Books of 2016

– Posted February 26, 2017 the refsmmat report · a blog at

As part of my obsession with tracking things I’ve read, I keep a file with every book I’ve read since 2012(ish). I write myself brief reviews or commentaries for particularly interesting books, so I remember what they’re about in a few years. Here are some of the best of 2016, selected from a total of 32.

The Day of the Jackal, by Frederick Forsyth

This is what I needed after Tom Clancy: a sharp, well-written thriller with plenty of plausible detail. I’ll have to start reading Forsyth’s other work to see if he fell into Clancy’s trap of modernizing his work until it sucks.

I do wonder – the book is set during de Gaulle’s presidency in France in the 60s, so all the spycraft is based on disguises, falsified passports, shadowy meetings in semi-public places, etc. A modern version would involve the OAS exchanging encrypted text messages and emails, hiding their plans with steganography, and ditching burner phones, while the police use big electronic surveillance systems instead of canvassing hotels for occupancy records. Would the modern version come across as a nerd novel? Too much tech fanciness to enjoy the plot? The original spycraft just makes the assassin seem sophisticated and smart, not nerdy or technologically advanced – it’s a battle of wits between assassin and police, not just who has the biggest electronic surveillance budget and the fanciest apps.

The Space Merchants, by Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth

An interesting world-building exercise: it’s The Future, and the world is controlled by large corporations and advertising agencies, with governments largely subservient to them. (The House of Representatives consists of representatives to specific companies, not districts.) The world is vastly overpopulated, with everyone living in cramped apartments with fold-up beds and saltwater taps for bathing. Consumption is the primary good: the more you consume, the more you boost the economy, allowing large companies to thrive and pay for advertising to make you consume even more. Addictive substances are added to coffee and sodas. Many workers start in indentured servitude in systems engineered to create more debts to their employers, like the old mining towns and company stores. Companies settle disputes with physical violence and private security contractors.

For a book written in 1953, it’s surprisingly prescient. Growth and consumption are still our highest priorities. Instead of adding addictive substances to our coffee, ad companies try to learn everything about us, using megabytes of Javascript tracking code on every webpage to target advertisements directly to our preferences. They aren’t nearly as good as the advertisers in the novel yet, who apparently have incredible power over the subconscious minds of consumers, but they would happily use the power if they had it.

The plot itself didn’t grip me much – Conservationists don’t want the planned colonization of Venus to continue under the control of an ad agency – and the writing was good but not amazing. I just enjoyed the parallels with today’s economy, where questioning advertising is edgy, questioning consumerism is only acceptable if you continue buying useless gadgets anyway, and presidential candidates routinely advocate for the reckless use of natural resources for the benefit of our economy.

Makes you want to spend the rest of the evening with another lovely hardcover book, instead of Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.

Double Star, by Robert Heinlein

Fun and interesting. An actor is hired to double for the solar system’s most prominent politician to avoid a political crisis, and ends up far deeper into the job than he anticipated. Turns out he’s a better Bonforte than Bonforte himself.

Doesn’t attempt to be nearly as deep or poetic as Sturgeon’s More than Human, but it’s a fun story, blemished only by some poor characterization (the only woman, Penny, is an emotional wreck who has to be repeatedly told to pull herself together) and his tendency to string along the plot by introducing one more crisis for the actor to manage. There’s no real ending either. But it was fun while it lasted.

It’s always fun to see our limited conception of the future. Double Star is set in a future where nuclear-powered spacecraft can travel at 2 g acceleration to Mars and back, but government records are kept on microfilm in a giant archive on the Moon. More subtly, they mention “scramblers” for video and audio calls which can undoubtedly be broken – actual secure cryptography wasn’t foreseen either.

The Public Domain, by James Doyle

See my full review.

The Closing of the Western Mind, by Charles Freeman

Despite the title, this is not a Sam Harris- or Richard Dawkins-style polemic against Christianity. (Not that I have read books by either of those people.) Instead, this is a detailed accounting of the early development of Christian theology and its roots in (and separation from) Greek philosophy. Freeman details how the Greeks developed a rich tradition of rational thought and empirical investigation, exemplified by Aristotle, but early Christianity leaned more Platonic, favoring the idea that there are pure truths about God which cannot be discovered from empirical evidence alone.

Once the Roman Empire adopted Christianity and made it the state religion, with patronage and tax benefits and all the related benefits, the definition of “orthodox” Christianity quickly became a serious issue, and the many disparate theologies that had arisen from the contradictory and incomplete mass of scriptures, Gospels, and epistles had to be formed into a single creed. This led to centuries of church infighting, imperial interventions and meddling, and political intrigues – bishops were scheming to depose each other, riots broke out over obscure details of the theology of the Trinity, and heretics were exiled outright.

Gradually the Church (at least the Western church) settled on many of the details, but rational thought and disagreement were stifled to protect the consensus. Church leaders openly denigrated pagan philosophers as foolish for attempting to understand the world God created. It became more important to be orthodox than to think freely, for fear of sanction, and as the Church became more Latin-speaking, the works of the Greek philosophers and theologians faded away.

Freeman spends most of his time on a straightforward account of the theological disputes rending the church, and the various imperial interventions to resolve them, rather than hammering home the thesis again and again. This means the book is interesting as a history as well – it covers the basic history of the early church without boring me like Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years did, though I admit to losing track of all the sects and their opinions on the Trinity and Christ’s divinity.

The Rise and Fall of American Growth, by Robert J. Gordon

I have mixed feelings about this book. The first part of the book, detailing the enormous growth in the American standard of living beginning in 1870, is fascinating: we often talk about how life was so simple and calm in the old days, but don’t mention needing to carry in buckets of water and firewood just to have a hot bath, rampant infectious disease, monotonous diets, homemade clothing, slow and dangerous travel to anywhere more than a few miles away, and everything else that comes with a “simple” life. I learned quite a lot about life in America around 1900.

On the other hand, much of this knowledge came through Gordon’s detailed descriptions of charts and graphs, rather than through evocative prose. Much time is spent discussing inflation-adjusted indices and productivity ratios and quality-adjusted life expectancies, even when the core points would be well-supported with much less detail.

But anyway. The second portion of the book describes a claimed slowdown in quality-of-life improvements after 1970: a frequent refrain, after each pre-1970 improvement, is that it “could have only happened once”. Once you’ve provided everyone with clean running water, what can you do that would bring that magnitude of benefit again? You can’t re-eliminate cholera.

Gordon reviews the areas of American life that have dramatically improved since 1970, mostly focusing on communications and computers. Yes, we have the Internet, smartphones, a Jeopardy-playing computer program, and plenty else. But these haven’t dramatically improved our lives, argues Gordon, and can’t provide the same benefits and growth as, say, not dying from typhoid fever. And computers and automation are eliminating much of the core of middle-class jobs: jobs requiring moderate but routine intellectual or manual labor, like assembly-line manufacturing or routine bookkeeping. Instead we’re left with high-end non-automated jobs (famous musician, professional lawyer or doctor, engineer, etc.) and low-end manual labor that can’t be entirely automated.

I can buy this argument. Short of a Singularity event which eliminates death, we can’t replicate the same health gains we made from 1870-1970; short of teleportation or hypersonic airplanes, we can’t beat the 20th century for transportation improvement; short of ubiquitous high-speed Amazon drones, we won’t replicate the gain in convenience and variety brought by supermarkets instead of small general stores. But I suspect we are not very good at predicting the impact of modern inventions – 3D printing, ubiquitous machine learning, networked everything – on the quality of life.1 There is less room for gains, because so many have been made, but hindered by our liminted imaginations, we do not see where gains can be made.

Gordon then offers an analysis of what can be done to improve growth. Some of this – reduce government regulation, eliminate some patent and copyright barriers, reduce inequality – seems straightforward, but I am in no way qualified to understand the economic implications. I will reserve judgment. I was somewhat disappointed that the recommendations were not more detailed or accompanied by evidence that they’d work – say, comparisons with European countries with different regulatory regimes, or between states introducing different policies. But fixing American growth is surely an entire book on its own, so I can’t blame Gordon for not spending more time on the topic.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, by John le Carré

This is my second reading of this book, after reading it last in 2012 and seeing the movie in 2011 and again earlier this year. It finally all made sense. I finally could keep track of all the characters, by remembering their faces from the movie, and I could finally make sense of the plot and Smiley’s schemes. A great novel but one that requires careful reading. I should move on to The Honorable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People.

As with The Day of the Jackal, this book makes me wonder if it’s possible to set an engaging spy thriller in modern times. It makes me think of Mark Kac’s old explanation of genius:

There are two kinds of geniuses: the ‘ordinary’ and the ‘magicians.’ An ordinary genius is a fellow whom you and I would be just as good as, if we were only many times better. There is no mystery as to how his mind works. Once we understand what they’ve done, we feel certain that we, too, could have done it. It is different with the magicians.

(He then went on to say that Feynman was “magician of the highest caliber”.)

Good mysteries and thrillers often involve the ‘ordinary’ genius, Smiley being an exemplar. Inspector Lebel of The Day of the Jackal was another example, as is Jack Ryan of the Clancyverse. But any modern thriller I see – usually in movie form, because I haven’t found an author I like – tends to lean heavily on technology (see recent Bond movies, for example), and technology ends up being a technobabble deus ex machina. Technicians are magicians. (Possibly because many authors are not technical experts, as evidenced by Dan Brown’s Digital Fortress. I wonder if a digital native would be able to craft a mystery story centered on technology and accessible to other digital natives. A nerd’s novel, say.)

On Paper, by Nicholas Basbanes

This is an interesting book, for its form as much as its content. The modern trend seems to be for nonfiction books to be framed around the author’s journey to find out about the subject of the book—read any Mary Roach book, for example, and you’ll hear zany stories of the scientists and colorful characters she meets as she does her research for the book. Some books take this far enough that there’s very little in the way of actual content.

Basbanes, on the other hand, is immensely knowledgeable, and fits a few paragraphs of narrative around a wealth of interesting material on all manner of topics related to paper: Chinese and Japanese papermaking, the use of paper in intelligence work, the paper that fell from the World Trade Center during its destruction, paper records of early American history, and much more in between. This is a book that will make you want to buy some nice cotton bond paper for no good reason.

  1. Ten or twenty years ago, we probably didn’t expect that the greatest application of “big data” and machine learning would be in advertising. I guess that says something about the kind of world we live in.