I read (or listened to) fourteen books in 2019. Four were fiction, ten were non-fiction. Six of the non-fiction were focused on the science or history of progress. I recommend most of the books, but not all.
Table of Contents
I’ve seen many people posting about the books they read in 2019. Being a contrarian by nature I initially resisted following suit, but I came to believe that’s foolish. Sharing my thoughts on what I’ve read could be helpful to others, and taking some time to review may help solidify some of what I’ve read in my own mind. So here’s my fashionably late “books I’ve read in 2019” entry.
You’ll notice that a fair number of these are focused on the science or history of progress. In 2019 I began to focus more on progress studies, an emerging field which … well, it studies progress! Several of these books are at the recommendation of Jason Crawford, who runs the excellent site Roots of Progress.
All links below are affiliate, so if you buy any of these books through the link I get paid.
Tyler Cowen’s book is part of what touched off a new focus on progress studies. It’s quite short and much more accessible than most books written by economists. The book is as much about ethics as it is economics, with the central focus on growth. Cowen makes the case that we must place a much higher emphasis on growth than we currently do.
I don’t fully agree with Cowen on the details, but it’s an interesting and thought provoking read, and makes a compelling case that we should be unabashedly striving for economic growth.
I recommend this book for anyone interested in economics, progress, and / or ethics.
Steven Pinker’s book is truly excellent. The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley is one of my favorite books all-time, and I feel like Enlightenment Now is written along the same lines, except with far more data and some interesting discussion on institutional changes in recent centuries.
The overall premise is that the world has gotten drastically better - based on nearly every measurable metric - in recent centuries, and this progress should be understood, celebrated, and continued. The progress is attributed to many different things, but the embrace of enlightenment ideals is a large factor, ideals which Pinker wants us to continue upholding.
To someone like me who likes to see the data itself, I appreciate the exhaustive nature of the many charts and other data Pinker includes on a wide range of areas. No fair-minded person would conclude that the world hasn’t improved in a multitude of ways after reading this book.
I recommend this book for basically everyone. Far too few people understand just how much our world has improved, and why it has done so.
The Alchemy of the Air
Thomas Hager’s book may have been my favorite non-fiction the entire year. I didn’t really know what to expect, since the topic is fairly niche: this book is about the history of the Haber-Bosch process, a technique which allows us to fix nitrogen from the air. This process is essential to sustaining life on earth via fertilization of agriculture.
Except, that’s only partially what the book is about. The description of the development of the process - the chemistry and engineering challenges - are fascinating, and worth reading themselves. But the real appeal of this book was the stories of the real people involved.
The book spans a fair bit of history, but the primary story is about German scientists and engineers in the early 20th century and up to WWII. The stories of the men involved are gripping, and - potential spoiler - quite tragic.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys engineering, chemistry, and / or history of the early to mid 20th century.
The Red Queen
The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature is a book I picked up for two reasons. First, I love Matt Ridley’s work. Second, I have heard many conflicting things about the nature of sex, so I was curious to hear an account based on evolutionary biology. Bonus points for one written before the current climate has caused the discussion of sex to be more guarded; this book was written originally in 1993.
The book didn’t disappoint. I learned much about sexual selection, perhaps more than I ever wanted to know, about numerous types of plants and animals.
Much more of the book is about a history and description of the field of evolutionary biology itself than I expected. We meet various scientists and are told about their theories, and then meet others who update the old theories or propose new ones. I admit to eventually losing track of the scientists and their theories after awhile, and began to lose interest.
However, the book became far more interesting when all these lessons were finally applied to humans. I won’t summarize his findings here, but I found his conclusions fascinating.
Particularly interesting was the discussion of gender and how (and why) men and women choose their mates as they do. It’s fashionable today for people to think that woman choosing a mate based on wealth or status is bad, or men choosing a mate based on youthful appearance is bad. That’s a normative claim, and can be debated, but understanding the descriptive side of why this happens is very illuminating.
I recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand sex and gender from an evolutionary biology perspective. I suggest that if you get bored in the middle, feel free to skip to the chapters on human sexuality.
The Most Powerful Idea in the World
The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention by William Rosen is another book focused on the history of progress. It goes through the scientific discoveries needed for the steam engine, then continues to describe their creation and improvement all the way up to the steam locomotive.
The story isn’t narrowly about the steam engine. It’s actually more about the industrial revolution broadly. The author spends quite a bit of time talking about the various factors that lead to this happening in England instead of other places. Some of these are more interesting than others - I found the discussion of patents and court battles tedious - but overall he puts forward a thorough accounting of the industrial era.
The stories are less personal than in The Alchemy of the Air, but it’s still interesting to follow the life stories of the inventors of the era.
I recommend this book for those interested in engineering and the history of progress.
Inheritors of the Earth
I’m always skeptical about doomsday claims. That’s particularly true for environmental doomsday claims, which have a perfect track record thus far of being wrong. I picked up Inheritors of the Earth by Chris D. Thomas because it’s a respected biologist challenging the current narrative about humankind causing mass extinctions.
This book is nuanced. I learned much about biological systems in aggregate, over time. Human timescales are so vastly different from the timescales of the earth’s biology, we tend to over-estimate the human impact.
The author put forward some claims that I had never even heard, such as dismissing invasive species as an incoherent concept.
The author’s main point is that that claims that human activity will lead to a drastic reduction in biological diversity are false. He convincingly shows that biological diversity has actually increased, that mass extinction is not occurring (at least not as it is commonly perceived), and that human activity is actually increasing biological diversity.
The author isn’t saying that we shouldn’t do anything to help our environment. He discusses what has worked and what hasn’t worked in helping protect biological diversity in the past.
While this is an interesting book, I would only recommend it to people with a specific interest in the topic of the human impact on species extinction. If you’re interested in the broader question of human influence on our environment, I would skip this book and read More from Less.
More from Less
Andrew McAfee did a good job titling More from Less: The Surprising Story of How We Learned to Prosper Using Fewer Resources―and What Happens Next. This story is surprising indeed!
The basic premise is that wealthy nations have already moved past peak stuff. In other words, though they continue to get wealthier, they are able to do this while consuming fewer natural resources. Fewer resources total, not just per capita! Fewer natural resources means less of an impact on the environment.
This seems so counter-intuitive it’s hard to grasp at first. The more economic activity, the less consumption of natural resources? Yes. The book is about proving this is actually happening, and then explaining why. The implications of this are hard to over-state. Protection of the environment hinges on increasing wealth, not limiting it.
If I could recommend just one book in this list for the average person to read, this one is probably it. It’s a fairly small book (at least compared to many others on this list), and it’s written to be accessible by non-experts. When coupled with Stubborn Attachments and Enlightenment Now these books make such a strong case for economic growth benefiting the world (both mankind and the environment) that I’ll be interested to see if anyone puts forth counter-arguments.
The Discrete Charm of the Machine
I’ve long been ignorant about how the digital world actually works. The Discrete Charm of the Machine by Ken Steiglitz was an attempt to educate myself, and it largely succeeded.
The book’s main point is explaining how digital and analog differ, and why that difference has allowed digital technology to make such incredible strides so quickly.
The details and math involved did sometimes get tedious, but the overall explanations were eye-opening, and I’m very glad I read this book.
I recommend this book to people who have an interest in engineering or computer science.
It’s more or less the same as What If?, which I enjoyed more than this book. If you like xkcd, you’ll enjoy this book. If not, you can probably skip it.
The US federal government has stolen the profits made by this book from the publisher, so I’m unsure how best to recommend getting this book in a way that actually benefits the author. For that reason, there’s no affiliate link on this one.
I bought this book almost as an obligation. As someone who respects Snowden and who fights against illegal government surrveillance, it felt like I had no choice but to buy this book and show my support. I fully expected to already know Snowden’s story and what he had to say.
I was wrong. The book has far more than the typical Snowden story we’ve heard. In fact, I think the part I enjoyed the most was him talking about his childhood and early years. I’m about the same age as him, and there’s a lot of nostalgia in here.
The ideological discussion is less fresh, and if you’ve watched more or less everything Snowden has said over the past seven years as I have, it won’t all be new information. But I still think it’s worth the read just for the more detailed personal stories alone.
The Man in High Castle
This Phillip K. Dick novel was recommended to me by a friend who enjoyed it. I didn’t, and can’t recommend. It’s not terrible, it just wasn’t that interesting to me.
Neal Stephenson is my favorite fiction author, and this book tells exactly why. It’s huge, incredibly detailed, and Stephenson is unafraid to go in as much depth into any issue as he likes. Sometimes that can be daunting, but most of the time it’s thrilling as he explores ideas and possible fictional outcomes that are so far from our current reality they are delightful to consider.
Since this happens on page one, I don’t think it’s technically a spoiler: Seveneves is about the moon breaking up, and the consequences of this happening.
The book touches on so many things it’s hard to even summarize. Robotics, genetics, space flight, physics, politics, language, warfare, material science, cryptography, and much more.
The author dives into these both through extensive dialogue, which drives multiple gripping plot lines, and also by simply directly discussing the subjects. It’s something I don’t often see other authors doing, at least not very well, but Stephenson is great at it.
The scope and history of the world(s) he creates is impressive. It’s clearly science-fiction and sometimes forces you to suspend belief, but overall does an excellent job of putting forward a hypothetical world that is fascinating to consider.
If you have any interest in space at all, this is a must-read. This was my most enjoyable fiction book of 2019.
I couldn’t get enough Stephenson after Snow Crash and The Diamond Age years ago, so I read this and Seveneves at the same time.
This book is not science-fiction, and differs from his other works in some ways. It’s set in our current time.
The book has some sections which take place inside a digital world (actually a MMORPG) and those parts were quite entertaining. The rest of the story is part mystery, part thriller. Lots of gun battles.
It was enjoyable, but also somewhat implausible. Not my favorite Stephenson novel, but still a fun read.
Jeeves and Wooster
I believe these works are now in the public domain, so with a bit of searching you should be able to find them for free.
My wife and I enjoy comedic writing, and P. G. Wodehouse is often held up as a prime example of such. So my wife and I read all of the Jeeves and Wooster series.
They are hilarious. Yes, they become a bit formulaic after awhile, almost like watching sitcoms. But the dialogue is always witty and the situations silly enough that it doesn’t matter.
We both enjoyed them and I recommend them for anyone who wants a laugh.
I hope this list is helpful to you. If you want to discuss any of these books, or make recommendations to me, please contact me.