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15 Jan 2012
The best books I read in 2011

2011 was an amazing year in books for me. I hit a new record with my annual book list (I read 171 books last year!), and a much higher percentage of them than usual were awesome. In fact, I read so many great books last year that I split them up into categories for you here.

Books I loved reading in 2011 that related to decision-making and problem-solving:

  • Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond
  • The Logic of Failure: Recognizing and Avoiding Error in Complex Situations by Dietrich Dorner
  • Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science by Atul Gawande - Absolutely fantastic look at mistakes, the need for training and learning, social and ethical issues that interfere with training, cognitive errors, the difficulty in balancing our need for best health outcomes with our need for training students, and lots of surgical war stories along the way. I also highly recommend reading his essay Personal Best, where he discusses his decision to seek coaching to improve his surgical skills.
  • Honeybee Democracy by Professor Thomas D. Seeley
  • Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein - Totally fascinating book about how to be a better choice architect, largely by adjusting incentives and defaults and making it just a bit easier for people to do what they in theory want to do anyway. Libertarian paternalism.
Books I loved reading in 2011 that related to race and class:
  • A Dry White Season by Andre Brink
  • Coyotes: A Journey Through the Secret World of America’s Illegal Aliens by Ted Conover
  • Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones
  • Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams by Alfred Lubrano
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot - The story of the person and family behind the HeLa cell line! I’d also suggest reading this interview with Skloot where she explains her thoughts on structure in writing and how she chose to structure this book in particular.
  • Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh - Sociologist does fieldwork by hanging out with a gang in the projects. The Freakonomics people love this guy. I can see why.
Books I loved reading in 2011 that related to art and design:
  • The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards - I went through all the exercises when I started my latest drawing kick, and I found them extremely helpful.
  • Artist’s Complete Problem Solver by Trudy Friend
  • The Forgery of Venus by Michael Gruber
  • Making Comics by Scott McCloud
  • My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk
  • The Non-Designer’s Design Book by Robin Williams
  • Poemcrazy: freeing your life with words by Susan Wooldridge - If you love words, read this.
Books I loved reading in 2011 that related to Judaism:
  • Boychiks in the Hood: Travels in the Hasidic Underground by Robert Eisenberg
  • All Other Nights by Dara Horn
  • The Book of the Unknown: Tales of the Thirty-Six by Jonathan Keats
  • The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit by Lucette Lagnado
  • City of Oranges by Adam LeBor
  • Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction from the Edge edited by Paul Zakrzewski - I didn’t expect much of this, but in fact there were a lot of really spectacularly good stories in it! Overlook the kitsch of the title and concept, and you’ll find the good stuff. My oh my.
Other fiction I loved reading in 2011:
  • Santa Olivia and Saints Astray by Jacqueline Carey
  • Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue
  • Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh - Just about the best fiction I’ve read in ages. Indian, complex, epic, poignant, fascinating. Lots of characters, but all are fleshed out and developed and weave in and out of each other’s lives. The focus on language and dialect is brilliant - it’s confusing at times, like the first time you read A Clockwork Orange, but you get the sense that so many of the characters are lost and confused that you’re supposed to be right there with them, and their languages are so defined by their backgrounds/lives/castes that it all comes together in a jumble as their society crackles around them. It’s killing me that the second book of this trilogy isn’t out in paperback yet, and the third isn’t out yet at all. I already want to reread the first.
  • A big bunch of Alastair Reynolds books, which are all thoroughly stuffed with interesting ideas and characters but are ultimately a bit tough to tell apart. He manages to write the same book over and over again without getting boring, which is a neat parlor trick in itself.
Other non-fiction I loved reading in 2011:
  • The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures by Anne Fadiman
  • Lust for Justice: The Radical Life & Law of J. Tony Serra by Paulette Frankl
  • The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson
  • China Witness: Voices From a Silent Generation by Xinran - I’ve been on a Chinese history reading kick. It’s just so huge, and there’s so much out there that I don’t have a clue about. Likened to Studs Terkel’s interview collections, this book is actually a fascinating set of conversations that offer insight into history and culture that I can’t seem to reach anywhere else.

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