Continuing an annual tradition, we take a moment to pause at year’s end to look back on the best books we encountered. As always, this is not a “best books of 2014″ list, but a list of the best books the Chefs read during 2014 — 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. Here’s Part 2 of our list, Part 1 can be found here.
Alice Meadow: My favorite book of 2014 has to be The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. I would probably have picked it anyway: it’s an ambitious, sweeping, wonderful book – fiction, but written like a biography, set across three continents, spanning virtually the whole nineteenth century, and combining science, history and just a bit of romance–but I loved it all the more for having heard the author read from it and answer questions about it, which she did with enormous wit, charm, and just the right amount of self-deprecation. The book tells the story of Alma Whittaker, the brilliant daughter of an enterprising and idiosyncratic English entrepreneur and his erudite Dutch wife. Alma is born in Philadelphia at the turn of the (nineteenth) century and spends the first half of her long life in that city, becoming an accomplished and renowned botanist, before spending her later years traveling the world. There’s much to enjoy about this book, including (for me anyway) the fact that Alma is one of us – she conducts research, she records the results, she reads and writes journal articles, she corresponds with other scientists around the world. Surely she’d be an avid Scholarly Kitchen reader if she were a real person and alive now!
Todd Carpenter: A friend recommended over the Thanksgiving holiday that I pick up What If? by Randall Munroe (reviewed in The Scholarly Kitchen back in October). I downloaded a copy to my Kindle and pushed forward quickly devouring the text and its quirky humor. Many of you may recognize Munroe’s work, even if you don’t recognize his name. Munroe is the creator and comic genius behind the XKCD cartoons of simple stick figures. Many of the XKCD cartoons venture into the scientific and/or geek culture and this new book is no different. “What if” poses a long list of oddly creative hypothetical questions then tries to answer them with as much scientific accuracy as possible.
Much like the cartoons that Munroe creates, the book is both entertaining, engaging, quirky, and funny, very funny. The questions are derived from questions readers pose to Munroe and which he attempts to answer using cartoons, math and science. For example, he explores the notions of finding your one single soul mate, illuminating the moon with laser pointers, how many jumpers might it take to impact the movement of the earth, could you fly a plane on other planets and could we build a bridge from London to New York with Legos. There’s also a TED talk that Munroe gave on this same topic last spring, if you’re in for a quick fix. Obviously, these are all pressing scientific queries posed in this book that are worthy of deep study and a likely source of many new grant research proposals.
Anyone with young, curious children can understand the basic premise of the book. Children have a knack for asking challenging questions about how the world works and how it might be different if the absurd were to happen. Few take those childish questions to the extremes that Munroe does, but it is a worthwhile exercise. Trying to imagine the impossible or improbable is one of the hallmarks of scholarly thinking and scientific advancement.
In a nod to the insane legal disclaimers that pervade our lives, “What if” contains a tremendous number of disclaimers that follow along the lines of this one:
I am a cartoonist. If you follow my advice on safety around nuclear materials, you probably deserve whatever happens to you.
That pretty much sums up the entire book. Read it and you’ll deserve what you have coming to you, an uproariously fun read and a teachable moment from many of the Internet’s weirder questions and answers, at least those with a scientific bent.
Angela Cochran: Whenever I am asked about what I am reading these days, I laugh out loud at the thought of having enough free time to do pleasure reading. I have two small kids and not enough hours in a day. That said, my favorite and most recommended book series is the Magic Tree House Series by Mary Pope Osborne.
The books, of which there are now 52, follow the adventures of Jack and Annie, siblings from Frog Creek, Pennsylvania. Jack is 8 years old, very practical, and always does his research while Annie, a 7 year old, is a free spirit who relies on her intuition. Jack and Annie find a tree house in the woods in their neighborhood and discover that it is filled with books. In the first book of the series, Dinosaurs Before Dark, Jack says that he wishes he could see a dinosaur and then one appears out the window. In each story, they point to a book and say “I wish we were here.” The common refrain of every book is, “The treehouse started to spin. It spun faster and faster. And then everything was still. Absolutely still.” Kindergarteners know this by heart!
In each book Jack and Annie go to a different time and place in history in their time-traveling tree house. As the series moves forward, they are visited by Morgan le Fay of Camelot who is a LIBRARIAN! She is the one sending Jack and Annie on these magical adventures.
The Magic Tree House books are written in 4 book chunks. Each has 10 chapters and total about 80-100 pages. There have been nights when we have read the entire book because my kids (ages 5 and 7) could not possibly go to bed without knowing what happens next.
These books are a very stealthy way to teach history. The kids arrive in Pompeii hours before the volcano. They help Clara Barton in segregated hospital tents during the civil war. They go all over the world in all different times arriving just on the brink of a major historical moment. But the history is not why I love these books. The series teaches kids about the importance of literature and respect for research and books.
In one 4 book series, they need to find important works of literature in order to earn their “Master Librarian” cards. They save manuscripts from monks being run out of town. They find ancient scrolls in China before the emperor burns them all. They learn that literature comes in all different forms of communication and they learn about where these texts fit in the grand scheme of civilization. They pause and contemplate what their modern world would be like if their missions were not successful.
Think this is all a bit much for 5-8 year olds? That is precisely the magic of the Magic Tree House. The adventure, the characters, and the pace are all perfectly executed and your kids will never realize they are learning.
Michael Clarke: Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future is my pick for the best non-fiction book of 2014 and is on my list of “foundational reads.” There is probably no better book on how to think about startups. Thiel — part Bond-villian, part eccentric billionaire (think Howard Hughes), part Ayn Rand hero, and part favorite professor— co-founded Paypal and Palantier and made early investments in Facebook, SpaceX, LinkedIn, and many other companies including (via his Founders Fund) ResearchGate. He is lovingly lampooned by the late Christopher Welch in Mike Judge’s HBO series Silicon Valley (a work of comedic genius).
The book was based on Thiel’s celebrated 2012 course on start-ups. One of the students of that course, Blake Masters, posted his course notes after each class on his blog (notably without asking Thiel) rapidly amassing a sizable following. Masters is listed as a co-author of the books.
The title refers to the challenge of building something new. Bringing something new into the world is going from 0 to 1. This stands in contrast to expanding or iterating on something that someone else has already created which is going from 1 to n. Business school and most management role are focused on 1 to n. 0 to 1 is the province of the entrepreneur — this new thinking is what start-ups are for, according to Thiel.
The book opens with a question that Thiel asks everyone he interviews: “What important truth do few very few people agree with you on?” This question provides a frame for the rest of the book as Thiel walks the reader through his own answers to this question. They include his disdain for many of the platitudes of the modern start-up gurus, advice like “Make incremental advances,” “Stay lean and flexible,” “Improve on the competition,” and “Focus on product, not sales.” Thiel counters that actually “It is better to risk boldness than triviality, a bad plan is better than no plan, competitive markets destroy profits, and sales matter just as much as product.”
His contrary belief he spends the most time on is that he thinks competition is a bad thing. Companies in competitive industries move rapidly to commodity positions with thin margins. Such companies may be creating great value for their customers, but they are not capturing that value for themselves. Think of the airline industry which enables global business and creates billions upon billions of dollars in value for its customers but has created almost no value for its shareholders (and increasingly less since deregulation). Rather, companies are better avoiding competition by seeking quasi-monopolies. Better to be Google (which has a near-monopoly on search) than United. Companies can do this through blue ocean strategies or by becoming the “last mover” — and then building a moat others cannot cross (network effects are particular good for this).
I disagree with a number of Thiel’s perspectives (for example, he places far too little credence on the role of luck and the existing infrastructure provided by government and others in our society, holding to an almost Randian belief in the singular greatness of founders — and further claims this perspective is contrarian where it is my experience that it is all too common) but the other half is worth the price of the book and the time spent reading it many times over.
David Crotty: 2014 marked the return of a long lost friend, a seminal work in the well-accepted form we call the “graphic novel“, but that I grew up with as “comic books”. While the sequential art format is now a well recognized segment of the adult reading world, back in the 1980s, comics were considered kids stuff, until the remarkable success of a series of works like Art Spiegleman’s Maus, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, and Alan Moore’s Watchmen revolutionized the form.
But those triumphant works had their roots in Moore’s early 1980s efforts, particularly V for Vendetta, and the long lost Miracleman saga, which finally became available again this year, after decades of being buried in contentious copyright and ownership issues (worth examining for anyone interested in copyright, orphan works, derivative works and what happens to a copyright when a publisher goes out of business). I had sold off my out-of-print and valuable copies of the original books on a fledgling website called “eBay” back in my postdoc days as a way of helping to make that month’s rent, so it’s a joy to be able to revisit an old favorite.
Originally published as Marvelman in the 1950s, the series began life as a thinly veiled British ripoff of Captain Marvel and the Shazam family. In 1982, this minor and somewhat forgotten character was revived by a young, up and coming author Alan Moore. Moore started a premise that he would later master in Watchmen, the notion of transforming the hokey clichés of superhero comics to the real world. What would happen if Superman really existed? While not as polished and sublime a piece of art as Watchmen, the Miracleman saga is in some ways more extreme. Moore was intent on pushing boundaries, whether in graphic depictions of childbirth to the near complete destruction of London to the eventual global impact of a real world Übermensch, who essentially remakes the world in his own image.
In the 1990s, Moore left the series and it was taken over by another young British comics writer who you may have heard of–Neil Gaiman. Miracleman is not only a cornerstone of the art form, it’s also a fun, compelling read, as Moore and then later Gaiman take us from the mundane existence of a blue collar worker to the extreme heights experienced by a god. It’s also a rare chance to see a literary form become something new.
“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”
My fiction book of the year is The Peripheral by William Gibson, purveyor of prescient quotes for keynote speakers desperate for a fix of the future to anchor their thirty minutes. He writes novels, short stories and occasional magazine articles. All of them are a hard read, but capable of rearranging the way your neurons fire in profound ways. The above quote is the first sentence from his debut novel, Neuromancer (1984), the one that gave us Cyberspace; the Internet; the Matrix; and a few billion dollars in earnings for Hollywood. It also has shaped our cultural perception of the way the digital age works, for those of us who are digital immigrants. If you haven’t read it, you should. If you want to understand The Peripheral, you must.
Gibson is a proper writer; he knows how to use language. He plays with words and is more than happy to throw you, the reader, into a world, without a map; expecting you to make a choice; to put in the work to figure it out, or give up and go read something else a little easier on the brain. “They didn’t think Flynne’s brother had PTSD, but that sometimes the haptics glitched him,” is the opening line. Language as protocol; figure out the handshake and enter the world he has constructed. He’s doing games; dystopia (a properly fresh take on the SciFi trope) and time travel. What a ride.
My Non-Fiction Book of the year is Human Universe by Professor Brian Cox. It accompanies the BBC documentary series of the same name, and like the programs, it is a work of utter brilliance. It’s subject is us, and our place in the universe. As a work of explanatory, educational television, it is up there with the greats. Carl Sagan’s COSMOS, David Attenborough’s Life of Earth; Ken Burns’ Civil War and Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation. The book expands upon the five questions (one per episode) of the tv series;
Where are we?
Are we alone?
Who are we?
Why are we here?
What is our future?
It’s a love letter to the human race. And this quote is why you should read it:
I believe powerfully that we who have the power should strive to extend the gift of education to everyone. Education is the most important investment a developed society can make, and the most effective way of nurturing a developing one. The young will one day be the decision makers, the taxpayers, the voters, the explorers, the scientists, the artists and the musicians. They will protect and enhance our way of life and make our lives worth living. They will learn about our fragility, our outrageously fortunate existence and our indescribable significance as an isolated island of meaning in a sea of infinite stars, and they will make better decisions than my generation, because of that knowledge.