2001: A Space Odyssey

I re-read Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and am glad I did. It was cooler than I remembered. Much of it is a bit cold and distant, like the movies, but still has some awestruck moments, and it’s fun to come back to something that I’ve seen four or five times and have such convenient visuals/memories for. If you like the movie, this is a natural complement.

The Martian

I read about half of Andy Weir’s The Martian, and then I bailed. DNF. Definitely enjoyed the thought process and survival engineering. Ultimately, I was hoping for some more narrative progress, more quickly. On to the next.

How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life

I read Russ Roberts’ book How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life, and it’s certainly the most heavily dog-eared book I’ve read in the last couple months. It’s slighter in hindsight, but still got some good stuff out of it. Smith is best known for the more macro-level, distant, impersonal view on economics in The Wealth of Nations. This books relies on Smith’s lesser-known A Theory of Moral Sentiments, which explores the more intimate, direct relationships between individuals.

What I like is its undercurrent of humility and courtesy, for one, and the idea of ripple effects that go beyond us. There’s the idea of the “impartial spectator” in here – a hypothetical (and likely impossible) imagined outsider, an objective witness we can turn to to evaluate what we do. Of course, we’re delusional and biased and self-obsesssed. The principle stands, though, and the community around us helps to shape this hypothetical ideal that we imagine.

Virtuous behavior is like passable writing vs. great writing. At a basic level, there is grammar and syntax. There’s broad agreement on many of those details. But there’s a special something that goes beyond the basic requirements. Along the same lines, no one individual really decides what proper grammar is, and how a language works. But many people, making many small decisions every day, spread and sustain behaviors that add up to something bigger on the scale of family, office, neighborhood, nation, culture. And it’s that big-picture thinking that (hopefully) motivates us to “be lovely even when we can get away with not being lovely”. Going along with that are some healthy warnings about our obessions with powerful people, and about hubris when it comes to societal engineering.

Some other parts I like? Smith on keeping it simple:

What can be added to the happiness of the man who is in health, out of debt, and has a clear conscience?

Smith on praise we haven’t earned…

To us they [his praises] should be more mortifying than any censure, and should perpetually call to our minds, the most humbling of all reflections, the reflection of what we ought to be, but what we are not.

Or as Roberts phrases it, “Undeserved praise is a repimand – a reminder of what I could be.”

There’s another great section that talks about how gadgets are seductive. Roberts says, “We often care more about the elegance of the device than for what it can achieve.” Smith’s line here made me think about the tech and especially the #EDC community:

How many people ruin themselves by laying out money on trinkets of frivolous utility? What pleases these lovers of toys is not so much the utility, as the aptness of the machines which are fitted to promote it. All their pockets are stuffed with little conveniences.

Smith on why friendship is so valuable when you’re grieving – we see our pain through their eyes, and see it’s not so bad:

We are immediately put in mind of the light in which he will view our situation, and we begin to view it ourselves in the same light; for the effect of sympathy is instantaneous.

Roberts on caring on a smaller scale than save-the-world dreams:

Maybe, just maybe, your best way of making the world a better place is to be a really superlative husband or mom or neighbor. […] We forget that being good at our work helps others and makes the world a better place, too.

And a lovely bit of rabbinic wisdom:

It is not up to you to finish the work. But you are not free to desist from it.

A similar, more energetic book along the same lines is Sarah Bakewell’s very excellent How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer.

Sorry Please Thank You

I read Charles Yu’s Sorry Please Thank You, which I picked up after two of his other books made my 2014 favorites list. The opener “Standard Loneliness Package”, is one of the best in the book (a somewhat different version is online)…

Some genius in Delhi had figured out a transfer protocol to standardize and packetize all different kinds of experiences. Overnight, everything changed. An industry was born. The business of bad feeling. For the right price, almost any part of life could be avoided.

”Troubleshooting” and “Open” are other good examples of what you’re in for: short stories that are a little bit wistful or cynical, a little bit of comic exasperation, and a sort of tech- and/or scifi bent to them. Most of them work with a brain-teaser/experimental premise, but don’t feel as emotionally compelling as his earlier stuff. Third Class Superhero and How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe are definitely worthwhile, though. If you like those first, you’ll probably enjoy this, too.

StrengthsFinder 2.0

I and a few dozen folks I work with read Tom Rath’s StrengthsFinder 2.0. Good stuff. The assessment results tell me that my top strengths/themes are: Restorative®, Intellection®, Ideation®, Input®, and Relator®. Basically, I like fixing things; stockpiling ideas and connecting them; and sticking with people I’m close with. Sounds pretty fair, and there’s much more depth on each of those in the book and in their online thingy. At the very least, it explains why I love my job as much as I do. Also has some good ideas to invest in those strengths for TrueUltimatePower®. I was a bit skeptical, but it’s worth a read!

Texas: The Great Theft

I read Carmen Boullosa’s Texas: The Great Theft. It took me a while to catch on, but then I was able to coast along with the dozens and dozens of side characters and tangents. I didn’t love it, but haven’t read anything else where you get about ten thousand vivid snapshots of a time and place. Also, this book was the first release from Deep Vellum, a specialty translated lit operation run my friend Will Evans. So far my subscription is paying off. More to come.

The Best Books I Read, 2014

Best Books of 2014

Well, there’s always 2015. What follows are the best of a pitiful 30 (?!) books I read in 2014, which is nowhere near previous glorious heights. These are in a very particular order – as more discerning readers will see – gently arranged for optimal reading pleasure. Don’t skim or jump around, or you’ll ruin the whole thing. All links are to my own notes on the books, such as they are.

I hope your year is filled with books you enjoy.


I re-read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations a couple days ago, a New Year’s tradition. I also spent some more time digging in the appendices in this book, and comparing my notes from 2013. And, as I did last year, I tweeted some quotes and paraphrases that struck me as I read it this time around. A few of those, with book/chapter references:

Expecting nothing, shirking nothing, […] and a heroic truthfulness in all that you say and mean – then you will lead a good life. And nobody is able to stop you. (3.12)

Whenever you want to cheer up, think of the admirable qualities and virtues of your friends. (6.48)

That last one makes me think of Seneca, especially, and some other good stuff filed under my friends tag.

Do not be ashamed of being helped. […] It is human nature to love even those who trip and fall.“ (7.7 and 7.22)

Without frenzy, without apathy, without pretense. (7.69)

Prayer about things you want in the world < Prayer to be free from fear, desire, regret. (9.40)

Kindness is invincible. (11.18.9)

I appreciated his personal journaling this year as much as ever, but also felt like some things were missing – because, selfishly, he’s writing for himself and not for me specifically. But I take some comfort in seeing him grapple with his own shortcomings as I work on my own, and try to live well despite them.

Be sure to check out Austin Kleon’s thoughts from his own re-reading. I’ve got another re-read coming up shortly, just as soon as the postman delivers the Hays translation that Ryan Holiday recommends. Filed under: Stoicism.


I read a lot of Ben Bova’s Cyberbooks, but not all of it. There is a certain kind of joy in reading about science fiction that’s no longer fiction. In this case, ebooks and tablets and the future of publishing as seen from 1989. Ultimately it was a bit more light and meandering than I wanted. DNF.


I read John Williams’ book Stoner, and found it strangely mesmerizing. So direct and plain and sturdy and beautiful. A couple lines that liked, that also capture something of its directness. At dinner with friends:

They became a little drunk; they laughed vaguely and sentimentally; they saw each other anew.

While the hero rehabs his house and office, the importance of the spaces we create:

As he repaired his furniture and arranged it in the room, it was himself he was slowly shaping, it was himself that he was putting into a kind of order, it was himself he was making possible.

Other smart people agree that this book is great. It was Dean Peterson’s write-up that gave me the final nudge to buy it. Got on my radar when I heard about it from Austin Kleon, Ben Casnocha, Steve Almond, Tim Kreider, et al.

The Thin Man

I read Dashiel Hammett’s book The Thin Man, and quite enjoyed it. Awesome story of a lovable couple casually working their way through a murder case that’s too amusing to ignore. Has some good droll observations about how people work, like the social boilerplate around saying goodbye:

We shook hands and make polite speeches all around and they went away.

Nice turns of phrase, like this bit after an underling compliments his boss:

“And what a hunch!” Flint exclaimed, practically top-heavy with admiration.

And I’m pretty sure this is one of the greatest paragraphs in the English language:

When we stopped at Reuben’s for coffee on our way home at four the next morning, Nora opened a newspaper and found a line in one of the gossip columns: “Nick Charles, former TransAmerica Detective Agency ace, on from Coast to sift the Julia Wolf murder mystery”; and when I opened my eyes and sat up in bed some six hours later Nora was shaking me and a man with a gun in his hand was standing in the bedroom doorway.

How could you read that, and not go immediately to the next chapter? I watched the movie right away, too, like I did with Gone Girl (movie, book). Both recommended.