid for it I’m not sure it was worth it. The Singapore Story, which I read about 15 years ago, may be my favorite autobiography by a twentieth century politician, though.
As far as installments in the Penguin History of Europe go, Christendom Destroyed by Mark Greengrass ranks significantly closer to Tim Blanning’s The Pursuit of Glory and Chris Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome than it does to The Birth of Classical Europe. While good and a fine overview, though, I would not put it on the same level as either the Blanning or Wickham and therefore recommend it only to those with an interest in the subject and not more broadly.
Of interest only to a limited audience, I mostly enjoyed James Whitman’s The Verdict of Battle, about how victory in eighteenth century warfare had legal consequences it subsequently lost. It’s not perfect-I would have liked to have seen him draw more out about why Chotusitz was necessary after Mollwitz and more generally if victories whose result was binding could be determined ex ante instead of solely ex post. Further, the eighteenth century rule seems like a better one, but its breakdown was the result of changes in political participation more broadly that on the whole I would characterize as greatly for the better. I’m fine with a book that just describes the baleful influence of Kantians and current trends among international lawyers, but I’m not sure that’s a huge audience.
I know, it’s a movie and everybody else and Peter King has already read it, but I finally got around to Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken and found it as compelling a personal story as I’d read in some time even with the ultimate ending being close to the proverbial going home and buying a Buick.
I don’t have much I feel like saying about Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels by Ian Morris, other than that I enjoyed it, though not as much as Why the West Rules-For Now or War! What Is It Good For?, and the commentaries (his main essay originated as the Tanner Lecture in philosophy at Princeton) on his work are all pretty much worthless except that they give him a chance to write more about his thesis in the rebuttal section.
I read some about football. I read more about other things. I told you about the football books I read in the fourth quarter of 2014. Now I will tell you about some of the more interesting of the other books I read in that quarter, but not about the uninteresting ones or the ones I don’t feel like discussing. Since that was the final quarter of 2014, this post will also cover my favorite books of 2014.
For the third consecutive year, the fourth quarter, featuring three months of the NFL season, was the least productive quarter of the year in terms of number of books read. Of course, twenty five books, fourteen novels and eleven works of non-fiction, was still a respectable total.
I am still pretending to read War and Peace, which still consists of it sitting on my coffee table while I occasionally look at it and think about reading it, rather than actually reading it. On the fiction front, I continued to progress, in my normal Kindle fits and starts, through George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series and am currently part of the way through A Storm of Swords, the fourth book in the series. Reading James Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet was enough to cure me of any further desire to read Ellroy; the changes made from the book to the film version of L.A. Confidential were quite judicious and made for a more satisfying experience.
Once you take out the six football reads, that leaves just five non-fiction books in three months-not many. But the minimum quality of those works was quite high. Hampton Sides’ In the Kingdom of Ice was a fascinating tale of Arctic survival (or non-survival). Plus, it’s an excuse to link to this fascinating post on Robert Falcon Scott’s failed Antarctic expedition and scurvy.
Did I spend the entire time reading How Star Wars Conquered the Universe by Chris Taylor geeking out about Star Wars? Is that really the sort of thing I want to admit? To the former, well, yeah. To the latter, well, I’ve previous acknowledged on the Internet I was four when Return of the Jedi came out, and Return of the Jedi in 1983 to me was, is, and always will be the greatest movie of all time, which would’ve probably answered the former question for you. Is it still an enjoyable book without such geeking out? Quite possibly, but all I can tell you is I found this an interesting and satisfying read on a subject I was interested in reading about.
I generally avoid reading business books unless I feel an obligation to do so; like self-help books in general, they range from immensely valuable to completely worthless, with a very large degree of YMMV and almost all for me falling in the latter category. Popular business books in particular I rarely find satisfying because many feel like a gem of an idea that could be expressed well in a medium or short essay padded into book size. Maybe it’s just because I know of the much larger lectures they were based on, but Peter Thiel’s Zero to One was a big exception to that general rule. It really felt like a condensation of much larger ideas, and a book that could’ve been five hundred large pages into of two hundred slim ones; that I would’ve preferred the larger product did not mean that I did not enjoy reading Zero to One. Instead, it means I should really go and actually read and think about those lecture notes. On Thiel’s ideas and points of view on various subjects, I’ll simply note I find him a very interesting thinker worthy of reading and considering and leave it at that in this forum.
That I have a bit of a weakness for well-done books about innovation definitely aided in my enjoyment of Steven Johnson’s How We Got to Now, but there was more to it than that. Johnson remains an engaging writer and effective popularizer, and this was probably my favorite of his books. Most importantly, the inventions he told were not stories that feel like they have been over-told, at least in my reading experience. Very enjoyable book. (For the curious, I have Walter Isaacson’s The Innovators on hold at the local library and should get to it at some point in the first quarter of 2015.)
That Dan Jones’ The War of the Roses was probably the weakest non-football work of non-fiction book I read in the final quarter does not mean it was a bad book. I did feel at times there was an element of that standard history critique, of “One damned thing after another,” but (a) history is made up of actual events, and (b) books that avoid that by finding the right balance between conceptualization and events are the standouts that draw superlatives, not the norm. I was looking for a solid overview of a period of history I didn’t know much about, and this book provided exactly that.
Since I keep trying to read down the stock of unread books before buying new ones, there were no major acquisitions I have no read; my only acquired books were things like Bruce Feldman’s The QB that I already read or cheap Kindle deals and library remainder sales (James Gleick’s Chaos for $1? Sure!).
Best of 2014
Brief overview notes, also noted in my past end-of-year reviews: I try to read a balance of fiction and non-fiction. For my fiction reads, I tend to prefer plot-heavy narratives. Beyond minimums, literary quality is a plus but not a priority. Genre is ok. For the most part, the fiction I read suffices and clears my palate for other reads, with few of my choices reaching or even aspiring to particularly high heights. Andy Weir’s The Martian has drawn a lot of praise from other people, and I enjoyed it as well, even with some first-novel raggedness. Infinite Jest, though there were long stretches of it I did not particularly enjoy, may well end up my most lasting fiction first read from 2014. Re-reading Neal Stephenson’s Anathem a year and change after I first read it was not the best use of my time, and it remains Not For Everyone, but I found it a more rewarding read the second time around.
Looking over the list of books I finished this year, it was like 2013 in that there was no single book that stands out as my clear-cut favorite of the year. Rather, there was a long list of books I thought were good and really enjoyed. That included Bill Byron’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, Robert Coram’s Boyd, Tim Blanning’s The Romantic Revolution, Ken Dryden’s The Game, Ian Morris’ War! What Is It Good For?, James Gleick’s Genius, Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb, plus the Thiel and Johnson books from the fourth quarter. Forced to narrow it down to two choices, I would go with the Morris and Gleick, though they did not quite stand out in the way I want books I declare to be the best of a given year to stand out. The longer list is the better one.
Aside from, of course, Football Outsiders Almanac 2014, my favorite football reads of the year included Roy Blount’s About Three Bricks Shy of a Load … and the Load Filled Up, Dave Revsine’s The Opening Kickoff, and Bruce Feldman’s The QB. The worst book I finished might have been Daniel Flynn’s The War on Football, though it was short enough I could speed my way through it and I probably wouldn’t have finished it had been a longer book; I only finished Steve Almond’s Against Football for similar reasons. I gave up on thirteen books, including worthy titles like Robert Gates’ Duty and Martin Meredith’s The Fortunes of Africa (and some unworthy ones as well). You should still read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow if you have not already done so.
As always, de gustibus non est disputandum.
I read some about football. I read more about other things. I told you about the football books I read in the third quarter of 2014. Now I will tell you about some of the more interesting of the other books I read that quarter, but not about the uninteresting ones or the ones I don’t feel like discussing.
If there was a theme for the quarter, it was early twentieth century physics (and some math). Books on those areas included (parts of) Michael Brooks’ Free Radicals, David Lindley’s Uncertainty, Rebecca Goldstein’s Incompleteness, James Gleick’s Richard Feynman biography Genius, and Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Ranking? Gleick was the best, and quite good. Rhodes is also good, though the introductory part on the background on developments in atomic physics leading up to the late 1930’s was old news to me given the reading I’ve been doing. Those are the two I would recommend more generally. There was a significant gap to Lindley and Goldstein, both of which are worth reading if you have a specific interest in the subject, while the Brooks was not to my taste. Bonus points to Gleick for ending with approximately the same Feynman quote I used in my On “Analytics” post. The big question is now whether I understand Godelian incompleteness or quantum mechanics; the answers are no, not really and probably about as well as I ever will without actually buying a quantum mechanics textbook and going through the math, something I know I’m extraordinarily unlikely to ever actually do.
When I acquire a non-fiction book, one of the things I often do first is page through the end notes, if there are any, and bibliography. This is not always a totally reliable guide (I enjoyed the References section of Tyler Cowen’s book then titled Create Your Own Economy more than I enjoyed the actual text), but it’s typically a good one. Each of the 39 pages of bibliography to Ian Morris’s War! What Is It Good For? had at least one title I’d read or was on my to-read list, a feat I’m not sure had been accomplished by any other title with a bibliography than ran more than a couple pages. Naturally, I really enjoyed the book. The argument, that war isn’t the worst thing ever, won’t appeal to everybody, but I’m perfectly willing to consider potentially unpopular arguments and think there’s something to it, or at least you’d have to explain to me why Morris is completely off base.
Unless I’m missing them, there are few good books for a popular audience on recent, or at least post-bubble Japan, and most of them seem to be by Economist correspondents. David Pilling’s Bending Adversity is for the most part quite good, as long as you accept the book for what it is-a look at post-bubble Japan with some more in-depth explorations of what happened to Fukushima.
My infatuation with the webcomic xkcd has faded, to the point where I check it perhaps twice a month instead of “It’s 12:05, why don’t we have a new comic yet.” But I have enjoyed Randall Munroe’s What If? column, where he takes scientific looks at occasionally absurd hypothetical questions, like what would happen if you tried to fly an earth airplane near different bodies in the solar system. The book is cleverly titled What If? and is a mix of existing material from the blog updated weekly and new material. There are no deep insights here, but I really liked it for what it was.
I also read a passel of fiction, little of it noteworthy. I am still pretending to read War and Peace, which mostly consists of having it on my coffee table and looking at it every so often instead of actually reading it; apparently, stating my plans to read it here has only a minimal or no pre-commitment effect on me. I have instead begun reading the heretofore-released books from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, something I knew I would do eventually after getting the first five books in e-book last December, and am currently most of the way through A Game of Thrones.
As always, de gustibus non disputandum est.