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My favourite books of 2019

In 2019 I read 66 books (with an average length of 289 pages). I track all the books I read on my reading list. Here are the ones I recommend:

Fiction #

  • Exhalation, Ted Chiang
  • Flowers for Algernon, Daniel Keyes
  • His Dark Materials 1: Northern Lights, Philip Pullman
  • His Dark Materials 2: Subtle Knife, Philip Pullman
  • His Dark Materials 3: Amber Spyglass, Philip Pullman
  • The Course of Love, Alain de Botton
  • The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro

Non-fiction #

Sustainable Energy – without the hot air, David J.C. MacKay #

Despite the well-structured approach to describing the problem, the outlook for sustainable energy is not a positive one. This book explains why renewables will never be able to provide 100% of the energy in the UK unless we deploy country-scale facilities – something I doubt will ever happen. This is a good example of how to walk through a difficult topic so that it is accessible for non-specialists (particularly politicians) but still offer scientific detail if the reader wishes.

This book was published 10+ years ago. We have known about the problems of sustainable energy and climate change for decades. We have also known about the solutions, and yet whilst have made good progress (e.g. almost 40% renewables in the UK electricity generation sector in 2019), we haven’t made sufficient progress.

The Social Contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau #

The UK has had some kind of election major every year for the last 5 years and every time the “wrong” party wins, I find the inevitable protests amusing. I have nothing against protests per se, when they are reasonable and targeted at specific causes, but I find protests against legitimate, democratic votes to be absurd. You might not agree with the result but to use your right to protest against the legitimate outcome of the right to vote makes no sense at all.

Although written several hundred years ago, The Social Contract stands up even in 2019, perhaps even more so with hashtags like #notmygovernment. My advice to those protesters would be to read The Social Contract. Your right to protest is only available because of the surrender of certain other freedoms by being a member of a democratic society. If you are protesting the very basis of that society – the outcome of a vote – then you are essentially protesting your right to vote.

Steering the Craft: A Twenty-First-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, Ursula K. Le Guin #

Supported by great examples and clear tips, Le Guin provides the core foundations for fiction writing, plus a few hints for narrative non-fiction. The exercises are fun and relevant, and they make you think about the points you just read. My favourite tips were around creating memorable character names and how it’s always a good idea to throw away the first 3 pages of anything (3 paragraphs for shorter works). I look forward to trying these!

Environmental Economics: A Very Short Introduction, Stephen Smith #

It’s all very well saying we want zero pollution and to have a perfect planet, but that isn’t realistic and indeed isn’t possible if human civilisation is to exist at all. This is a good introduction to how to think about the environment in pragmatic manner, using real world economic concepts to understand how to make the best decisions with the appropriate tradeoffs.

I would have liked to see a few more numbers or basic models to back up some of the positions taken particularly in the final chapter related to the costs of climate change. However, I found the discussions around incentives, particularly carbon taxes vs trading, to be quite enlightening.

The Absent Superpower: The Shale Revolution and a World Without America, Peter Zeihan #

The first part of this book is about shale – what it is, how it works and what the history is. It’s written in a somewhat technical but still easy to understand way, is mostly neutral but is definitely on the positive side of the technology and its benefits (the Appendix covers the negatives and counters to them). This is interesting, but not revolutionary. What it does do is set up the rest of the book.

The first chapter of the second part is an amazingly concise yet comprehensive discussion and analysis of modern history leading into the geo-strategic position of all the major countries as of 2016. If you read nothing else, this chapter is worth the full 5 stars. It’s a great explanation of why we are where we are (as of 2016, when the book was written).

The rest of the book is a prediction of what is going to happen as the US becomes less interested in being the “world police” and starts supplying all of its own energy (oil/natgas) needs. Regardless of how much you buy into the predictions, the narrative is compelling reading and helps understand some of the more unusual aspects of activity by certain countries e.g. why China is focused on coal power generation vs renewables.

As the chapters progressed, I found they become more and more premised on earlier assumptions which if a few key things fail to materialise, a good half of the book is wrong. The author says this is not supposed to be a detailed prediction, but does make some very detailed predictions. In that sense, I found it to be somewhat incredible.

Nonetheless, it is an important thought experiment and is based in a good degree of fact regarding state positions (both public, and what they are doing). Certain things the author predicted e.g. trouble caused by Iran in the shipping lanes of the Strait of Hormuz, have started to happen.

Despite not believing most of the predictions, I still found this a compelling “what if” discussion that really highlights how our entire global stability is built on oil. That is not a good place to be.

Energy: A Beginner’s Guide, Vaclav Smil #

I found this to be a good introduction to the concept of “energy” and the historical changes of how energy is used in society. A large part of the book is dedicated to that history and the biological processes that involve energy. Only a small part considers how we might move away from fossil-fuel based sources of energy and what the future of energy will be.

It’s not supposed be in depth in any area so whilst I would have liked more on that topic, there are plenty of other books which can provide in-depth discussions of areas of particular interest surfaced by this book. Indeed, the end of the book has a very nice, short bibliography of further reading specific to each chapter.

Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty, Daron Acemoğlu,  James A. Robinson #

There are many sophisticated theories for why certain countries are poorer than others but given the broad distribution of geography and history, none actually stand up to scrutiny.

If the answer is geography, why the difference between Mexico and USA? If the answer is common history then why North and South Korea? If the answer is the automatic effects of post-colonialism, why Botswana vs Zimbabwe?

The answer, according to this book, is to do with the type of economic and political institutions. Not one or the other, but both are crucial to sustained growth and a high quality of living for citizens.

Whilst I think more pages could have been dedicated to types of government (e.g. various forms of capitalism and socialism), the idea that strong property rights and freedom of markets are necessary (but not sufficient) still comes through very clearly.

A very interesting read, especially with the ending thoughts on foreign aid and the importance of focusing on the right areas when considering how to encourage change as part of foreign policy. There is a lot of wasted time and money that could otherwise be avoided if the lessons of history were applied. This book does a good job at explaining them.

World Order: Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History, Henry Kissinger #

Kissinger provides an excellent guide to the current state of world order and how states interact with each other. He includes the necessary historical context for the development of all major societies that have a key role on the world stage, explaining how they interact and offering a commentary on the causes of key events. He has particular insight into the period where he was directly involved with key foreign policy decisions, particularly around the Middle East and China.

Reading this in 2019, it is amazing how much of the political challenges we face today were predicted in the chapter on technological change. This is especially the case when it comes to the advances of technology on elections and policy making, then how they transpired into Brexit and Trump.

Kissinger barely needs to provide an updated volume because everything he discussed turned out to be correct, but it would still be fascinating to read an up to date analysis and how he thinks we should proceed into the future.

The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind, Donella H. Meadows,  Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, William W. Behrens III #

Although completely out of date, there are several key principles explained in this book that are vital to understand, and somewhat unintuitive. Exponential growth is a well known confounder when it comes to what one might normally expect, but combined with modelling potential productivity improvements due to technology and what that does (or doesn’t do) to the ultimate outcome, this book does a great job at explaining the challenges we face as a civilisation.

Regardless of the timeline of how things have actually developed, the model is still relevant. Indeed, the narrative specifically says that the model is not supposed to be predictive and the dates are just indicative. The direction is accurate though, so this serves to illustrate how we should be thinking about what are inevitable problems of the future.

My biggest criticism of the equilibrium state is what might be necessary to reach it. The book does a good job at being non-partisan but to me is clearly advocating for a socialist / centrally controlled solution. It’s reasonable to initially think that is the only way to get everyone aligned and working towards the same goal, but anyone who knows anything about history will know that socialism simply doesn’t work, it has never worked and will never work. The Road to Serfdom describes this clearly.

That leaves us with the challenge of how to bring about the same result through pragmatic, capitalist means. This is all about incentives. Government certainly has a role here and we are already seeing how well that works when it comes to energy markets and renewables. The question is: is it soon enough and how do we speed things up? That’s where global agreement will be needed – common light-touch intervention to stimulate innovation and market based solutions that don’t then result in loss of freedom. How we achieve this is the key policy question of the next decade.

On the Shortness of Life, Seneca #

Clear, simple and still relevant. Not much else to say really – this is classic philosophy and very much matches how I try and think about the world. The key principle is explained on the first page:

It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested.

In Praise of Shadows, Jun’ichirō Tanizaki #

The flow through so many topics is impressive in how smoothly Tanizaki covers so many seemingly different but completely relevant areas. It reminds me of Lost Japan by Alex Kerr in lamenting some of the past but still seeing how it could be reimagined and appreciated in the present, even if the present of this book is now many years in the past.

I’m not sure about his opinion that the West doesn’t really understand the dark. Shadows and darkness are what I associate most with Victorian London, especially with the smog and other effects of the Industrial Revolution.

I also think cities like London and Edinburgh are faring much better when it comes to architectural conservatism as well – one only has to visit the vast areas of modern Tokyo and Kyoto to understand the contrast the shrinking of the more traditional quarters.