January 2, 2020
Last year I read 19 books without setting a specific goal so this year I decided to stick with a goal of 20 books. It felt like a comfortable goal. I read 21 books which I am pretty happy with.
The change in the distribution of books is interesting too. The last two years I read 10 and 14 nonfiction books, respectively. This year the trend continued and I read 18 nonfiction books. A big reason for that was that I got interested in two new topics: Earth/Life science and International affairs/Modern history.
In addition to that, I read 3 fiction books and abandoned 2 books.
I will cover the book I read in the sections below.
I began the year by finishing reading Your Inner Fish which talked about the start of life on Earth and how humans eventually evolved from that life. At the time, I was looking for a book that listed interesting examples of adaptation found in various species. This book wasn't exactly that so I ended up not enjoying it a lot.
I ended up not reading anything for a few months. Then I read an interesting comment on Reddit about geology and I thought studying rocks is kind of cool so I started looking for interesting books on geology. That's what led me to finding The Story of Earth: The First 4.5 Billion Years, from Stardust to Living Planet. I absolutely loved the book. The main point of emphasis for the book is that while Earth geology affected life, life also affect Earth's geology. The book goes through the various phases of the Earth and how life was impacted in those phases (and vice-versa). I learned a lot of new things and it also got me curious on this topic which resulted in me reading 8 more books on the topic!
Here are all the books I read on the topic:
- Your Inner Fish
- The Story of Earth: The First 4.5 Billion Years, from Stardust to Living Planet : Highly recommended!
- The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History: The book is a Pulitzer Prize winner and I can see why. The author expertly weaves in a personal narrative of them traveling and researching, information of the past mass extinctions, and the workings of the ongoing mass extinction. Highly recommended!
- Convergent Evolution: Limited Forms Most Beautiful: I rarely post reviews for books but I loved/hated this book so much that I felt that I had to. I learned a lot of interesting things from the book: the idea that evolution is mechanically restricted on what forms it can explore, the idea of different types of animals picking up an ecological role in the absence of traditional animals (like non-mammals evolving to be grazers and pack hunters), and the idea of morphospaces. If the book had been written to be more pop-sci friendly (more graphics) and had been better structured, this would have been one of my favorite books of all time. I really hope the author gives the topic another try.
- Squid Empire: The Rise and Fall of the Cephalopods: The three previous books made me really interested in Cephalopods so I was happy to find a great book on the topic!
- The Epigenetics Revolution : I picked this book somewhat randomly while I was waiting on another book. I ended up learning a lot from this book since I had actually no idea what epigenetics was, how important was and how it worked! It is a pretty good pop-sci intro to the topic!
- The Cambrian Explosion: The Construction of Animal Biodiversity: Just like Cephalopods, this was another topic that I got very curious about. However, it was hard to find books dedicated on the topic. I finally found this book and managed to get it through the interlibrary loan. I definitely learned a lot though at times the book felt a bit dry and very textbook-y. This is a problem I had with the two books I abandoned as well.
- The Ends of the World: Supervolcanoes, Lethal Oceans, and the Search for Past Apocalypses : Not as good as The Sixth Extinction but it focuses a lot more on the past extinctions and covers it in more detail
- Natural Attraction: A Field Guide to Friends, Frenemies, and Other Symbiotic Animal Relationships: Short and cute but not very informative
- Strange Survivors: How Organisms Attack and Defend in the Game of Life: Since Your Inner Fish, I had been looking for a book that talked about interesting adaptations so I was excited to find this book but I was pretty disappointed by this book. I think it ended up being too pop-sci-y and not enough substance.
A common problem I ended up having is that I got interested in some subtopics that were either hard to explain or there is not enough interest for their to be pop-sci coverage of the topic. This resulted in me trying to read textbook-like books which were a lot harder to read. The Cambrian Explosion and Convergent Evolution felt like that but I was able to finish them. These books I decided to abandon:
- The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies
- The Emerald Planet: How Plants Changed Earth's History
I think I still want to find a pop-sci book about the Cambrian Explosion and the plants equivalent of that (“Devonian explosion”).
International Affairs/Modern History
I remember stumbling on a comment about how the South China Sea has several competing claims and I got very interested. I started reading the Wikipedia page on it and then decided to read more about International Affairs in general. I ended up reading 5 books on this topic in 2 months!
- Asia's Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific: The book covers modern history of most of the nations laying claim to the South China Sea which helps contextualize the conflict. I knew very little about the region, so I learned a lot!
- Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, the United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding : One of my favorite books of the year. While the book tells an intriguing story about Pakistan, it also shows a lot about American foreign policy through the years and also relationships between international affairs and domestic political status.
- Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS: This book is a Pulitzer winner and deservedly so. The book covers the creation and spread of ISIS by following the history of some of its leaders.
- Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty: Interesting book with a broad scope. It uses many examples to prove its premise so I ended up learning about the history of many regions/countries that I didn't know before.
- The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers, and the Theft of Africa's Wealth: The book paired well with Why Nations Fail since it provides evidence for that book's premise: Non-inclusive economic systems create non-inclusive political systems which are used to keep economic systems non-inclusive. The book also covered the post-colonial modern history of many African nations that I was completely unaware of.
Two additional nonfiction books that didn't fit a theme:
- Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders
- Complexity: A Guided Tour: I stumbled on the topic of “emergent behavior” which seemed interesting. The topic was widely studied in the field of “Complexity Science” and this book does a pop-sci coverage of the field. While some parts are interesting, others are mundane and some seem too speculative to be useful.
- How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems : Fun book by the creator of XKCD and What if
This year I only read 3 fiction books:
- Small Gods: Discworld
- Men at Arms: Discworld
- Sci-Fu: NYPL's pick for Middle Schoolers for 2018. I thought it would be a fun idea to read it. The art was fun but the story was all over the place.
I think I am going to stick with the goal of 20 books for next year. Hopefully I will stumble onto few more interesting topics! I will also try to read a little more fiction this year.