Halfway toward understanding the world

Posted on August 31, 2007 by Steve

Years ago I discovered a list of ten books recommended for those who wish to "understand the world." I had read and enjoyed three of them, so I decided to pursue the rest of the list. To date I've read five:

  • Douglas R. Hofstadter: Gödel, Escher, Bach
  • Richard Feynman: Safecracker Suite
  • Steven Pinker: The Language Instinct
  • J. E. Gordon: The New Science of Strong Materials (1968) (but not yet the also-recommended Structures)
  • Stuart Sutherland: Irrationality

    Still to go:

  • Marcus Chown: The Magic Furnace
  • Richard Dawkins: The Blind Watchmaker
  • Graham Cairns-Smith: Seven Clues to the Origin of Life
  • D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson: On Growth and Form
  • Jamie James: The Music of the Spheres

    As far as understanding the world goes, I think I got the most out of Gordon's explanation of what makes stuff tough and Pinker's presentation of Chomskyan language theory. Hofstadter was mind-expanding and abstract, Feynman was fun and inspiring, and Sutherland was interesting but sometimes shallow.

    If I had to recommend a single book to meet this lofty goal, without hesitation I would suggest Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything (here's an excerpt). Not especially rigorous (in fact, somewhat erroneous), it presents a quite readable and illuminating Big Picture. He aims to capture the current state of scientific knowledge and, often amusingly, relate the stories behind the people who figured things out. His sense of wonder is infectious, and the reader is left with a sense of how little we do understand the world.
  • Book: In a Sunburned Country

    Posted on August 29, 2007 by Steve

    Bill Bryson is a delightful travel writer. Unfailingly cheerful, he brings a childlike wonder to out-of-the-way places, of which there are many in Australia. In addition to sharing his impressions, he relates quite a bit of the background and significance of his destinations. With a bibliography of over sixty titles at the end, it's clear he was doing some research for his later book on the sciences. Much attention is given to the many ways one can die or be maimed by Australian wildlife.

    Anecdotes from his traveling experience -- immense road trips dodging road trains, looking for food in rough bars, and "singularly execrable" accommodations -- prove the wisdom of Cervantes: El camino es siempre mejor que la posada.

    Swaptree report

    Posted on August 09, 2007 by Steve

    My first trade on Swaptree was just realized. I've listed 20 books I would like to have, and a dozen books and CDs which I would be willing to give up. Last week I shipped a beat-up copy of Harry Potter to someone in California, who shipped something to someone in New York, who shipped me a book by Bill Bryson (here's the first chapter).

    This week I added a "Metropolis" DVD to my "have" list, and was informed that someone might give me another Bryson book for it. I've proposed the trade and am waiting to hear back.

    So I'll probably not be getting The Complete Calvin and Hobbes anytime soon, but meanwhile I can reduce shelf clutter and get some new reading material for the cost of postage.

    Modern Library top 100

    Posted on August 07, 2007 by Steve

    I have willingly read seven of the Modern Library Top 100 Novels. Six more were pressed upon me by various teachers over the years. And I got through sixty pages of The Golden Bowl before quitting when I ran into this sentence: "He edited for their general economy the play of her mind, just as he edited, savingy, with the stump of a pencil, her redundant telegrams." (By that point I had no idea what the relationships between the characters were. Most of the time I didn't even know who was speaking -- or meditating, more often. The back cover promised some kind of adultery, but if there's a sex scene I can only imagine it's an orgy of dry observations, a ménage à tedium.)

    Read for fun:
    A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
    The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
    A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
    The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
    The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
    Howards End by E. M. Forster
    A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man by James Joyce

    Assigned:
    Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
    Lord Of The Flies by William Golding
    Animal Farm by George Orwell
    Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
    1984 by George Orwell
    Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

    From this list, I would be willing to reread at least ten, while I'm disappointed by around half of the books I read that aren't on any fancy lists. Maybe I should take some advice from Random House.