Favourite Reads of 2008

22 Feb 2009 // books

In 2008, I reached my goal of a book a week: 60 [pats self on back]. Still it's but a drop in the ocean compared to the 200,000 or so new books published every year. Here are the ones that I enjoyed the most:

Neil Shubin's "Your Inner Fish" was the best popular science read of the year. It's an instant classic. Shubin tells an intricately compelling story that weaves together fossils, evolutionary biology and developmental biology into one thumping narrative. It's the kind of synthesis that only a real scientist can do, bringing order to diverse phenomena and it got me thinking hard about the relationship of embryonic development and the phylogenetic tree. But by far, Shubin's greatest achievement is that he avoids the usual traps of writing by scientists – overelaboration, patronising explanation, repitiveness, lack of narrative structure, really bad jokes and mawkish memoir writing.

Which brings me to Charles Darwin "The Origin of Species", arguably the grand-daddy of science writing. This is one of the few great works of science that is comprehensible to an educated layman (waves to educated layman). I was continually surprised by the breadth of arguments that Darwin marshalled in support of his arguments. Some of the arguments, rarely recapitulated in later summaries, anticipates whole branches in biology that would come decades after Darwin – for instance, the chapter on ants anticipates evolutionary psychology and entimology, and Darwin's observations on emotional expressions were not studied seriously until the later part of the 20th century. What struck me was the sheer variety of topics that triggered the curiosity of this polymath. So I was rather surprised when some grad student in my lab saw me carrying the book around and asked me why on earth would I want to read that book. Such is the poverty of his curiosity, I guess.

I don't know if your friends are anything like mine, but they are utterly obsessed with sex, love and of course, marriage. Yet, on reflection, I realized I knew precious little about the origins of such an important bonding ritual. That's why Stephanie Coontz's "Marriage, a History" sharply written and comprehensive exploration of the history of this institution is so important in shedding light on the murky origins of this particular ritualistic shibboleth.

In 1866, the French Academy of Sciences banned the publication of papers on the topic of the origin of language because it was a furiously important topic that could admit no decisive solution. The ban was effective for but a little while and over the centuries, many books have been published and over the years, I seem to have read my fair share. There seems to be as many different approaches as there are authors but the solution to the problem may probably turn out to be ecunumenical. That's why it was refreshing to read, for a change, a smart and rigorous survey of a number of contrasting approaches to the origin of language in Christine Kenneally, "The First Word".

Sometimes I feel a little embarassed to talk about programming as I was not trained in computer science. Feeling that the code I write was a hodge-podge of amateur noodling, I looked around to find a good introduction to programming to firm up my firmaments. Abelson and Susseman's "Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs" was acclaimed as the introduction to computer science. This tough little textbook has been the hammer that has beaten the heads of freshman MIT computer-science students for many years. And over the last 2 years of reading the 4 and half chapters deemed to form the core of the book book, I've let the hammer fall over my head many times. The book is tough, for instance the second chapter assumes that you know numerical analysis in order to illustrate functional programming. In this book, I also came across the most horrendous data structure known to man: using a closure to imitate a array. But there's marvelous stuff in there, perhaps the most marvellous being that this book starts discussing computing from the most powerful language in the world: LISP, simply because LISP is poetry.

Which brings me to Kim Addonizio & Doriiance Laux, "The Poet's Companion". Recommended to me by a someone in a writers group, this is a great self-study guide to the mysterious metaphor-laden world of poetry. In return, I suggested her Mortimer J. Adler & Charles Van Doren, "How to Read a Book", which I first read 15 years ago, and read again this year. For those of you who are serious readers out there (20+ books a year), you will realize that reading is something you can improve on. This book is a treasure trove of the reading process.

I am almost there: I can almost see the end of that long long and winding road known as Marcel Proust's "In Search of Lost Time". After grinding through the rather tedious "Sodom and Gomorrhe", I flew through the grotesque obsession of "La Prisoniere", which left me feeling slightly soiling. Feeling that my French had improved, I decided to retread the beginning of the long march again, "Du Coté de Chez Swann". One day soon, I will finish the longest piece of literary self-absorption ever written.

The first story in Joyce Carol Oates short-story collection "Faithless" is a devastating 6-page stunner.

So I spent a week with hanging out with my New College poetry grad student friend in NYC, who of course, took me a poetry recital in DUMBO, where I allegedly laid eyes on the next great voice in the NYC poetry scene. It was a pretentious love-fest that was strangely touching. After I got back to SF, I managed to find a copy of Tao's breakout hit "you are a little bit happier than I am" and found a mesmirising new voice that spoke in a way unutterly like anything that I had read before. It's a hypnotic drone of im, ennui and impotence.

Unlike most commmentators who ejaculate over the thought of the revolutionary nature of the 2.0 in Web 2.0, Ian McNeely & Lisa Wolverton are somewhat more sanguine. In their compact little study, "Reinventing Knowledge", which conveniently uses double spacing to pad the book into a flatteringly larger package, they argue that the internet was but one of a series of revolutionary transformations in how we deal with knowledge. Their sophisticated reading of history provides a bird's eye view of the sediments of human knowledge, they argue that the internet is only the latest in fundamental shifts in knowledge making from the library, the monastery, the university, the republic of letters, the disciplines and the laboratory.