Book Thoughts 2011

I began 2011 with a bold new year’s resolution: Consume more books than movies. I failed miserably. Movies are just too easy to watch. But I still found time to read some great (and some not so great) books:

The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman

I put off reading this for a long time. Friedman sheds some light on globalization for us laymen, but the value comes from the specific examples he gives about real companies. It’s full of “that’s interesting” moments.

Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

“The story isn’t as important as the writing.”

–Jodi Z, right now

My girlfriend made this remark when I told her I couldn’t remember why I enjoyed Breakfast so much. The joy of Vonnegut comes from the short passages that happen to be particularly poignant.

The Big Switch by Nicholas Carr

I recommend this book to any layperson who mentions “the cloud”. Carr walks the reader through the history of electricity as an analog to computing. It’s a compelling read, but it wasn’t enough to get me to take a job at a certain San Francisco PaaS company.

The Book of Sand and Shakespeare’s memory by Jorge Luis Borges

Lots of fun little inception tales in here. Borges must have been a writer for Arrested Development because I could read this thing again and it would still be just as good. Fun fact: In the edition of the book I read, Borges gives a shoutout to UT’s Perry-Castañeda Library where I checked out the book itself.

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

You’ve already read this so I won’t discuss it. I will tell you that one of my friends used to say “That’s so 42, dude.” in high school. Bullies were invented to sniff out phrases like that.

A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick

I wish I had never seen the film, because I kept picturing Keanu Reaves’ rotoscoped face. The narrative was great, but the druggie lingo started to wear on me by the end.

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

This was a ton of fun. I immediately gave it to my little brother as a sneaky way to teach him about public key cryptography, RFID, and sticking it to the man.

Machine of Death by various authors

I’m not sure if “concept book” is a real term. If not, consider it coined. The concept of this anthology is that there is a machine that gives you a short vague description of how you will die. About 20 different authors give their takes on the idea in the form of short stories. It’s a good read because many of the authors are pretty clever.

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams

The first original was funny, so I really had no choice about reading this one. The obnoxiously cheerful computer and the paranoid android are the number one reason to read these books.

Making the World Work Better by various authors

This book was given to every single IBM employee. It’s three accounts of IBM’s rise, near-fall, and resurrection. I love Watson’s original motto: “Think”. It’s so basic, such a far cry from the bullshit corporate mission statements of the last few decades. But the best part of the entire book is the paragraph where the author hand-wavingly explains that IBM is totally not liable for that Holocausty stuff and basically solved Apartheid. No big deal.

The Wave by Todd Strasser

The target demographic for this book is likely preteens, but I picked it up because the wikipedia article was intriguing. Poor decision. It’s an embellishment of a true story in which a high school teacher demonstrates how easy it is for a population to get swept up in Nazism.

White Noise by Don DeLillo

Probably the most “important” book I read all year. I’m reminded of it whenever I hear the reverberations of advertising ringing in my ears. “This program brought to you with limited commercial interruption by AT&T.”

Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson

This book is exactly what it sounds like. The narrative is told through journal entries detailing many different subplots that eventually converge. I used to find frequent context switching kind of annoying, but now it’s somehow more appealing to my web-addicted brain. The survival section could have been a lot longer. I’m not really convinced that the humans could overcome their new robot overlords in 50 pages. It could have been drawn out and split into several volumes. Can’t wait for the movie.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

This was so easy to finish because it’s a thriller-for-nerds. Cline knows how to relate to his target demographic. At one point the protagonist is inserted into War Games and has to “play” as Matthew Broderick’s character. It’s good to know that there’s a substantial number of people who also aspired to be like him.

I’ll be reading a lot more in 2012, as per my new year’s resolution. A kindle showed up in the mailbox today so I picked up some books– 1000 of them.

On Failure

This year I fell utterly short of accomplishing my simple new year’s resolution: Consume more books than movies. I tracked my reading and watching habits until giving up in September. In the end, the ratio was pretty bad. For every book I read, I watched about 3 movies. There are a number of reasons for this.

Movies are great hangover cures. When you need about an hour to recharge, but can’t sleep because your room is full of light from a retina-scorching sunrise, Netflix and Hulu are your best friends. Furthermore, acquiring movies is comparatively easy. I can stream something off Netflix in seconds, but finding a new book takes some legwork. I have to read some reviews on Amazon or ask what others are reading. Most people aren’t as good as the Netflix prediction algorithm anyway. On top of that, walking to the library is a hassle when I can just click “play”. I feel terrible writing that because I live about five blocks away from one of the largest libraries in Texas.

So what now? I can either be complacent with the fact that I’m basically a George Costanza with no resolve to accomplish what I set out to do… OR I can try this again and not screw it up. The previous paragraph is a list of excuses anyway.

Why should this year any different? There’s a strategy this time. Here’s my ace in the hole: I’m making up some ground rules and publishing them here so you can call me out on them. Nobody even really has to read this post. The panopticon should be enough to keep me in line.

Jerry, just remember, it’s not a lie if you believe it.

The Rules

  • Quit Reddit 100%. It’s just not worth it. I waste time reading these worthless pandering articles of no lasting value. I don’t even really enjoy it.
  • Quit HN 100%. I just subscribed to a weekly digest because the content is important to me, but I don’t need to spend my time culling it.
  • No facebook before 9pm. I love facebook. It’s a rich communication channel that I could never quit entirely. That would be like quitting telephones or speaking. This rule contains reasonable exceptions for managing events and logistics of social outings.
  • Post book reviews monthly. This will keep my progress transparent and I enjoy doing it.

These rules could be resolutions in their own right. Thousands of people will make similar declarations in attempts to become more productive. But my scheme is not to stop procrastinating. That’s just not going to happen. The idea is to shift the procrastination from consumption of low quality content to something more enriching.

This post wouldn’t be complete without the key piece of information that made me realize this is doable: In 2010, web developer Divya Manian read 110 books. Seriously. She had time to read an order of magnitude more than I did and still be famous. If I can read half of that I will have accomplished my goal.

That’s really all there is to it. I’ve considered picking up a Kindle to reduce library trips, but that will come later. For now, let’s just read some fuckin’ books.