Books

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I love to read! (I’m currently reading xx and listening to Swann’s Way.)

This is a list of every book I’ve read since I’ve started tracking that sort of thing. I also have a rough rating system of how good I think a book is. “Good” is relative and intentionally squishy; I want the rating to be indicative of two things:

  • How important is this book to me?
  • How strongly would I recommend it to someone?

Additionally, since late 2019 I’ve been trying to write up my thoughts on books after I complete them, as an exercise in switching from consumptive energies to productive ones. This is an exercise for whom I give Tom MacWright lots of credit: I’d been collecting this information for a while now, but hadn’t done anything interesting with surfacing or externalizing it. 1

(Also, be warned: my writeups will probably contain spoilers.)

Filter this:
Written by Matt Haig
★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆
Made in 2020

I am struggling to think of kind things to say about this book, the chief virtue of which was that it was never so painful or unreadable that I had to leave it unfinished? It is explicitly a young adult riff on It’s A Wonderful Life: a woman on the verge of suicide gets a second chance by experiencing potential past lives through the wonder of “quantum mechanics”. It calls out It’s A Wonderful Life explicitly (it takes place in Bedford; the protagonist wrote a song called Pottersville ), and yet if the valid criticism of It’s A Wonderful Life is that it is too unsubtle and saccharine, The Midnight Library is doubly so. Do not worry about being confused by the message of this book: you will be told its message over and over again, in the form of Instagram captions and Facebook updates and monologues (so many monologues) and some truly awful songwriting.

I am perhaps being too negative. I think the central conceit — a library of all your potential lives! — is lovely, and I think the peak of the book was when we got a whirlwind tour of these lives over the span of paragraphs. There is, I think, a good book in here somewhere, if you remove all the overt messaging and the bizarrely-shoehorned-in quantum mechanics talk and the cop-out ending.

But it is clear that the book I was hoping for and looking for — a book that challenges and perhaps surprises the reader, a book that rewards you for having read it — is not the book the author was attempting to write.

Written by Lynda Barry
★★★★★★★★☆☆
Made in 2014

What is this book? It is hard to say. It feels like an art school version of Bird by Bird, in a lot of ways. It is sweet and vivid and deeply evocative of a professor who I think I would have hated in school but would love now — the prototypical art teacher. I don’t know how I could recommend it to someone but I also don’t know how I could tell someone not to read it.

Written by Matthew Yeager
★★★★★★★★★☆
Made in 2016

Six long poems over a hundred pages. The finale — an endless barrage of questions and prompts — is a beautiful work unto itself.

Written by Craig Mod
★★★★★★★★☆☆
Made in 2020

This is a long essay interspersed with gorgeous photography about Japan, walking, pizza toast, comfort, age, and self-discovery. It is warm and sweet. I don’t have anything interesting to say beyond the fact that it is very good and I feel richer for owning it and having read it.

Written by Alain de Botton
★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆
Made in 2004

The classic criticism of Alain de Botton is that his arguments are vacuous and facile, and rescued by an impressive rolodex of quotations and above-average prose. My response to that criticism has historically been “well, sure, but who cares? I enjoy the book and the material!” — which was certainly true of The Art of Travel and The Architecture of Happiness, both of which were pleasant and discursive!

This book just sort of sucks though! There were a couple interesting points but it was mostly the author just gesturing wildly at stuff. Skip it.

Written by Dean Young
★★★★★★★☆☆☆
Made in 2008

A couple absolute bangers (“On Being Asked by a Student If He Should Ask Out a Certain Girl” is perfect). The prose is fun and discursive and fluttery (to use a strained poetic metaphor: a dead leaf dancing in the wind), and though there’s some bleedover from poem to poem it was a great thing to read.

Written by John Le Carre
★★★★★★★☆☆☆
Made in 1974
Written by Anthony Horowitz
★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆
Made in 2020

What is one supposed to like about this book? I think the answer is the postmodernism — sure, the book-within-a-book is interesting in theory, and there are some clever comments on the genre writ large (the narrator’s complaints about the fictional author’s writing quirks, or the use of other detective writers’ names). But postmodernism for its own sake is hollow, and hollow is exactly how I would describe this book: six hundred pages that could be half that. So many worthless discourses, so many dead ends, such bad prose, and the final outcome being a handful of twists that feel cheap rather than clever.

Written by Shea Serrano
★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆
Made in 2017

This is a very fun book that is just a collection of three dozen Ringer prompts or /r/NBA shitposts. I don’t mean that in a negative way — the book (and it calls this out in the prologue!) is not a thing to sit down and read because it’s very silly and same-y. Also, the illustrations are fantastic. But you’re not going to learn anything about the NBA or fandom from reading this, it’s mostly just a fun collection of snippets.

Written by Laurent Binet
★★★★★★★★☆☆
Made in 2010

I have never read a postmodern historical non-fiction, and I thought it served the book incredibly well.

Written by Sigrid Nunez
★★★★★★☆☆☆☆
Made in 2020

The book was good but it felt like a step back from the masterwork of The Friend; they are so similar in structure and style but it felt a little bit like everything in this one was a few percentage points less powerful, which accumulated. The writerly citations and digressions felt more like a pale Cusk interpretation rather than the dispensations of a self-aware narrator; the narrative through-line felt like a bit of a vehicle to muse on death & loss rather than an event in of itself.

tAnd despite all of that, Nunez still wrote a good book. It was short and sweet and hit the right notes of warmth and melancholy. But it’s hard to recommend because I think there are books (some by the author, some not) that accomplish their goals more admirably than this one.

Written by Meiko Kawakami
★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆
Made in 2020

I think if I were to recommend this book to someone I would do it simply: do not read the second part. This is an amalgam of two novellas (explicitly demarcated as such in the final product), and the first book — rife with a crisper style and interesting voices — is dulled by the second, which feels more meandering and, well, less interesting.

So, ignoring the disjoint artifact of the combined book, what did I like about the first novella? It was fascinating: a specific and feminine perspective on maturity and artifice, centered in a kind of outsiderdom experienced by all three protagonists.

Written by Bryan Burrough
Discovered via Bryne Hobart
★★★★★★★★☆☆
Made in 2015

The Goodreads hivemind correctly outlines the two distinguishing characteristics of this book:

  1. It is incredibly well-researched.
  2. It is incredibly contemptuous of the individuals and movements it describes.

To the author’s credit — or perhaps to my discredit — the former is, at times, a pretty strong vehicle for the latter. Burrough depicts the various would-be revolutionaries as receptacles of almost any possible vice you can imagine: one is a sociopath, one is a harlot, one is a very sweet and impressionable idiot, one is a foolish idealist.

Burrough’s thesis unifying this motley crew is simple, and he uses an ex-member to spit it outright in the book’s epilogue: these people are cult members and cult leaders who accomplished nothing of societal value and killed innocent people.

It’s hard to disagree with that, but it’s also hard to fit that prescriptivism into a book that is so dense with action and fact. I think he was at his best (as a journalist and an orator) when he lingered on the descriptions of the victims and marginal character in the stories: the hapless Brinx driver who got shot on his fifteenth year of faithful service, the young woman just trying to wait tables who falls victim to a planted bomb.

The “accomplished nothing” bit is a little weird, though. Clearly Burrough doesn’t subscribe to the Great Man theory of history, but his portrayal of social change would have you believe in something closer to divine entropy: the world changed and became more liberal (in spite of nothing, and certainly not because of the rampant civil unrest); the Vietnam War ended (in spite of nothing, and certainly not because of the Weather Underground); hippiedom became the prevailing aesthetic (in spite of nothing, and certainly not because of the post-war left).

His social arguments aside, the book was good! It was incredibly detailed. I learned a whole lot of history, and it was entertaining. I don’t subscribe to Burrough’s thesis, but I’d recommend this to anyone who wants to learn more on the topic.

Written by Reyan Ali
★★★★★★★★☆☆
Made in 2019

I’ll be honest, I was shocked at how good this book was. I bought it on a lark (who doesn’t love NBA Jam?) and when the name of the publisher is Boss Fight Books you go in with somewhat lowered expectations. I thought it was going to be a hundred pages of pablum and maybe some fun facts.

Instead, it’s a meticulously researched story — centered around NBA Jam but really about the rise and fall of Midway, its publisher — and a thesis on what made the game so particularly popular. The thesis is that it was a confluence of four things:

  1. The deafening howl of basketball’s growing popularity;
  2. The strong marketing push, powered largely by once-in-a-lifetime licensing;
  3. A firecracker group of technical talent with strong chemistry;
  4. Arcade technology finally maturing enough to handle two-on-two.

The book is fun and I honestly would have loved to learn more about the macroeconomic factors after NBA Jam (it devoted a chapter each to Acclaim and Midway’s demises and EA’s rise) and less about the individual programmers involved, which is less a comment on the book and more that I’m much more interested in this overall industry’s early days than I realized.

(Insane statistic, by the way: NBA Jam created $1 billion dollars in revenue. In quarters.)

Written by Italo Calvino
★★★★★★★★☆☆
Made in 1986

This is a great book about art in the twentieth century, and it left me with a better sense of how and why Calvino wrote and how to think about the art I consume going forward. It even has a quintessentially Calvino twist: the ironic title (there are, of course, only five memos — the book was published posthumously, and the sixth is left as an exercise to the reader.)

I suppose it is worth trying to qualify further why you should read this book, and I don’t think I have a compelling argument beyond “if you like modernism and if you like Calvino”, at which point you’re probably already predisposed enough to read this book that my recommendation is moot.

The one I can try is this: it is not dry, it is not academic, and if you treat this collection of essays as a tour through a very interesting writer’s favorite things about writing you will come away delighted with how you spent the past two hours of your time.

Written by Alexis Coe
★★★★★★★☆☆☆
Made in 2020

This was fun and good, and I prefer this genre of biography — postmodern, airy — to the Chernow school of nine hundred pages of idolatry (the genre the author refers to as, perhaps somewhat unfairly, “the thigh men”, a revealing joke.)

As a biography itself there are some stops and starts. It is overly episodic and reads, at times, like an encyclopedia (the tabular nature of some passages works, uh, better in some places than others). The author’s focus on Washington’s foibles is useful and timely but it’s hard to really take this as a capital-B Biography as much as it is a commentary on other biographies about Washington.

And in that extent, it’s good! I think the book’s thesis is revealed in its ending, a thorough dismantling of the oft-repeated myth that Washington was the only founding father to free his slaves upon his death. Of course that is not true — many individuals freed their slaves before dying — and the fading image of the book, of the unmarked graves of Mount Vernon slaves juxtaposed with the Washington Memorial — is as powerful as any other in the book.

Written by Samanta Schweblin
★★★★★★★★★★
Made in 2018

I think this book was really something special, and the best science fiction book I’ve read in a long time. It is basically a book about making acquaintances on the internet.

The concept is simple: what if there were little app-controlled Furbies? One person — it is always exactly one person — “dwells” in the Furby and can control it by moving around and purring, whereas the other person “keeps” the Furby (by allowing it to exist in the same social space and treating it like a pet.)

This sounds very Black Mirror, and a lesser thinker — say, Charlie Booker — would take this to catastrophic ends, where secretly the company producing these objects was using the data for nefarious ends or someone steals state secrets using the Furby or the network controlling Furbies shuts down and causes an international incident or something like that.

This book isn’t interested in any of that, though — indeed, all we ever know about these Furbies is that they cost $279 and they are modestly popular and they facilitate a novel type of human interaction.

What the book is interested in, though, is that novel type of human interaction, and it explores it through a series of vignettes that all hit a certain moral arc: bewilderment, deep connection, and then utter ruin. This is a book that argues very strongly that technology is a volume knob on humanity, and its characters ruins come not from anything endemic to the technology but from who they are as people.

This book raises questions and answers some of them. It will leave you with one image — of a young boy crying in front of a television — that will hurt for a very long time. You should read this book.

Written by Paul Rand
★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆
Made in 1947

This book was a disappointment. I can’t say that it was bad — it’s not! And I can understand why it was (is?) treated as so seminal in the designer’s canon. But the thing is short and airy. There are books — Cadence and Slang, Vectors — that are long essays that succeed because their focus is generalizable, but this book is not one of them. Conversely, Conversations with Students (which I read the night before), felt more discursive and somehow more broadly applicable.

That being said, I highlighted a lot of passages and the thing takes all of an hour to read. If you can snag it on Libby, you might as well: it certainly won’t be time wasted.

Written by Michael Kroeger
Discovered via Kathy Sun
★★★★★★★☆☆☆
Made in 2008

This is a small and quiet pearl of a book: a handful of discourses driven by Rand interspersed with a number of microbiographies of how various students and professionals met and worked with him. A disparaging review on Amazon called it “the equivalent of a collection of out takes, the stuff that ended up on the cutting room floor, which gets added onto DVD’s as a an extra feature” and I think that is fair! But also the outtakes are fun and interesting and gave me more things to think about and books into which to research than most other books of its size: which, to be clear, is extremely small. This is a book that will take you forty minutes to read and another forty minutes to ponder and is worth the price of admission, but it is not a treatise or a thesis. It is snippets of interesting and thought-provoking conversations, and that’s valuable in of itself.

Written by Cal Newport
★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆
Made in 2019

I find myself weirdly torn on this book.

It’s a thesis that I strongly espouse and agree with (we should use our phones less, we should disengage from social media) and imparted at least one concept that I plan to fold into my daily practice (holding “personal office hours” to make constant availability a thing around which I and others can plan).

It’s also just so shittily researched. Within the first thirty pages Newport namechecks Tristan Harris, Bill Maher, and Anderson Cooper. In the next sixty he deputizes Abraham Lincoln, Thoreau (Walden is mentioned, of course), and Martin Luther King into his argument. He expands on the “nature of craft” by talking about a dude from Portland who wrote a book about craft and Mr. Money Moustache. All of these anecdotes are delivered with the prose and stature of an overlong Medium post.

Okay, maybe I’m not actually that torn after all. “Overlong Medium post” neatly sums it up; this is a book that has reasonable arguments surrounded by terrible writing. It might successfully persuade you of something, but it will not teach you anything.

Written by Tara French
Discovered via Ryan Honig
★★★★★★☆☆☆☆
Made in 2020

I don’t really feel like I have a grasp on this book. There are a few things I know about it (the “twist”, such as it was, was well-telegraphed and earned; it is too long and too slow; the characters feel rich and real).

There are things I definitely admire about it (I think the message of the book is good, even if it shouldn’t have been so explicit about it; I think the way the book treats Mart and Cal’s relationship — honest and nuanced and gray — is really well done.)

And there were fun parts. The depiction of this town, sinister as it is, felt cozy and almost nostalgic; the moonshine anecdote managed to convey danger and mirth in equal amounts (not unlike moonshine itself.)

But nothing about the book felt revelatory. I understood where the plot was going and it took too long to get there; the prose was pragmatic and only vaguely interesting. I think there’s a version of this book that I really love with half of the opening third excised and the ending shot being Cal and Trey, too “beaten-up old mutts”, walking down to the pier to fish together. I think that would have been a braver, leaner book.

Written by Sue Fan & Danielle Quigley
★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆
Made in 2018

It feels almost mean to rate this book so low. It was not a bad book, it was just a wisp of a book: pretty and insubstantial and vacuous.

I am no interior designer, but it taught me very little (beyond prutsen, a Dutch word for pleasantly/aimlessly tinkering, which is delightful!) that you don’t pick up from a handful of Tumblr blogs (pictures of which are strewn throughout the book.) Advice from the authors are either bizarrely specific (only mount things two feet from the couch) or helplessly vague (bring nature in by adding rocks and wood to your living room).

There’s nothing wrong with the book: if you have eight dollars and an hour to spare you’ll probably enjoy it more than reading through Twitter. But you can do much better than this, I think.

Written by N.K. Jemisin
★★★★★★☆☆☆☆
Made in 2019

The core concept of this book — cities are real, vaguely metaphysical things with avatars — is so fun that it carries the wide proportion of the day, alongside delightful character writing (and I am specific here by saying character writing and not characters — pretty much everyone in this book is exactly who you think they are, but Jemisin writes so buoyantly that you don’t really mind). Some of the fantasy in this book is so exciting and vivid that I spent large swaths of it imagining as a graphic novel, which I think is a testament to the sheer comic-books-excitement of the setting: watching these characters run through a betendriled New York would be delightful.

So what didn’t work? I think two things:

  • The plot (and the characters) were utterly predictable. The two little twists (the villain’s ultimate identity and the last-minute inclusion of Jersey City) were both fun but pretty highly telegraphed, and as soon as the general rules of the world were laid down the plot itself was sort of paint by numbers.
  • The predictability of the plot was exacerbated by how…rote the second act was? It felt like we spent a massive swath of the book getting the gang together in a series of first-Avenger-movie-esque sketches.

I can quibble further, but it’s fun and interesting and you probably won’t regret reading it — so long as you go in with “above-replacement-level beach read” as your expectation and not “modern urban fantasy standard”. (Plus, there are going to be two more in the series, and I plan on reading them, which in some ways is all the endorsement one needs.)

(Oh, also learned like five new words from this book, which is always a plus.)

Written by Maria Dahvana Headley
★★★★★★★★☆☆
Made in 2020

Three things I liked about this book:

  1. The translator’s preamble, which both accurately called me out as a “person whose only experience with Beowulf was a stilted translation delivered in a high-school English class” (I’m paraphrasing, but the spirit is there) and delivered in wonderful prose a rallying cry for why Beowulf, and epics in general, are worth reading.
  2. The prose itself! It is delightful to listen to. I think there was a bit of concern that the translation — featuring “bro”, “swole”, “fucked up”, and more neologisms — was going to be a bit dated-by-design, but it was wonderful, rhythmic and modern and mellifluous.
  3. The substance of the book itself (of course buoyed by the first two points):
    1. One thing similar to the Greek epics: the emphasis on storytelling (which, duh, epic poem, oral tradition, yadda yadda yadda). There’s more discussion about having fought things than actual fighting; there’s more boasting than proving of boasts; there’s more memory of good kings than actions of good kings.
    2. One thing different (and, in retrospect, very similar to the Poem of the Cid which I did not exactly love) — the emphasis on fealty to king and kingdom. You don’t really notice it as much — except maybe in the Iliad, but that’s different — but the only fealty in the Greek epics are to gods, and yet in Beowulf (and, again, The Cid) there’s this strange power dynamic of the glorious warrior’s subservience to their majesty.

Anyway, this book was fun. I think As An Epic it still pales in comparison to the Iliad or the Odyssey, but the translation is delightful and it gave me much to think about.

Written by Joe Berkowitz
★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆
Made in 2020

What a book. I have some scattered thoughts:

  • The writing is gleefully, uh, cheesy. I mean that in an earnest way: it is written pretentiously, it is littered with awful puns, it is delightfully entertaining, it is punchable.
  • I am more interested (and knowledgable) about cheese than when I started the book, which is perhaps the only endorsement this book needs.
  • Around forty percent of this book involves the author palling around at various cheese conferences. This portion should have been wholly excised and the book would have been much stronger for it.

The most interesting parts of the book come when the author has sudden and fleeting moments of clarity (“am I an absolute hypocrite for indulging in this culture despite being a vegetarian, given that the dairy industry exploits animals?” and “faced with objective proof that my palate is underdeveloped, have I not actually learned anything at all about cheese besides proper nouns?”). The truth is that I liked this book because it was a microcosm of all consumerist movements. You could replace the references to cheese with craft beer or sourdough or cocktails and I’m sure there are identical books for all three; this is a book about how fun it is to dive into a weird subculture for a little, even as it passes you by. That part felt resonant.

Written by Nicholas Baker
Discovered via Matt Levine
★★★★★★★★★☆
Made in 1988

What a glorious book that I loved despite it being thirty pages too long (which is a thing to say, given that the book comes in at a tidy one hundred and forty.)

My love of the book, I think, is better captured in the highlights I made than in my talking about it, so I’ll be brief — but what a thing this is, In Search of Lost Time by way of American Psycho, a paean to the insanity and brilliance every modern person carries with them.

I was turned onto this book via Matt Levine’s profile in the NYT, who mentioned it as a revelation — as a kind of book one read’s and thinks “oh, so this is what books can be?” And that is fitting; I think if I read this in high school my mind would have been blown. I’ve read enough modernist prose to not be overwhelmed by the sheer concept, but the writing here is still beautiful and masterful and only a little overlong.

Read this book! It is very fun and, even if your defenses are a little worn-down by the last third (as mine were) it is very much worth your while.

Written by Fredrik Backman
Discovered via Westley Schrack
★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆
Made in 2019

The friend who suggested this book for book club prefaced it with “I like this author because nothing is left to subtext”, and that certainly is true! If you are ever looking for a book in which the author tells you exactly what everything means and what everyone is thinking and how you should feel about what everyone is thinking, this is the book.

There are some nice parts, and I am being uncharitable. The core conceit — a human bank robber — is pleasant and feels ripped from Bandit; the characters slowly grow from outright caricatures to sweet outright caricatures (who feel like they’d belong in a Wes Anderson joint, but like, one of the less-regarded ones).

The writing has some nice moments but is comically saccharine. The author’s voice considers themselves authoritatively clever while not actually saying anything particularly clever (an affliction I myself am well-familiar with, from personal experience). I don’t think I was surprised by anything the book espoused.

I would pass on this book, though you could do worse for an airport read.

Written by Tillie Walden
★★★★★★☆☆☆☆
Made in 2019

This grade reflects a strong bifurcation between the book’s aesthetic & coloring, which is as potent and lovely and beautiful as anything can be (and exactly what I expected from my fond memories of reading On A Sunbeam) and the plot, which, uh, less so. There were some redeeming bits here: the central characters are roman a clef ciphers but pleasant ones; the Office of Road Inquiry (and faint feline mysticism); the shadows of dread. But the general framing device is just so rote. Nothing was surprising; nothing was revelatory. It was a very pleasant picture book with a bit of surrealism and I did not come away from the experience re-examining myself.

Written by Alex Vitale
★★★★★★★★★☆
Made in 2019

This book is really good, and I kind of wish it had a different cover.

This book primes you to think that it is about the gestalt of policing, that it is a rhetorical argument against the police state.

And in a lot of ways, it builds to that! But the methodology of the book is so sound and sober it’s easy to forget. The book’s argument is simple: the police do too much and they do all of it poorly, here are some examples. In true catalog fashion, the examples get weaker as the book progresses, but the opening choice — police in schools — is so representative of the book’s overall effectiveness.

I don’t have a lot of interesting things to say about this book. I think it’s effective and well-written. It has useful and pragmatic things to say. It changed my view from an abstract “police are bad but that’s life” to a concrete one. You should read this book.

Written by Desus & Mero
★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆
Made in 2020

This book is a five-hour shitposting session between Desus and Mero. That’s all it is!

That’s not a bad thing. The book is entertaining and hilarious. It is not a well-structured book; there are no through-lines, and it probably would make more sense to listen to this in a podcast player than in Audible (or in my case, Libby.) The discourse on Being Washed alone is worth the price of admission (though I think it’s a retread of their other content.) If you like Desus and Mero, you’ll like the book; if you want some entertaining comedy, the book will deliver; it offers nothing more beyond that, nor does it try to and fail.

Written by Susanna Clarke
Discovered via @Theophite
★★★★★★★☆☆☆
Made in 2020

There’s a lot to like about this book. The narrator (both in an audiobook and a diegetic sense, though I think the former certainly accentuated the latter) is terrific; the Borgesian framing and setting (and central mystery) is really fun and interesting; it is extremely well-paced and padded so that it never outstays its welcome. I found myself weirdly disappointed with only two things: the “twist”, if you could call it that, is pretty immediately obvious (gee, I wonder what a “shining rectangle” could be!) and the denouement/climax felt extremely pre-ordained: not a single scrap of the final 20% of the book was surprising or interesting, even if I thoroughly enjoyed how you get there.

Written by Elena Ferrante
★★★★★★☆☆☆☆
Made in 2020

My general understanding of Ferrante’s non-quadrilogical work is that it pales in comparison, and so my expectations for this book were relatively low. Not colossally low — I loved the Neapolitan Novels! — but relatively low.

And I think the book more or less bore that out. There were aspects in which it outshone those novels: I think the portrayal of youth, of budding sexuality and the sense of anagnorisis that all children go through as they learn of their parents is much more vivid and true-ringing than the childhood depicted in her more famous work.

But the book felt minor and shallow in so many respects compared to its famous siblings. Gone is the rich, beautiful, and terrifying depictions of Naples; gone is the sense of time and evolution that a reader witnesses. What’s left is almost a Murakami-esque procession of plot points and themes — sure, Ferrante talks about the difference between order and justice, sure, Ferrante talks about the blinding madness of love, sure, Ferrante talks about the pain of beauty and the pain of gender — but you have heard these things before, and you do not mind hearing them again but you are not blown away by them.

Written by Sarah Frier
★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆
Made in 2020

A pleasant and uncontroversial read; it is not the exciting tell-all that Bad Blood or to a lesser extent Super Pumped was, but I think its lack of emphasis on drama gave it a more sober lens with which to view Instagram’s transformation. Some scattered thoughts:

  • It is slightly disappointing how vacuous the reporting on Early Instagram is, compared to the post-Facebook acquisition. Three hours in and the company’s been bought; the majority of the section didn’t even talk about scaling the company but about Systrom getting various backers and celebrities!
  • It is entertaining though how wholesome the rise to power is compared to Bad Blood or Super Pumped. The thesis of this book is clearly about Systrom being a pretty good guy who tried to protect his work from Facebook.
  • A very interesting aside during the antitrust drama: Facebook’s entire case for it not being a monopolistic move is that they could point to Facebook Camera being a much weaker and less popular app than Instagram, and thus they were doing something rationally competitive (rather than framing it against Facebook’s app itself.) This is ingenious and evil and makes me wonder if all of Facebook’s shovelware apps have the same purpose: to make M&A (and various competitive analyses) more palatable.
  • One useful point this book is emphasizing is just how feature-poor Instagram was for so long. Editing captions; DMs; video posts; none of these things existed pre-acquisition, which is somehow hilarious and trenchant.
  • More Twitter than Instagram, but I was surprised to learn that the Ellen selfie was completely staged. I think a useful point this book makes is that for all the engineering focus I give to social media companies, the partnerships & celebrity recruiting teams spend so much time and energy manufacturing every possible angle.
Written by Eliyahu M. Goldratt
★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆
Made in 1984

It feels unfair to read — and grade — this book after reading The Phoenix Project, which in retrospect clearly purloins so much of its style and structure from this. But, fair or not, I ascribe so much of the Socratic structure & cutesy novelistic flourishes to The Phoenix Project that clearly originated in this book, and I think the writing of the spiritual successor — at least in terms of the setting, the characters involved, and such — rang more true there (or perhaps I just feel more at home in an IT background than a manufacturing plant one.)

This book was better on two fronts: I think the weird bits about the protagonist’s personal life felt a little more germane to the core conflict, and the guru-character (Jonah in this book) was less of an obnoxious jackass. From a purely didactic standpoint, though, I got lost a bit as the book scaled up in abstractions, whereas I think TPP did a very good job there.

Written by Gene Kim
Discovered via Ned Jackson-Lovely
★★★★★★★★★☆
Made in 2013
ISBN: 0988262592

This book is terrific at a conceptual level. It is absolutely a didactic non-fiction book about management (you could say it’s a book about IT or a book about DevOps but it examines both topics through the lens of managements) set in a fictional setting — you follow an IT manager who gets promoted out of his depth as he fights fires over the course of a few months.

Now, the prose isn’t good. The characters are largely either caricatures or roadblocks; the trials and tribulations are just-so and elide the tricky details in favor of obvious messages and takeaways. But this book is so much better than it could have been: it was readable and digestible specifically because it uses narrative rather than a list of commandments.

It apparently stole this style [and admits to doing so!] from The Goal, which I’ve added next to my list. So I feel guilty giving the book this much credit, but not that guilty.

Written by Hank Green
Discovered via Freia Lobo
★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆
Made in 2018
ISBN: 9780525641780

I think there’s a charitable and an uncharitable way to evaluate this book.

The uncharitable way: the plot is hilariously unrealistic; every twist is telegraphed from a mile away; the protagonist is a bizarre and gross amalgam of Mary Sue and self-insert; the writing is facile and (and this is being charitable!) won’t age more than three years; any antagonists are one-dimensional at best. The book demands nothing of your mind and little of your heart.

The charitable way: it’s kind of fun! The audiobook narration is excellent, the rabbit-holing into internet fame rings true, and the story feels silly in the same way an endearing anime does — yeah, it’s a silly trip, but you generally like the people involved so you go with it.

I generally try to go with the Roger Ebert mechanism of criticism, which is asking “how well does the work accomplish its goals?” The book tries to do two things:

  1. It tries to be a fun, light-hearted science fiction romp, and I think it does that well.
  2. It tries to engage seriously with the concepts of internet fame, polarization, and (imagine my finger quotes here) The Discourse, and it fails utterly. Lampshading the protagonist’s descent into vitriol is not a meaningful contribution; ignoring the role of technology and industry feels willfully ignorant.

But this is the first of a series, and the real question is: do I want to read the next book? And the answer is yes: it was light (this one took me around half a week) and relatively fun and I could turn my brain off. But I certainly wouldn’t pay for it.

Written by James Richardson
Discovered via Gwern
★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆
Made in 2012

Hmm.

I am both a sucker and a critic of this genre of aphorism/poetry/short-essay format: I loved 300 Arguments even as I hate, well, the vast universe of tweet-sized thought leadership. And the latter is what sprung to mind most often reading through this book over the course of a few days: there were some selections that I genuinely loved and found striking, and there were many many more that felt tedious and worn and, for lack of a better word, ugly.

Perhaps that is the appeal (or the marketing exercise) in this kind of book: you get five hundred bullets and if you hit someone with a dozen of them you are successful. Maybe that sounds cynical: I don’t even mean it in a negative way.

Written by Tony Judt
Discovered via Byrne Hobart
★★★★★★★☆☆☆
Made in 2006
ISBN: 9781441778208

Postwar is not a book so much as it is a college course on 20th century Europe. Judt makes it clear in his introduction that rather than try and propose a grand theory or specific thesis with which to plumb the six decades following World War II, he wrote the book in an exercise of gestalt:

I have no big theory of contemporary European history to propose in these pages; no one overarching theme to expound; no single, all-embracing story to tell. It does not follow from this, however, that I think the post-World War Two history of Europe has no thematic shape. On the contrary: it has more than one. Fox-like, Europe knows many things.

As such, this book is a tome. You will — I did — learn a lot about the world, especially coming from a meager historical background. There were lots of revealing areas, and I am forgetting most of them:

  • The general richness and inner life of Eastern Europe, which I had largely marginalized and treated as same-y in the Postwar scene
  • The continued vilification of Jews and minorities in the immediate Postwar scene, with the plight of the Holocaust not being magically ended with the conquering of Berlin
  • The role and cleverness of West Germany in maintaining their frame on the world stage, first through ostpolitik and later through diplomacy in the EU
  • The detente and casual comfort with which most of Western Europe treated the USSR (as contrasted with the open conflict that the US felt)
  • The cylicality of eras of social boom and disruption and change

I have no reservations recommending someone read this book: few histories have taught me more. And yet, it fails in many ways as a book: by optimizing for breadth, Judt has deliberately written a transcription rather than a narrative. I listened to this thing for 44 hours: I spent two of those hours on Lithuanian politics that my brain is not yet seasoned enough to place into the rich context it deserves, and the sheer density of events and figures makes it difficult to grasp the enormity of some of the submovements he espouses.

I will probably reread (or relisten) to this again in ten years, and I’ll be happy to do so. It can be a slog, but it is rewarding.

Written by Peter Jay Shippy
★★★★★★★★★☆
Made in 2013
ISBN: 0983368686

I thought this was a really remarkable, potent book of poetry. Shippy’s style does not change dramatically — each poem is unstructured couplets that spiral out of control and collapse into itself, with powerful diction and rich, rich evocation — but it never outstays its welcome, and I grinned reading the entire thing. It was magical.

Written by Will Cuppy
★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆
Made in 1950
ISBN: 9780880298094

What a fascinating book that I didn’t find myself enjoying!

There is a lot to love. It is legitimately very very funny, the history is all accurate, and the metastory of the author’s battle with hermitage, depression, and eventual suicide casts an interesting pallor over the entire affair. Cuppy manages to thread an increasing thesis through all of the loosely interconnected tales: powerful figures are flawed in very entertaining, boring, predictable ways, and that historiography fails us in our understanding of them.

But I just… felt like it dragged. The pace of each individual story is pretty much identical (which works to a certain effect but does not lend itself to repeated reading, like binge-watching SVU.)

Written by Ryan Boudinot
★★★★★★★★☆☆
Made in 2015
ISBN: 1570619875

The book is repetitive but warm: stories generally fall neatly into the following templates:

  • I started taking this creative writing class at the UW and it changed my life;
  • I moved to Seattle on a whim because I was bored and it changed my life;
  • I went to this book reading or poetry recital and it changed my life.

What I found nice and pleasant about this book (and neither of these things really warrant recommending it to folks) is that so many of the classes, landmarks, and dive bars referenced are places that I’ve either been to or can imagine going to, and that so many of the stories seem shockingly plausible and livable.

The revealing nature of this is that the stories of the scene blooming forty years ago are identical to the stories of the scene blooming eighty years ago, and of the scene blooming today. There was no magic ingredient to create a heyday — just a bunch of passionate nerds.

Overall: yeah, don’t read it if you don’t live in Seattle and aren’t interested in plumbing the creative scene (and this is a book focused on a scene rather than actual literary merit.) But if you those two things do apply to you, you’ll enjoy it immensely!

Written by Natsume Sōseki
★★★★★★★★☆☆
Made in 1914
ISBN: 0143106031

I thought this was great, and much more serious than the first part (and the prior reading of Botchan) prepared me, even knowing that the book ended with Sensei’s death.

I don’t have a lot of specific thoughts, which is odd, because I am thinking broadly about the book. I think about how this book is largely in response to the Meiji Restoration, yet all of its claims to societal change (we no longer respect our elders! gender relations are changing! we care too much about wealth!) still sound resonant (and thus hollow) today. I think about the particular love the protagonist has for Sensei, and how this border between love and idolatry is largely unexplored in Western literature I’ve read. I think about, of course, Hark! A Vagrant.

But mostly I think about the final page, and the bravery of ending the book not with the story’s final scene — Sensei’s wife, discovering offscreen of her husband’s death — but with the letter ending.

Written by Michael Watkins
★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆
Made in 2003

This book is an excellent example of the “would this be better as a long blog post” litmus test (which it strongly fails.)

It’s not that the book is bad on its own merits.

There are a couple novel and useful pieces of advice: the framing of the breakeven point (the point at which you start to provide more value to the company than the company provides to you) is good, and the advice around early wins and different “types” of transitions are all solid.

There are also a lot of frankly bad pieces of advice (or pieces of advice that seem incredibly incorrect for my line of work).

But overall it feels just so padded and vacuous to me, a personal who has been in industry for seven years (and has read Moral Mazes, which very much feels like a deconstruction of this type of book.) If you are just entering industry for the first time, this book may be worth your while, but there are no brilliant secrets or keys that this book contains: it’s mostly just obvious advice that you have likely heard before.

Written by Norman Ohler
★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆
Made in 2016

It would be a lie to say this was an interesting book that I didn’t think was good; maybe it would be more accurate to say that this book contained interesting things in an uninteresting way. There were a lot of legitimately good bits (the general story of the pharmacological industry as it dovetailed with the military complex; the general hypocrisy of the Nazi reliance on drugs; the fascinating hypothesis that the blitzkreig was basically a meth binge) and yet.
The prose was lackluster (perhaps due to this being a translation!); the author inserted just enough editorialization to take me out of the narrative; the book refuses to decide if it is trying to take a moral argument; an excessive amount of time is spent following the personal life of Thomas Morrell, who seems completely useless except that his journal is a key bit of research.

Skip it unless you are really intrigued by the premise.

Written by Lisel Mueller
Discovered via Simon Sarris
★★★★★★★☆☆☆
Made in 1980

A couple knock-my-on-my-ass poems that outweigh some of the second-half duds. Mueller has a command of voice — calm, wise, and yearning — that I truly wish I had.

Written by Ryan Singer
Discovered via Leurverte
★★★★★★★☆☆☆
Made in 2018

This sounds like a damning with faint praise but my favorite part of this book is how short it was! There is no filler, and it advocates for its strategy pretty convincingly. It is not a revolutionary strategy (six week sprints, with tiger teams that do the breakdowns) but it is solid and probably improved my product development trajectory by like, 3% for an hour’s worth of reading, which is a solid proposition altogether.

Written by Xiaolu Guo
★★★★★★★☆☆☆
Made in 2008

I liked the book. I found it charming and winsome and funny. There were no elements, of, like, transformative exultation: so many of the books in this genre, the woman’s bildungsroman, the Dept. of Speculations and the Bluets of the world, have a couple moments that totally and utterly arrest me. Concise didn’t have any of that — but it was funnier than those books.

Written by Madeleine Miller
Discovered via Ha
★★★★★★★☆☆☆
Made in 2011

I think I was spoiled by having read Circe first, which seemed like an utter improvement on its predecessor. This book was good, and gave a depth and heft to the Iliad that pleased me — with Patroclus and Achilles’ relationship being the apex — but the second act of the book (which is to say, when it became The Iliad proper) dragged and offered little.

Written by Molly Brodak
★★★★★★★★☆☆
Made in 2016

This is a very good book and equal parts ascent and descent. It is an interesting story about a sad family; it is an interesting self-diagnosis and meditation on what we look for in our family; it is a poem about addiction and loss. (It only drags in one portion, towards the end, as many memoirs tend to do, which is when the tense turns from past to present: Molly walks us through her retracing of her father’s steps as she is writing the book, which as often does has the effect of intimating a personal revelation that cannot turn universal.)

But the thing overshadowing the rest of the narrative, to me, is knowledge of how Molly’s life ends the way it does, with suicide. It is hard not to think about her death when she discusses her mother’s suicide attempts, or her grappling with disassociation and trauma.

I sat for a while after finishing this book, in the morning, with my partner asleep on my chest, feeling a little lost. I searched for more about Molly — her cooking blog, her teaching blog. And then I settled on the poem that brought me to her memoir in the first place:

In the Morning, Before Anything Bad Happens

The sky is open all the way.

Workers upright on the line like spokes.

I know there is a river somewhere, lit, fragrant, golden mist, all that,

whose irrepressible birds can’t believe their luck this morning and every morning.

I let them riot in my mind a few minutes more before the news comes.

Written by Natsume Sōseki
★★★★★★★☆☆☆
Made in 1906

I liked this a lot! There were some inversions of cultural shorthands that I weren’t expecting: Botchan’s journey from Tokyo into the countryside made me expect that he was leaving modernity rather than entering it, for instance. And Red Shirt was such a fun, effective villain — someone you wouldn’t necessarily see in a similarly Western bildungsroman.

Written by Deborah Slicer
★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆
Made in 2003

I loved Betrayal, and there were a few moments of triumph, but the entire thing didn’t work for me. (How do you evaluate a mediocre book with one of your favorite poems of all time?)

Written by Sara Ryan
★★★★★★★★☆☆
Made in 2018

Short and wildly effective group of prose poems. Ryan manages to do a tricky thing, which is wringing mortality and apocalypse out of the minutiae of privileged life: trips to Oslo, a suburban bee sting.

Written by Paul Blackburn
★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆
Made in 1966

The actual plot seems much less, uh, engaging than the big Greek triumvirate, but I found myself enchanted by the Cid’s epithets: “he who was born at the right time”, “he who girded his sword at the right time.”

Written by Bohumil Hrabal
★★★★★★★☆☆☆
Made in 1989

The narrator’s earnestness was the most powerful bit of this. I get that it serves as a backdoor Czech history, but I found it more compelling as an evolution of this man’s aspirations and grief.

Written by Audre Lorde
★★★★★★★★☆☆
Made in 1983

The Robin Eller narration was truly awful, but the book was as great as its legacy accords it. (Her poetry is even better, though.)

Written by Anand Giridharadas
★★★★★★★★☆☆
Made in 2018

The book is not groundbreaking, and it owes a lot (in terms of “MarketWorld” and “protocols”) to James Scott, but I liked it more than I thought it would. The distillation of a corporate “win-win” ethos was a pretty damning excoriation of my alma mater’s consulting pipeline, and Silicon Valley’s focus on raising tides.

Written by Jorge Luis Borges
★★★★★★★★★☆
Made in 1944

Terrific stories that leave you wanting more (and now I understand where a lot of Calvino and Chiaing comes from.) Death And The Compass is the best short story I’ve ever read.

Written by David Graeber
★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆
Made in 2018
ISBN: 9781612193748

Strictly less interesting and less persuasive than Debt or Bullshit Jobs, with an odd (and admittedly self-aware) discursiveness rather than an actual thesis.

Written by Frank Herbert
★★★★★★★★☆☆
Made in 1965

Amazing worldbuilding and terrible characterization, which… seems kind of par for the course considering it’s place in the science fiction canon.

Written by Donella Meadows
★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆
Made in 2008

This was a pleasant, well-written book for which I (or anyone who has done any systems thinking reading before) is not the target audience.

Written by Peter Singer
★★★★★★★☆☆☆
Made in 2017

Cursory essays, generally in a frustrating way but with some great gems.

Written by John O’Hara
★★★★★★☆☆☆☆
Made in 1951

My first piece of work by O’Hara, shockingly, and it was a cute little three act play filled with as much drinking and death as I’d been led to believe.

Written by Violet Trefusis
★★★★★★★★☆☆

Delightful in its largesse, feeling lightweight and urbane — a better version of a Whit Stilman screenplay.

Written by James Scott
★★★★★★★☆☆☆
Made in 2018

This was a lot of fun, and I think a better and more persuasive book (largely due to its focus) than Seeing Like A State. But Scott still needs a better editor.

★★★★★★★☆☆☆

This book went from enchanting to cursory extremely quickly, but learning about self-assessed taxes and quadratic voting was worth the anodyne second half. (Just read the first two chapters, IMO.)

Written by Joan Didion
★★★★★★★☆☆☆

I think I am spoiled by late-period Didion, who has all of the precision and wit and remove of this book but can augment with it the wisdom and perspective that this book, with all of its moments of beauty, lacks

Written by Miranda Popkey
★★★★★★☆☆☆☆

this is a version of rachel cusk that does a few things better (voice chief among them) and a number of things worse (triteness chief among them.) clever and inessential.

Written by Yiyun Li
★★★★★★★☆☆☆

interposed between an act of therapy and a syllabus on the people for whom we do & do not write. i think it was a not-so-great book from a great writer and am excited to read The Vagrants

★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆

a bad book with a good thesis. the author warns you of its incoherence early on, which is a shame because there are very good pieces of logos amidst the circumlocution

Written by Stephane Bouquet
★★★★★★★★☆☆

this was something simultaneously special and inconsequential. love and angst mediated (but not devoured) by modernity: felt like reading someone’s xanga (which i mean as high praise)

★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆

GTD, the methodology: love it. GTD, the book: ehh…

Written by Michael Pollon
★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆

This book was a fun listen but I don’t think any of it stands up to serious thought or scrutiny

Written by Haruki Murakami
★★★★★★☆☆☆☆

Murakami feels more and more like an old friend with whom I feel comfortable: most of the conversations and stories are ones we’ve had before, but it is still fun to banter and to rehash old arguments and think about the good times.

Sputnik Sweetheart was completely unremarkable within his ouevre. It was a good book, and if it was my first Murakami I would probably hold it in higher esteem — it certainly feels like it could be a good entry into his world — but it wasn’t, and I don’t. You can read it if you’ve never read Murakami before or if you’re desperate for more, but I would never recommend it over, say, Colorless Tsukuru.

Written by Vladimir Nabokov
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Made in 1973
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  1. A friend of mine who’s in finance told me that the book is a cult favorite in his office, as most of them did crew in college.
  2. There’s gotta be a word for the narrative neatness that this book employs. Of course the UW folks are the young upstarts — of course they are portrayed as the ones without money; the West Coasters; the hotheads and troubled but promising youths. Massive success, then failure, then more uproarious success. (I’m reminded of the article that I can’t find about hearing a story about two geologists who take over a vineyard that centuries of Bordeaux veterans cannot salvage, and how most people expect them to fail [because that satisfies the narrative constraint of ‘old knowledge’] and instead they succeed.)
  3. If nothing else, the book succeeds at teaching me about rowing, which I now love and find very interesting! I am going to shoehorn “mind in boat” into a lot of things from now on.
  4. I love the glimpses into Old Seattle; particularly the idea of Capitol Hill, my current neighborhood, as being this remote and stately locale flush with moneyed Victorian manses.
  5. I admire the book not being too histrionic with the Americans’ first experiences with Germany. I would honestly love to learn more about the relationship between the AOC and the Third Reich in general; the book doesn’t bring a lot of context or focus to the confluence of country, sport, and politic, which I get but I feel like that’d be more useful and interesting than the constant glimpses of Goebbels in the shadows.
  6. Grandness and spirit of adventure: this wasn’t just these folks first times in Europe, but their first time away from home at all (plus on a cruise liner, etc.)
  7. Also a hilarious demarcation of how far nutrition and sports science has come in a hundred years: the progression of “hmmm just eat steak and bananas” to hyper regulated diets is fun.
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I read this, as I suspect many others did, on the insistence of Master of None. It was hard to separate the cut of the meat from the butcher, given Plath’s history, but I keep circling around the central passage of the fig tree which Aziz recites.

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Written by Sloane Crosley
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This is the first book I’ve read in one day that wasn’t by J.K. Rowling. Even as I was reading it, I wasn’t entirely sure what was captivating me so strongly. The prose was strong but not stellar; the characters were interesting but not enthralling; the plot was clever but not perfect. Even as I was reading it, I felt its flaws, but I couldn’t put it down. It might have been the commiseration I had with the protagonist, who was lucky and unlucky and disillusioned and feeling an overwhelming sense of incompletion with a post-college life. When I finally finished the book, it was 3am and I felt lighter.

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A softboiled noir and a great palate cleanser for the rawness of BtWaM. Nothing world-changing, but a pleasant thing to read in an Irish cabin and it felt like half-crime fiction, half-buddy cop comedy.

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A book that at times filled the same holes in my head that Bluets did; a poetic and bittersweet narrative about connections that are made and then severed and the trials of both states. It’s inventive and quiet and rhythmic.

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If DoET was a primer on how the way we use technology hasn’t really changed in the past couple decades, then Microserfs is a primer on how the way we create technology hasn’t really changed either. It’s not great literature, but it should be required reading for anyone who is creating technology. It speaks to the ecstacy and agony of software development as a craft and as an industry, complete with a microcosm of the startup myth as a kicker.

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It was hard to get through BtWaM, and not because of the dense, beautiful prose or the sprawling indictment of the American institution. The central thing Coates keeps returning to is the physical body as a symbol of freedom, and how whips and belts and chains and bullets don’t just rend the flesh but slay the freedom supposedly bestowed on each American. I’m a white kid from suburban Virginia; I can’t say that the idea of bodily harm resonated with me, but its lack of resonance — and the conviction with which Coates refuses to eulogize a “stillborn” American dream — speaks volumes to me about my privilege and the harrowing experiences I’ll never suffer from.

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The most powerful fiction I read this year (and in a very long time), Bluets felt more like an extended lyric poem than an actual book. Nelson confesses, at the beginning of the book, that the goal of the work is to be a compendium of the color blue: her result, if not quite that, is a discourse on hope and hopelessness, the sense of being filled and the sense of being emptied. It is an utterly unique work of art.

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I remember going through these stories in an udon place on 15th, with the first long September rain coming down outside. I didn’t really know what Carver was about at first; his stories are short and sad and disquiet. I had to pause between them and watch an episode of HIMYM or go for a walk or something to keep my mind off of them.

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My favorite book of the year. I’m not going to gush about it — enough others have in the decades of its existence — but know that it is that good and that timeless. Norman changed the way I thought about technology.

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Written by John Steinbeck
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Made in 1952
ISBN: 9780143129486
  1. Tom’s five-star rating system is also superior in legibility to my ten-star one, a fact I only slightly resent.