Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Non Fiction Books I Read in 2010

I decided to keep track of all the books I read in 2010.  I wondered what I would learn from doing this?  To make it a little easier for me to publish and (hopefully) for you to digest, I've broken it into fiction and non.  So, here are the 10 2010 non fiction books, in the order I read them.  (You can also read my 2010 fiction list).

Lewis exposes the convoluted financial mechanics and dreadful yet unsurprising morality that lead to the world-wide financial collapse of 2008.  He tells the story through little-known financial players, most of whom saw the problems much earlier and decided to do something about it.  Often that something was to make as much money as possible.

Using the contrarians is a clever way to explain the complicated financial engineering and to make sure that the message of Wall Street being evil, greedy and incompetent gets thoroughly hammered home.  One reason I read this book: my friend Janet was the copy editor. A second reason: I was the "special guest" at the all-female book club, as I was expected to be able to explain the financial mumbo jumbo.  Luckily, Lewis himself does a good job in explaining CDOs and CDSes and the like.  And, even though he somewhat oversimplifies what happened, this was one of the Big Idea Books of 2010 and I was glad to have read it.

2. Consider the Lobster and Other Essays by David Foster Wallace
An eclectic series of essays on everything from the motives of talk radio hosts, to why sports autobiographies are so compelling and yet so unsatisfying, to the spectacle and dubious ethics of the Maine lobster festival.
Thanks to simon_cocks for this image of a book on the beach
I'm told that I really should read DFW's Infinite Jest but instead I keep reading collections of his essays (in 2009 I read and loved A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again). I'm sure some people will find his constant use of abbreviations, lengthy parenthetical remarks and huge footnotes annoying, but I happen to love them. And every essay takes unexpected zags that keep you on your mental toes.

3. The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain de Botton
This elegant collection of essays explores the details, delights and distresses of modern work.

I enjoyed de Botton's How Proust Can Change Your Life, The Art of Travel and - particularly - The Consolations of Philosophy. His twitter comments aren't bad, either. So, clearly, I'm a fan of this English philosopher and you won't be surprised that I liked this one, too.

The life and times of William Shakespeare seem to always fascinate scholars - and they fascinate me, too. Shapiro smartly picks a single year to illuminate the Bard and how contemporary events influenced some of his greatest works - Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It and Hamlet. Or maybe Shapiro is using the hook of revealing more about Shakespeare to educate us about a tumultuous year in English history - Irish rebellion, threatened invasion by a Spanish Armada, Essex and Elizabeth's complicated courtly romance and the favourite's fall from favour.

5. By Hook or By Crook by David Crystal
Linguist Crystal wandered all over Britain to learn more about English as it is actually spoken today. He also took a trip or two to illustrate a little bit about the how the language is evolving elsewhere.  He assumes a fair amount of knowledge of British culture (and especially British TV), which some might find off putting.  But I liked each carefully crafted chapter.

6. On the Rez by Ian Frazer
On the Rez is a long, rambling mix of biography and history.  The biography is mainly that of Frazer's friend Le War Lance, although he throws in some other portraits, too. The touching story of SuAnne Marie Big Crow is particularly powerful.  The history that weaves in amongst the tales of Frazer and Le's troubled friendship is that of the Oglala Sioux Nation.

A difficult and important read.

7. Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms: Essays on Natural History by Steven Jay Gould
A theme that runs through many of these  essays from Natural History magazine is how scientists can be wrong in interesting ways: how they can arrive at the right answer via the wrong path (or the wrong answer via the right path).  And, of course, the Theory of Evolution continues to be Gould's touchstone.

I enjoyed this collection, although I would recommend that SJG newbies start with one of his earlier works (such as Wonderful Life or Eight Little Piggies).

The astronaut who drove non-stop cross country in a nappy (or a "diaper", if you prefer) because she was in a love triangle with two other astronauts.  The friend who betrayed  Monica Lewinsky's confidence.  A judge who falls off his rocker.  The exaggerations of a Million Little Pieces.

There is plenty of schadenfreude to be derived from this book - and maybe a little insight in human nature, too.  I wasn't really all that familiar with these scandals, so it was fun to learn about them (in a scholarly book, of course).  And then to find out a bit more about how what really happened was a lot more complicated.  That you could even understand this apparently crazy behaviour.

I knew virtually nothing amongst quantum theory before I read this book.  By the end of it, I felt like I had a pretty good grasp of how different the concepts are, and how this complex set of theories is still evolving.  This is the second Very Short Introduction I've read.  Both were good - and easily to slip into a pocket, so you can read up on erudite subjects even when in Forever 21.

10. The Age of Paradox by Charles Handy
A lot of non-fiction books have a snappy title that betrays the central idea, which they then repeat for hundreds of pages.  I was worried that this book was going to be like that - explaining everything in terms of paradox.  However, even though that Handy does discuss lots of puzzles - work, justice, citizenship - in terms of paradox, it actually works.  Published in the mid-1990's, it is interesting to read now - as much of what he predicts has already come to pass - and it still feels relevant today.

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