The books I read in 2018
I know a few people enjoy following what I read, so here is my post on the books I have read over the year. I didn’t get to read much in the first half of the year, (I blame all my course reading, essays and exams), but I think I made up for it in the second half of the year. Also, in case anyone thinks it doesn’t count as reading unless it is a physical book, I readily admit that some of these were audiobooks (I have a long walk to uni) and most of the rest were on a kindle (I don’t have space in my flat to store all physical books). I’ve split them into two lists — a top 10 and the rest, but other than that they’re listed in the order I read them.
My Top 10
The Elephant in the Brain, by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson. The first book I read in 2018, and I found it wonderfully written and incredibly insightful, describing how we deceive ourselves, in our attempt to get along with others.
Radical Markets: Uprooting Capitalism and Democracy for a Just Society, by E. Glen Weyl and Eric Posner. The ideas in this book probably align with my own views on economics more than any other that I’ve read. Essentially, it argues that we need better designed markets to promote human wellbeing, rather than thinking that markets just need less government interference, or, on the other hand, that markets are inherently bad. This book proposes five bold ways in which markets could be reformed; I suspect most people will be challenged by some or all of the suggestions. That said, I do really like the way of thinking that the book encourages.
Ctrl Alt Delete: How Politics and the Media Crashed Our Democracy, by Tom Baldwin. I thought this was an excellent overview of what has gone wrong in politics and the media over the past 30 years, with enough glimmers of hope to prevent it being too depressing.
21 lessons for the 21st Century, by Yuval Noah Harari. Twenty one thought-provoking chapters, some quite accessible (eg on terrorism and immigration), others more abstract (our purpose), but there was a lot to think about — I’d highly recommend it. .
Poverty Safari: Understanding the Anger of Britain’s Underclass, by Darren McGarvey. I listened to the audiobook of this, powerfully narrated by the author, a Scottish rapper and poverty activist with an incredible way with words. It is part memoir, part critique (of everyone, including himself) and part rallying cry that while change will not be easy, it is possible.
Who Gets What — And Why: The Hidden World of Matchmaking and Market Design, by Alvin Roth. I had listened to an interview with Nobel Prize winning economist Roth before, and had read about his kidney exchange markets, but had somehow never got around to reading this book. I loved the book — the field of market design is even broader and more interesting than I had thought.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari. This was recommended to me 3 years ago, and shamefully I never got around to reading it until this year. I loved it, and learned a lot. It doesn’t attempt to cover all of human history, rather it illustrates many of the key ideas needed to make sense of our past (and present/future).
Blockchain and the Law: The Rule of Code, by Primavera de Filippi. I was new to blockchain in 2018, and much of what I read seemed to paint blockchain as something totally new, ignoring its similarities to previous technologies, for example exchanges, legal contracts, and criminal statutes. This book was the exception, moving swiftly away from the technology to what we might actually try and do with it.
Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me, by Bill Hayes. I was a huge fan of neurologist Oliver Sacks, and this memoir of Hayes’s life in New York with Sacks was a beautiful testament to the magic of living life to the fullest.
The Most Human Human: A Defence of Humanity in the Age of the Computer: What Artificial Intelligence Teaches Us About Being Alive, by Brian Christian. The Turing test is often portrayed as an attempt to make a computer pass for a human. Brian Christian was awarded the honour of ‘The Most Human Human’ for his ability to pass for a human, a challenge that seems trivial but is perhaps just as interesting. In this book (from 2011, but not out of date), he reflects on what it means to interact as a human.
The Ant Trap, by Brian Epstein. Much more targeted at academic philosophers of social science than The Elephant in the Brain, but it did get me thinking about how we think about individuals, groups and institutions.
Weapons of Maths Destruction, by Cathy O’Neill. An excellent book on what can go wrong with big data and algorithms, and the harm they can inflict on the more vulnerable members of society.
Working Identity, by Herminia Ibarra. This was recommended to me by the university careers centre as a guide to career change, and I did find it useful in terms of understanding other people’s journeys and the challenges they faced reinventing themselves.
Boomsday, by Christopher Buckley. Light-hearted fiction on the subject of overpopulation (yes, such a thing is possible), but I did enjoy it.
The Value of Everything, by Mariana Mazzucato. I went to a talk by economist Mazzucato, and was convinced by her argument that many of society’s problems result from our inability to recognise value independently of price. This prevents us recognising the value of government investment, but it also prevents us from thinking rationally about the role of corporate sectors, especially pharmaceutical, financial and technology. Having loved the ideas, I was actually a bit disappointed by the book, but I’d still mark her down as a thinker to watch.
Born Free & Equal: A philosophical inquiry into the nature of discrimination, by Kasper Lippert-Rasmussen. This ended up being the core reference for my dissertation on discrimination in the market for car insurance. It was quite technical, but I liked it.
The Mind is Flat: The Illusion of Mental Depth and The Improvised Mind, by Nick Chater. I found this book uncomfortable reading, not because I doubt anything in it, but because I like to think my perception of reality is a bit more objective than it is.
Deep Work, by Cal Newport. Wise words about the value of focus and the harm of distraction, especially from social media. I’d love to say I took its advice, but alas, I don’t see my breaking my addiction to facebook/twitter/The Guardian any time soon.
Diversify, by June Sarpong. I went to a talk by journalist Sarpong in June, and read the book shortly afterwards. I appreciated her perspective on diversity, that we all need to work harder at being openminded rather than jumping to conclusions, and that the kind of diversity we need isn’t just about gender or race but is far more complex.
The Switch: How solar, storage and new tech means cheap power for all, by Chris Goodall. An optimistic view on the potential of solar power, and the technologies that are on the horizon. I learned a lot.
Digital Decarbonization: Promoting Digital Innovations to Advance Clean Energy Systems, by Varun Sivaram. It had some good ideas, but I probably wouldn’t recommend it.
Carbon Capture and Storage, by Owain Tucker. It is available online for free, and I learned quite a bit from the book (though I’m still fairly agnostic).
Modern Romance: An Investigation, by Aziz Ansari. An enjoyable and informative book about romance in the age of apps and social media. Things have changed, but not wholly for the better or for the worse.
Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong — and the New Research That’s Rewriting The Story, by Angela Saini. A useful antidote for anyone that thinks that scientific method prevents bias, particularly in biological/human sciences. This book doesn’t pretend to offer the final word on the difference between the sexes, but does show that reality is a lot more complex than previously believed.
Capitalism and Freedom, by Milton Friedman. Friedman comes under a lot of criticism for his role in inspiring the current economic order, so I wanted to read this to understand what he was saying, and to what extent he has been misunderstood. Much of what he writes in this book is a lot more nuanced and caveated than his followers or critics acknowledge. I’m glad I read it, and many of his points are good, but I’m not convinced of his overall picture.
A room with a view, by E M Forster. Someone recommended this, but I found it pretty unenjoyable.
Munich, by Robert Harris. I was on holiday in Munich, and I like Robert Harris, so it seemed a good excuse to read this — no regrets.
Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Behind Bitcoin and Other Cryptocurrencies is Changing the World, by Don and Alex Tapscott. This was the first book I read on blockchain — I found it hard work, and a lot to take in.
The unwritten rules of PhD research, by Marian Petre. A friend recommended this as I got started on my PhD, and I did find it very useful.
On Being Awesome — A Unified Theory Of How Not To Suck, by Nick Riggle. There were some good bits, but I wasn’t overly convinced or entertained.
Hello World: How to be Human in the Age of the Machine, by Hannah Fry. A great overview of what computers can and can’t do, with some entertaining (if occasionally scary) stories of code gone wrong.
The Handbook of Carbon Accounting, by Arnaud Brohé. I read this because I had to know it for my research, and I’m glad I did, but I’m not sure I’d recommend it to anyone that didn’t have to.
Take nothing with you, by Patrick Gale. One of the few novels I read this year, I really enjoyed this later-life reflection on a childhood spent learning about music, life, and oneself.
New Thinking for the British Economy, edited by Laurie Macfarlane. This is a free ebook, with contributions from a range of academics, looking at the problems with Britain’s Economy today, and how they might be addressed. I agreed with a surprising number of the suggestions, and even those I disagreed with were thought-provoking.
Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals, by Tyler Cowen. A short guide to a pragmatic economic philosophy, in which true long term growth is worth striving for, and is compatible with human rights, egalitarian and environmental considerations.
Less, by Andrew Greer. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and I have a couple of friends who loved it, but I found it pretty dull. Just good enough to keep me reading, but not good enough to ever enjoy.
Peak Energy Demand and Demand Side Response, by Jacopo Torriti. One for my studies — it was useful for getting up to speed on some of the research.
The Silver Sword, by Ian Serraillier. I loved this book as a kid, so in the post Christmas period, when I was meant to be getting through far more challenging books, this was an obvious choice for a few hours’ easy distraction.