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Never Read Passively

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The Art of Fiction: A Guide for Writers and Readers
Ayn Rand, Tore Boeckmann, Leonard Peikoff
The Name of the Rose
Umberto Eco
David Mitchell
To the Lighthouse
Virginia Woolf
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Edward Gibbon, Daniel J. Boorstin, Gian Battista Piranesi, Hans-Friedrich Mueller
Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid
Douglas R. Hofstadter
Perfect Wrong Note - Learning to Trust Your Musical Self
William Westney
The Prince
Niccolò Machiavelli
The Varieties of Religious Experience
William James
Twenty Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy
G. Lee Bowie, Robert C. Solomon

The Talent Code: Greatness Isn't Born. It's Grown. Here's How.

The Talent Code: Greatness Isn't Born. It's Grown. Here's How. - Daniel Coyle I like that Coyle actually went out and visited "talent hotbeds" and tried to synthesize ways they practice, motivate and coach rather than just citing other studies and books. I'd never heard of myelin so that was interesting, though his miracle drug description of it is ridiculous.The thirty second takeaway: practice in chunks, breaking up music to measures, bringing sports to a smaller scale--practice in a way that lets you fail and correct often. Stay motivated by taking a genuine interest in the subject, group motivation is also helpful. Coach dynamically by giving short queues. Limit praise and criticism and focus on practical suggestions. Coach efficiently taking every second of practice time into account and coach everything from how socks are put on to how they leave the field.

Les Miserables: Complete and Unabridged

Les Miserables: Complete and Unabridged - This book disappointed me. It meandered away from the plot too frequently and for too long to keep me interested a story that I otherwise might have enjoyed. Every time I found the plot pulling me in, Hugo delved off into 100 pages of 18th century French arcana and lost me completely.

The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement

The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement - David  Brooks There's a lot about this book that could have gone really wrong. In fact, it's the perfect recipe for disaster. I can imagine the pitch to the publisher, "I'm going to tell a fictional story whose purpose is to briefly summarize each of of more than 50 popular books and bring the disparate ideas together in a way that supports an over-arching, but somewhat nebulous, thesis that humans are primary social and rarely rational. Oh and I'm going to throw in some literature, pop culture, religion and philosophy in just for good measure." If that idea crossed my desk, I don't think I'd care that it was from David Brooks, there's no way I'd believe it could work.And yet... it does. The Social Animal probably won't change they way you live and it probably won't even change your ideas on politics, economics, philsophy or psychology even though it dives into all those areas. What it will do is give you a great jumping off point for further though and research. The underlying story of Harold and Erica is sometimes shallow, but ocassionally poingant. More importantly, it serves its purpose of providing continuity, structure and sometimes a humorous platform for all the ideas in the book.It's nothing new for a journalist or full-time writer to take a few ideas coming from scientists or "real" researchers and write a soon-to-be-forgotten pop-sci book, but The Social Animal stands apart both for the breadth of the ideas it contains and for the enjoyable way that they're presented.

Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us - Daniel H. Pink I can't do it. I read half of it and I just can't bring myself to finish it. Drive started off strong with descriptions of what gets people motivated to work in a meaningful way. I took notes, got some good ideas and was impressed that Pink, who is a Business Book Author was seemingly digging up some novel ideas.Then came the case studies. 3M, Google, Atlassian, FedEx, Herman Miller and Toyota are all there. These companies are, if you've read any business books you'll know this, among THE quintessential business book examples. There are how many companies in the world? Millions? Apparently though, of all the millions of other companies, These Companies and maybe 10 or 20 others are the only ones that are innovative enough to be profiled in books. It's either that or the authors of business books are too lazy to find any other examples and instead will mindlessly and incessantly reuse them as fodder for whatever shred of an idea they might be trying to expand into a book.Avoid it, read Thinking Fast and Slow instead. Drive is yet another business book that will go down in the regurgitated, superficial ash-heaps of history.

Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet

Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet - Julian Assange, Jacob Appelbaum, Andy Müller-Maguhn, Jérémie Zimmermann Well, my timing was great on this one. I started it just a couple days before the whole project PRISM scandal, if you can call something so endemic a scandal. Cypherpunks predicts and warns against exactly this type of destruction of privacy by governments in the name of the "four horsemen of the infocalypse" (terrorists, drug dealers, pedophiles, and organized crime). While on one hand, those things are unarguably bad, what is the correct response and solution to them? Is it the complete forfeiture of privacy by all, innocent, suspected and guilty alike? The discussion in the book is good, but it's poorly organized and sometimes too informal and repetitive.

Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II

Lost in Shangri-la: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II - Mitchell Zuckoff Meh. There are some interesting parts, but it bugs me that it feels like the story is constantly being drawn out with irrelevant details.

The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking

The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking - Oliver Burkeman The Antidote starts off by talking about the positive thinking movement, moves on to Seneca and the Stoics then dips into Buddhist meditation, pauses to to criticize goal setting then stops in for a visit with Eckhart Tolle. Burkeman then writes about how we overvalue safety and undervalue failure then ends with a chapter on how we approach death, including an interesting visit to Mexico on the Day of the Dead.Every chapter is well written and provides sufficient insight into each of the various subjects the book touches on. In the end, it's all pulled together nicely and makes a good case for finding peace and happiness by focusing on being okay with life as it is rather than constantly worrying about what it could be or should be. It's a good introduction to alternatives to positive thinking, but The Antidote never goes deep enough into any one subject to make it a memorable book or one that is worth re-reading.Also...the cover endorsement "elegant and erudite" by Jonah Lehrer is unfortunate.

Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself

The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself - Michael A. Singer The idea that I like the most from Eastern style thought is that resisting the way things are is crazy. There's a voice in my, and probably everyone else's, head that never shuts up. I'm fine with that and don't feel a huge need to silence it, but a lot of the time what it's saying (what I'm saying to myself?) is pretty dumb. The voice constantly explains and reframes what I experience to make it feel safer or more comprehensible. It resists what it doesn't understand and tries to explain it away or come up with elaborate justifications for why stuff doesn't fit in with The Way Things Should Be. It demands resolution to anything that doesn't fit my mental model and it creates areas in my mind that are forbidden or painful to visit then tries to push those areas away so they'll be uncovered as seldom as possible. All these elaborate thought tricks work sometimes, but the idea of The Untethered Soul (and similar books) is that the tricks are unnecessary and detrimental to finding peace. Maybe if I let the voice inside my head keep up its constant chatter, but choose to just recognize what it's saying without either rejecting it or mentally canonizing it, I can be okay with what's happening even without understanding and categorizing every bit of it.I feel like that way of looking at my thoughts lets me experience both negative emotions like anger and hate as well as positive emotions in a way that doesn't have side effects like anxiety or attachment. It keeps me focused on what I'm doing which results in me doing things better. It helps me deal with situations that I don't like by freeing up mental energy that would normally be spent resisting the problem and letting me instead use that energy to resolve it.Even though I like the idea, I still mostly don't think this way. I tell and re-tell myself the story of how things are and why they're that way and how I'm going to fix them later and forget where I am and what I'm doing. That's why I read books like this, to remind me that there is a better way.

Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle

Don't Sleep, There are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle - Daniel L. Everett As anyone who has had a conversation with me over the last week can attest to, I think this book, and especially the parts about the culture of the Piraha tribe in the Amazon rainforest is fascinating. The Piraha have frequent contact with neighboring tribes and Brazilians, traders, anthropologists, linguists on a regular basis, yet they are isolationists and somehow seem to avoid being contaminated by any hint of consumerism, ambition or outside culture in any sense. They are content with their way of life and actively resist any attempt to change it.The defining value of their culture is that the Piraha rarely, if ever speak of, think about, or make plans beyond a couple days out, and they don't reference the past outside of the living memory of their tribe, usually preferring to speak of much more immediate events. They have embraced the idea of mindfulness and living in the moment without the need for gurus, meditation or any type of conscious effort, other than their active distaste for outside culture.How's it working out for them? Well they're not exactly growing in size and they basically only survive because the Brazilian government protects their land, but apart from those minor concerns, they are quite happy. So much that, based on the frequency of smiling and laughter among the Piraha, some psychologists believe they are among the happiest people in the world.The Piraha's focus on the present has other interesting effects on their culture and language. They don't have a counting system, they don't have creation myths since they aren't interested in stories of things that happened more than two eyewitnesses removed from themselves, they maintain only a bare minimum of physical possessions and they seem to eschew the idea of accumulating even items such as tools and food they'll inevitably need to use later.Another of their unusual traits is that, because of their focus on immediacy, the Piraha do not use recursion in their sentences. To me this observation is compelling, but hardly the most gripping aspect of their culture. For linguists like Everett, this disputed fact could cause the next Kuhn-eque scientific revolution in the field of linguistics. Noam Chomsky and his adherents especially have a lot at stake since Chomsky's entire theory of human language rests on the idea of recursion.I'm not going to comment on the linguistic debate other than to say that the more controversial and polemical it is, the more entertaining it is. At the time this book was written, it was at the conflict level of reality TV. Everett repeatedly takes stabs at Chomsky and Steven Pinker and their theories and calls them out on their attempts to rebuff him. Everett is calling for a full rewrite of the rules of linguistics and in doing so, threatening a lot of careers and legacies. At the center of this massive wrangle is a small group of people for whom the 'crooked heads,' as they call foreigners, and their petty bickering are the furthest thing possible from their world of enjoying themselves and whatever they happen to be doing at any given time.The writing is decent, but stylistically it sometimes feels too casual, and the organization could stand a bit of improvement (much like this review!) but Don't Sleep, There are Snakes sure is a fun and profound read.

The Power and the Glory

The Power and the Glory - John Updike, Graham Greene I get what Greene is going for here. He gives us an imperfect vessel persecuted by a secular society who, despite some serious opposition and shortcomings, manages to do some good, show some humanity and represent Catholicism and God in a way that ultimately redeems both.It just didn't resonate with me. The story is too short on miracles and manliness, and the depth of character we get from the whiskey priest felt too one dimensional to me. I don't think it's necessarily a bad book but it isn't one I'd recommend.

The Broom of the System

The Broom of the System - David Foster Wallace The best part of the book, and by telling you this, I am not really giving anything away, at least nothing that is pertinent to the plot of the book, is that there is a man-made black sand desert in Ohio, near Caldwell, Ohio, the Great Ohio Desert, where people go wandering, hiking, hiding, resolving existential crises, sunbathing and fishing in the desert's lake. It is "a blasted region. Something to remind us of what we hewed out of. A place without malls." It is often crowded and the best time to get there is early in the morning before the crowds gather. Once you come to terms with the G.O.D.,everything else falls into place. The desert is the great jest in The Broom of the System and the existence of the desert sums up Wallace's sense of humor. You might, as you're reading, be tempted to identify with Wallace's view of the human condition that is so perfectly characterized by the G.O.D., but find your mind resistant to identifying, either for fear of where identifying with Wallace and his desert will take you, or because the strangeness of it all is simply too strange. This temptation to identify with the G.O.D. and the mental resistance to said temptation can be mentally taxing and exhausting and not something that you will find yourself wanting to put yourself through for very long periods of time. If you give in though, and allow yourself to accept the desert and what it implies, reading The Broom of the System and DFW in general can actually be, if not enjoyable, humorous and something you can appreciate very much at an intellectual and philosophical level.

Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder

Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder - Nassim Nicholas Taleb I'll write a full review after I've had a little time to digest it, but this book was a wonderful way to start the year. Taleb's writing is so full of beginnings and iconoclastic ideas that it'll take some time to sort it out and follow the leads. It'll be fun give it a go though.

How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical & Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening for Writers, Artists, Contractors, Flange Turners, Anglesmiths, & Civil Servants

How to Sharpen Pencils - David Rees, John Hodgman Reading How to Sharpen Pencils is like the moment after your first non-Great Clips hair cut, your first time behind the wheel of a BMW, the taste of real crab meat after having only eaten imitation, using a Mac after years of being stuck on Windows or when you discover that a couple cubes of ice will keep your cereal cold for the entire time you're eating it. What I mean by that is that this book is the breath of fresh air and the warm ray of light that you feel when You've Been Doing it Wrong and you've just discovered the Right Way. There is an art and craft to sharpening pencils and you've just stumbled upon the master who will teach it to you.

The Winds of War

The Winds of War - Herman Wouk When I started this, I planned on reading it this year then waiting a couple years and reading War and Remembrance. Instead, I just bought the second book and I'm starting it immediately. Wouk is a great storyteller. He has an amazing grasp on WWII and is easy to read and understand. His characters can be a little flat, and there are times where their story lines are predictable, but alongside the overall excellence of the book, those are minor complaints. If you're interested in WWII, but feel like you could brush up on the chronology and major events, read this book.

QUO VADIS -Kuniczak transl.

Quo Vadis - Henryk Sienkiewicz It is obvious that Henryk Sienkiewicz was an expert first century Rome. The city and the monarchy come alive in Quo Vadis in an amazingly tangible way. Even though not all the events are historically accurate, I don't see how a better job could be done of recreating the time and place. The description of the Roman circus with its gladiators and Christian massacres is the strongest section of the book. It is awful. I hadn't thought more than superficially about what went on in the ampitheatres but after reading this, it is clear to me that any complaining about how morals are worse now than ever can easily be answered by referring to the Romans. Two thousand years ago, shortly after the death of Christ, humanity had already plumbed the  depths of depravity.How does a society get to the point where the slaughter and violation of women and children whose only crime is their religion is viewed as acceptable entertainment? Gladiators are vaguely comprehensible to me. I can see how a people that prizes strength and valor in war could come to idolize it to the point of recreating it artificially in games; it's sick but understandable. But when it comes to releasing men, women and children to be torn apart by animals while thousands of onlookers enjoy the spectical, it is hard to see how that can be justified in any context. It is strange that the famous philosophers and historians of Rome weren't more vocal in condemning the arena. Was life really so little valued? Are people really so easily blinded by their surroundings?Outside the descriptions of damnatio ad bestias, Quo Vadis has its moments but it repeatedly comes close to greatness without ever really reaching it. The primary focus of the plot, the love story between Marcus Vinicius and Ligia, is melodramatic and sometimes so overdone that it is almost nauseating. At other times in the story there is compelling and real relationship there, but it is overshadowed by the prevailing sappiness.Early Christians are portrayed as the embodiment of "turn the other cheek" and "lambs to the slaughter," completely unwilling, even when able, to defend themselves. Maybe that's how they were, I don't know. Either way, it makes for a frustrating story.Thinking about the book while writing this review makes me realize that Quo Vadis is impressive for the amount of information it conveys about Rome, Nero and the environment of early Christianity. Maybe it deserves another star, but I didn't read it for the history, I read it for the story and the story is definitely only 3 stars.

The Casual Vacancy

The Casual Vacancy - J.K. Rowling [added 7/2013]The fact that almost every 4 or 5 star review is full of guidelines on how to approach this book ("don't compare it to Harry Potter," "don't expect a plot or likable characters or magic" etc., etc.) is evidence enough to show that it doesn't stand on its own merits. If it was any good, everyone wouldn't feel compelled to make excuses for it.[/]Is this really what the brilliant mind behind Harry Potter comes up with? Petty small town politics, gossip and soap opera-like romance? What a disappointment. There are moments of brilliance in the writing, but it doesn't make up for the almost complete lack of humor, poignancy or even a single likable character. The Casual Vacancy is unnecessarily foul, overly pessimistic and just not worth the time it takes to read.I wish Rowling would have been more ambitious. The plot could have been more expansive--bigger than a couple small towns. She could have chosen to do something more literary, The Casual Vacancy more than a few times feels closer to the genre of books by authors who release new titles every 3 months. She also could have chosen to simply be more creative instead of trying to be another Franzen or Duncan (both good in their own spheres, but this is J.K. Rowling we're talking about!). We know she's got it in her. Instead, this book feels like it is trying so hard to be for adults that it just ends up being boring. It's also a shame so many kids who grew up reading Harry Potter will be bombarded with an onslaught of profanity and vulgarity when they now, as young adults, see what their favorite author is up to.On a more pedantic note, I had both the audio and digital versions and found several discrepancies between them, entire paragraphs, for example, missing in the digital version that are present in the audio version. Odd. You'd think that a book this big and anticipated would be perfectly presented.