What I read in 2013

12/30 Daniel Dennett, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking

Dennett is a philosopher who's particularly interested in the philosophy of mind and the philosophy of evolution. This book is partly about what the title would suggest: how philosophers think and write, what makes an argument worth paying attention to and how to recognize bad ones, why philosophical thought-experiments can be useful, how one might be able to make progress on hard problems. It's also in part an introduction to and a defense of Dennett's own ideas: tools for thinking the way he does, one might say. I wasn't ultimately convinced by his suggestion that Chalmers's “Hard Problem” of consciousness is in fact a non-problem, but I'm also not sure Dennett claims to have these ideas completely worked out either.

This is the second of Dennett's books that I've read, I think; I read The Mind's I, a collaboration between Dennett and Douglas Hofstadter, long ago, back when it was first published. That book, and Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach, were a huge influence on my thinking. That's where I first heard of Searle's Chinese Room argument, and Nagel's famous argument about qualia and subjective experience (both of which Dennett argued against, and still does); it's probably where I learned to appreciate the importance of emergent phenomena with different levels of explanation. Intuition Pumps includes those themes, and others from his earlier books, including his notion of the “intentional stance” (which you can think of as one instance of what happens when you take multiple levels of explanation seriously) and a lengthy discussion of evolution by natural selection not just as an important scientific idea but as an important way of thinking about the world: “the single best idea that anybody has ever had,” he calls it.

One of Dennett's great gifts (one he shares with Stephen Jay Gould, although he might not like the comparison) is his ability to coin memorable phrases. I imagine I'll find a few of Dennett's invented terms, including the intentional stance and the intuition pumps of the title, making their way into my own vocabulary.

12/26 Alison Bechdel, Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama

Not to be confused with the P.D. Eastman book of the same title. This is a companion to Fun Home, also a graphic memoir. Fun Home is mostly about the author's relationship with her father. This book is about her relationship with her mother, but it's also a "metabook" about the writing of the book itself, and it's also about psychotherapy and in particular about the theories of the mid 20th century psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott.

12/23 Bjarne Stroustrup, The C++ Programming Language (Fourth Edition)

If you're a professional C++ programmer, you ought to own a copy of this book. It's a summary of the entire language, including the standard library and including the obscure parts, as the language stands today. Depending on how strong your wrists are, you might want to buy it as an ebook; the paper copy, which I read, weighs about 4 pounds.

The best part of this book is the first five chapters, “A Tour of C++,” which presents C++ as a whole and shows how it's intended to be used. Bjarne avoids the mistake of presenting the language in historical order; why should you learn what C++ was like 15 years ago before learning the newer and simpler ways that you can use it today? This part is available as a (much shorter) book of its own, and some readers might not need more than that except as a reference.

The standard library chapters of The C++ Programming Language still felt a little bit sketchy in parts. The book is complete, in the sense that every major library facility (and most of the minor ones) are covered, but in some cases the book doesn't make it clear when you'd want to use some library facility or what a good program that uses it would look like.

12/21 Mary Roach (ed.), The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2011

There are a number of good essays in this anthology. My favorite, I think, was Oliver Sacks's piece about what it's like to have prosopagnosia.

12/21 Florian Illies, 1913: The Year Before the Storm (tr. Shaun Whiteside and Jamie Lee Searle)

It was the year that Louis Armstrong learned to play the trumpet and started performing; the year that Stalin was arrested in Saint Petersburg and exiled to Siberia; the year that the beautiful young widow Alma Mahler had a passionate affair with the painter Oskar Kokoschka, commemorated in his painting Bride of the Wind. (But she kept her options open, and stayed in touch with Walter Gropius.) It was the year of the New York Armory Show, which introduced modern art to the United States, and in which Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase was exhibited and sold. It was the year of the Second Balkan War; the year that D. H. Lawrence published Sons and Lovers and Marcel Proust published Du côté de chez Swann; the year that Ford Motor Company introduced the first moving assembly line; the year that Charlie Chaplin arrived in Los Angeles to start work at Keystone Studios; the year of the Freud/Jung schism. It was the year the Mona Lisa was recovered. (It had been stolen from the Louvre in 1911. One of the people the police questioned in 1913 was Pablo Picasso, but he had an alibi.) It was the year that Franz Kafka wrote a lengthy and disastrous marriage proposal to Felice Bauer, and the year that The Rite of Spring caused a near-riot.

This isn't a book about World War I, although the future is hanging over everything in the book. It's a sort of scrapbook of cultural history and gossip, a collection of short items organized month by month. On December 20 Ernst Jünger, who has learned that life in the French Foreign Legion isn't what he had dreamed of, receives the discharge that his father managed to arrange for him, and the Mona Lisa is taken to King Vittorio Emmanuele, and Emil Nolde is painting in the South Pacific. A book like this isn't the only way to get a picture of what a vanished world was like, but it's one good way.

12/9 Sarah Crossan, Breathe

YA science fiction. Dystopian, naturally.

12/5 Margaret MacMillan, The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914

A history of great power relations in the decade or two before the War.

“We must remember, as the decision-makers did, what had happened before that last crisis of 1914 and what they had learned from the Morroccan crises, the Bosnian one, or the events of the First Balkan Wars. Europe's very success in surviving those earlier crises paradoxically led to a dangerous complacency in the summer of 1914 that, yet again, solutions would be found at the last minute and the peace would be maintained. And if we want to point fingers from the twenty-first century we can accuse those who took Europe into war of two things. First, a failure of imagination in not seeing how destructive such a conflict would be and second, their lack of courage to stand up to those who said there was no choice left but to go to war. There are always choices.”

11/16 Donald E. Westlake, Bank Shot

“‘I don't know,’ Dortmunder said. He sat down wearily on the sofa beside May. ‘What I prefer,’ he said, ‘is a simple hold-up. You put a handkerchief over your face, you walk in, you show guns, you take the money, you walk away. Simple, straightforward, honest.’” Stealing a bank (yes, stealing, not robbing) isn't simple or straightforward. Naturally it doesn't go as planned, either for Dortmunder and his colleagues or for the police.

11/11 Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front (tr. A. W. Wheen)

“We often made fun of them and played jokes on them, but in our hearts we trusted them. The idea of authority, which they represented, was associated in our minds with a greater insight and a more human wisdom. But the first death we saw shattered this belief. We had to recognize that our generation was more to be trusted than theirs. They surpassed us only in phrases and in cleverness. The first bombardment showed us our mistake, and under it the world as they had taught it to us broke in pieces.”

11/9 Sloan Wilson, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit

One of those books that everyone has heard of by title but that's not read much anymore. It was written in the 50s and I had a vague sense that it was about corporate conformity, perhaps involving something like the advertising business. That's not really it. The main character does commute to a Manhattan job, yes, but it's really about a more general despair and about his troubles readjusting to peacetime. As the author wrote 25 years later, it's a novel about young people for young people. It's ultimately optimistic.

As in many mid 20th century novels by male writers, the female characters are the weakest part — it's hard to know what kind of inner lives they might have, or to imagine what any of them would look like as the main character of her own story.

11/9 Ben Hatke, Zita the Spacegirl

A kids' graphic novel about a girl who goes through a space portal and has adventures with aliens, monsters, con men, giant mice, and killer robots (some of them quite nice, really) to rescue her friend and get home. Alice read it and thought I should read it too.

11/5 Andrew Blum, Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet

A book about the physical substrate of the Internet: where do the wires actually go, where are the hubs where networks connect to each other and how did they get that way, what does it look like when an undersea cable reaches land? The author is a journalist who got curious about what this thing he used every day actually was, and where it was; he ended up visiting places like Ashburn, Frankfurt, Palo Alto, Lisbon, London, and The Dalles, and this book is the result of his travels and his curiosity.

He's a journalist with an interest in literature, not a network expert; this book is both stronger and weaker for that fact. There were places where what he just isn't able to give an understandable explanation because he doesn't have a clear understanding himself. (Writing about a conversation with a router engineer, for example, he writes: “‘Some of our customers are looking at how long it takes for a packet to get switched through a router. It tends to be in the microsecond range, which is one-millionth of a second,’ Westesson said. But compared with the amount of time it takes a bit to cross the continental United States, for example, that time spent crossing the router was an eternity.” Huh? Crossing the continental US is about 12ms in vacuum, longer in fiber — far more than 1μs. Certainly fast is better than slow, and I'm sure there's some important point about router performance lurking in there, but whatever point it was got obscured.) No matter what your level of knowledge though, you'll probably find this book fun if you think infrastructure is fun. The author saw places that most of us don't, and he successfully gives the seemingly placeless Internet a sense of place.

11/1 Alexander Solzhenitsyn, August 1914 (tr. Michael Glenny)

What exactly is August 1914? One answer is that it's a historical novel that portrays a panoramic picture of Russia at the beginning of the War, focusing on the Battle of Tannenberg in which the Russian 2nd Army was encircled and annihilated. The list of characters, which takes nine pages, includes Sanya Lazhenitsyn, a (fictional) university student who volunteers for the war; Aglaida Fedoseyevna Kharitonova, a (fictional) school headmistress at Rostov-on-Don; General Hermann von François, commander of the German I Corps; the Grand-Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich, commander in chief of the Russian army; Count Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy; Colonel Georgii Mikhailovich Vorotyntsev, a (fictional) officer from General Headquarters who sees the coming disaster but fails to prevent it; and of course General Alexander Vasilievich Samsonov, commander of the doomed 2nd Army. To the extent that there's a central character, it's Vorotyntsev. He's angry at what he sees, and Solzhenitsyn shares his anger, and, even reading about events of a century ago, so does the reader.

Another answer is that August 1914 is, as Solshenitsyn put it, “the first part, or fascicle, of a work in many parts,” The Red Wheel, a series of books about the end of Tsarist Russia and the early days of the Soviet Union. He wrote that it “may take as long as twenty years, and probably I will not live to finish it.” Indeed he did not, even though he lived more than 20 years after writing those words. By the time of his death in 2008 Solzhenitsyn had finished the first four books, up through early 1917, but he seems to have planned to continue up through at least 1922. I read the first edition of August 1914, first published in 1971 and translated into English in 1972. I haven't read the second (and much longer) edition, published in 1984. Opinions seem to differ about which version is better.

Pretty much everyone, including Solzhenitsyn, agrees that Samsonov was in over his head and that he deserved at least some of the blame for the destruction of his army. (Samsonov seems to have thought so too; he shot himself.) But there are others who are at least as blameworthy — like General Paul von Rennenkampf, commander of the the Russian 1st Army, and General Yakov Zhilinsky, Samsonov's superior, who failed in his one job of coordinating the two armies, and a number of the generals who served under Samsonov, and the top military leadership, war minister Vladimir Sukhomlinov and his staff, who sent an unprepared and undersupplied army into East Prussia weeks before it was ready. The Russian armies had no idea where the enemy was, because the Russians weren't able to keep their aircraft operational. The German army knew exactly where the Russian forces were and where they were going; the Russians failed to lay adequate telegraph wire or establish proper cipher protocol, and ended up transmitting unencrypted orders over wireless.

“Who can undertake to name the decisive battle in a war that lasted four years and strained the nation's morale to breaking point? Of the countless battles, more ended in ignominy than in renown, devouring our strength and our faith in ourselves, uselessly and irretrievably snatching from us our bravest and strongest men and leaving the second-raters. Nevertheless, it can be claimed that it was the first defeat which set the tone of the whole course of the war for Russia: having begun the first battle with incomplete forces, the Russians never subsequently managed to muster enough men in time for an engagement. Unable to discard bad habits acquired at the start, they went on throwing untrained troops into action direct from the railhead without a pause for acclimatization, thrusting them into the line wherever there was a breach or a leak, in a series of convulsive attempts to regain lost ground, without considering whether those attempts were strategically justified, and regardless of losses. From the very first our spirits were damped, and our self-assurance was never regained; from the very first, too, the doubt was awakened in us: did we have the right generals, did they know what they were doing?
“Without allowing any more scope to one's imagination than what can be learned from precise data, preferring historians to novelists as sources, we can only spread our hands and admit it once and for all: no one would dare to write a fictional account of such unrelieved blackness; for the sake of verisimilitude, a writer would distribute the light and shade more evenly. But from the first battle on, a Russian general's badges of rank came to be seen as symbols of incompetence; and the further up the hierarchy, the more bungling the generals seem, until there is scarcely one from whom an author can derive any comfort. (In which case there might appear to be some consolation in Tolstoy's conviction that it is not generals who lead armies, not captains who command ships or companies of infantry, not presidents or leaders who run states or political parties — were it not that all too often the twentieth century has proved to us that it is such men who do those things.)”

10/29 Terry Pratchett, Mort

A Discworld novel, the first of the Death sequence, in which Death takes an apprentice.

10/13 John Scalzi, The Human Division

The latest book in the Old Man's War series. It doesn't read like it's intended to be the last.

10/11 H. G. Wells, The Time Machine

If you haven't read it for a while, it's worth rereading. Three things about it that you might have forgotten. First, it's very short. People usually refer to it as a novel, but it's more novella length. Second, right there on the first page we've got “Really this is what is meant by the Fourth Dimension, though some people who talk about the Fourth Dimension do not know they mean it. It is only another way of looking at Time. There is no difference between Time and any of the three dimensions of Space except that our consciousness moves along it.” Conventional wisdom these days (well, except for the minus sign in the metric) but a remarkable assertion for 1895, ten years before Einstein's paper. And third, the most chilling part of the book has nothing to do with the social relations or dietary arrangements of the year 802,701 A.D.; it's the later part, tens of millions of years in the future, with a cold and near-lifeless Earth in a tidally locked orbit around a dying red sun. Joanna Russ got it right in her essay “Towards an Aesthetic of Science Fiction”: “The Time Machine is not about a lost Eden; it is—passionately and tragically—about the Three Laws of Thermodynamics, especially the second.” The Morlocks are an incidental villain; the real villain is entropy.

10/8 Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914

This is essentially a book about diplomacy and foreign relations in the two decades leading up to the War. It's divided into three parts: Serbia and the rest of the Balkans (the book opens in 1903 with a gruesome regicide in Belgrade); relations between the Great Powers; and a day by day recounting of the July Crisis itself. The author insists that he really is trying to tell the story about “how,” not so much “why”: what the actual steps were that led to the catastrophe. He emphasizes that nothing about this was inevitable, even though a lot of policy makers at the time acted as if it was. There were specific choices by specific people that could have been made otherwise. He emphasizes the complexity of the issues, and in particular the fact that you can't treat a country as if it's a person with a single set of goals. Every country had its own internal dynamics and it was often quite unclear, even in countries like Russia that were formally autocracies, just who was making decisions. Factions within each country's foreign policy elite made decisions for reasons that seemed clear to them but that others interpreted differently, and mass communication, with semi-official leaks to the press, added to the interpretive difficulty.

He also points out, right in the introduction, that this isn't a definitive history of the subject and that no definitive history will ever exist: historians of this period have just plain too much data to work with. The Germans published an official 57-volume collection of diplomatic documents, and all the other major powers were similarly voluminous. Add in memoirs and letters and diaries and minutes of cabinet meetings and such, and you're easily up in the thousands of volumes from primary sources alone — none, of course, disinterested. And as for secondary sources… “the ‘WWI origins’ literature has assumed such vast dimensions that no single historian (not even a fantasy figure with an easy command of all the necessary languages) could hope to read it in one lifetime — twenty years ago, an overview of the current literture counted 25,000 books and articles. Some accounts have focused on the culpability of one bad-apple state (Germany has been most popular, but not one of the great powers has escaped the ascription of chief responsibility); others have shared the blame around or have looked for faults in the ‘system’. There was always enough complexity to keep the argument going.” We're able to see different things today than people were able to see fifty years ago. Not more things necessarily, but different ones, because our own time makes different comparisons available.

Recommended. I have a better understanding now of the way the pieces of the diplomatic situation fit together.

9/29 Stephen King, Dolores Claiborne

Yes, I can see why a composer might think that this would make a good opera.

9/20 Evelyn Waugh, Vile Bodies

A comic novel about the Bright Young Things of the 1920s. (Dedicated to Bryan Moyne and Diana Mosley!) It came early in Waugh's career: his second novel and his first big success. His own take on it, written in 1964: “I think I can claim that this was the first English novel in which dialogue on the telephone plays a large part. For reasons of novelty the many great faults were overlooked. There were not many comic writers at the time and I filled a gap. I began under the brief influence of Ronald Firbank but struck out for myself. It is not a book I enjoy re-reading but there are one or two funny scenes which redeem it from banality.” I think he's being a little too harsh there; the novel is slight, yes, but fun, especially at this distance in time when it shows us an alien world.

9/12 Vladimir Nabokov, The Tragedy of Mister Morn (tr. Anastasia Tolstoy and Thomas Karshan)

This is the first play of Nabokov's that I've read; before I picked it up I hadn't even realized he'd written any. It's also an extremely early work, written in 1923–4, earlier than any of his novels. It was never published or performed in Nabokov's lifetime; Трагедия господина Морна wasn't published until 1997, and the English translation not until 2012. It's a five-act drama in blank verse, obviously influenced by Shakespeare. (There's even an explicit reference to Othello and Desdemona.)

It's unsurprising that this play didn't get much attention in the 1920s, but I don't know why Nabokov didn't return to it and have it published later in his life. It's not the equal of his mature masterpieces like Pale Fire and Lolita, but it's not at all bad. You can see hints of the sorts of things he wrote about later on: a hidden king, nihilist revolutionaries with no goal other than destruction itself, an air of unreality and fluidity of meaning, statecraft as something like performance or illusion.

9/7 John D. Clark, Ignition!: An Informal History of Liquid Rocket Propellants

Ignition! was published in 1972 and it's long out of print, but it's available online. The author, John Clark, worked as a rocket propellant chemist at the Naval Air Rocket Test Station from 1949 through 1970.

The book is billed as an informal history and informal it is, including a fair share of stories from the author's own lab. Clark is uninhibited, caustic, and very funny; he has no hesitation in calling out insane ideas, and in the field of rocket propellants there have been many of them. (If you're not a propellant chemist, of course, you might think that even the good ideas sound pretty insane. You're going to use red fuming nitric acid as your oxidizer? How about chlorine pentafluoride? And those things are workaday standards!) Besides being a very entertaining book, though, it's also informative — particularly if you know at least a little chemistry and you're able to understand molecular diagrams. It's a good book to read if you're curious why rockets use the propellants they do, and how the field came to settle on them.

“Tests began in August 1937. But Malina, instead of working outdoors, as any sane man would have done, was so ill advised as to conduct his tests in the Mechanical Engineering building, which, on the occasion of a misfire, was filled with a mixture of methanol and N2O4 fumes. The latter, reacting with the oxygen and the moisture in the air, cleverly converted itself to nitric acid, which settled corrosively on all the expensive machinery in the building. Malina's popularity with the establishment suffered a vertiginous drop, he and his apparatus and his accomplices were summarily thrown out of the building, and he was thereafter known as the head of the ‘suicide squad.’ Pioneers are seldom appreciated.”

9/3 Agatha Christie, Five Little Pigs

Also known as Murder in Retrospect.

9/1 Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August

The title is accurate: this is primarily a book about the first month of World War I. So there's no war of the trenches, no Battle of Jutland, no Gallipoli, no Lawrence of Arabia, no tanks, no Russian Revolution, only a sentence or two on the whole Russo-Austrian front. But the first month of the War was momentous enough, and what this book does include is handled superbly. If you have any interest at all in the War, and if you haven't read any books on it before, this is the one to start with.

8/19 Georgette Heyer, Cousin Kate

A Regency romance written by the inventor of the Regency romance genre. It's a gothic novel as much as a romance novel, though. The main character, a penniless orphan who had been supporting herself as a governess, is taken in by her only living relative, her aunt, the wife of a baronet and the mistress of a grand estate. Kate's aunt smothers her with kindness but it soon becomes clear that the house is unhappy and factionalized, that there's some unspoken reason why Kate was brought there, and that there are secrets nobody talks about…

8/17 Mary Robinette Kowal, Glamour in Glass

Sequel to Shades of Milk and Honey. It's less like a Jane Austen novel, and not a Regency romance, but it is set in the Regency and the first page even introduces “His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales, Regent of the United Kingdom of Great Britain, Faerie, and Ireland.”

The story begins some time after 11 April 1814, and ends shortly after 18 June 1815. Not the best possible time for an English couple to have their honeymoon in Belgium.

8/14 Mary Robinette Kowal, Shades of Milk and Honey

This book owes a lot to Jane Austen, which of course was very deliberate on the author's part. The sisters Jane and Melody Ellsworth are reminiscent of Elinor and Marianne, and their situation at the beginning of the book (complete with the character of their mother) is reminiscent of that of the Bennet sisters. Jane, the main character, has all the accomplishments that a young lady ought to: piano, singing, drawing, glamour… In our world, young English ladies of the Regency era weren't actually expected to practice ornamental magic. It fits very naturally, though.

8/11 J. G. Farrell, Troubles

It's 1919 and Major Brendan Archer, recently demobilized and perhaps still suffering from shell shock, comes to a decaying hotel in rural Ireland to see the hotel owner's daughter, whom he thinks might be his fiancée. (How can he be unsure about whether he's engaged? Well, it's hardly the only thing in this book that seems uncertain or confusing or ambiguous!) The hotel continues its decay and so does the situation of the Protestant Anglo-Irish “quality” that the Major becomes tangled up with. There are plenty of horrible events in this book but it's basically a comic novel, partly because of how disorienting everything is.

I'd never heard of J. G. Farrell before. The edition I read was published by NYRB Classics, which is largely dedicated to reviving books that the editors think are unduly neglected. Farrell was of mixed English and Irish ancestry and died young (in 1979, aged 44), having written fairly few books. He's now best known for what's now called the Empire Trilogy: Troubles (awarded the special retrospective Lost Man Booker Prize), The Siege of Krishnapur (winner of the ordinary Booker Prize in 1973), and The Singapore Grip, all set in different parts of the declining British Empire.

7/31 James S. A. Corey, Abaddon's Gate

The third (and final?) book of The Expanse, following Leviathan Wakes and Caliban's War.

7/29 Charlie Stross, Neptune's Brood

Would you believe a hard SF novel with mermaids, an undead priestess, and the Crimson Permanent Assurance? And perhaps even more unlikely sounding: as that last item may suggest, this is largely an adventure story about financial systems. The main character is a scholar who studies the historiography of accountancy, and the book clearly owes a lot to David Graeber's Debt: The First Five Thousand Years. (That's even where the epigraph comes from.)

If we (or our posthuman descendants) ever have interstellar colonies, the next five thousand years of debt will have to look different.

7/26 Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye

“I'm a licensed private investigator and have been for quite a while. I'm a lone wolf, unmarried, getting middle-aged, and not rich. I've been in jail more than once and I don't do divorce business. I like liquor and women and chess and a few other things. The cops don't like me too well, but I know a couple I get along with. I'm a native son, born in Santa Rosa, both parents dead, no brothers or sisters, and when I get knocked off in a dark alley sometime, if it happens, as it could to anyone in this business, and to plenty of people in any business or no business at all these days, nobody will feel that the bottom has dropped out of his or her life.”

Marlowe isn't a nice person. I don't think he was written to be, and some of the unpleasant things about him are probably more obvious today than they were in 1953 when this book was published. He's usually the least corrupt person in a thoroughly corrupt world, though.

7/21 Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit

This isn't one of Dickens's best known novels; I didn't see many copies of it in bookstores. It's relatively early, published in 1844. And despite the fact that the title is a man's name, it's not at all obvious who the main character of this book is. It's not even obvious who the title character is! There are two characters in this book named Martin Chuzzlewit. And they're by no means the only memorable characters; this is the book that created the adjective “pecksniffian.” As usual for a Dickens novel, even the minor characters have their own (often rather broad) personality quirks and often their own story arcs.

Martin Chuzzlewit is notable for its extremely unflattering portrait of the United States, where some of the middle chapters take place — a country that's written as swaggering, lazy, uninterested in anything but money (preferably obtained by swindling), puffed up with self importance, ridiculously convinced that it's the envy of the world, boastful about liberty even though its people don't dare to express their opinions for fear of being murdered, a country where the people are dirty and have revolting table manners. More than anything, Dickens was horrified by slavery and contemptuous of the American patriot “who dreamed of Freedom in a slave's embrace, and waking sold her offspring and his own in public markets.”

7/13 The Go Programming Language Specification (Version of May 8 2013)

Go has some interesting features; I like the way it gets most of the benefits of interface and implementation inheritance without actually having inheritance, and the concurrency model is interesting.

The language specification covers the core language only. There's a separate set of documents describing the standard library. (And naturally, the line between what's considered core language and what's considered library can be pretty arbitrary; different languages draw the line in different places.) I'm not sure to what extent the library pages are specification as opposed to documentation, or whether the library documents are versioned the same way.

7/13 Patricia Wrede, Talking to Dragons

The fourth and last Enchanted Forest book, which takes place some time after the first three. Naturally there is a happy ending.

7/10 Patricia Wrede, Calling on Dragons

Nobody actually calls on dragons in this book! A dragon calls on some human friends, though, so maybe that counts. There are also lots of cats, some troublesome wizards of various sizes, and a most unusual rabbit.

7/5 Patricia Wrede, Searching for Dragons

The second of the Enchanted Forest books, in which wizards continue to get up to no good and in which romance enters the series.

7/4 Iain M. Banks, Consider Phlebas

This was Iain Banks's fourth novel, and his first science fiction novel. It's the book where he started using what he described as the world's most transparent pseudonym: books published as science fiction used the name “Iain M. Banks,” and non-SF books were by “Iain Banks” without the middle initial.

I know some people, even some Banks fans, don't like this book. I always have. Its plot is somewhat loose, yes, only really coming together in the Command System chapters at the end; most of the first half or two thirds of the book are best thought of as a collection of sketches and set pieces. Some of them are extraordinary, though, and some of them seem like they were deliberately written to be both grandly cinematic and also unfilmable. This is the book where Banks showed how much fun it can be to write about very large things getting destroyed by crashing into each other. And for me, at least, even the loose structure fits together with the overall theme of the book: all of that extraordinary heroism and suffering, those impossible escapes, leading to … an ambiguous ending at best.

I still find this book exciting, but when it was published in 1987 this story of “a small, short war that rarely extended throughout more than .02% of the galaxy by volume and .01% by stellar population” must have seemed like a real revelation. It showed that science fiction could be literary and fun, that space opera could be intelligent.

7/3 Patricia Wrede, Dealing with Dragons

Being a proper well-behaved princess means that you don't get to take fencing lessons, or to learn magic from the court magician, or to learn Latin, or cooking, or philosophy, or juggling, or to do anything interesting, really. Just embroidery and dancing and endless etiquette rules, and eventually marriage to some handsome and dull prince. In this book, Princess Cimorene of Linderwall decides that she'll have a much better life by running away from court and becoming a dragon's “captive” princess.

This is the first book in Alice's new favorite series. It's a real hoot, especially if you know enough fairy tales to get the references.

6/28 F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night

The Great Gatsby is the book that Fitzgerald is most famous for, but Tender is the Night is the one he thought was his best. It was obviously a personal story for him; he inscribed a friend's copy with “If you liked The Great Gatsby, for God's sake read this. Gatsby was a tour de force but this is a confession of faith.” And while I know little about the Scott and Zelda story, it's hard not to see them in this novel of madness and alcoholism and failure among American expatriates. Certainly some of Fitzgerald's friends, like Ernest Hemingway, thought of it as autobiographical and thought less of it for that.

I thought Tender is the Night was moving, more ambitious than The Great Gatsby, but also less perfect in execution. Fitzgerald apparently came to agree with that, and thought that Part III would have been better if he'd been sober more of the time while writing it. I wasn't entirely convinced that the characters were the same people in the three parts. Perhaps that was intentional (the focal character is different in each part), perhaps not.

6/22 Eiko Kadono, Kiki's Delivery Service (tr. Lynne E. Riggs)

This is the book that Miyazaki's film was based on. Based on somewhat loosely, of course. The important characters in the film are all from the book, and so is the broad outline of the story, and the Ghibli animators were obviously inspired in part by Akiko Hayashi's original illustrations, but the book is even more episodic than the film, and the film omits many of the episodes and invents some new ones.

It turns out that Kiki's Delivery Service is the first book in a series. As of 2013 there are six Kiki books, the most recent of which was published in 2009. Unfortunately for those of us who can't read Japanese, it looks like only the first one has been translated into English.

6/18 Stanley Lippman, Josée Lajoie, and Barbara Moo, C++ Primer (Fifth Edition)

One of the two main books I learned C++ from was the second edition of C++ Primer. (At least I think it must have been the second edition; looking at my bookshelf, I don't seem to have that copy anymore.) Josée joined as a co-author starting with the third edition, and Barbara with the fourth.

The fifth edition was published in 2012 and includes changes to the language in the latest version of the standard, “C++11.” All of the new C++11 features are specifically called out as new, since some people still use old compilers that don't support them. Some of them, like auto and decltype, are used pervasively — as the authors point out, decltype is by far the most convenient way to describe the type of something like a pointer-to-member. Similarly, rvalue references are at least implicitly used early; the book uses std::move in places where it makes sense even before going into detail about exactly what it means, and vector, including the new brace initialization syntax, comes before C-style arrays. Some other C++11 features aren't so integrated. This book still isn't quite the fundamental rethinking that it would be nice to see: given this language as a whole, irrespective of when specific features were added, what's the best way to program in it?

The fifth edition is longer than previous versions, but it's still incomplete — necessarily so, I suppose. It discusses allocators, but it doesn't discuss allocators with non-interchangeable objects, or scoped allocators, or allocator propagation traits. It doesn't give a hint that locales or facets exist. It doesn't mention alternative character types, or Unicode support, or the fact that strings and I/O classes and regex classes are templates. It leaves out valarray, and <chrono>, and <ratio>. It covers exceptions but doesn't cover techniques for exception safety, only saying that exception safety is difficult and outside the scope of the book. It doesn't show how to define macros. Admittedly most of those things are advanced topics that most programmers won't ever have to be aware of! The omission I find really unfortunate, though, is that the book omits all discussion of multithreading; I couldn't even find the word “thread” in the index. So that also means no discussion of thread-local storage, or futures, or async, or mutexes, or the C++ memory model, or what it means to write thread safe code. These days I don't think concurrency is an obscure topic. Almost all of my code runs in a multithreaded world, and I don't think I'm terribly unusual in that. And the thing about threads is that even if you aren't explicitly creating and manipulating them, the fact that your code may be running in the presence of other threads often has a huge effect on how you think about data sharing.

I think my bottom line would be: if you're familiar with programming and unfamiliar with C++ specifically, or if you're familiar with earlier versions of C++ but haven't used the language in a while, this is a pretty good introduction. It shouldn't be your only C++ book, though.

6/16 Karen Joy Fowler, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

I'll give the same advice about this book that my wife gave me: it's a good book, and if you're planning to read it then you should try to avoid reading reviews and maybe even the jacket copy. On the second page the narrator quotes the advice she's going to follow: “Skip the beginning. Start in the middle.” Important parts of the beginning don't show up until about a quarter of the way through the book. It's obvious from early on that this is among other things a story about what families are like, but you don't learn some of the other things it's about until later, and it's a stronger story for that.

6/15 Iain M. Banks, The Player of Games

One of the first Culture novels, and the first one I ever read. It's probably as good an introduction to Banks's science fiction as any.

“‘No, life is not fair. Not intrinsically … It's something we can try to make it, though,’ Gurgeh continued. ‘A goal we can aim for. You can choose to do so, or not. We have. I'm sorry you find us so repulsive for that.’”

6/12 Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan: or, The Matter, Forme, & Power of a Common-wealth, Ecclesiasticall and Civill

The basic argument of Leviathan is familar: we need a strong central government because in the natural condition of mankind, “during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man… In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.” The only solution is a Common-wealth: “One Person, of whose Acts a great Multitude, by mutuall Covenants one with another, have made themselves every one the Author, to the end he may use the strength and means of them all, as he shall think expedient, for their Peace and Common Defense.” This power must be unlimited, arbitrary, and undivided. “And though of so unlimited a Power, man may fancy many evill consequences, yet the consequences of the want of it, which is perpetuall warre of every man against his neighbor, are much worse.”

At first sight this is a defense of absolute monarchy. Indeed, Hobbes argues for a monarchy whose powers go well beyond anything that Louis XIV would have claimed: the power to make laws, to interpret laws, to judge, to punish with or without the law, to control speech and religious doctrine and more. Hobbes sides with Henry II over Thomas Becket, and with King John against his barons who extracted the Magna Carta. Chapter XXI deals with the liberty of subjects, and the basic summary is that “the Liberty of a Subject, lyeth therefore only in those things, which in regulating their actions, the Soveraign hath prætermitted.” It's a little more complicated than a defense of absolute monarchy, though. First, Hobbes is extremely explicit that the sovereign need not be a monarch, and he is careful to use phrases like “the Soveraign Representative, (whether One man, or an Assembly of men)” over and over. He does argue that a monarchy is superior to an aristocracy or a democracy (as he defines those terms), but he also argues that the differences between those forms is unimportant compared to the difference between a strong and a weak government; every society should focus on strengthening whatever form it already has. And second, Hobbes is no defender of the divine right of kings. He is again extremely explicit that a monarch's power comes from the irrevocable consent of the subjects, which often means nothing more than the submission of a conquered people but is no less legitimate for that. What counts is power, and it is a mistake for monarchs to “justifie the War, by which their Power was at first gotten, and whereon (as they think) their Right dependeth, and not on the Possession.”

The first part of the book is an exploration of human nature, including the nature of sense perception and a theory of what it means for one person to represent another, and the last half is about theology (hence the “ecclesiasticall” of the title), with a digression into Aristotelian metaphysics, but it's really all of one piece. The first part motivates the argument that obedience to a central authority is both necessary and possible; the last part is an argument that there must be no religious authority independent of the civil common-wealth, and that the Bible doesn't justify the claim that the Pope is either independent of or superior to secular government. It's not hard to see why he insisted so strenuously on that: Leviathan was published in 1651, either just after or in the middle of the English Civil War, depending on how you count it. (Charles I was executed in 1649, and the Restoration was in 1660.) The limits of royal authority, and the extent to which the government controls religion, were very topical.

I'm a 21st century American, and, like most 21st century Americans, I think Hobbes was wrong in the form of government he advocated. I think events of the last few centuries have shown that divided and limited power is both possible and desirable. (Although I did wonder from time to time how Hobbes would have classified the kinds of governments that today's liberal democracies typically have, and whether he would have thought that they would require him to revise his theories.) So why do we still read Leviathan 350 years after it was written? Well, it might or might not be obvious from my summary above, but it really is a revolutionary work of political philosophy — not so much for its conclusions as for its methods. It's a completely unsentimental analysis, and one that often feels very modern. The arguments in favor of an absolute and unlimited power are contingent and consequentialist, and you could easily use the same kind of reasoning to arrive at different conclusions. Similarly, while I have no reason to think that Hobbes intended anything of the sort, his arguments about religion could have been extended into a different and radically skeptical direction. This book feels like the ancestor of social contract theory, the book that made the work of Locke and Rousseau possible.

6/3 Jessica Day George, Wednesdays in the Tower

A children's fantasy book, sequel to Tuesdays at the Castle. It's less self contained; it's Alice's first experience with the frustration of reading the middle book of a trilogy and then waiting for the last book to come out.

5/27 Jo Walton, Ha'penny

The second of the “small change” trilogy, a police procedural set in an alternate England that made a separate peace with Nazi Germany in 1941 and that's now well on the way to its own version of fascism.

As in Farthing the narrative alternates between two points of view: a third person narrative focusing on a Scotland Yard inspector, and a first person narrative by a young woman. In this book the first person narrator is one of six sisters who are obviously based on the Mitford sisters. “In the windows, still to be seen,” writes The Hon. Jessica Mitford (1917–1996) about her childhood house, “are swastikas carved into the glass with a diamond ring, and for every swastika a carefully delineated hammer and sickle. They were put there by my sister Unity and myself when we were children.” That famous story makes it into the novel. The first person narrator, though, Viola Larkin, isn't one of the political sisters. “Siddy” (based on Jessica) is a Communist, and “Pip” (a composite of Unity and Diana) is Frau Himmler, but Viola has other interests.

Reading this book makes me want to reread Daughters and Rebels.

5/24 Joan Slonczewski, The Children Star

The third book of the Elysium Cycle, in which the definition of who can be considered a citizen and a moral agent is further expanded.

5/19 Elly Blue, Everyday Bicycling: How to Ride a Bike for Transportation (Whatever Your Lifestyle)

A short and practical book for people who are just starting out using a bike for transportation.

5/13 Joan Slonczewski, Daughter of Elysium

A sequel of sorts to A Door Into Ocean; it's set more than a thousand years later, and there are no characters in common. The events of A Door Into Ocean are still remembered, though, in part because they're discussed in The Web, one of the great classics of Sharer literature. The Sharers themselves are somewhat ambivalent about The Web and see it as a dangerous work but it's embraced more fully by the Elysians, Shora's other civilization.

About a third of the way through the book we get our first excerpt from The Web and it becomes obvious that it's modeled on The Republic (by which I mean that Joan Slonczewski modeled it on The Republic, not that the fictional author within the book did; there's no sign that Plato's writings have survived), with Merwen the Impatient in the role of Socrates. Perhaps the title, The Web, is even the closest rendering of the title Πολιτεία that you could get in the Sharer language.

“Just now, compassion needs my help. Will you join us? We need to show that compassion is not only the most right, but also the most desirable of all virtues.”

“If you can,” added Weia doubtfully.

“I hope you can, Grandmother,” said Adeisha. “When I hear sisters talk, at times I share doubts myself. So I'd like nothing better than to hear you defend compassion.”

Ambitious! And there are other echoes of ancient Athens too. (Elysium's civilization of leisure and contemplation, for example, rests on the work of slaves, unacknowledged as such since they're machines.) Not entirely successful, though. The Web is quoted in full, and, well, it's not The Republic. It would have worked better if we had only gotten the introduction where the discussion of compassion began. As is, it's hard to believe it as a text that two peoples have remembered as a central work of philosophy for a thousand years.

5/7 Jo Walton, Farthing

Farthing is, among other things, an English country house murder mystery, and it's inspired by other English country house mysteries — by Josephine Tey's Brat Farrar in particular. As Jo Walton pointed out, the setting of Brat Farrar seems weirder the more you think about it: it's clearly intended to be set some time around the time of publication (1949), but what happened to the War? There's no sign of rationing; there's no sign that every able adult was part of the war effort; an English boy was able to hitchhike across France in what must have been 1941 or 1942. This enormously disruptive event just seems almost missing from the backstory of Brat Farrar. So what kind of world, Walton thought, would Brat Farrar make sense in? A different world; a worse one.

Farthing is set in 1949. Britain has been at peace for almost a decade, ever since fascist sympathizers in the English aristocracy, inspired by the successful Hess Mission, negotiated a separate peace with the Reich. The upper classes have gone back to shopping in Paris just like they did before the occupation, not worrying much about what goes on in the camps, and Berlin has turned its attentions to the east. Elsewhere in the world, meanwhile, “The emperor of Japan is to visit President Lindbergh in San Francisco to discuss closer economic ties between the Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere and the USA. Oh, and Kursk changed hands again.”

The book begins with a country party at Farthing Castle, the center of the “Farthing Set,” the faction of the Conservative Party that was responsible for the peace. One of the guests is murdered. Is it a private murder or a political one? And if it's political, is it the sort of political murder that it seems to be? Some powerful people are quick to blame it on a Jewish and/or Bolshevik conspiracy, especially since there's a Jewish suspect conveniently at hand, but the Scotland Yard inspector suspends judgment.

This book makes fascism less familiar, which makes it more frightening. The dedication says: “This novel is for everyone who has ever studied any monstrosity of history, with the serene satisfaction of being horrified while knowing exactly what was going to happen, rather like studying a dragon anatomized upon a table, and then turning around to find the dragon's present-day relations standing close by, alive and ready to bite.”

5/4 P. G. Wodehouse, Do Butlers Burgle Banks?

Hinchliffe's Rule says: If the title is a question, the answer is ‘no’. The rule applies to the titles of theoretical physics papers, however, not to mid-20th century comic novels.

4/29 Joan Slonczewski, A Door Into Ocean

As one would expect of science fiction written by a microbiology professor, A Door Into Ocean is biologically inspired. It's an illustration of Clarke's third law, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” and a reminder that outsiders don't necessarily recognize technology as such.

It's also a book about nonviolence and its contrast with other foundational principles for organizing a society. Perhaps it's just that I'm in the middle of Leviathan right now, but it seems to me that the justification for the Patriarch's rule comes right out of Hobbes.

4/21 Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent

“From a certain point of view we are here in the presence of a domestic drama,” says one character. True. Also from a certain point of view this is a novel about the complicated relationships between terrorists and security services. (The secret agent of the title is an informer and an agent provocateur.) It's surprisingly modern considering that it was written more than a century ago and set a couple decades earlier — much more modern seeming than The Man Who Was Thursday, which was published the same decade.

4/16 Donald E. Westlake, The Hot Rock

Such a simple caper! All Dortmunder and his collaborators have to do is steal a heavily guarded sacred emerald and then deliver it to their client. But somehow things don't always go as planned…

4/8 Jessica Day George, Tuesdays at the Castle

More children's fantasy. The setting is kinda reminiscent of Castle Heterodyne, but with less homocidal insanity or mad science.

4/4 Grace Lin, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

Grace Lin is a fairly well known author and illustrator of children's books; Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is one of her most recent books, and I think it's now the one she's best known for. Among other things it's a Newbery Honor Book, which in my experience is a pretty reliable signal. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is a children's fantasy novel that's loosely inspired by Chinese folk tales (which the author did not grow up with, but became interested in as an adult) and that also clearly owes a lot to earlier American children's books, including, as Janet pointed out, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It's beautifully illustrated by the author, probably a good reason to read it as a paper book instead of an ebook.

This is also the first book that I read after our daughter read it and recommended it to me. (Yesterday she asked me where I was in it, and reassured me that everything came out all right in the end.) There's now a reasonable amount of overlap between the books I like and the ones she likes.

3/30 Lemony Snicket, The End

The thirteenth and last volume of A Series of Unfortunate Events, in which some mysteries are resolved and others aren't, and in which some characters survive, others don't, and the fate of still others remains unknown.

3/22 Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

I've read three of Brontë's novels, Jane Eyre, Villette, and Shirley. (Which is everything, I think, except The Professor.) I'll have to go along with conventional wisdom: Jane Eyre is the best. There's a reason that if anyone reads only one of Charlotte Brontë's books, it's this one.

If you haven't read it in a while, it's worth rereading. Everyone remembers the gothic romance, which is about a third of the book; many of the other episodes in it are unrelated. Pretty much all of the book has something to do with power and hierarchy, in one way or another.

3/13 Walter Jon Williams, The Fourth Wall

Walter Jon Williams is a very versatile writer; you wouldn't necessarily guess that this book and Aristoi and Hardwired are by the same author. The Fourth Wall is a sequel to This Is Not a Game and Deep State. It has some of the attitude of science fiction, but there's no real reason the story couldn't take place in our world either today or within at most a couple of years. (Which perhaps just means we're already living in a science fictional future.)

I liked this book better than Deep State. It's set solidly in the world of the entertainment industry, where Dagmar Shaw is now producing a movie instead of an alternate reality game. Not a conventional movie, naturally. Interestingly, she isn't the main character of this book. As readers we've seen her in two other books, but the main character hasn't. From his viewpoint she seems like a pretty scary person.

3/8 Lemony Snicket, The Penultimate Peril

“The denouement of ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’ occurs at the moment when the bears return home to find Goldilocks napping on their private property, and either chase her away from the premises, or eat her, depending on which version you have in your library, but the end of ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’ occurs when a troop of young scouts neglect to extinguish their campfire and even the efforts of a volunteer fire department cannot save most of the wildlife from certain death. There are some stories in which the denouement and the end occur simultaneously, such as La Forza del Destino, in which the characters recognize and destroy one another over the course of a single song, but usually the denouement of a story is not the last event in the heroes' lives, or the last trouble that befalls them. It is often the second-to-last event, or the penultimate peril.”

3/4 Gary Gutting, What Philosophers Know: Case Studies in Recent Analytic Philosophy

Is there such a thing as progress in philosophy? Can we reasonably say that there have been philosophical discoveries within the last hundred years the way there have been discoveries in chemistry or astronomy, and that today's philosophers know more than those of the past, or is philosophy all about discussion and questioning, without any real hope of acquiring anything we could call knowledge? This book looks in some detail at the work of a number of philosophers from the second half of the 20th century (Quine, Kripke, Gettier, Chalmers, Rawls, and others) and argues that philosophy really has accumulated a body of knowledge: “knowledge not about philosophical pictures but about the subject-matter (language, necessity, knowledge, etc.) treated by those pictures. Such knowledge is typically about the nature of fundamental distinctions and the limits of their application.” In broad outline that sounds about right to me.

In more detail some of this claimed knowledge seems like pretty weak stuff, and some seems more like anti-knowledge. (The argument about whether zombies are both physically impossible and logically impossible or merely physically impossible, for example, and the application of that question to the mind/body problem. If this is an argument for dualism, it's a dualism that Descartes wouldn't have recognized and that comes very close to just being a matter of terminology.) Gutting observes, in the context of the more baroque Gettier scenarios, that it's possible to have a perfectly reasonably approximate theory even if it doesn't address every possible complication and that we shouldn't dismiss such approximations as knowledge. True. On the other hand, that's setting our sights pretty low. After all, a lot of this work is in areas where common usage (or, in the case of epistemology, Plato) is already a pretty good approximation.

By and large I'm sympathetic to Anglo-American analytic philosophy; I like its emphasis on reasoned argument, on trying to be clear about exactly what we mean, on drawing precise distinctions. At its worst it can seem like a caricature of itself, but at its best it has made real contributions. I'm not sure I'd go as far as Gutting in calling this a body of established disciplinary knowledge, but the best of these works do help us see the world in new ways and think about it more carefully. That may be as much as we can expect.

2/24 Jasper Fforde, The Eyre Affair

Thursday Next is a literary detective with SO-27 (not as glamorous as her father's job with the ChronoGuard, SO-12), and a veteran of the Crimean War, which has now been going on for more than a hundred years (more specifically she was an APC driver who served in the Light Armored Brigade at the disastrous Battle of Balaclava), and the owner of a pet dodo named Pickwick (version 1.2; no wings, because the DNA sequencing wasn't yet complete). Like many people she loves Jane Eyre, although she's always thought that the ending — Jane leaving Thornfield and going off to India with her cousin, never to return — was anticlimactic.

As the book begins Thursday is called on to investigate the theft of the original manuscript of Martin Chuzzlewit; matters quickly become more complicated and involve a seemingly indestructible master criminal, political tensions with the People's Republic of Wales, William Wordsworth, a mad scientist, a vampire, bookworms, a powerful and sinister corporation, and, of course, one Edward Fairfax Rochester.

Recommended if you know enough English history and literature to think that the jokes are funny, if you don't mind time travel or other forms of blurring the lines between reality and something else, and if you think that sheer goofiness is fun rather than frustrating.

2/23 Douglas B. West, Introduction to Graph Theory

An advanced undergraduate or beginning graduate textbook. It assumes no previous familiarity with graph theory, but does assume a lot of comfort with an abstract style of argument and with mathematical proofs in general. You'll have to put real effort into this book.

The main body of the book covers topics like spanning trees, vertex coloring and edge coloring, perfect graphs, k-connectivity, Menger's theorem, Hamiltonian cycles, and so on. The hardest part of the book, by far, is the last chapter, “Additional Topics (optional)”, which is much more terse than the rest of the book. It's divided into subsections each of which “gives a glimpse of a topic that deserves its own chapter (or book)”: Ramsey theory, random graphs, matroids, and spectral graph theory, for example. The last chapter probably took me longer than the rest of the book put together, and there were more parts that I ended up not fully understanding.

One thing I liked a lot about this book: it made it clear that graph theory is a living discipline. I read the first edition, published 1996, and some of the important theorems presented in this book were proved as recently as the 1990s. There's now a second edition, which I haven't read.

2/19 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Complete Works of Sherlock Holmes

I read a new edition published by Simon & Schuster, which was available on Amazon as a free ebook for some kind of special promotion. It was mostly based on Gutenberg texts, which were of indifferent quality — lots of typos, and no illustrations. (Which actually impedes the meaning in a couple of stories, such as “The Adventure of the Dancing Men.”) Ebooks are convenient, but, alas, Sherlock Holmes is exactly the sort of work where it's hard to find a high quality edition. There are dozens of Kindle editions out there, some free, some cheap; if any of them are higher quality, they'll just be buried under the junky digitizations.

Should I be listing this as one book, or as some larger number? These stories were published as two novella-length books, “A Study in Scarlet” and “The Sign of the Four”; two novels, The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Valley of Fear; and five short story collections, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, The Return of Sherlock Holmes, His Last Bow, and The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes. The last is sometimes omitted in collections, partly because the stories in it are largely not as good as the earlier ones and partly because, by America's whimsical copyright law, The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes is still copyrighted while all the other works are public domain.

One thinks of Holmes as a creature of foggy Victorian London, but when you read all the stories in one go it's striking to see the society and the technology changing. By internal chronology the last Sherlock Holmes story is “His Last Bow,” which takes place on August 2 1914 (“the most terrible August in the history of the world,” as Dr. Watson says), and it deals with German espionage in the last days of peace. It wasn't the last story in publication order, though. Arthur Conan Doyle died in 1930; by the the last Sherlock Holmes story appeared, in 1927, Dorothy Sayers had already published the first three Peter Wimsey books.

2/18 Lemony Snicket, The Grim Grotto

“Having a personal philosophy is like having a pet marmoset, because it may be very attractive when you acquire it, but there may be situatinos when it will not come in handy at all. ‘He or she who hesitates is lost’ sounded like a reasonable philosophy at first glance, but the Baudelaires could think of situations in which hesitating might be the best thing to do … Perhaps, the Baudelaires thought, the wisest personal philosophy concerning hesitation would be ‘Sometimes he or she should hesitate and sometimes he or she should not hesitate,’ but this seemed far too long and vague to be much use on a plaque.”

2/9 Lemony Snicket, The Slippery Slope

“A man of my acquaintance once wrote a poem called ‘The Road Less Traveled,’ describing a journey he took through the wood along a path most travelers never used. The poet found that the road less traveled was peaceful but quite lonely, and he was probably a bit nervous as he went along, because if anything happened on the road less traveled, the other travelers would be on the road more frequently traveled and so couldn't hear him as he cried for help. Sure enough, that poet is now dead.”

This book reminds me that I haven't reread Anna Karenina in a long time.

2/7 Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

The preface to the edition I read said “It seems impossible that she who is still so freshly young and whose fame now fills the world anew was born a hundred and forty years ago.” Well, that preface was written a while ago, and Pride and Prejudice just celebrated a big birthday. It's looking good at 200.

2/3 Tina Fey, Bossypants

What will we do without 30 Rock?

2/3 Lemony Snicket, The Carnivorous Carnival

“When my workday is over, and I have closed my notebook, hidden my pen, and sawed holes in my rented canoe so that it cannot be found, I often like to spend the evening in conversation with my few surviving friends. Sometimes we discuss literature. Sometimes we discuss people who are trying to destroy us, and if there is any hope of escaping from them. And sometimes we discuss frightening and troublesome animals that might be nearby, and this topic always leads to much disagreement over which part of a frightening and troublesome beast is the most frightening and troublesome.”

2/2 Lemony Snicket, The Hostile Hospital

I have a guess about what V.F.D. might mean, but perhaps I'm just being fooled by misdirection.

2/1 Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (second edition)

I was reading this book at breakfast a few days ago and one of my coworkers asked me about it. I said that it was essentially about what life was like in the Americas before European contact — the first fifteen thousand years of American history. “Just a few tribes, right?” Dispelling that sort of misconception is just what this book is about.

That's more or less what I was taught in elementary school too, growing up in Pennsylvania in the 1970s. I was taught that true “civilization,” meaning agrigulture, written language, cities, and hierarchical societies with specialization of labor, only developed in four places in the ancient world: Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, and China. Other civilizations all derived from those four, and there was no civilization in places like the Americas. Dead wrong. There was agriculture in many places in the Americas (American Indians, after all, were the people who domesticated tomatoes and peppers and squashes and potatoes and, most notably, maize). There was extensive modification of the natural landscape. Great empires rose and fell (classical Mayan civilization, for example). Written languages weren't so very uncommon, and in Mesoamerica there were some civilizations with extensive literary and philosophical traditions; many manuscripts were destroyed by the Spanish conquistadores, but many still survive. Tens of millions of people lived in the Americas before European contact, many of them in large (for the time) cities. There were cities in the Andes as old as Sumer and of comparable size; in 1519 Tenochtitlan was probably larger than any city in Spain; in the centuries before 1492 there were even cities in North America. Our typical picture of the Mayflower settlers is that they landed in a wilderness, but really what they landed in was more like a graveyard.

The word “revelations” in the subtitle doesn't have quite the right connotations, I think. This isn't a book about some kind of shocking new discovery; it's about the scholarly consensus (or in some cases the lack thereof). Some of what's in this book has been known to the relevant experts for many years, and in some cases it's even a matter of remembering things that were common knowledge among 16th or 17th century Europeans. But if nothing in this book would come as much surprise to the experts, that doesn't mean it's well known to ordinary readers like me. “Much of this world vanished after Columbus, swept away by disease and subjugation. So thorough was the erasure that within a few generations neither conqueror nor conquered knew that this world had existed. Now, though, it is returning to view.”

One of the things I appreciate most about this book is that it spends a lot of time explaining how we know what we know, and it distinguishes clearly between what's known, what's guessed, and what's still a matter of scholarly controversy. I said above, for example, that this book was about the first 15,000 years of American history. That number is controversial. It used to be conventional wisdom that America was settled about 13,000 years ago, when people migrated over the Bering land bridge, and that the first settlers belonged to what's now called the “Clovis culture.” Many scholars still accept that picture, but some evidence suggests other possibilities — perhaps other migrations, perhaps pre-Clovis cultures, perhaps settlement by boat. I said that “tens of millions” of people lived in the Americas, but the “low counters” and “high counters” give very different population estimates. There's also significant controversy about pre-Columbian Amazonia. Was it a wilderness of rain forest, or was it carefully tended farmland that was shaped for human needs and that supported a large population? Some evidence suggests the latter.

Highly recommended. You'll almost certainly learn something new from reading this book, and you might end up with a completely new view of pre-Columbian America.

1/27 Scott Chacon, Pro Git

Did I really just read a whole book about a version control system? I did. All the cool kids are using Git these days, and it's very different from svn or p4 or any of the other version control systems I've used before. I still can't say I really know it, but at least I'm no longer quite so mystified by all this talk of push and pull and rebase and stuff.

1/20 Graham Priest, Logic: A Very Short Introduction

This is the second book I've read in Oxford University Press's “Very Short Introduction” series. If I may generalize from a sample size of two, it's an excellent series. Both of the books I read were, as promised, very short, but neither was shallow. It's remarkable what a good writer with a good grasp of the material can do in just 128 pages! But can one generalize from a sample size of two? That's the sort of question that this book is about.

Logic is a funny subject from a disciplinary point of view. Is it a subdiscipline of mathematics, or of philosophy? Both! You'll find introductory logic classes in both departments, and maybe sometimes in computer science departments as well. (Theoretical computer science certainly owes a lot to logicians like Alonzo Church and Haskell Curry.) An introductory class would probably start out covering fairly similar selections of material in either department (although with different emphases), and with similar technical notation, and then it would diverge.

This book is an introduction to logic as it's seen by late 20th century philosophers. If you're looking for Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems or an analysis of Peano arithmetic, you won't find it here — for that you'll want something like Enderton. You will find an introduction to the syllogism and deductive reasoning, and a close examination of what it means to talk about descriptions and identity (the Hesperus/Phosphorus issue in the philosophy of language, for example), and reasoning about statements that include time and tense, and self referential sentences, and paradoxes involving vagueness (if you take one grain of sand away from a heap, is it still a heap? apply your answer inductively!), and reasoning in terms of modal logic and possible worlds (strongly influenced by Kripke's work, I think), and even probabilistic reasoning and Bayes's Theorem. You can tell that this book is written by a philosopher, instead of a mathematician, just from the discussion of Russell's paradox! Historically, mathematicians responded to that paradox by formulating the axioms of set theory to avoid notions like “the set of all sets.” This book doesn't mention such an approach; instead it uses Russell's paradox as an example of a self-referential sentence and a justification for a four-valued model of logic where some sentences can be taken as neither true nor false and others can be taken as both.

My only complaint about this book is that it doesn't always distinguish clearly between material that has long been considered settled and material that's still under active discussion. In some cases my impression is that the author is expressing a distinctly minority viewpoint without saying so. Perhaps that's inevitable in a book of this length, though. There's one chapter at the end on history and suggested further reading, and that gives a little more context than the main body of the text.

1/20 Diana Wynne Jones, The Crown of Dalemark

The first three books seemed like almost completely unrelated stories. This, the last one, is where they all come together.

It's worth reading the glossary at the end. It's not as funny as The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, but it has its moments; you can tell it was written by the same person.

1/18 Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is one of those books that everyone is supposed to read in high school, I think. Somehow I never got to it until now. I'm glad I did! It deserves its reputation.

I hadn't really known what to expect from this book. I'm not even sure who I'd describe as the main character. The title character, Miss Brodie, is a charimatic, eccentric, and manipulative teacher at a Scottish girls' school. The story isn't told from her point of view, though, but from that of the “Brodie set,” the six students that Miss Brodie singled out and who form a sort of collective main character. The book is very short, and also very funny in a dry and matter of fact sort of way.

1/14 Diana Wynne Jones, The Spellcoats

The third book in the Dalemark Quartet. Unlike the first two books, this one is set in prehistoric Dalemark. By the time of the other books, the people and events in The Spellcoats are poorly remembered mythology.

Something this book shares with some of Jones's others: it ends about 90% of the way through the story. Most other writers would have included at least one more scene.

1/13 Tom Slee, No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart: the surprising deceptions of individual choice

The word “deceptions” in the subtitle is a poor description of the book. A more accurate substitute might be something like “consequences.” This is essentially a book about game theory as applied to economics, and an explanation of why connecting market behavior and individual choices is more complicated than you'd think from introductory accounts of economics even if you posit complete rationality in the homo economicus sense.

So what's game theory? Well, I've never read a technical mathematical account of it (any recommendations?), but as I understand it the fundamental insight is that the outcome of a choice is often tangled up with the choices other people make, and that someone trying to maximize their own benefit has to take into account the fact that other people are simultaneously making their own choices and doing the same thing. It's not enough to talk about the consequences of your own choice: you have to think about the matrix of consequences coming from that set of choices. In the simplest case, which can already exhibit surprisingly interesting behavior, you've got two people each of whom is making a single binary decision, so you've got a two-by-two matrix of consequences.

In many cases (pretty much all cases if you make the assumption of “rationality”) you'll wind up with an equilibrium, a situation where all participants have made choices such that nobody can improve their own outcome purely by unilateral action. And the crucial point is that although an equilibrium depends on participants' individual choices (and from each participant's awareness of the others' choices), the outcome in an equilibrium is not necessarily what any of the participants would have wanted. The classic example is of course one-shot Prisoner's Dilemma, a simple and not ridiculously artificial situation where, for completely straightforward reasons, the two participants wind up at an equilibrium that hurts both of them. In other cases there are multiple equilibria, some of which might be better than others.

The existence of game theory certainly isn't news to economists. I'm sure every professional in the field has heard of Prisoner's Dilemma, and the related “Tragedy of the Commons,” and coordination games, and so on. The argument of No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart can be summed up as: situations with entangled choices, where you need to analyze the choice using game theory instead of as an atomic individual's choice, are extremely common in economic and civic life, and they produce such different behavior that they can't be glossed over as a minor second order correction. Anyone who's thinking about an instance of market behavior purely in terms of individual choices with no side effects, without thinking about the interactions between choices, needs to explain why the case in question is one where such an analysis makes sense. Sometimes it does, but that's more likely the exception than the rule.

The author describes this book as a corrective to what he calls “MarketThink.” I'd describe it as a corrective to the notion of revealed preference, the often intuitively appealing (but also often infuriating) idea that people's market behavior necessarily reveals what people really want. Revealed preference is incorrect because “the market does not respond to our preferences, it responds to our choices, and these are two different things.” Or to expand on that: preferences and choices and outcomes are three different things, and the relationship between them is complicated. Sometimes the only way to get outcomes that come closer to our preferences is to change the game.

1/9 Diana Wynne Jones, Drowned Ammet

Second book of the Dalemark Quartet. This being Jones, I was not surprised to find that the second book doesn't continue the story of the first and that there are no characters of any importance in common.

1/8 Lesa Snider, Photoshop CS6: the missing manual

I probably use 2% of Photoshop's features when I do photo editing. Maybe this book will help me raise it to 3%.

1/6 Dorothy Sayers, In the Teeth of the Evidence

A Dorothy Sayers book I hadn't read before! I hadn't realized there was such a thing. It's a short story collection: two Lord Peter stories, which I'd read in other collections, five Montague Egg stories, which I'd also read elsewhere, and another ten stories none of which I'd read or heard of. They aren't mystery stories, although most of them do involve crime in one way or another. They're atmospheric, mostly nightmarish, sometimes verging on the supernatural. If I hadn't known who the author of those stories was, I wouldn't have guessed Sayers; I would've been more likely to guess someone like Dunsany.

1/5 Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, or, The Whale

“One often hears of writers that rise and swell with their subject, though it may seem but an ordinary one. How, then, with me, writing of this Leviathan? Unconsciously my chirography expands into placard capitals. Give me a condor's quill! Give me Vesuvius' crater for an inkstand! Friends, hold my arms! For in the mere act of penning my thoughts of this Leviathan, they weary me, and make me faint with their outreaching comprehensiveness of sweep, as if to include the whole circle of the sciences, and all the generations of whales, and men, and mastodons, past, present, and to come, with all the revolving panoramas of empire on earth, and throughout the whole universe, not excluding its suburbs. Such, and so magnifying, is the virtue of a large and liberal theme! We expand to its bulk. To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.”

This is the third time I've read Moby-Dick, I think. If you haven't read it, it's hard to describe. There is of course the story about Captain Ahab's insane fixation on the White Whale, but that's only a part of the book. Moby-Dick is a weird book: digressive, sprawling, wildly variable in pace and also in tone — parts of it are portentous and doom laden, other parts seriously funny. Parts of it are straightforward narrative, other parts more like drama, or monologue, or stream of consciousness, or essays on the technical craft or the philosophy of whaling. Everyone knows that the first line is “Call me Ishmael,” but actually it isn't. That's the first line of Chapter 1, but that chapter is preceded by an “Etymology” and by a set of “Extracts (Supplied by a Sub-Sub-Librarian).”

Moby-Dick was not successful when it was first published, perhaps because of its unusual construction and experimental style. Critics first started discussing Moby-Dick as great literature in the second decade of the 20th century, long after the original publication and some decades after Melville's death. Makes me wonder how many other neglected treasures are out there, that just haven't found the right champion.

Matt Austern