It’s December 31, 2020 and I’m sitting in the dark of my home office on a used Herman Miller chair I bought from an office furniture liquidator in the summer. My skin has practically turned translucent from extended periods of not leaving my house. It’s noon now. I’m drinking a beer. My shower drain is completely clogged so I am waiting for the plumber. I don’t know what I expected 2020 to be this time last year but it certainly wasn’t this.
If nothing else, 2020 was a banner year for my personal reading. For the first time in years I read non-fiction. I also read historical non-fiction, technical non-fiction, self help, photography, and even comics. What better way to reflect on a year than reflecting on the books I actually read, started and never finished, and bought but never read?
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This list is organized more or less in the order I bought these books. I read nearly all of them or at least attempted it. If there is a book I didn’t finish, or didn’t get around to reading, I’ll be sure to mention it.
Cracking the Coding Interview: 189 Programming Questions and Solutions
If you work in software you surely are aware of the trend for increasingly more elaborate interview challenges. Like it or not this trend is rapidly becoming the price of admission for those who wish to play the game. Cracking the Coding Interview is a book about preparing yourself for these challenges. It has some practical interview prep advice along with a slew of questions and solutions. I made it through a dozen or so but never finished. I think Grokking Algorithms is a much better book on the subject for those interested in truly understanding algorithmic thinking. After I got tired of this book I went back and re-read Grokking Algorithms instead.
Elements of Programming Interviews in Python: The Insiders’ Guide
Sheepishly I admit I didn’t even crack the cover of this book. It sits on my shelf as a symbol of my intentions for the year. Maybe I’ll get to reading Elements of Programming Interviews in Python in 2021, but I don’t feel a pressing urge. In retrospect it just doesn’t speak to me. I would rather spend my time tinkering with programming languages I actually enjoy (like lisp) or building something. After all, building things is the reason I got into software. I think it is a shame the industry has turned interviews into a such a fun killing game.
Bullshit Jobs: A Theory
There is a bit of a theme going here if you haven’t noticed. This was in February and I wasn’t very happy. Bullshit Jobs really helped me put my dissatisfaction into perspective. In this book David Graeber (who died far too young in 2020) asks the question what are bullshit job and why do they proliferate? This book is infinitely quotable and I found myself sometimes writing down multiple quotes from the same page.
As we’ll see, testimonies from consultants hired to introduce efficiencies in a large corporation (say, a bank, or a medical supply corporation) attest to the awkward silences and outright hostility that ensue when executives realize those efficiencies will have the effect of automating away a significant portion of their subordinates. By doing so, they would effectively reduce managers to nothing. King of the air. For without flunkies, to whom, exactly, would they be “superior”?
I recommend everyone read this book regardless of your feelings of your current job. I especially recommend this book for anyone feeling disillusioned by their job and to anyone who mutters “this is bullshit” under their breath as they leave their house to go to work. It is chicken soup for the disgruntled soul.
Dying for a Paycheck: How Modern Management Harms Employee Health and Company Performance―and What We Can Do About It
Continuing the theme, Dying for a Paycheck examines the toll management practices take on the health of employees. This book examines health outcomes for employees in toxic work places and backs everything up with facts, figures, and statistics. The analysis is thorough and the conclusion is alarming. Work is killing us. The material is dense, but I consider this book a must read. In 2021 it might even graduate to a must finish. I’m only half way through.
Forth Programmer’s Handbook
It’s a programming language! It’s an operating system! It’s Forth. Forth Programmer’s Handbook is an essential reference for anyone determined to create magic with the alien yet productive programming tool called Forth. I found Forth because I really wanted something more like Lisp and less like C/C++ for programming microcontrollers. Forth fills this role very nicely. Check out my articles on programming Arduino with Forth.
Starting Forth: An Introduction to the Forth Language and Operating System for Beginners and Professionals
Starting Forth is one of the best programming books I have ever read. You don’t have to buy this book as it is freely available online. However, I think this book is worth having in dead tree format. Sadly, it is out of print so you will need to find a used copy.
Thinking Forth is another book by the author of Starting Forth, Leo Brodie. I haven’t finished this book as it is less about Forth and more about planning, design, and factoring. Still I think this is a great resource for anyone planning to build something complicated with Forth.
I am a huge fan of The Expanse. If you like science fiction you are sure to like this series of books. Currently I am about half way through the sixth book in the series Babylon’s Ashes. When humans discover a mysterious molecule of alien origin the balance of power in the solar system rapidly changes as the mystery of the “protomolecule” is revealed.
What I love about this series is that it is easy to believe it is a future that is just around the corner for humanity. Unlike Star Trek, humanity is still confined to the realm of our solar system. Also unlike Star Trek, humanity is still plagued by inequality, injustice, cruelty, and greed. This touch of realism is what makes this series such a page turner. I was so hooked on this during the summer that I finished the first four books in about two weeks.
The Expanse was a bit of a change for me. If I had to guess it had been maybe five years since I last read any form of fiction. It was a great way to escape the unpleasant realities of 2020 (for the unpleasant realities of a fictional future). The Expanse is Harry Potter for Star Trek fans in a four thousand page space opera. What odd praise. I love Harry Potter and I can read all of them in about a week. The Expanse is just as enjoyable to read.
Sid Meier’s Memoir!: A Life in Computer Games
I just don’t see how you can pass up an opportunity to read the memoir of one of the most legendary game creators of all time. Even if you only have a passing interest in video games, Sid Meir’s Memoir! is well worth your time. If you aspire to create games yourself I consider Meir’s insights to be indispensable. Just keep in mind this is a memoir so don’t expect a detailed how to about how to break into the industry. Meir talks about his path and inspirations which are uniquely his own.
Blood, Sweat, and Pixels: The Triumphant, Turbulent Stories Behind How Video Games Are Made
I think this is an important book for anyone who loves video games to read. Recently I have watched comment sections on Reddit and other sites team with anger over Cyberpunk 2077. Blood, Sweat, and Pixels is a behind the scenes look at what goes into making our favorite games as well as what goes into deciding when to release them. Release day rarely goes as planned.
This book is worth the chapters about Stardew Valley and Shovel Knight alone. In particular, I was fascinated by the story about how one person, Eric Barone, spent years creating his opus and homage to Harvest Moon (Stardew Valley) while his girlfriend supported his endeavor. It was a massive risk that was met with an equally massive reward. For every Eric Barone there are probably hundreds who gambled and lost doing the same thing.
Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs
Ok, I didn’t actually finish this one. I am only a couple of chapters in so far. As a Lisp fan, Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs has been on my buy list for ages. The material is dense to say the least so I recommend picking up the Instructor’s Manual as well.
The Photographer’s Guide to Posing: Techniques to Flatter Everyone
This is one of those books I wish I would have read years ago. I have always been interested in the technical aspects of photography and especially the equipment itself. I love taking pictures of people but my posing skills were always lacking. The Photographer’s Guide to Posing is all about how to find a pose that will flatter any subject. I’ve always been the camera guy, but I used to get nervous any time someone asked me to take their picture. Since reading this book I have noticed my portraits have improved dramatically. Whether you are taking portraits of individuals, couples, or groups its all about the pose. This book will help you find a pose your subject will love.
The Little Book of Big Change: The No-Willpower Approach to Breaking Any Habit
I usually don’t go for self help books but when I stepped on the scale in October only to discover I had actually gained weight despite regular exercise I knew I had some habits to break. The Little Book of Big Change has a simple premise. To break a habit you needn’t do anything. Habits are something we re-enforce by constantly giving them attention. Often times our efforts to “do something” about them only re-enforce them further.
I felt this book was a worthwhile read although I found that it had some pseudoscientific bits (the universal mind, whatever that is) that really weakened the credibility of the book. I had a hard time taking it as seriously as result. Maybe that won’t bother you, but it bothered me. Buying in to the author’s message would have been much easier for me if it were not for those parts.
Did it work for me? I just stepped on the scale and I’m down 10 pounds since that fateful day I stepped on the scale a few months ago. So, maybe.
Strange Planet and Stranger Planet
Who knew describing common things using uncommon phrasing could be so funny? That is the genius of Nathan W. Pyle’s Strange Planet and Stranger Planet. You have almost certainly seen Pyle’s comics on various social media outlets. I liked them so much I bought several copies to give away as gifts for Christmas. Of course, I also bought copies for myself.
The Boron Letters
The Boron Letters is a collection of letters written by (the allegedly) legendary copy writer Gary C. Halbert to his son while he served time in federal prison. In the letters Halbert discusses the finer points of copy writing and advertising. Initially this book appealed to me because I have always had a bit of an entrepreneurial streak. So, I decided to buy this book to learn Halbert’s secrets.
The quality of this book was disappointing. The letters themselves are definitely interesting and there are some nuggets of wisdom in the letters. However, the print quality was poor to say the least. The updates provided by Halbert’s son also suffered from a lack of editing. I think the updates would have been better as a one to two page introduction along with a few footnotes. There are a number of places were the updates meander into the personal political views of Halbert’s son that steal from the credibility of the letters.
The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed
This is the last book I read in 2020 and I am glad I saved it for last. For some reason my co-workers and I at my current (decidedly non-bullshit) job went down the rabbit hole of airships and lighter than air flight. It has turned into something of an inside joke on our team.
I for one, am a “helium head” who wishes we could revive the great laviathans of the air that were ridged air ships. Personally, I became interested in airship travel when I learned that ridged airships routinely cross the Atlantic in the early 20th century. My personal experience crossing the Atlantic (technically we flew over the arctic) to get to Europe in 2019 (check out my photos) was nothing short of miserable. There is nothing like being stuck for hours in a cramped aluminum can with strangers, some who vomited, to make you wish for an alternative.
The Deltoid Pumkin Seed recounts the story of a group of helium heads who wanted to do the revive airships. What do a couple of ministers, a German physicist, a model maker, and a couple of former Navy airship crewmen have in common? An undying love of lighter than air flight, evidently. This book made me feel a sense of loss for something I never had. A must read for anyone who interested in the history of aviation.
Hopefully something in this list will find its way to your own reading list. I think there will still be plenty of time to hunker down with a good book in the months to come. The plumber is finally here and my shower drain is unclogged. I’m going to take a shower and welcome the new year with a bottle of champagne that has a twist top. 2021 is looking up already.