As 2012 fades into memory, the Chefs once again wanted to reflect on the best books they’ve read during 2012. Now, this is not a “best books of 2012″ list, but a list of the best books the Chefs read during 2012 — the books might be classics, a few years old, or brand new. This is one of the great things about books in all forms — they endure, invite visitation and revisitation, and beckon with ideas.
Rick Anderson: “Favorite” may not be exactly the right word, but the book that has stuck with me most tenaciously since reading it earlier this year was Karen Thompson Walker’s novel “The Age of Miracles,” which describes life after the earth’s rotation unexpectedly slows to a fraction of its normal speed.
The protagonist and narrator is a young teenage girl, whose matter-of-fact recounting of slow-moving global catastrophe contrasts both charmingly and horrifyingly with her accounts of normal teenage catastrophe. The juxtaposition of large-scale disaster with personal drama is handled with tenderness and grace, and the alternate reality the book describes is deeply unsettling.
Kent Anderson: I found it hard to decide which book I read this year was “the best” — I had a very good year on the books front, with some great novels, some great non-fiction, and even a couple of good business books coming my way. But my choice is a book that surprised me in how interesting it was, how much I learned from it, and how well it was written — “Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President.” The author, Candice Millard, weaves together a story that is compelling on many levels, and which made me feel what a remarkable threshold the United States was on when President James A. Garfield was shot in the back, and then mistreated by overzealous and misguided physicians. It also made me appreciate what an amazing person President Garfield was. Perhaps most remarkably, based on her very accurate descriptions of Garfield, I was able to identify a descendent of his in my milieu of friends, a testament to her powers as a non-fiction writer. It’s a book I’d recommend whole-heartedly if you like US history, medical history, or great writing — even more if you like all three.
Joe Esposito: I stumbled on Chris Adrian‘s “The Great Night” in the McNally Jackson Bookstore in lower Manhattan. It was my first time in McNally Jackson, and I loved it so much that I just had to buy something. “The Great Night” was a staff recommendation. The book is every bit as good as the bookstore itself.
Adrian’s third novel, “The Great Night,” is an imaginative retelling of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” It is set in San Francisco, where the faeries live below a public park. The annual Great Night celebration is disturbed by marital discord between Titania and Oberon. In pique and despair, Titania releases the shackles on The Beast, who rampages through the night. Meanwhile, humans walking through the park that night intersect with the faeries in both humorous and alarming ways.
This is a wonderful novel — literally. It encompasses many moods. There are penetrating character portraits, but also satirical renderings, and it is all set against the backdrop of a fanciful faerie kingdom.
Oh, to make this relevant to the Kitchen: Adrian is a pediatrician.
David Crotty: This year I’d like to recommend “That Is All,” the final volume in John Hodgman’s compendium of complete world knowledge. Rather, in keeping with the times, I’ll direct you away from the “dead tree” version of this work, and instead toward the digital-download-only “audioback” version. In 2005, Hodgman published the first volume in the series, The Areas of My Expertise, a sly parody of almanacs that stood out from other such works because all of the amazing true facts it contained were lies, completely made up by the author. As Hodgman notes, “history has shown us again and again that facts are not what most humans believe.” It is an essential reference work for knowing which US presidents had hooks for hands, proper beard styling and the secret history of the Hobo Wars. The second volume, More Information Than You Require was directly influenced by Hodgman becoming a minor television personality (best known for appearances on The Daily Show and as the PC in a series of Apple advertisements). Through this volume we learned of the downsides of fame, hangover cures involving gin, and of course, all about the Mole-Men. Finally, That Is All presents the final volume, with detailed information on the coming “Global Superpocalypse” due to destroy the world on December 21, 2012. This doomsaying may or may not be related to the author turning 40 and subconsciously fretting over his own mortality.
While the books are entertaining, the audio versions are where Hodgman and his cohorts truly shine. Rather than a straightforward reading, they instead offer newly envisioned performance pieces based on the books, turning them into something altogether different and greater. The audio versions (Areas, More, and All) feature countless guests (Paul Rudd, Sarah Vowell, Dick Cavett, Stephen Fry, Rachel Maddow, Ricky Gervais, Ira Glass, etc.), and musical accompaniment (from They Might Be Giants and Hodgman’s musical partner and feral mountain man Jonathan Coulton). These extensive reimaginings of a print work serve as a superb example of adaptation to new forms. It’s nice to find someone doing things right, particularly as we watch hamfisted attempts to stubbornly shoehorn print publications into a digital format with little thought given to the differences and advantages that different types of media offer.
Plus, the audiobooks are wonderfully smart and funny. It’s an audio series I’ve listened to on countless roadtrips, and it has never failed to keep me awake, amused and alive. With over 36 hours of material, it will take you nearly from Manhattan to Los Angeles, but you’d best get a move on, what with Ragnarok happening so soon and all.
Alice Meadows: As a voracious reader of fiction, I was a little surprised to realize that the most memorable books I read in 2012 were almost all non-fiction. I realize this is cheating, as we were asked to nominate just one title, but two in particular, stand out for me.
The first is, “The Emperor of All Maladies,” by Siddhartha Mukherjee, a book that numerous friends recommended, but that I was initially loath to read – anything subtitled A Biography of Cancer has got to be a real downer, right? Wrong! It was an absolutely fascinating account of the disease from a social, political, economic, cultural, scientific and, of course, medical perspective. And yet the human element is always in sight, as intertwined throughout are accounts of the real-life tragedies and triumphs Mukherjee encountered as an oncologist in Boston — utterly riveting.
The second is, “The Hare with Amber Eyes,” by Edmund de Waal, which was a Christmas present from a friend last year. Part history, part biography, part personal memoir, it tells the tale of the author’s family from the mid-nineteenth century through the present day. His account of what it has meant to be Jewish in Europe for the last century and a half was in turn fascinating, shocking, and moving: the moment involving the family’s netsuke (tiny Japanese sculptures, including the eponymous hare with amber eyes) had me in tears on the T.
David Wojick: For something different how about the “e/a-book” version of “Chaos: Making a New Science” by James Gleick? While this classic was published in 1987, what I am calling the e/a-Book is new. You can now buy the Kindle e-book version bundled with the audio A-book version, both cheap by the way, and read/listen to the book on your Kindle via Amazon’s Whispersync for Voice. Read when you can, or listen when you want to or have to, jumping back and forth at will. Gleick’s “Chaos” is both a great book and a terrible book. It is great because of its simplicity and story-telling approach. Chaos theory is technical stuff, but there are no equations and few figures, which is ideal for audio where equations and figures are impossible. My mother, who has no science or math training, read and enjoyed this book. Ironically, it is terrible for the same reason. One can read this book and get no real idea what chaos theory is all about; I know because I did just that when it first came out. In fact, the title is wrong because chaos is math, not science. Like calculus, chaos theory is about the behavior of equations. There is a kind of equation which under the proper conditions goes nuts, jumping around wildly. Moreover, the jumps are sensitive to infinitesimal changes in these conditions. This is misleadingly called “the butterfly effect,” suggesting that it is a physical effect, which it is not. The “new science” Gleick refers to has to do with where in the world this math applies, and that is what this book is about, but people will miss the math part. I myself look for chaos in human behavior, especially in what I call issue storms — when an issue blows up in a community or an organization, consuming cognitive resources. So Gleick’s “Chaos” is a good first book on chaos, but you will need at least a second book, too.
Tim Vines: My favourite book for 2012 is one that I’ve probably read over fifty times so far this year, and it still makes me laugh. It’s the Gruffalo, written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Scheffler. The story arc has a beautiful symmetry, even down to it being 24 rhyming couplets on the way out, and 23 on the way back. The rhymes are effortless and witty, and hard for even a terminally exhausted parent to stumble over at 2 a.m. For example:
On went the mouse through the deep dark wood.
An owl saw the mouse, and the mouse looked good.
“Where are you going to, little brown mouse?
Come and have tea in my treetop house.”
“It’s terribly kind of you, Owl, but no –
I’m going to have tea with a gruffalo.”
Mouse, the protagonist, is unusual for a children’s book in that there’s very little outward sign of fear or uncertainty in the face of danger, and instead turns the predators’ disingenuous invites back on them with effortless humour.
“A gruffalo? What’s a gruffalo?”
“A gruffalo! Why, didn’t you know?
He has knobbly knees, and turned-out toes,
And a poisonous wart at the end of his nose.”
“Where are you meeting him?”
“Here, by this stream,
And his favourite food is owl ice cream.”
This gentle bravado has you rooting for the mouse from the very beginning, and the neatness with which story grows, turns, and then concludes makes the whole thing a very satisfying read. Moreover, unlike every other book in this list, you can read it cover to cover in under three minutes. Owl ice cream anyone?
David Smith: Once again, this year has mostly been non-fiction books for me. Having said that I shall give a shout out for the rather marvelous, “Ready Player One,” by Ernest Cline. This is basically a guilty pleasure for those of us who geeked out (waaay before it was cool) on the first wave of computer games back in the ‘80s. If you ever wondered what all that was about, this book will be your introduction. It’s also excellently paced for a long haul flight.
But back to non-fiction. I’ve been continuing my quest to try and understand what lead to the financial calamity of 2008. A calamity with no real end in sight and (if I may be indulged with a political observation) characterised by a global failure of leadership by our various elected representatives. The first book on the subject that really got me into an understanding of the conditions that led to the events of late 2008 was “The Big Short” by Michael Lewis. I can add two more books to the list; read all these and you’ll have a very good overview of exactly what’s been going on. The first is a book called “Dark Pools” by Scott Patterson. This one details the rise of A.I trading machines and high frequency trading. It’s a jaw dropper of a book. There are things in there that will boggle your mind; predator A.I. machines designed to hunt down other A.I machines in the electronic trading floors and hijack their money making strategies and ‘kill’ the trading companies that own them. And that’s not all. You’ll read it thinking “surely this is science fiction..” it’s not. The second book is the rather cheery “How Do We Fix this Mess” by Robert Peston. Robert is a financial journalist for the BBC who famously wrote a blog post that brought down a UK bank. This is his view of events from a UK/European perspective. The chapter on China is well worth the price alone, and as for his explanation of just how the financial wizards behind the Basel Accords derived the rules governing how banks can leverage their capital), well…
But, my book of the year is, “The Signal and the Noise,” by Nate Silver. Nate Silver single-handedly proved that the best models don’t have to sashay down a catwalk in their smalls on primetime US TV to get our attention, they can apply the rules of the Reverend Beyes, analyse the data they are using quantitatively and adjust the forecasting process in light of new information, not ideology. He did it for Baseball and he’s done it for US politics. I’m very interested to see what catches his interest next. His book is a look through and an explanation of the world of data analysis, modelling and prediction, its power and its limitations. It’s a fascinating read that anybody can get into. I think it has a lot to teach us in the scholarly publishing business as we look to see what data are informative in determining the value of the people whose works, ideas, thinking and debate we disseminate. In fact it has a lot to teach us on how a data driven world will work (or not).
Michael Clarke: One would be hard pressed to name a single organization that has contributed more in terms of technological breakthroughs to the world than Bell Labs. Just a few of the inventions to to come out of the labs and its stable of scientists and engineers, include the long distance phone transmission, long distance television transmission, the first speech synthesizer, radio astronomy and detection of the cosmic background noise, the first binary digital computer, the fax machine, information theory, solar cells, the first transmission of stereo sound, pagers, the laser, the first communications satellites, digital music, UNIX, and the C programming language. Oh, and then there is that little thing called the transistor. It would be interesting to estimate what percentage of the global economy is enabled by technology from Bell Labs. My guess is an astonishingly large percentage.
“The Idea Lab,” Jon Gertner’s well researched, thoughtful, often colorful, account of the first great R&D program, is well written and engaging from start to finish. But Gertner’s book is more than a simple history of the Labs. He argues that Bell Labs was the first organization to systematize innovation at scale. Their success was not an accident but rather a result of process and organization. The invention of the transistor, for example, was not happenstance and was not the result of a lone inventor in his lab. It was the result of years of efforts that brought together materials scientists, physicists, engineers, mathematicians, and others and was based on many decades of iterative work leading up to a breakthrough. Bell Labs invented not just specific technologies, but the processes that were later used in ventures such as the Manhattan Project, the Apollo Program, and Xerox Park (the 20th Century’s other great corporate lab).
There is another important ingredient in the Bell Labs recipe book, however: sheer audacity. One passage near the beginning of the Idea Factory is particularly striking. Three of AT&T senior executives committed to building a transcontinental phone service, from New York to San Francisco, in time for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1914, just over four years hence. While stringing cable across the country in four years was itself a daunting task, there was a much bigger challenge to face. At the time, no one in the world actually knew how to send a telephone signal that far. Telephone signals decay when traveling down copper wire and need to a be amplified periodically. This amplification is accomplished via a series of repeaters. The problem is that each repeater introduces noise into the transmission; therefore, only so many can be used before a signal becomes unintelligible. In order to build a transcontinental line, AT&T would first have to understand the basic physics of the problem, then come up with a technological solution, then manufacture the technology at scale, and then deploy the technology across a continent — all in four years. The solution they came up with, the vacuum tube, not only allowed AT&T to meet this truly audacious goal but served as the foundation of electronics of all kinds for the next half century, until it was replaced by the transistor. This kind of moxie – to commit to goals that cannot be accomplished given known scientific knowledge, never mind existing technology – is an increasingly rare trait among today’s technology companies (Google, with the audacious goal of organizing the world’s information, is perhaps the exception).
“The Idea Factory” is a refreshing read and a reminder of what can be accomplished by determined organizations given the right framework, talent, and processes.
Judy Luther: Data and metrics have emerged as a popular theme this year — whether I’m reading about scholarly publishing and higher education, or working with societies seeking to be aware of trends affecting their revenue from publishing, membership and meetings. “Measuring the Networked Nonprofit: Using data to Change the World,” by Beth Kanter and Katie Paine, provides a useful framework for evaluating data collected and used to make decisions. The authors outline practical steps for organizations in a networked world — to be aware of their audience and how relationships affect the outcome of organizational objectives. Common pitfalls, such as focusing on activities rather than results, and suggestions on how to acquire the talent needed to produce useful data, provide good operational guidelines. Katie Paine’s “7 Steps of Measurement” and Beth Kanter’s distinction between data-driven and data-informed are applicable in all environments. They demonstrate how to identify the key metrics and assemble a dashboard for monitoring them. I especially like their crawl-walk-run-fly model for assessing an organization’s progress towards the optimal use of metrics. Though written for associations that may engage in fundraising, reading this book is comparable to listening to a good keynote by someone in a parallel field at an annual conference. The stories are different, but the lessons are familiar and valuable.