Cloudsplitter, Russell Banks
I wish I was well enough educated in literary appreciation to better describe why I like some books. With non-fiction or simpler fiction, it can be quite straightforward, but I don't know why I liked Cloudsplitter. It's the story of Owen Brown, son of the abolitionist John Brown (of Harper's Ferry notoriety). It's a big book (750 pages in trade paperback) and very deep. I don't know what more to say other than I believe it to be a Great Book. Buy it.
Biohazard, Ken Alibek with Stephen Handleman
This is the fascinating story of the Soviet Union's biowarfare program, told by one of the men who ran it. The massively lethal power of these weapons is deeply disturbing, as is the apparent ease with which terrorists could steal, develop and produce these weapons. Buy it.
The Mezzanine, Nicholson Baker
This may be my favorite book. It's a curious work: it takes place on an escalator ride and the plot is entirely about a lunchtime trip to the store to pick up a replacement shoelace. It's got more footnotes than any other fictional work I've ever read. Its uniqueness comes from its description of the internal life of the mind and the perambulations of our thoughts, meandering among thoughts and concepts triggered by everyday trivia. I don't know if everyone's mind works this way, but Nicholson Baker has captured an important aspect of the internal mechanics of mine. Buy it.
Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert B. Cialdini
This amazing book describes the many mechanisms that salespeople, advertisers, governments, friends, relatives, and strangers will attempt to use to influence you in one way or another. Dr. Cialdini describes method after method with example and anecdote. To discover the tricks and tactics used every day, he studied in the field by actually becoming a used car salesman, a waiter, and so on. Not only does he describe the mechanisms as they are used, he breaks them down into the underlying causes and attitudes which make them work. A fabulous book. Buy it.
The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Richard Rhodes
A fascinating and complete history of the making of the atomic bomb, from Leo Szilard's suddenly realizing the possibility of atomic fission while stepping off a street corner in London, 1933, through the use of the bombs against Japan and the immediate aftermath of World War II. Rhodes covers everything: a smattering of physics and bomb design, the people and lives behind the bomb, the history and events, and the misgivings and opposition of the scientists who developed atomic power. This book won the Pulitzer Prize. Buy it.
The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Thomas L. Friedman
I loved this discussion of how globalization is changing the world's economy and politics. It is very readable and entertaining, yet offers good understanding and insight into this fundamental change in the way the world works. Friedman not only discusses what is going on and its impact, but what our role and obligations are in dealing with the problems the impact the world economy can bring to nations which are not yet prepared for its speed and excess. Buy it.
My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, Amos Tutuola
A fantastic journey through the world of ghosts, this book is a fascinating tale incorporating the mythology of the author's West African tribal life. His idiosyncratic English only accentuates the amazing stories. I was particularly interested in how different the myths of another culture could be from the European stories I was raised with; while I'm sure Joseph Campbell could find the parallels, I found Tutuola's world to be an entirely alien one. Buy it.
Coming Into The Country, John McPhee
John McPhee is the king of the essay and has produced a number of great non-fiction works. He is well-known for his books on geology, but has written on everything from blimps to oranges. His work is always intruiging and entertaining: he draws you into his subjects through the stories of people whose life, words and actions reveal the fascinating details of life. My favorite John McPhee book is Coming Into The Country, his hauntingly beautiful painting of the Alaskan wilderness and the people who inhabit it. Buy it.
Picnic, Lightning, Billy Collins
Billy Collins is my favorite poet. He has a conversational, surprising style I've never found in any other poet. Each poem is a gem of great beauty, yet each poem is approachable and direct. Furthermore, he speaks to my inner workings in a way few other works (other than perhaps The Mezzanine, above) have. All his books are great, but Picnic, Lightning is as good a place to start as any. Buy it.
Young Men & Fire, Norman MacLean
Norman MacLean is better known for his book A River Runs Through It, but while it is a masterpiece, my favorite is his other full-length work, Young Men & Fire, the story of thirteen smokejumpers fighting a wildfire in the Montana wilderness on the banks of the Missouri and the disaster which ensued. MacLean tells the story, evoking the challenge and chaos of fighting a fire dozens of miles from civilization and help, especially when the fire turns against you. He then tells the story of his personal struggle with this event: his search for the truth taking him from experts to the site itself. And he brings the poetic language familiar to readers of A River Runs Through It to the service of painting the exuberant life and tragic death of these young men. Buy it.
The Innovator's Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail, Clayton M. Christensen
This fascinating book describes how new technologies can come from nothing to destroying the dominant companies in their fields. In retrospect, this frequently looks like management incompetance to outsiders: look at all the mainframe and minicomputer manufacturers destroyed by the rise of the personal computer. This book shows why this happens and shows that the situation which results in this has very little to do with management incompetence and much to do with the difficulty of nuturing a disruptive technology while managing an ongoing, successful enterprise. This book is essential reading for anyone in the technology industry. Buy it.
All The King's Men, Robert Penn Warren
This astoundingly good book tells the story of Willie Stark, a Southern politician who rises to greatness, destroying his youthful direction and vision; the story parallels that of Huey Long, former governor of Lousiana. A true American classic and a great read. Buy it.
Men At Work, George Will
This is the finest analytic book on baseball I've ever read. George Will describes the depth and intellectual complexity of the game by analyzing the work of players and managers in each task in the game, describing the challenges and insights of some of the greatest players of the game. Buy it.
Made In America: An Informal History Of The English Language In The United States, Bill Bryson
While Bill Bryson has recently been recognized for his travel works, including A Walk In The Woods, I think this work on the evolution of the English language here in the United States outshines all else. This is a fascinating and entertaining history. This book is both a history of the language informed by the development of the nation or the story of the growth of a nation told through the evolution of its tongue, and that melding of information and viewpoints is its brilliance. Buy it.
The Evolution Of Useful Things, Hentry Petroski
Henry Petroski is the greates popular spokesperson for the craft of engineering in the United States, and his many books glorify the engineering process and innovation in the development of everything from pencils to bridges. I think this work, which describes the evolutionary development of several everyday objects, is his most readable and appealing. These items, including forks, paper clips, and zippers, seem as if they've always been the same; they seem so omnipresent as to be perfect and obvious, yet they are the end result of a long, complex process of invention and development. Petroski's telling of these stories is a fascinating window into the engineering process and a world before these omnipresent devices had been conceived of. Buy it.
Moby Dick, Herman Melville
We all know that it's the Great American Novel, but when I read it recently (Fall 1999) I was startled by how great it was. This is an absolutely fascinating and engrossing book, and if you've never read it, or if you skimmed it in high school, you owe it to yourself to experience this masterpiece. Plus, since it's out of copyright, it's cheaper than the latest bestseller. Buy it.
Lincoln, David Herbert Donald
A great history of one of America's greatest presidents, illustrating his genius, leadership, and human flaws. Buy it.
A Bright Shining Lie, Neil Sheehan
How arrogance, cultural insensitivity, Communist fear and the bureaucratic machinations of the US Government enmeshed us in a war in Vietnam which we couldn't hope to win, told through the story of John Paul Vann, one of the few influential US participants who saw beyond the self-deception which impaired most of the American policy-makers and soldiers. Buy it.
The Odyssey, Homer, translated by Robert Fagles
Remember, these stories came down through hundreds of generations through oral tradition, and weren't told because they were boring: this is the first action-adventure story. Donald Fagen's translation is modern and alive and Odysseus' adventures are riveting. Buy it.
The Codebreakers: The Story Of Secret Writing, David Kahn
This voluminous book is the definitive standard work on the history of cryptography, from prehistoric writing through its decisive effect on World War II. Buy it.
Why We Get Sick: The New Science Of Darwinian Medicine, Randolph M. Nesse, M.D. & George C. Williams, Ph.D.
According to this book, many of the ailments and flaws which plague the human body can be explained by Darwinian evolution: they are the end result of compromises and competitions which lead to the best survival and reproduction rate for our genes. This includes the symptoms of disease which are, in fact, our defenses against it, such as fever, and design flaws which are the end result of our gradual evolution, rather being specifically designed. Buy it.
The Moral Animal: Why We Are The Way We Are: The New Science Of Evolutionary Psychology, Robert Wright
In this book, Robert Wright contends that much of human society and relationships can be explained as the end result of human evolution: that many of our attitudes and interactions are an expression of our genes striving to reproduce themselves. Wright finds an evolutionary explanation for marriage, social structure, adultery, divorce, and many other human events which we would normally see as nothing more than tradition or free will. Buy it.
The Beak Of The Finch: A Story Of Evolution In Our Time, Jonathan Weiner
This tells the story of Rosemary and Peter Grant, a couple who have spent years studying Darwin's finches on the Galapagos islands. In this microcosm, they've carefully tracked each individual finch and have discovered that evolution occurs much faster than experts had thought: in fact, the population of finches evolves to optimize the characteristics of the finches for the water and food available in each year. Buy it.
The Song Of The Dodo: Island Biogeography In An Age Of Extinctions, David Quammen
This work tells of the evolutionary exotica which spring from small evironments, where plants and animals can survive in small niches and without broad competition. With environmental niches being carved into smaller and smaller patches by the inroads of development, this is more relevant than ever. Buy it.
Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies, Jared Diamond
Mr. Diamond reviews many effects on human history: the guns, germs, and steel of the title refer to the battles, environmental effects, and technologies which have shaped the development of human societies. He makes an excellent case that the quirks of geography and other pre-existing conditions led to the success of European societies in dominating most of the world in recent centuries, rather than any innate qualities of the European peoples or cultures. He does an excellent job of factually repudiating any racist explanations for the world's development. Buy it.
Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman, Richard P. Feynman
Richard Feynman was one of the many great physicists of the twentieth century, from the Manhattan Project to his investigation of the Challenger disaster. Furthermore, he is warmly remembered for his creative, ideosyncratic, vital life as told in these hilarious and memorable anecdotes from his life, from breaking into government safes to playing the bongos or selling his drawings to massage parlors. Buy it.
Hidden Order: The Economics of Everyday Life, David D. Friedman
I love any system where complex, detailed interactions emerge from a simple set of rules. For example, evolution: a very simple process of natural selection interacts with the vagaries of the natural world to produce all the complexity of the plants and animals in the world. Similarly, economics: very simple decisions by individual people to try to maximize their happiness lead to all the detailed roles and interactions of the economy. Hidden Order is an appealing introductary book on how economics plays a role in everyday life, including the sometimes surprising, counter-intuitive results of the natural process of the simple laws of economics. Buy it.
The links on the page take you to an online bookstore, where you can buy the books, if you so wish. The bookstore will then pay me a kickback. While I don't expect to even a trivial sum of money, I couldn't see any reason not to sign up; I'm just a pawn on the board of the new economy. In order to earn this pittance, the folks at the bookstore in question require me to say: "In association with Amazon.com".
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