Weinersmith’s Book Club #2

I’m a bit overdue for this one. I’m afraid I got somewhat behind on my reading recently, but managed to keep up an okay pace. Unfortunately, I forgot to write down the dates for a few books, so they will be omitted. Here goes:

Nov 4 – “Salt” (Kurlansky)

Review: 3/5; There were a lot of interesting facts in here (like the profound importance of Cod in shifting power from the Mediterranean), but I like my science non-fiction to have a thread of an argument. This read like a laundry list of fun facts about salt, followed by the occasional surfacing of the author to proclaim “SEE! SALT IS A BIG DEAL!” It would’ve benefited from a central argument and a bit more focus.

Nov 9 – Allan and the Holy Flower

Review: 3.5/5; Not much to say here. Another fun romp through Africa as scene through Victorian eyes. I enjoyed it, but can’t help but wondering… is every single Allan Quatermain book about searching Africa for hidden white people?

Nov 9 – The Infinite Book

Review: 4/5; This book was a little long on speculation and short on facts for my taste, but to some degree that was a good thing. It contained profound thoughts in every chapter and was pleasently sprinkled with Borges quotes (he seems to bridge scientists and artists fairly well). Definitely fun and gave me more than a few ideas for comics.

Nov 13 – My Man, Jeeves

Review: 4.5/5; Clever stuff. My first exposure to Wooster and Jeeves. It’s remarkable how much the character of Jeeves (whence the ubiquitous Butler-named-Jeeves trope) is still with us. You see him in all sorts of stories, from Batman, to The Fresh Prince, to Scott Kurtz’s PvP. It’s interesting to think that there are authors out there using this trope without even knowing its source! Fascinating stuff. It’s a shame Wodehouse is so out of fashion with English teachers. He’d be great for high schoolers, though perhaps bad for high school teachers since light comedy isn’t easily subjected to analysis.

Nov 15 – The Stranger (Camus)

Review: 5/5; Great book. This is the first Camus I’ve read since high school, and I certainly appreciate it more fully now. The story itself has the structure of a very clever joke or a sad tragedy depending on how you look at it. I’d elaborate, but it’d ruin the book. Go read it!

Custer’s Last Stand (Philbrick)

Review: 4/5; A good history of Custer’s Last Stand. As usual, Philbrick knows his stuff. That said, I didn’t find the prose exactly enthralling in the way I found his tale of the Essex. But, I think I can chalk that up to my love for sea stories more than any fault of the author’s.

Fermat’s Last Theorem

Review: 3.5/5; Fun, but a little slim. The one fun fact I did take away was that apparently there are bookies who will accept bets on whether someone will prove a theorem at a certain time or not.

The Man who was Thursday

Review: 5/5; Fantastic. Truly great stuff. It’s a mystery thriller, so I can’t go into it, but seriously read this thing. Chesterton is as clever as Oscar Wilde, and the story is fantastic. Why this isn’t a modern series or comic book or SOMETHING is beyond me.

Dec 8 – The Vertical Farm

Review: 3/5; I enjoyed reading this in the same way I like reading NextBigFuture. I have fun, but well… as Hemingway said, “Isn’t it pretty to think so.”

The Blank Slate

Review: 5/5; Dammit Pinker, you convinced me that aptitude is more genetically based than I’d like to admit. And, that it’s probable there are meaningful male-female differences in aggregate at certain skills. Bah!

Dec 17 – From Eternity to Here

Review: I won’t give a grade, since I know and am CYBER-FRIENDS with the author. That said, I enjoyed the book, and like “The Infinite Book,” it gave me plenty of ideas for comics. It also answered a longstanding question of mine. Digression time!

Entropy tends to increase in a closed system. True. However, we know that probabilistically it occasionally decreases. So, I thought, how do we know the universe doesn’t just cycle from entropy back to order. Well, Sean answered that question. If that were the case, we’d expect to be in a pocket of order surrounded by disorder. Empirically, this just isn’t the case. Dang!

Dec 17 – Outliers

Review: 3.5/5; A fun light read with a lot of interesting ideas. But, although I agreed with its overall stance, it mainly fortified its arguments with stories, not statistics.

Dec 27 – Allan’s Wife

Review: 3/5; This felt like a sort of bonus adventure for loyal H Rider Haggard readers. It was fun enough, but short and without much difference to any of the other stories. But, it did provide some interesting character background. This is the 4th Allan Quatermain story of read, and the 4th in which he was searching Africa for white people. Hopefully some of the other stories branch out a bit. I’ve heard a lot of good things about Haggard’s “She.” Maybe I’ll read that soon.

Dec 27 – The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Review: 4/5; Short, but fun and eye-opening. Douglass is eloquent, but doesn’t mince words when it comes to describing the cruelty in the lives of American slaves. Particularly interesting was an entire section in which he talks about how religious slavemasters were the biggest abusers. Even more interesting, he found it necessary to add an appendix on this topic. Although ostensibly to add some nuance and temper his stance against these religious people, it comes off as doing the opposite. I was lead to wonder if Douglass was in fact anti-Christian or even agnostic/atheist, but too prudent to say so at the time.

Dec 29 – The Grand Design

Review: 3/5; Although I enjoyed the read, I couldn’t help but think this was like a short version of an older Hawking book, plus a section on how there is no God. It was fun, but if you want an atheist argument, you’re better off with Christopher Hitchens, and if you want to know pop cosmology, read some older Hawking.

2011

Jan 1 – Genome (Ridley)

Review: 4/5; I really enjoy Ridley’s stuff, since he doesn’t shy away from facts and he uses analogies sparingly, and only to add to clarity. Some authors, even good ones, use analogies just to be cute or sound clever. I didn’t realize until about halfway through that it was a ten year old book on genetics, so it wasn’t the most fruitful read for me. Still, some interesting stuff.

Jan 2 – Why We Make Mistakes

Review: 3.5/5; Fun, but mostly cute stories about the nature of mistakes. But, it gave me some ideas on how to improve my workflow, so I gave it a passing grade.

That’s all for now! I’m also learning some math stuff, but that doesn’t fit well in the “book club.” Hopefully I’ll read at a bit of a faster pace in 2011.

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19 Responses to Weinersmith’s Book Club #2

  1. SuperOxen says:

    Nice reviews, but WTF? How can you read so fast? Is the length between dates indicative of how long it took you to read? Did you read the infinite book in less than a day?

    I was going to post how I would like to read just the religious part of Douglass, and complain about having to buy the whole thing, but I see that it’s available free online. And as I’m typing I realize that libraries also exist.

    Thanks for the best comic on in the universe! I’m enjoying your autobiography and am looking forward to CYOA.

    • ZachWeiner says:

      I always have books on me. I’m very boring. And, for lighter reading (most of the above), I listen to audiobooks at double speed.

  2. SadWhaleFamily says:

    Re: The Blank Slate

    I haven’t read this book, and it sounds like it’s arguing things I don’t personally agree with in my limited knowledge. It seems like something I should endeavor to read.

    As a counter to what you’ve said about Pinker’s book, have you heard of Cordelia Fine’s _Delusions of Gender_?

  3. Russell says:

    I recently read The Grand Design and it left me wanting more details, especially on interpretations and consequences of the double slit experiment. Anything specific from Hawking (or others) you would recommend?

    • ZachWeiner says:

      If you want to understand the double slit, you’re probably best off checking the wikipedia article. That said, it helps to have a little physics knowledge to fully appreciate.

  4. Damn Zach, you read A LOT. How do you find time for the comics?

    • ZachWeiner says:

      Everything feeds into everything else. If I’m reading a book a day, it’s rarely too hard to come up with the funny. If I’m not reading, it’s much harder.

  5. Morris Keesan says:

    As at least a partial antidote to Pinker’s convincing you that aptitude is genetic, read Geoff Colvin’s “Talent is Overrated”, in which he argues rather convincingly in favor of practice being at least as important for developing real skill in anything.

    • ZachWeiner says:

      Oh, I agree completely that the important thing in your life will be your hard work. But, I was formerly of the view that the role of genetics is minimal.

      Now, I think it’s more like this: Genetics is the substrate you start with, and life is what you build on top.

  6. Faker says:

    Are any of these books old enough to read but not buy?

    You’re right, though. Humans do talk too slowly.

  7. Chason says:

    @Faker
    A good library will have many of these books for free

  8. Ainara says:

    The man who was Thursday is one of my favorite books ever.
    You should try Borges if you haven’t read him, he’s the one who got me into Chesterton in the first place. The Aleph (I guess that would be the title in English) is a great book :)

  9. Saites says:

    I hated Outliers. He didn’t back up the vast majority of his statements, and as I remember (it’s been a while since I read it), much of what he said partially or completely conflicted with current psychological research.

    On another note, I really enjoyed Brain Rules by John Medina. It’s an easy read that outlines practical applications of current cognitive psychology, and it actually supports the arguments with facts rather than just stories (although the book is intentionally designed as anecdotes leading into one another, so you (Zach) may not be as interested). There are some YouTube videos that outline the basic ideas of the book. You can find them by searching the title or author.

  10. Alex says:

    What software do you use to listen to your audiobooks?

  11. Jonathan says:

    A while back you posted on The Problem of Induction. If that topic is still of interest, I’d like to recommend a book from a grad course on metaphysics I took a few semesters ago:

    “Representing and Intervening: Introductory Topics in the Philosophy of Natural Science” by Ian Hacking
    http://www.amazon.com/o/ASIN/0521282462

    The book’s argument in favor of scientific realism is compelling, but the best bit is its coverage of the history of the philosophy of science. It is both rigorous yet accessible to/enjoyable for non-philosophers (though my perspective on that may be skewed).

    I don’t want this post stretching on too long, but here’s a small taste:

    How real are the directly-unobservable-yet-indirectly-inferrable entities posited by our current scientific theories? For example, are electro-magnetic waves ‘real’–viz. is there some insensible SOMETHING actually there? Or are they just a useful shorthand for describing and predicting the behavior of the stuff we can actually, directly observe?

  12. Jonathan says:

    Sorry for the possible double post

    —————

    A while back you posted on The Problem of Induction. If that topic is still of interest, I’d like to recommend a book from a grad course on metaphysics I took a few semesters ago:

    “Representing and Intervening: Introductory Topics in the Philosophy of Natural Science” by Ian Hacking
    http://www.amazon.com/o/ASIN/0521282462

    The book’s argument in favor of scientific realism is compelling, but the best bit is its coverage of the history of the philosophy of science. It is both rigorous yet accessible to/enjoyable for non-philosophers (though my perspective on that may be skewed).

    I don’t want this post stretching on too long, but here’s a small taste:

    How real are the directly-unobservable-yet-indirectly-inferrable entities posited by our current scientific theories? For example, are electro-magnetic waves ‘real’–viz. is there some insensible SOMETHING actually there? Or are they just a useful shorthand for describing and predicting the behavior of the stuff we can actually, directly observe?

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