This post is a bit late, but it’s better late than never! Today I’ll be discussing the books that I read in 2019.
This was a good year for me, reading-wise. In Metrics for the Unmeasurable Mood, I mentioned that I was trying to read at least one page of a book every day. When I was growing up, I had always been an avid reader, but I realized in 2019 that at some point in university, I had stopped reading fiction. And after graduating, I stopped reading non-fiction, too. Boo.
So I wanted to start again. Let’s see what I read, and how it affected me personally and professionally. This is in rough chronological order.
The Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy is a series of sci-fi books that I started reading in 2018, but didn’t finish until this year. Lots of e-Ink has aleady been e-spilled on how great these books are, so I won’t go into too much detail. Okay, maybe a little detail.
The books are extraordinarily imaginative, consistently increasing the stakes and scale at every turn. Reading the books was a whirldwind: they re-ignitied the furious, unsatiable page-turning hunger for story that I hadn’t felt in years. I feel like I owe the author, Cixin Liu, so thanks!
What I really appreciated about these stories was the fresh (to me) perspective they were told from, written by a Chinese author. What I really found disappointing was the familiar, tired tropes surrounding gender and sex. For most of the trilogy, women are disposable plot elements. And as the story moves from the past into humanity’s future, the books have some pretty disappointing things to say about gender expression and society. So, a land of contrasts.
Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue was the first book that I really enjoyed listening to on audiobook. It is a history of the English language, and I discuss it a bit more in that post.
The book made me re-evaluate how I think about language and – more specifically – how language changes over time. As a writer and an expat, I am keenly interested in language; this book simultaneously satisified that interest, and left me eager to learn more. That leads us to the next book…
The very next book I read was by the same author: The Language Hoax is a refutation of the popular interpretation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. That is, the book debunks the common misunderstanding that what language a person speaks affects what thoughts they are capable of thinking. It respectfully presents the evidence that linguists have gathered in support of their hypothesis, but pulls no punches in skewering how that evidence gets reported on, reinforcing common misunderstandings.
A lot of what makes this book enjoyable is its discussion of how languages changes, generally. Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue discussed the history of English specifically, but The Language Hoax discusses the history of languages generally. I’m glad I read them in this order.
These books have really made me think about how programming languages behave similarly to (and differently from) natural languages like English, Japanese, French, or COBOL (a little joke, there). There are ways that programming languages’ evolution mirror the evolution of natural languages, like how ideas from one language are spread into others by adults learning another language. But then there are also ways that programming languages’ evolution is very distinct from natural languages, like how programming languages have a very specific grammar, which is defined by a governing body of some kind (instead of naturally by the people who actually use the language).
Anyway. The two books continue to give me lots to think about as I dive deeper into being a programming polyglot.
A few years ago, a friend recommended Stories of Your Life and Others, a collection of short stories from Ted Chiang (including the story that the film Arrival was based on). He said that the stories changed his life, so how could I say no? I really enjoyed the collection, and so when Ted Chian released a second collection of short stories this year, I was excited to dive in.
The stories vary in subject matter, length, and tone. Each one is a new world to get to know. I appreciate the ambition of each story, whether it’s 150 pages or 1.5 pages. Definitely check it out, especially if you (like me) find that the internet has destroyed any attention span you had beyond 280 characters.
What a concept. Check it out, folks!
I originally read Mindfulness in Plain English back in university, about ten years ago now. I found its ideas interesting, but I failed to put the ideas into practice. In 2019, I made meditation a part of my daily routine with the help of the Headspace meditation app. Now that I’d established myself as a habitual meditator, I wanted to return to Mindfulness in Plain English and revisit its ideas – maybe, hopefully, I could fold them into my existing practice.
And indeed I did. This is another book I listened to, and I found the narration quite compelling – extra impressive, considering a book that draws from the author’s life but wasn’t narrated by the author. Upon re-reading, I still found the book weirdly judgemental of things like ways to fold your legs, but the bigger ideas (like universal loving friendliness) really resonated with me. I’m glad I revisited this one.
I discussed Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning already over on the Artsy Engineering blog and in my personal post, Learning to Run. I won’t go into much more detail here about what the book is, except for a short pitch.
Let me quote Artsy Engineering’s guiding principles:
At it’s core, engineering is the practice of learning.
If you develop software, your ability to learn is probably the most important professional skill you will ever develop. I started reading this book because I wanted to become a better learner, and to become a better teacher. It continues to help me with both.
Definitely give it a read! Be aware that the authors base their work on research that was performed by many different groups, including the police and the military. I found the chapters examining how surgeons and pilots learn skills far more compelling that I did the chapters describing how marines and cops learn.
Between grade 11 and 12, I switched tracks into my high school’s advanced placement English class. I had to do a bunch of extra work that summer, but that one course has had a heavier impact on my career than any other class I’d taken before, or since. The teacher, Mrs. (now Dr.) Jane McLean, used the advanced placement track as cover to covertly teach us critical literary theory that the Board of Education thought was too advanced for mere highschool students. Her class taught me to see things from multiple perspectices, taught me that which perspective you use will influence how you interpret a text, and taught me how to conscisely convey complex ideas. As an author, as a programmer, and as a human being, I owe a lot to her.
One of the first books we read in that class was The Wars by Timothy Findley. It’s not an uncommon book among Canadian highschools and universities, but it was special to me. Jane handed me the book and I remember her saying “this is a gay book written by a gay author and the book’s gayness made it really difficult to get published.” As a teenager in rural Canada in 2005, it was my first exposure to explicitly queer art.
The book had been on my mind a lot this year (for obvious reasons). The Wars is a story of a sensitive young Canadian man who leaves for Europe to fight in the Great War. It frames all of the war itself, its impact on the protagonist and his family, and the protagonist’s emotional struggles within a still-very-much Victorian society, as manifestations of the same social machine – a machine that is unconcerned with life or happiness. Or at least that’s my reading – it all depends how you look at it, after all.
I wish that I had paid more attention to The Wars when I was in high school, when I’d decided that I was definitely, for sure, 100% straight. I wish I’d paid more attention to how I felt when I was reading it. Each page is soaked in imagery and metaphor, each word layering another overtone on the resonant cacophony of the reader’s emotions. It’s an intense read, and I highly recommend it.
I read Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution after it was mentioned in YouTuber Olly Thorn’s own coming out video. It was an interesting read and, for me, a good introduction to the history of bisexual activism within the broader queer movement.
While it was an interesting read, it wasn’t an easy one. I had hoped to hear more about experiences like my own, but the book largely focuses on the experiences of bi women (it is a feminist book, after all). The book is also entirely dismissive of the concepts of marriage and of same-sex marriage rights. While it’s always helpful to read a perspective you don’t quite agree with, I can’t help but feel let down a bit. I guess I had some expectations for the book that were left unfulfilled, but that’s on me and not the book.
The book was written in 2014 and the discourse surrounding trans and non-binary identities has advanced quite a bit since then; to me reading in 2019, the book trips over itself a bit in a way that I found to be unnecessary. Still, I’m glad I read it.
I kept noticing Ways of Seeing in the background on the bookshelves of cool left-wing YouTubers that I respected, so I decided to give it a go. Nothing like a re-introduction to critical theory to end the year! I’m actually still reading this collection of essays, but it’s already given me quite a bit to think about. Look forward to hearing more about this one from me.
So what’s next? Well, once I finish Ways of Seeing, I plan to read The Character of Physical Law by Richard Feynman. I’ve always been fascinated by physics, and Feynman is one of physics’ great educators. A coworker recommended The Long Dry and it is next in my queue. I also have the Remembrance of Earth’s Past follow-up, The Redemption of Time, to read (although I’ve heard mixed things about it). We’ll see!