Most books I read to learn about a specific topic or to solve a problem. But sometimes, I read just for the curiosity and enjoyment of it. I don’t know much about Patti Smith and her world, but I’ve heard her memoir is superb. Let’s check it out. A hunt for a man-eating Siberian tiger? Oh yeah. Memoir of a guy who’s a mountaineer, ER doc, scientist, and Space Station repairman? Hell yeah.
So I present to you the following Just for the Fun of It books. Whether memoir, ethnography, history, biography or current affairs, all of them are eminently entertaining and superb cocktail-party fodder. If you choose to acquire these books for your reading pleasure, purchasing via the provided Amazon affiliate links deposits several shiny pennies in my account towards supporting this blog and my reading habit. Check ’em out:
The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival (2010) by John Vaillant (ebook & print). Siberian tigers hunt bears. That’s how badass they are. Okay, but why should you read a book about a search for a man-eating Amur tiger, the world’s largest land predator, in the most remote parts of the earth? Because it’s one of the best damn books you’ll ever read, that’s why. And in the process, you’ll learn about Russian history, Communism, Russian-Chinese relations, Siberian tundra and taiga, tiger lore, perestroika, tiger physiology, the Afghan war, poaching, black markets, being a nature warden, extinction, duty, vengeance and survival. Vaillant’s sorcery is in his ability to take you inside the head of the hunted villagers, the hunters, and the Amur tiger, as if you are there. The whole thing reads like a thriller, and yes, you will probably stay up way too late reading it. I came away with a deeper appreciation of the majesty of nature and our place in it as current top predator. 10/10
The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World (2017), by Anthony Brandt & David Eagleman (ebook & print). How do exceptionally creative people — like Leonardo da Vinci, Bach, Chopin, Einstein, Edison, Picasso, Steve Jobs — come up with and execute their ideas? What makes the book special are vignettes of the other 200+ artists, scientists, composers and engineers you haven’t heard of yet, and all the cool ideas they’ve come up with as they “bend, break and blend” old ideas to create new ones. The book’s fluid writing style and 200 illustrations make for fun, fast reading.
Some essential new concepts I learned:
- “Skeuomorphs” are “features that imitate the design of what has come before.” Nothing is 100% new.
- Every emerging billion-dollar industry is already 10 yrs old
- To come up with great ideas, embrace error so you can proliferate lots of options
- The 20% Rule: the brain seems to prefer visual stimulus of 20% complexity
- The greatest creators (eg Picasso, Edison) were just insanely prolific. The more stuff you make, the more likely that some of it will be great.
- Let young minds embrace the arts: “This is because the arts, due to their overtness, are the most accessible way to teach the basic tools of innovation.”
Although it can teach you much about the process of innovation, this book’s not a creativity how-to book per se. For that, I recommend Edward de Bono’s classic Lateral Thinking: Creativity Step by Step.
This is a great read for scientists, writers, inventors, artists, musicians, and eternally curious folks who could use an extra shot of creativity. Dozens of fascinating stories of perseverance, ingenuity, and breakthrough – e.g. self-healing concrete, carbon-fiber violins, or James Dyson’s 5,127 vacuum prototypes (!) – demystify innovation, humanize it, and just might catalyze a world-changing story of your own. 8.5/10
SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (2015) by Mary Beard (ebook and print). Superb revisionist history of Rome. Beard writes with one eye on historiography: Where did the story come from? How reliable are the sources? What’s the most plausible interpretation? As such, she compels us to reconsider many tropes of Roman history we have come to accept as fact (e.g. Caesar was great, Caligula was awful), and to have a more complex relationship with it that informs modern manifestations of power, tyranny, wealth, war, governance, corruption, and civic life. 9/10
Open (2009) by Andre Agassi (ebook, print & audio). A friend loaned this to me when I was in Bali, and I read it in one sitting. André hated tennis. Hated it. He nevertheless became the #1 player in the world. The coaching of his maniacal Persian dad, leaving school, joining the brutally spartan Bollettieri Academy, acting out, pink mohawks, famous wives and girlfriends, insanely loyal friends and coaches, the relentless pursuit of excellence, Pete Sampras the eternal nemesis, depression, marriage, divorce, re-marriage — it’s all in here. Even if you didn’t follow tennis in his time, this is a rollicking, laugh-out-loud, poignant story. I also picked up a huge life-lesson from it: the best in the world become that by having coaches. So glad I found out for myself why this book was so stupendously popular. 9.5/10
The Sky Below: A True Story of Summits, Space, and Speed (2017), by Scott Parazynski and Susy Flory (ebook & print). Emergency physician, world-class mountaineer, Space Shuttle astronaut, International Space Station repairman, inventor, pilot, explorer, scientist, entrepreneur – these are just some of the lives Scott Parazynski has lived so far. With an exuberant yet gentle voice, he takes us along some extraordinary experiences, like a spacewalk repair of a billion-dollar solar panel, an Antarctic sojourn, and his second life-threatening attempt at the Mt Everest summit.
I particularly appreciate the book’s Kindle in Motion format, allowing me to enjoy the vivid photos, animated diagrams, and full-motion video from the Shuttle, ISS and outer space on my iPad. It enhanced the experience of reading the book, making it even more visceral. Thanks to these, never again will I mistake the Northern approach to Everest with the Southern one, or forget to wear my tactical galoshes to the mouth of a live volcano.
Well-written and fun to read, this is the kind of book that leaves a smile on your face and inspires you to do even more daring things with your time on Earth. 8.5/10
Phenomena: The Secret History of the U.S. Government’s Investigations into Extrasensory Perception and Psychokinesis (2017), by Annie Jacobsen (ebook, print & audio). Usually books about psychic phenomena either go full-believer or full-skeptic. Jacobsen, however, just reports on the stories and the evidence pro and con from interviews and declassified government documents, letting you make up your own mind.
Some of the characters are professional charlatans — albeit charlatans hired by British intelligence to successfully convince Rudolf Hess to fly to England to get captured (apparently the Nazis were suckers for astrology). Some, like Uri Geller, I couldn’t really figure out. Others are legitimate scientists who earnestly believed they could make headway in this field using the scientific method. These quixotic quests are fun to read, especially when you hear how much money the US government poured into it and how afraid they were of the Russians being ahead.
But the stuff that blew me away were the accounts of remote viewers who actually got results. I mean, in a trillion tries, no one should be able to close her eyes, enter a meditative state, and visualize the location of, say, Muammar Ghaddafi’s chemical weapon stash. And yet that’s exactly what some of these people did — repeatedly, with documentation to prove it. Some of the main players in the US parapsychology program have criticized this book for its cherry-picking and incompleteness. But no one has said that remote sensing doesn’t work, and nobody knows about the programs that have not yet been declassified. Possibly the most mind-blowing book I’ve ever read. 8.5/10
Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (2011) by Joshua Foer (ebook & print). I’m probably the last person on the block to read this, probably because I was already a student of memory techniques when this came out and had a feeling that this would be more story than instruction manual. About that, I was right. It’s a good yarn nevertheless, as Foer starts out as a rank beginner and ends up winning the World Memory Championship under the tutelage of Grand Master of Memory Ed Cooke. It’s a pleasant entrée into the quirky and obsessive subculture of memory competitions — and also mnemonic techniques, if you know absolutely nothing about the topic. For the techniques, I recommend Tony Buzan’s Use Your Perfect Memory or Ed Cooke’s Remember, Remember: Learn the Stuff You Thought You Never Could. 8.5/10
Plant Science: An Introduction to Botany (2016) by Prof Catherine Kleier (Great Courses). I knew next to nothing about botany, so I dug up this course. So much fun! Kleier is an energetic teacher who does not shy away from the occasional atrocious pun. Her style is a bit discursive. Instead of a strict top-down or bottom-up approach, she uses a well-known plant (e.g. ferns) as a lead-off point to a more general topic (e.g. vascular plants), thus keeping the lessons engaging. 24 lectures of 30 min each. 8.5/10
Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life (2016) by William Finnegan (ebook, print & audio). New Yorker staff writer Finnegan is a master storyteller and generous observer of human nature. For years, he hid his surfing obsession from writing colleagues, fearing that he wouldn’t be taken seriously. Now the secret’s out, and thank goodness for that! If you’ve ever wondered why an otherwise sensible person would abandon home for foreign waves that could cripple or kill you on any given day, this book initiates you into that mentality. California, Bali, Australia, Portugal, South Africa — Finnegan covered much ground in his four decades of wave-seeking peregrinations, as well as the political strife in various hotspots of the 70s, 80s and 90s. I still may not risk snapping my neck to ride a wave, but I can better appreciate the impulse. Magisterial enough to win the Pulitzer Prize for Autobiography. 9/10
Bringing Home the Birkin: My Life in Hot Pursuit of the World’s Most Coveted Handbag, by Michael Tonello (ebook and print). After uprooting his comfortable life in Provincetown for a promising job offer in Barcelona, Tonello finds himself stranded in a strange city without the means to support himself when the job falls through. He happens upon the online world of Hermès aficionados, and quickly finds himself making a mint selling scarves and then handbags of the luxury marque on Ebay. His discoveries of the tricks for acquiring dozens of Birkin handbags (price tag: $7000-$100,000) around the world, for which there is supposedly a 2-year waitlist, and the sale of his goods to obsessively acquisitive clients, is entertaining, insightful, and dishy. Tonello’s knowingness, candor, and humor keep the book from becoming just a chronicle of human vanity — I laughed out loud several times. That said, there’s only so deep one can go with a tale of luxury consumption, and immersion in that world even for a few hours can cause a craving for status trinkets even in the most austere of us. 7.5/10
A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age (2017) by Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman (ebook & print). Claude Shannon was an original genius. He basically came up with the science of information theory out of sheer nothing. Now, the entire planet runs on his brainchild. He also had a lot of fun thinking, tinkering, and having a grand old time as an MIT professor. The authors are not scientists, so they when it comes to the sheer poetry and chutzpah of Shannon’s science, they can only go so deep. Still, this is a thoroughly enjoyable read on one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century that more people need to know about. 8/10
Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death and Redemption in an American Prison (2016) by Shaka Senghor (ebook & print). The author committed an impulsive drug-related murder at 19, for which he was incarcerated for 17 years. In a discursive narrative, Senghor recounts how his poor Detroit childhood and broken family led to his involvement with drugs, violence, and prison — and that’s when the story really begins. Senghor’s violent ways land him in successively harsher prisons, including three years in solitary confinement. His stories of prison life are candid, bleak, gritty, and harrowing, sparing us no detail when it comes to “shitcake” attacks, gratuitous rape, and improvised shivs put to vengeful use. With time, Senghor sees the futility of his anger, finding a way to reconfigure his injured heart and mind towards compassion. Read it to understand life in American inner cities, the street drug trade, the justice system and the current prison crisis. Hell of a story. 8.5/10
Just Kids by Patti Smith (ebook and print). Winner of the National Book Award. “My small torrent of words dissipated into an elaborate sense of expanding and receding. It was my entrance into the radiance of imagination.” This is Smith’s description of her long, improvised childhood prayers to God, and also an apt initiation into the world of her hardscrabble beginnings in New York City. Hunger, homelessness, chance meetings with Robert Mapplethorpe that bloom into a union, and their insistence on being artists in spite of having neither a path nor the means to tread it — this is as good as origin stories get. The prose has earnestness and poetry, as well as a vivid portrayal of an epoch of creativity and turmoil. A beautiful book. 9/10
Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia (2014) by Peter Pomerantsev (ebook & print). A 21-year old Russian supermodel jumps to her death from her Manhattan balcony. A month later, another does the same. The owner of a successful chemicals factory is arrested by five black-suited goons inside her luxury gym and tossed in jail for 3 months for no stated reason. Eventually, the charge is revealed to be “making chemicals.” On a Saturday night in Moscow’s most exclusive nightclub, old, potbellied oligarchs audition young gold-diggers looking to score their next sugardaddy. Stories like these make “surreal” the perfect descriptor for this book. Pomerantsev, an Englishman of Russian extraction, is summoned to Moscow to make reality shows for a state-sponsored TV station. His deep access to the underbelly of Russian life makes for stories that are at turns darkly hilarious and utterly heartbreaking. The writing is sharp, witty and riveting, reading with the speed of a guilty-pleasure novel. Except that everything Pomerantsev recounts actually happened. 9/10
Makers: The New Industrial Revolution (2012) by Chris Anderson (ebook & print). The age of invention is upon us! Way back when in 2012, the co-founder of Wired magazine foresaw the coming revolution spawned by 3D printers, tech shops and personal biolabs around the world. This is a fun and inspiring read for the inner tinkerer in you or some youngster you know. 8.5/10
In a Sunburned Country (2001) by Bill Bryson (ebook & print). On my way to Australia last year, I realized that the local knowledge I had gleaned from the movie Crocodile Dundee was probably outdated. Or just plain wrong. Bill Bryson to the rescue! This is my first book by him, and now I understand why his books are perennial sellers. Not only is he a riot, but he also provides useful and accurate information. I know this ’cause I asked actual Aussies about their country, and they all corroborated Bill. Loved it! More Bryson for me henceforth. 9/10
Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortunes and Random Failures in Silicon Valley (2017) by Antonio Garcia Martinez (ebook & print). Silicon Valley is a small place, so it makes sense not to burn bridges. Garcia Martinez apparently does not give such fucks. A Wall Street refugee, he was brought into Facebook when it acquired Adchemy, his adtech startup, giving him front-row seats to one of the most heated money grabs in world history.
The author is clearly super smart and fully conversant in the languages of technology, finance, and business. His tone is knowing and acerbic about the bumbling and cupidity he witnessed. And any sane person’s would be. I lived in San Francisco from 2012 to 2017, and everything that he says rings true. He’s just the first person to call out the bullshit in print, e.g. Facebook, Google and Twitter are glorified advertising firms, not saviors of the world, and there’s a not a whole lot of real innovation happening in the Valley. Not surprisingly, very few people come off well (Paul Graham of Y-Combinator is an exception).
Garcia Martinez acquits himself by being equally savage on himself: “In contemplating an earlier version of yourself, you’ll realize that young and glorious you was in fact a total and complete fuckwit.” He’s also a damn good writer, pleasingly versed in literature and philosophy — and funny as fuck. I learned a lot, laughed a lot, and will be re-reading this one. Particularly relevant in the era of Facebook’s losing face. 9/10
Mark Twain: A Life (2005) by Ron Powers (ebook & print). It’s a commonplace that biographers fall in love with their subjects. Therefore, from the hundreds of thousands of archival pages Ron Powers had access to, he must have found it reeeally difficult to leave things out — like Twain’s daughter’s letters to her girlfriend. Which is why this biography clocks in at 737 pages, and took me 1.5 years to read.
The flip side is that this biography is comprehensive, giving a deep feel for the mind of Samuel Clemens and his times. Heck, you even get specific gestures he makes during lectures, and the precise delivery of his side-splitting joke at a dinner in honor of President Ulysses Grant. Today, we may not remember that Twain was the most famous person alive in his day, and the forerunner to the modern rock star, with all the requisite impulsiveness and petulance. He was also a serial entrepreneur given to hopeless schemes, and a doting husband and father. It’s a helluva life, and one definitely worth knowing about. Brave the slog and read it, especially if you’re a writer yourself. 9/10
The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds (2017) Michael Lewis (ebook, print & audio). So I’ve got this reading queue 120 books long, and then this book skitters along and skips to the front of the line. How? Well, it’s by Michael Lewis, and it’s about one my favorite scholars of all time, psychologist Daniel Kahneman, and his collaborator and best friend, Amos Tversky. Who was I to resist? Also, I’d seen Lewis speak about the book live. I was toast.
The story reads like a love story between Danny and Amos, two utterly brilliant Israeli guys with diametrically opposed temperaments who somehow got attached at the hip. Kahneman was a soft-spoken introvert, often taking second fiddle to the brash Tversky, whom everyone regarded as “the smartest man I’ve ever met.” Man, what I would have given to listen in on one of their legendary rap sessions. In their collaboration, they concoct Prospect Theory — basically, the Grand Theory of Human Foibles. This basically destroys the whole idea of Homo economicus that forms the basis of Western civilization (because surprise! humans are not rational), netting Kahneman the Nobel in economics. This counts as a major BFD because Danny is not an economist.
Lewis weaves the science of their discoveries into the story of their friendship, military service, move to the US, collaboration, rivalry, and ultimate falling out. An engaging, touching and enlightening tale that explained the contents of Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (one of the greatest books of all time, which apparently DK did everything to avoid writing and thought was utter crap) into a third of the space while making it three times as fun. 9/10
The Sheltering Desert: A Classic Tale of Escape and Survival in the Namib Desert (1955) by Henno Martin (ebook & print). Is it possible to escape Nazis by disappearing into the desert for the duration of World War II? And once you do, how do you compete for access to a watering hole in the desert against a bunch of hyenas how have no compunctions against fouling the water with poop? And once you successfully kill an antelope, how do you preserve the meat amidst the desert heat? And what happens when you start disagreeing with your sole human companion? The author was a scientist, so the prose benefits from his occasionally poetic powers of observation. Reading it is a great way to appreciate refrigerators and wifi. 8/10
American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (2007) by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin (ebook, print & audio). This is an extraordinary book about a singular human. J. Robert Oppenheimer (“Oppie” to his friends) is perhaps best remembered for being the father of the atomic bomb. But he also had outsize talents in almost every department of human endeavor, from literature to oratory to horseback riding to sheer charisma — a true 20th century genius. His movements at the highest level of science and politics define an era: the development of quantum mechanics, WWII, nuclear physics, the Cold War, the Red Scare, McCarthyism, and much more that I haven’t even gotten to yet.
Bird and Sherwin took 15 years to write this book, and you can tell: the amount of detail is astonishing (and perhaps excessive). They take pains to provide a comprehensive picture of a stupendously talented and driven man whose flaws and powerful enemies turned him into a tragic figure.
Read it for a deep understanding of the advent of modern physics, the characters in it, the making of the atomic bomb, the genesis of the Cold War, and the world it created. 10/10
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family & Culture in Crisis (2016) by JD Vance (ebook & print). “Why didn’t our neighbor leave that abusive man? Why did she spend her money on drugs? Why couldn’t she see that her behavior was destroying her daughter? Why were all of these things happening not just to our neighbor but to my mom? It would be years before I learned that no single book, or expert, or field could fully explain the problems of hillbillies in modern America. Our elegy is a sociological one, yes, but it is also about psychology and community and culture and faith.” After seeing this book on the bestseller shelf of every single bookstore for a year, I finally broke down and bought it, thinking it would provide some insight as to the weirdness of the 2016 US elections. That it did. Marine, Harvard Law School grad and Silicon Valley venture capitalist, Vance is a native son made good. He turns a candid and unsparing eye towards his native Appalachia: the mix of tribalism, drug abuse, laziness, patriotism, and family loyalty that render the odds of upward mobility infinitesimal.
A good memoir/ ethnography gets you inside the operating system of its subjects’ minds; Vance does a decent job of that. This passage about working class whites’ inborn animosity to Obama was particularly enlightening: “Barack Obama strikes at the heart of our deepest insecurities. He is a good father while many of us aren’t. He wears suits to his job while we wear overalls, if we’re lucky enough to have a job at all. His wife tells us that we shouldn’t be feeding our children certain foods, and we hate her for it—not because we think she’s wrong but because we know she’s right.” Of course this does not explain why they voted so enthusiastically for the next President, who by those standards is even more alien than Obama. A good read nonetheless. 8.5/10
Eat & Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness (2012), by Scott Jurek & Steve Friedman (ebook & print). Chris McDougall’s fantastic Born to Run piqued my interest about Jurek, so I was curious to know more. This is a fun and easy read about Jurek’s start in the sport and the races he’s run. It’s also about his gradual journey from the standard American junk food diet to one that is wholly plant-based. Every chapter ends in a vegan recipe that is easy to make and delicious-sounding.
Lest his self-effacing voice fool you, please remember that Jurek is a total badass who has won the grueling Western States 100-miler seven times (and the murderous Badwater 135, and dozens more). That’s 100 miles of non-stop running, folks. What I could not fathom was how he could go ahead and not only start a 100-mile race with a sprained ankle swollen to the size of a melon, not only finish that race, not only win it, but also set a course record. This is the kind of madness that strips me of rational powers, leaving me with jaw agape at what humans are capable of doing. Read it to be inspired and bewildered, especially if you’re a runner. 8/10
The Art of Seduction (2003) by Robert Greene (ebook & print). When this book first came out in 2003, I was hugely impressed by it. A grand tour of seduction through the ages, it brimmed with tales of chutzpah, daring and ingenuity from the likes of Cleopatra, Duc de Richelieu, Marilyn Monroe, Errol Flynn, and of course, Casanova. Ten years on, having created many books, courses and seminars on human courtship of my own, I am significantly less impressed.
First off, half the characters cited in the book are fictional. That means nothing that they did actually happened. Count Valmont of the Les Liaisons Dangereuses fame makes about five appearances, which is four too many for someone who never existed.
Second, all the real people in the book had a vested interest in exaggerating their exploits, because that’s what seducers do. So their stories aren’t credible either.
Third, a lot of these guys seemed to have unlimited cash and time on their hands. The Duc de Richelieu would buy the house next door to his object of desire and tunnel through a wall. Casanova spent all kinds of time and money to go to operas, masquerades, and exotic locales to ply his trade. These are not tactics necessarily available to the average 21st century day-job schmoe.
Fourth, nobody depicted in the book is alive. Is there not one person amongst the 7.5 billion living worthy of emulating, with verifiable stories and usable techniques? Note that Greene himself is a bit of a hermit. Not speaking from experience ultimately makes for a thin book, regardless of its physical heft.
If you are looking for an entertaining, philosophical read, this is a good one. And I love all the fun marginalia from classical literature, from Sappho to Ovid to Laclos. The 48 Laws of Power is still a classic, but if you’re looking for an instruction manual on seduction, you may want to look elsewhere. 7/10
Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching: A Book About the Way and the Power of the Way (1998) Ursula K Le Guin (ebook & print). “I wanted a Book of the Way accessible to a present-day, unwise, unpowerful, and perhaps unmale reader, not seeking esoteric secrets, but listening for a voice that speaks to the soul.” As a Tao Te Ching fanboy, I basically read every translation I can get my hands on (fortunately, it’s a short book). By her own admission, the late Le Guin did not know classical Chinese. However, she is a meticulous reader, and a master of nuance, making this a poetic translation that hews to the spirit of the book. You can’t do much better than this from Chapter 1: “So the unwanting soul sees what’s hidden, and the ever-wanting soul sees only what it wants.” A perennial treat, all the more poignant for the author’s recent passing. 10/10