Books I’ve Read Lately

Since yesterday morning, I’ve been trying to make headway on a new edition of the open letter I write every now and then about what I’ve learned lately. In the beginning, I had five sections outlined: on finishing, coding, noticing, reading, and listening. I started working on the reading section because it seemed straightforward enough; just list all the books you’ve read since the end of August, right? Then add a bit of commentary where warranted.

Nope. Took forever. List seemed never-ending. Got urge to delete entirely. Then realized: maybe this belongs on my blog instead! Relief told me it was the right thing to do.

So: here are all the books I’ve read since August, filed by reason for reading. I hope that in this stack you’ll find something to love.

First off: I took a class last semester called The Moral Leader, wherein we examined the ethics of leadership through the lens of narrative. On the reading list:

  • American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center, by William Langewiesche. I was a fourteen-year-old in Michigan when the Twin Towers came down. I felt the horror filtered through screens. What I didn’t see, didn’t even think about, was what it would take to get the ground back: how many tons of steel would have to be moved, how many careers were at stake. More than any other book I’ve read, this one helped me understand the scale of cities, the ubiquity of ambition, the transcendence of stubbornness. It’s a heavy read, but it’s worth it.
  • Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe. I think I read this in high school, but it felt new to me. I don’t think I’d recommend it as a stand-alone read, but I got a lot out of the classroom discussion.
  • The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro. I remember reading this one as a teenager, too, but I appreciated it far more this time around. I’m moved by Ishiguro’s quiet, precise take on introspection.
  • This Child Will Be Great: Memoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa’s First Woman President, by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (selections). We paired this with the documentary about Sirleaf and the rest of Liberia’s women in power at the time: Iron Ladies of Liberia (link goes to YouTube, where you can watch it in six parts). Sirleaf is complicated, but she impressed me deeply.
  • Personal Historyby Katharine Graham (selections). Another book I read as a teenager; another book I’m glad to have returned to. I like how no-nonsense Graham is. In parts, the book reminded me of Joan Didion’s Blue Nights in that both narrate their wealth and influence matter-of-factly, with a willingness to disclose the interior struggles they still faced.

For my final paper in The Moral Leader, on “disappointing role models”:

  • The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark. I didn’t end up writing about this novel, but I did enjoy reading it. Brodie’s desire to keep a stable of acolytes is so fierce, so unbecoming; exactly the kind of portrait a non-fiction profile would have trouble getting away with.
  • The Last Samurai, by Helen DeWitt. I wrote ten too many pages about this book because I couldn’t stop. Ludo goes on a quest to find a father figure worth looking up to, but it’s the opposite of sappy. It’s actually pretty upsetting, but by the end I felt a kind of epiphany. I gave my mom a copy for Christmas and she finished it recently, too; she told me she’d never met a protagonist quite like Ludo, and I think she’s exactly right about that. 

For 24-Hour Bookclub, one of the best things I did in 2012:

Following recommendations from people I’ve never met in person:

  • It’s Always Personal: Emotion in the Workplace, by Anne Kreamer. I bought this back in July, 2011—back before business school even started! First seen on Charlie Rose, who definitely qualifies as someone I’ve never met. (Even though back in San Francisco, Erik and I spent an hour in his televised presence almost every night.) About 40% of this book is vital, and the other 60% is old hat. If you can stomach skimming, I think it’s worth it. All the boring sections rehashing Csíkszentmihályi’s flow were redeemed by the recap of research showing that women’s tear ducts are narrower than mens' (and therefore quicker to spill over). That's so basic that I feel I almost should have guessed it, but no: without that knowledge, rogue tears still felt…well…personal. 
  • Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, by Seymour Papert. Recommended by Bret Victor in an essay of his that I loved: “Learnable Programming.” I’ve never met Bret, but I hope to someday. This book blew my mind, and I’ve since bought copies for Erik and my dad. It goes way beyond computer science. If you care about learning in any way, shape, or form, you need to read this book.

On recommendations from friends:

  • Money, Real Quick: The story of M-PESA, by Tonny Omwansa and Nicholas Sullivan. I picked this up after reading a fascinating blog post by Christina Cacioppo. How does money move in societies where bank accounts are rare? Phone-based transfers are only half the story: the real secret is M-PESA’s vast network of cash agents. 
  • Living Contradictions: The Women of the Baby Boom Come of Age, by Joanne Michaels. Erik’s mom wrote this book; it was published by Simon & Schuster in 1982, and she gave me a copy last year. I finally made time to read it this fall, and loved it. My main epiphany was that being a woman in the U.S. has been weird for a while now. Some of the problems and ambiguities I face are new, but many more have been simmering for upwards of 30 years. (Maybe longer?) It’s hard to find a copy of the book now—the link above goes to Amazon, which is perpetually running low on used copies—but if you’d like to read this, let me know and I’ll see what I can do.
  • Close to the Machine: Technophilia and its Discontentsby Ellen Ullman. First recommended in an ingenious review by Robin Sloan, later reinforced when the SF branch of techbookclub selected the book as its January read. (Which had not a little to do with Robin’s original recommendation…cause and effect go round and round.) Same deal as with Living Contradictions: this memoir of living life through technology helped me realize how much of my daily experience has roots that reach back for decades. I wrote up some thoughts on this book in my first post on Medium.
  • When We Were Orphans, by Kazuo Ishiguro. Perry recommended this after I finished reading The Remains of the Day for the second time. I think Remains of the Day was better, but I was glad to be able to spend more time traveling along the trains of thought that Ishiguro illuminates so well.
  • The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Artby Don Thompson. Recommended separately by Renee and Jane. I found it absolutely riveting. I’ve seen people protest that it doesn’t go much further than saying “people are willing to pay irrational amount of money for status,” but the details of that irrationality are weird beyond words. If you’ve ever wondered what Damien Hirst is all about (and why his recent split with Larry Gagosian is of note), this is the book for you.
  • Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kongby Gordon Mathews. Recommended by Jia. A gripping profile of a gritty yet supremely effective site of economic transformation. I only just started Behind the Beautiful Forevers, so I can’t draw a thorough comparison, but I predict that if you enjoyed Behind the Beautiful Forevers, this will be an excellent complement. Especially great because it gets into regulatory arbitrage! (Hong Kong is looser about visas than most developed countries are, and everything else flows from that.)
  • Tenth of December: Storiesby George Saunders. Recommended by Meaghan. I’ve never read Saunders before, and so his voice startled me. He writes the way people talk and think, but artfully and always with an element of surprise. I started this before I went to sleep a few nights ago, and finished it the next morning.

In other reading news: I recently completed the mysterious book cycle, and I love reading dispatches from Uncommon every Tuesday more than words can say.

I think that’s the end.