My ten best books of 2018
Yep, the most delayed ‘best books of 2018’ blog post in the multiverse. Stop what you’re doing, turn off that Twitter feed and order these damn books already. It’s not too late! They’re the best I read in 2018 (and, I know, I was late in getting around to some of them). In no particular order…
Mathew Walker’s Why We Sleep. You hardly need me to recommend this - everyone I know seems to have already have had it recommended already. Given that we all spend some one third of our lives in bed, sleeping and trying to sleep, its startling that we do not know more about what goes on in our the unconscious state. Standouts for me were the different functions (and health benefits) of REM versus non-REM sleep, melatonin as a ‘starting-gun’, why aging (and perhaps Alzheimer’s too) foreshortens sleep, and a startling fish/blue-light factoid (and one on how birds sleep as communities). Summary message: get eight hours sleep a night, no excuses, no exceptions.
Matthew Desmond’s Evicted. Just remarkable. In which our author, deep, deep immersion-style, lives and breathes and writes the lives of eight families in Milwaukee’s south side, as they bounce around low-cost, low-quality rental housing and the trailer park. There’s so much life here, bravery and shit behavior, all so hopelessly caught up in traps. Folk pay multiple fines for no fault of their own, are shafted by social security rules, get exploited and lied to by landlords and their boyfriends, etc. Brings home the truth that being dirt poor is way, way harder than having money, even when you control for the money. Most rich folk just couldn’t hack it. But ‘poverty has not prevailed against their deep humanity’, Desmond writes. His reporting from this world is remarkable, as is his understanding of the stats and policies. Evicted won the 2017 Pulitzer; should have won it twice.
Proof of Collusion by Seth “Trump’s worst enemy after Mueller” Abramson. If you follow the amazing Seth on Twitter you’ll have a good idea of what this book is all about - how Trump betrayed his country, and will eventually end up in prison (or be pardoned) for the sake of a few dirty Russian rubles. Abramson was - and remains - way ahead of the curve in his understanding of the scope and significance of this criminal conspiracy. This book puts everything together in a way you’ll not have seen before. The legions of campaign contacts with Putin-tied billionaire Russians is extraordinary. The GOP platform change at the Mayflower Hotel (closely followed by the first DNC hacks) and Qatar-backed funds lending to Kushner get close attention. Its not just Russia - its Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and maybe even China too (book two is on the way). This book presents a theory of the case that will eventually reveal Donald Trump (and many of his associates) to be nothing less than a traitor, even if he doesn’t meet the legal criteria for that. Necessary, mind-blowing reading.
Who We Are and How We Got Here by David Reich. Fascinating, and superbly written. Reich is a great scientist who knows exactly how to communicate his deep science on how DNA analysis has revealed our human evolutionary history. He tracks the evolution of modern and pre-modern humans out of Africa from some 1.8mn years ago, combining genetic-testing, smart math and archeological studies. You really get a sense of the hypothesis-generation and testing that his teams go through as they reconstruct human travel. His message is that our genome is a complete mess - or rather, a bountiful mix. Rather than a tree, our heritage is more of a trellis, a continual inter-mixing of different groups of humans. There are no “pure” races, and there hasn’t been for tens of the thousands of years. Western Europeans today are descended from a group which descended from the Asian steppe some 5-10,000 years ago, and who were themselves a mix of different groupings, originally from Africa. This Yamnaya group might have gained immunity to the plague, which helped them take-over Western Europe (rather like their Spanish descendants thousands of years later). The Yamnanya are ikely also the stem of Indo-European language (some of them also headed to India, and eventually spoke Sanskrit). We all have a small amount of Neanderthal in us, thanks to co-mingling of them and modern humans some 50,000 years ago in the today’s middle east. Asians have a tad more.
Daniel Koss’s Where the Party Rules. Superb contemporary political science on China, which I raved about here.
Jeffrey Lewis’ The 2020 Commission Report. Scary, fast-paced political thriller/possible future - I relived a bit of it here. I think it is a real credit to Lewis that he wrote this. Only real experts can paint coherent futures, and its really a unique and revealing way of helping us understand. Ghost Fleet here is another rare example of this genre.
Johann’s Chapoutot’s The Law of Blood. A revelatory deep-dive into the ideas that powered the National Socialists (the German ones). I had some reflections here. Its a dark read, but well worth it.
White Working Class by Joan C. Williams. Short, but precise and way more fascinating than I thought it would be. I explained why here. In fact, all the four books were exceptionally good reads.
Alice and Bob Meet The Wall of Fire, ed. by Thomas Lin. God Almighty, the folk at Quanta really are amazing. This is a selection of their essays on (mostly) physics (they are a bit obsessed with quantum-gravity, but who isn’t?) and CRISPR-related biology. I had a few words on this here.
David Sanger’s The Perfect Weapon. A highly-readable and informed history of cyber-warfare by the New York Time’s Washington correspondent. If you follow the news flow in this space, there’s not much new here, but Sanger is very good highlighting the big issues raised in the new world. For instance, how should the US respond to cyber-attacks on US corporations, like North Korean’s hack of Sony? Should it retaliate when only a corporate was hacked? Would that mean it has to retaliate every month? Would that give away its own cyber capabilities to it enemies? (It seems in the DPRK case that the US did retaliate with a quiet but massive DoS attack.) And what about Apple refusing to provide a backdoor so that the US government can unlock a terrorist’s iPhone? American companies like Apple and Google do not see themselves as American anymore, but as global - and privacy is what matters to their customers. The free world won’t survive this contradiction, but I don’t know the solution.
And these books were really excellent reads too - they just did not make my top ten.
All Measures Short of War by Thomas Wright. In which Wright argues that the US must reassert a robust defense of the liberal world order. I reviewed this recently here.
Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die. An easy but disturbing read on how democracies around the world get destroyed by two political scientists. The US is not immune, the authors argue - indeed, it is on the way. Cool, bit-sized stories of how Hitler, Mussolini and Chavez all got legitimized by older, more established politicians thinking their acolytes were just useful idiots. The keys for democracy to survive are the ‘soft’ values of mutual tolerance and institutional forbearance, they argue - i..e not looking at your opponents as enemies, and not changing the rules.
Interesting discussion of how the 1964/65 voting rights reforms shifted the tectonic plates of US political affiliation towards identity. Race and religion became key party markers - and identity politics thus becomes personal more easily than fights over tax or foreign policy. The authors view the Republican Party as the greatest danger - its almost become an ‘anti-system’ party, it legitimized Trump, a wanabee dictator. (It really does drove me nuts when otherwise sensible centrist politicians like Romney or Kaisich decry both parties, say they’re just as bad. Its so dishonest.) They call for the party’s wholesale reorganization and banishment of extremists (which looks unlikely). The Democrats should focus on fighting ‘clean’, and on a social agenda (minimum wage, comprehensive healthcare, jobs training and tax) which could unite their multi-racial coalition, they argue.
Kevin Carrico’s The Great Han. Carrico was way out front in tracking the rise of Han nationalism. He spent a lot of time hanging out with traditional Han Clothing Movement groupies at the weekend (Both the NYT and Economist have hung out with them more recently.) Its ultimately a sad portrayal. These are often folk, Carrico finds, who are disoriented by the pace of change in today’s China, stuck in dead-end jobs, worried and depressed, and who seek solace in the imagined ‘pure’ “Han” Chineseness world of yesteryear. Manchus and foreigners are the big problem. I really liked Carrico’s explanation of nationalism, even if its a tad academic. He says it comes from the perpetual interplay between a disappointing, tiring and insecure experience today, with the wonderful expectations raised by history and CCP propaganda. That tension keeps everyone expecting better, which pushes some into these fantasy worlds. Many more millions prefer Fortnite.
Other Minds by Peter Godfrey-Smith. All about the octopus, an intelligent alien, spectacularly weird (a little like us humans, but not that much) and very worthy of a few hours’ reflection. Recall, PGS says, that life, intelligence itself, developed in the sea, and these creatures are where evolution took it. Octopuses have got a distributed brain; two-thirds of a cephalapod’s neurons are in its arms/legs, not the brain, so those arms/legs can operate semi-autonomously (and might even have their own short-term memory). Just wacky. This book made Ted Chiang’s The Story of Your Life (made into the movie Arrival, where the aliens are big, friendly, caligraphically-minded cephalapods) way more believable.
Ian Johnson’s The Souls of China. Johnson should be a Chinese treasure; there are so few journalists as immersed in China as him, with real language and cultural fluency, and so genuinely interested in the subject of their writing. Many Chinese are diving into religion these days, searching for something, meaning or love or belonging; Johnson dives in with them, and he seems to be seeking himself too. He wanders around Christian prayer meetings, hangs out with funeral singers who wander around the old Shanxi countryside, monks reestablishing temples, Daoist meditation sessions. Bonus points for a short rendition of Xi Jingping’s apparent respect for Buddhism and the Linji Temple while working in Zhending (though during 2002-07 in Zhejiang, the Christians of Xiaoshan township caused Xi some grief). Jiang Zemin also seems to have privately visited temples, and sponsored Taiwan’s Foguangshan Buddhist movemnet to build in his hometown of Yangzhou. But its the small people whose Johnson is telling. Refreshingly.