What I've Been Reading
Thoughts on the books I read in Q3 2023
“This library afforded me the means of improvement by constant study, for which I set apart an hour or two each day, and thus repair'd in some degree the loss of the learned education my father once intended for me. Reading was the only amusement I allow'd myself. I spent no time in taverns, games, or frolicks of any kind; and my industry in my business continu'd as indefatigable as it was necessary.”
Author: Richard P. Feynman
Year of Publication: 1985
Length: 391 pages
From a very early age, Richard Feynman was obsessed with how the world works which manifested in many interesting and bizarre adventures. I was immediately drawn in by Feynman’s description of how he learned to fix radios and turned the skill into a successful business during the Great Depression. Feynman’s propensity to tinker with things was reminiscent of Steve Jobs learning about electronics using Heathkits. But Feynman went into academics rather than business.
The subtitle of the book is Adventures of a Curious Character and I cannot think of a better description of the man or the book! One of the nice things about this book is that each chapter can be read as a stand-alone unit because they are sketches of certain events that took place in Feynman’s life rather than chapters in a traditional autobiography. I read this book slowly over a period of several weeks.
The release of the Oppenheimer movie renewed my interest in the development of the atomic bomb and there are several chapters in the book about Feynman’s time at Los Alamos although this is not a comprehensive account of how the bomb was made. As an aside, I am reading American Prometheus, a biography of Robert Oppenheimer which I plan to finish before watching the movie.
Author: Richard P. Feynman
Year of Publication: 1988
Length: 277 pages
When I finished reading Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, I discovered that there is a second volume of Richard Feynman’s memoirs. This book has two distinct parts. The first part is a series of autobiographical sketches similar to Surely You’re Joking, but it took on a sadder tone because the longest chapter is about Feynman’s marriage to Arlene who died from tuberculosis at an early age. Feynman knew about Arlene’s diagnosis before their marriage and she died in New Mexico while Feynman was working on the atomic bomb project at Los Alamos.
The second part of the book is about the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster that took place on January 28, 1986. I was out sick from school on that day and remember watching the coverage on television. I suppose I was too young to follow the details of the subsequent investigation so I did not recall that Richard Feynman had a key role on the Rogers Commission that investigated the disaster. Feynman made many contributions to the report, particularly about the O-Ring failure. He wrote about the commission and his frustration with how NASA’s management dealt with risk and communications between the technical staff and managers.
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Author: Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman
Year of Publication: 2017
Length: 287 pages
Claude Shannon is most famous for his groundbreaking work related to information theory and communications but he was also a multi-disciplinary thinker and a lifelong tinkerer. He was never satisfied with applying his genius to the abstract problems of pure mathematics, instead always striving to use mathematical concepts to solve concrete problems in multiple disciplines.
There is no Nobel Prize dedicated to mathematics, but Shannon received many other honors during his career including the Kyoto Prize in 1985. In his acceptance speech, he predicted that machines would soon surpass human capabilities. While he might have been too optimistic by a couple of decades, Shannon clearly could see the rise of machine learning and artificial intelligence on the not-too-distant horizon.
Read more about the book in my review published on July 28:
Author: Steve Jobs
Editor: Leslie Berlin
Year of Publication: 2023
Length: 196 pages
This is a collection of letters, speeches, and interviews published by the Steve Jobs Archive website. It contains an introduction by Laurene Powell Jobs and is freely available as an Apple Book or epub file. Apparently, hard copies were given to Apple employees and copies are selling for hundreds of dollars.
I found reading the book very interesting even though I have read many other books about Steve Jobs. This book is mostly Steve Jobs in his own words. I also recommend listening to a recent episode of Founders podcast covering the book.
Author: Jacob McDonough
Year of Publication: 2020
Length: 176 pages
Jacob McDonough’s book analyzes Berkshire Hathaway from 1955 to 1985 through the eyes of an investor who was examining financial statements during those years. I recently read the book cover-to-cover for the second time. I have often looked up key facts from this book which is a great reference.
Read more about the book in my review published on July 27, 2020:
Author: David McCullough
Year of Publication: 1978
Length: 622 pages
I have been working my way through David McCullough’s books. The Path Between the Seas might be my favorite so far. I had very little prior knowledge of what it took to build the Panama Canal. Most of my assumptions regarding the canal were incorrect.
This monumental task required massive amounts of money and human lives and the first attempt, by the French, ended in disaster. The story of how the canal was finally built by the United States demonstrates the capacity to learn from mistakes.
The central debate was whether the canal was to be built at sea level or through the use of locks. Ultimately, a sea level canal was an impossible dream. An artificial lake eighty-five feet above sea level was created by building a massive dam. A series of locks had to be constructed to lift ships to lake level. McCullough’s description of the technology used to build the lock system was my favorite part of the book.
Author: Paul Volcker
Year of Publication: 2018
Length: 248 pages
Paul Volcker published his memoirs one year before his death in 2019. Although Volcker is best known for raising interest rates in the early 1980s to finally bring about a reduction in the rate of inflation, his entire life story is interesting, particularly his service in government prior to his tenure at the Federal Reserve.
I wrote about Paul Volcker’s views on inflation targeting in some detail in The Digest #162, so I will not repeat those comments here other than to say that we would have greatly benefited from Volcker’s wisdom over the past two years.
Author: Gary Taubes
Year of Publication: 2016
Length: 285 pages
I first read The Case Against Sugar in early 2021 but felt a need to reread the book again recently. I consider this book to be a good companion to Peter Attia’s Outlive: The Science and Art of Longevity which I reviewed earlier this year.
Gary Taubes makes a devastating case documenting the role of sugar in bringing about dysfunctions in metabolic health in populations that have adopted a typical western diet. In my opinion, the evidence is more than sufficient to take drastic action to limit sugar intake in my own diet.
I’d recommend reading my review of Peter Attia’s book for more background on why it is critical to preserve metabolic health as we age.
Author: Tom Holland
Year of Publication: 2018
Length: 543 pages
How did a man who suffered the most humiliating death imaginable found a religion that would ultimately attract billions of followers? When Jesus Christ was crucified, odds were high that he would disappear into obscurity, remembered by those who knew him as a charismatic leader, but soon forgotten. The ancient world had many charismatic men who claimed to be prophets, most of whom are long forgotten today.
Today, the western worldview is shaped by Christianity in ways that go far beyond religious adherence. Our assumptions regarding morality, ethics, and human rights have been heavily influenced by the teachings of Jesus Christ. This influence did not occur overnight but progressed over many centuries. The story of how this influence grew and evolved is the topic of Tom Holland’s epic study.
Those who are potentially interested in reading the book will find it useful to read Nassim Taleb’s foreword to new editions of Dominion. Taleb comments at length on Holland’s central thesis. This foreword did not appear in my copy.
Author: Timothy Keller
Year of Publication: 2016
Length: 255 pages
I first learned about Timothy Keller in May when several accounts I follow on Twitter posted thoughts about his death. Keller was a pastor and co-founder of a church in New York City that eventually grew to thousands of people. This was intriguing since my impression has always been that New York City is one of the most secular places on earth. A tweet led me to Keller’s podcast series designed to speak to agnostics about religion in general and Christianity in particular.
This book is a companion to the podcast series and covers the topics in greater detail. Keller was used to speaking to atheists and did so in a way that could not possibly cause offense. He had a disarming style when it came to simultaneously upholding his beliefs while not trivializing the views of secularists. At the same time, he was forceful in his criticism of secularism and pointed out its problems and inconsistencies.
From an agnostic perspective, I found the podcast and the book useful in terms of better understanding the claims of Christianity as well as the many problems with postmodern secularism. Make no mistake, Timothy Keller was trying to win converts to the Christian faith. But I suspect that most skeptics with an open mind will still find it worthwhile to give him a fair hearing even if they are not convinced.
Author: Dino Buzzati
Year of Publication: 1940
Length: 265 pages
Nassim Taleb’s website used to have a list of his favorite literary works but it looks like the list has been removed. However, the list is still available in web archives. Dino Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppe is not only on the list but one of the books that Taleb has read more than five times. That’s quite an endorsement!
The central character is Giovanni Drogo, a young man who has been sent to a remote outpost called Fort Bastiani. The assignment is meant to be relatively short and Drogo had the opportunity to manipulate the system and win reassignment to a better post near a city where he would have regular access to all of the amenities of civilian life. Perhaps driven by idealism, Drogo declines the opportunity to leave.
Weeks become months, months extend to years, and finally decades. The men of Fort Bastiani await an attack by the enemy in utter boredom. Although there are some false alarms, the enemy fails to attack. The years go by and Drogo gets older, at first gradually and then suddenly. The ultimate lesson is that the long run is just a series of short runs and, without giving life enough thought, we risk squandering the years.
Author: Cormac McCarthy
Year of Publication: 2006
Length: 287 pages
When I sat down to read this novel on a Sunday afternoon, I had a general idea of the plot but was unprepared for the full emotional impact. Lacking chapters, the narrative proceeds without pause and draws the reader into an apocalyptic world, yet one that would be realistic under several scenarios most of us prefer to avoid thinking about. My assumption was that the story of a man and his young son took place in the aftermath of a nuclear war, but it is possible that some other cataclysm, such as an eruption of the Yellowstone super volcano could have caused the devastation.
Whatever the cause, the story is about a man and his son traveling through a dark and cold landscape, pushing a shopping cart with all of their possessions, trying to reach the coast. On the way, they encounter numerous hazards and experience the worst of humanity, but remain steadfast in their efforts to reach their objective. The story is also about the unbreakable bond between father and son, and from that perspective has an uplifting element. However, all things considered, I found the experience depressing. I’ve been told that I should give other Cormac McCarthy novels a try.
Author: Daniel Silva
Year of Publication: 2023
Length: 402 pages
Daniel Silva releases a new installment in his Gabriel Allon series every summer. The collector is the twenty-third book in the series and I have read them all.
Gabriel Allon has retired as the head of Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, and has taken up residence in Venice as an art restorer. However, he is again called upon by circumstances not entirely in his control to locate stolen art. If this sounds familiar to those who’ve read prior installments, that’s because it is a well-worn plot line.
Perhaps it is because I’ve read all of the books in this series, but I am finding the plots to be more and more repetitive and formulaic, with what seem like forced efforts to bring in current events, in this case the war between Russia and Ukraine. I’d prefer to see the author introduce some new characters and break new ground, but at a pace of one new novel per year that’s guaranteed to sell, maybe that’s not in the cards.
This article is part of a quarterly series of “mini reviews” of my reading. Recent installments in the series appear below:
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