2022 had some good ones.. here they are!
- How The World Really Works by Vaclav Smil. Smil has become one of my favorite science writers. He ignores all the bullshit and cultural nonsense around the most important questions today and gets right down to what matters: physics and math. He calculates some incredibly fascinating numbers like the amount of oil it takes to grow a pound of tomatoes (a lot, by the way) and explains why concrete and ammonia are still so important. A great starting point for anyone that wants to understand the modern world and why fossil fuels still have a very long way to carry us.
- Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now by Jaron Lanier. This was the last book of the year but it hit hard. Jaron makes several crystal clear arguments for how social media is stealing our attention, making us dumber, making us assholes and coercing us into more polarizing and consumptive behavior. It’s scary to admit that this affects you too - that you aren’t much different than everybody else. But in the eyes of social media, you’re just a statistic to manipulate. They drive “engagement” as addiction in an effort to get the largest audience possible for their real customers: the advertisers.
That’s not to say that a ton of incredible leaps have occurred because of social media. More human connection over distances can be good and some improvements in our daily lives are so huge that we couldn’t even imagine our world today 30 years ago. None of this would have been possible without aggregating the insane amount of data we have on people. But just remember: “If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.”
- A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. Well. What a relaxing, delightful read. We get to see a changing Russia through the eyes of an un-personed former Count of the Russian Court now imprisoned in the world-class Metropol Hotel in Moscow. The characters are fascinating, and the drama is real but subtle.. until it isn’t. It doesn’t drag on, but it is slow in the same way as a rendezvous with an old friend for tea can last hours because the conversation is so great. And now, I’m ready to open a bottle of Chateuaneuf-du-Pape.
- Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to Long Term Travel by Rolf Potts. I’ve been thinking about travel a lot and for all sorts of good and bad reasons. This one came so highly recommended that it was almost impossible to live up to expectations but that’s a fault of the recommenders, not the book. Potts takes you through the details and practical parts of long-term travel without ever dropping a sort of mystical attitude towards the experiences you’ll accumulate. Above all, he reminds us of the purpose of travel: living an interesting life and understanding more of the world around you.
- The End of the World is Just the Beginning by Peter Zeihan. Another perennial favorite, Zeihan explains why globalization is failing and how our world might look as that happens. He predicts the demise of China, the decomposition of global shipping lanes, and the largest financial shift we’ve seen since Bretton Woods. He then works up from the basics of materials and industry - Vaclav Smil style - to look at which areas of the world will deteriorate and which will thrive.
- Back Blast by Mark Greaney. I’d be completely bonkers not to have a Greaney book on here. I discovered the Gray Man series in September and flew through 7 of these in a couple months. They’re a great ride - tons of action and lots of movement and he even fits some character development in there (slowly). Back Blast is the fifth one in the series and the only one that takes place in the States, which makes it extra fun. If you want a fun beach read, dive in.
- Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck. This is a snapshot of what the country looked like in 1960. Not what we remember in the news or on the cover of the Times, but the real country. The farms, towns, country roads, and brand new highways that made up a far larger and disconnected landscape than the America we live in today. It’s a time capsule and a reverie on travel, new adventures, culture, and America.
- Wanting by Luke Burgis. 2021 was the year of mimetic theory, at least in tech circles. It shouldn’t be surprising that mimetic theory is so popular in Silicon Valley - most of the companies generate revenue directly on the back of mimetic principles! This is a book that forces us to look inward and examine ourselves, no matter how uncomfortable that might be. It draws out some of the fundamental tenets of the human social creature and presents Girard’s ideas - which can be difficult to grasp - in clear examples. And it asks a couple of questions that have continued to haunt me since I read it: “Why do you want what you want?” and “What do you want to want?”
- The Hundred Year Marathon by Michael Pillsbury. I don’t understand China. I don’t think most people do. In America we mythologize them as the next Great Power, because we need an Other, but there’s a higher likelihood that they suffer from a demographic catastrophe and collapse. This book helped unpack the cultural and strategic differences of the CCP and gives a great starting point for trying to understand how China thinks. Hint: it’s nothing like us.
- The Age of AI: And Our Human Future by Eric Schmidt, Henry Kissinger, and Daniel Huttenlocher. What a motley set of authors! I hope I’m still writing books on exciting new topics when I’m 99 like Kissinger. AI threatens to change a lot about our world. It’s an alien intelligence - not just artificial - meaning we don’t really understand how it works. The implications that this is going to have over the next few decades is difficult to predict. Where most people are focused on the near-term craziness or the technical achievements, The Age Of AI explores some of the societal and policy questions that need to be answered for all this world-changing new tech.
I had high hopes for a couple books that didn’t quite make the cut. I still wanted to put them here though, because for the right reader, they could be really something.
- The Network State by Balaji Srinivasan. Ideas fly out of Balaji’s brain so fast it builds up a wake behind him. Unfortunately, the wake is a bit of a mess. As good as the ideas are in here, the presentation, editing and style is disjointed.
- A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine. Really good space opera and beautiful prose. It’s just that the beautiful prose got in the way of the story more than it should.
- Principles For Dealing With The Changing World Order: Why Nations Succeed and Fail by Ray Dalio. A book almost everyone should read for the zoomed-out, macro level view of history we rarely get when we were taught history in school. The narrative of the book is great, but the statistics and charts feel thin and unsupported.