This year, I read 40 books, which included 11 novels and 29 non-fiction books. I am currently reading Maoism: A Global History by Julia Lovell, and that will likely be the last book I read for the year.
Looking over the reading list for this past year, I have to admit that there just aren’t that many great books to recommend. Most of the books I read were “award-winners” or highly recommended either on ‘best of’ lists or from friends, so there was already a winnowing selection process happening in the books I chose to read (i.e. I didn’t go to the bookstore and pick up random copies of things). But as I step back a bit this Christmas and look over my reading list, I am unhappily surprised to find just how little impact most of these books made whatsoever, either on my thinking or just as good stories.
I think at the core of it, the challenge is simply that most of these books just failed to live up to expectations. Many of them have ambitious agendas, either as novels and what they are trying to do with their stories, or as non-fiction books trying to change the way we see a subject. And most simply missed the mark. I don’t think there is a deep lesson here, other than to say, I am always open for bold works, and hope to read more of them in the future.
Okay, now here is the list:
First Place: ‘Maoism: A Global History’ by Julia Lovell and ‘Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age’ by Stephen R. Platt
There is some danger in recommending a book like Maoism when you are only about a third of the way through
This year according to Pocket, I read just above 3 million words on their platform across 1,640 articles from about 370 publications. While journalism can often get a bad rap from certain folks in the day-to-day scrum of beat news and process journalism, the reality is that when the final pieces get written, the bar remains so impossibly high.
As I did in last year’s edition, I went through the full list of articles I read to select a top five (up form three!), a selection of others that I consider to be “the best of this year’s writing,” a list of articles on China, and a list of the best profile pieces written on interesting figures. Yes, that’s a lot of god damn text, but as I said — there is just so much quality writing worth your time.
In all, there are 5 top articles (plus one bonus), 12 noteworthy articles, 5 articles on China, and 9 profiles.
The only criteria is me, and I make no guarantees for completeness or good taste. As always, articles from The New Yorker, Bloomberg and a smattering of other publications are under-represented since they make it hard to save content into Pocket.
Julius Krein has built a reputation as a thought-provoking political theorist who is trying to restructure the fault lines of American politics into new categories. This essay, which he published in his own American Affairs, was easily one of the best that I read this year on the challenges underway in American politics.
HIs thesis is broad, but essentially zeroes in on the struggles of the successful, elite urbanite. In his telling, there is a fight between the super elites with
A little more than three years ago, I wrote a post called I Quit: 2+ Years of Anki and the (Near) Impossibility of Learning Languages, discussing my travails in using flash cards to learn foreign languages. That post remains this website’s most popular by traffic, elicited extensive discussion in the comments, and also still triggers regular emails from readers asking questions about it.
But the reality is that I didn’t quit (although I did take a break), and I think I have finally managed to get Anki to work well for me. But that required understanding more about how I learn languages as well as customizing certain patterns of Anki for use with Korean, which has its own unique characteristics as a language.
Anki v.1 problems
To summarize the challenges I had with Anki the first time around:
Too many words were lightly impressed in my head — at some point, there was just an overwhelming number of words that I couldn’t remember, despite running through flash cards on a daily basis.
Synonyms made it very hard to keep track of words. Korean (like English, French, and I am sure other languages) has variations of the same meaning of a word, and that can make it challenging to do English to Korean and Korean to English vocabulary cards and keep them straight.
The time it took to get through Anki’s daily cards just kept going up — what I dubbed at the time as the Anki treadmill. What started at 10-15 minutes per day soon morphed to 30 minutes to 50 minutes a day. That’s just not practical as a side hobby.
Fluent Forever’s approach (Anki v.2) and why it failed (at least for me)
If most history is designed to zoom into the characters and events of a moment or trend in the historical record, The Lessons of History (published by Simon & Schuster) does just about the opposite.
A classic first published in 1968, the book is an act of pure reduction. The authors, Will & Ariel Durant, had previously spent decades compiling a multi-volume history of the world, and with this book, they created a summary of their life’s work in just about 100 pages organized around a couple of topical areas like war, government, and socialism. As the two write in a short introduction: “It is a precarious enterprise, and only a fool would try to compress a hundred centuries into a hundred pages of hazardous conclusions. We proceed.”
Proceed they do, and a reader’s enjoyment of this work is basically preordained — either you like the book’s conceit or you don’t. I’m probably more of the latter than the former, finding the book more interesting as a window into the worldview of 1960s academics than I found it illuminating about history.
Certainly some parts were fascinating. While the book covers a diverse array of topics, I found the coverage of economics and religion to be among its best. Take this line as an exemplar: “Puritanism and paganism — the repression and the expression of the senses and desires — alternate in mutual reaction in history. Generally religious and puritanism prevail in periods when the laws are feeble and morals must bear the burden of maintaining social order…” The litany of examples the authors cite become a reminder that what appears in our own lives at a particular moment has almost certainly come multiple times before.
Some of the authors’ conclusions are profound, but I also couldn’t help
I read two history books these past few weeks that offered an interesting juxtaposition on the craft and the rise of China. The first was Stephen R. Platt’s Imperial Twilight, which is a sweeping panorama of the times before and during Britain’s First Opium War with Qing-era China. I owe you a review on that one, but I have to say it is an incredibly impressive piece of work, even more so given the book’s propitious timing in the midst of a new trade war between Western powers and China.
This weekend though, I had the time to read through Nigel Collett’s A Death in Hong Kong, which was recently published by the City University of Hong Kong. The book chronicles the public inquest into the apparent suicide of a bisexual Scottish police officer of the Royal Hong Kong Police around 1980. The officer, John MacLennan, had apparently seen a list of high-ranking gay members of the city’s elite collected by the authorities, presumably putting a target on his back in the socially conservative climate of the time.
Where Imperial Twilight is sweeping, A Death in Hong Kong is an exacting vignette, depicting a complicated urban society riven with factions just on the cusp of the colony’s handover to Chinese authorities.
The book has got a bit of everything: organized crime in the form of the Chinese tongs; a gay cabal of senior justice and administration officials; prostitution and pedophilia rings; the typical politics of foreign policy in the region; and the machinations of a judiciary straining to prevent a scandal that might rock the whole island and damage the Crown’s authority in its negotiations over the future of Hong Kong with China.
Collett has seemingly put in a sizable amount of work
I wrote 173 pieces for TechCrunch this year, covering a huge gamut of topics including the rise of China’s technological dominance, enterprise and infrastructure startups, and the changing nature of venture capital. It’s been quite a year!
Without too much ado, here are the top three articles and a couple of honorable mentions.
Subscription is increasingly the default revenue model for software and media, but what happens to consumers when every single service we use requires an annual payment? Subscription Hell, basically. This was a cri de cœur for software developers and media executives to consider the anti-consumer nature of subscriptions, and in a follow-up piece, to consider the high costs of all of these aggregate subscriptions. I think subscriptions are vital for sustainability, but they also have to be aligned with consumer wallets. (1,420 words)
Through a startup called Jobbatical, in-demand and talented workers are increasingly choosing where to work and live based on the amenities that are offered by governments. In the global battle for talent, the governments that do the best in attracting the top experts will see the most economic growth and status increase, which means that mobile talented workers have an unusually strong level of influence on these administrations. Expect to hear more about these changes in 2019. (1,840 words)
Whoever says that journalism is dead just doesn’t read.
It’s been another year of just insane levels of quality across stories, analyses, essays, books, podcasts and more. And it is another year in which I read way too much, and frankly, forgot pretty much all of it. So I used some Python code (attached at the end) to get a list of all articles that I saved and mostly read in Pocket (1,673 articles this year, a total of 3,279,335 words) and combed through it to find my favorite articles from the year.
There are a couple of caveats before we get started:
This list doesn’t include articles from the New Yorker, which I subscribe to and get on paper, and so don’t store in Pocket. Ditto for the Wall Street Journal.
Some sites like Bloomberg mess with Pocket, and I am too lazy to click through all the links to figure out what the underlying article was. So there is some under-representation from publications that refuse to make it easy to read their content.
I don’t save everything religiously to Pocket, so this is a “best efforts” list, not something comprehensive.
I only selected articles longer than 2,000 words. That’s not to say that shorter-form work isn’t great or important, but a lot of it in my Pocket is breaking news, etc. that doesn’t lend itself well to a “best of the year” list.
For novelists, there is a bright line between speculative and let’s say speculation fiction. In speculative fiction, the author’s goal is to hit the fast-forward button on our thinking, offering us a context to consider the patterns and trends we observe around us and see how they (may) play out. In contrast, “speculation fiction” (or plain old science fiction) just plops us in a whole new world, with no extension from our reality needed or implied.
Dystopias are interesting because they almost always end up on the speculative side of the divide, even when they might otherwise work better as pure speculation. Their authors want readers to meditate on certain matters precisely, and so creating a continuity with today is paramount for believability and thus, reflection. And so Aldous Huxley connects Brave New World through Fordism, and George Orwell brings us to the world of 1984 both through its title and also through a connective history of how the three world powers of his work came to be.
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale follows directly from this lineage. Set in none other than Harvard Square, the book analyzes a future America defined by declining birth rates and religious fundamentalism. Women who are capable of birthing children are a precious commodity to be allocated by the government to its most loyal and elite citizens, and the core ideology of the regime is that of the Old Testament.
The novel was originally published in 1985, and Atwood was projecting forward the rise of the Religious Right in the United States and where the policies of that movement could lead if taken to their logical extremes.
The challenge for Atwood though is that creating a continuation between her present of 1985 and the world of her new nation-state known