My Year in Books: 2020
There was nothing methodical about my book selection this year. Sometimes it was what was available in the library. I read “You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine” after my library hold was delivered to the wrong location. “Life in a Putty Knife Factory” and “Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress” were swiped from a friend’s bedside stack. “Say Nothing,” and “Heavy,” were recommended by colleagues. “Crimes Against Logic” was sitting on my own bookshelf, shamefully unread, for years.
Two books in particular burrowed themselves deep. One an intellectual itch and the other pulling more on pathos.
A paperback edition of “Scale: The Universal Laws of Life, Growth, and Death in Organisms, Cities, and Companies” by Geoffrey West was handed to me by my brother accompanied by the words “this will change your life.”
Its main question: how do we ensure our human-engineered systems, surprisingly governed by much of the same laws of scale and growth as biological ones, continue to coexist with the natural biological world, which has billions of years of evolutionary history head start. Can we develop a science of “complexity,” or a science of complex systems, to address the extraordinarily challenging social problems we face? The same ones that are often answered, in Justice Potter Stewart’s famous words on pornography, as “I know it when I see it.”
I read an early section of the book aloud to my mother. It was the part on how the superlinear scaling of wealth and innovation is at odds with basic economics and finite resources. I finished the paragraph and she just sighed, “well, that’s depressing“.
If we insist on continuous, open-ended growth, the pace of life quickens and we have to innovate at a faster and faster rate to keep up. It’s not sustainable. Innovation and wealth creation, if left unchecked, are natural selection systems that are inherently doomed to fail. These ideas are lingering with me. Its making me a less popular dinner guest in the Silicon Valley entrepreneur circuit.
The Art of Memoir
“The Art of Memoir” by Mary Karr was unexpected. In it, Karr manages to weave together philosophy, classic literature, history, neurology, psychoanalysis, love of language and poetry and ends with an extraordinarily readable treatise on integrity, self-awareness, memory and identity, and what it means to be human. An excellent recommendation from a coworker and friend. I may have been put off by my first-impression (based on the title) of a simple instructive work on autobiography. But I eat crow.
I found it similar in a thematic way to Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird,” in that it could be viewed as primarily about writing, about living, or both. To me, as it is probably for other self-seekers, it landed more as a how-to on living as a fulfilled, self-aware person than an instructive for memoir. Her writing is endlessly quotable and manically cited. It ends with an intimidating section of recommended memoirs, which I will carve time out to add to my to read list.
I will recommend it to everyone I know, trying all the while to keep in mind what someone very wise told me. ‘Never give someone a book along with the obligation to read it. If you’re going to give someone a book, it needs to be free of expectations.’