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This is the fifth in a series of annual book reviews:
I read ~113 books in 2018, and a lot of them wound up on this list. I may be giving out too many five-star ratings, but in the course of writing reviews, I remembered just how good all of these were, so… no regrets.
(My Goodreads account has a rating for every book I remember reading.)
The Best Books
I didn’t choose a cutoff point, but ten books stood out from the rest, either because of their sheer quality or because they were easier to read than competitors of similar quality.
Every link in this section goes to my full review on Goodreads.
Ridiculously good books:
- Black Lamb and Gray Falcon (free online)
- Impro (Keith Johnstone) (free online)
- Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae
- Erfworld (free online)
- Understanding Power (free online)
- Stubborn Attachments
- The Structures of Everyday Life (free online)
- George Orwell’s Essays (free online)
- Vinland Saga
- My Name is Asher Lev (free online)
Books that were merely very good:
[Content note: Jokes about death and violence]
This is a true story I wrote in 2014. I’m publishing it on the request of Penelope Laurans, who received it from Anne Fadiman after the story was told at a dinner commemorating the very strange history of Yale football. Of my 273 blog drafts, it was perhaps the one I least expected to publish, but life is also very strange.
If you aren’t sure whether to read this, go to the end and look at the photo. Then, if you want to know the story of the photo, read this. (Spoiler warning.)
It was an October Monday, the night of The Yale Record’s weekly meeting.
We were brainstorming slogans for t-shirts to commemorate the 130th annual Harvard-Yale game (“The Game”), and preparing to sell said shirts so that we might someday commemorate the magazine’s second straight year of not being in debt.
The administration often threatened to take away our office if we didn’t toe the line, so we had to abandon our best idea: John Harvard crucified on the letter Y.
After that, we held a public vote, and resolved to print t-shirts with the two most popular slogans. It doesn’t matter what they were. What matters for my story is the third:
“Whoever wins, our lives will end equally … IN DEATH.”
Part II in my very occasional series on applications that don’t succeed.
Why I do this: Most people who apply for prestigious positions fail, and it seems healthy to acknowledge that truth. Otherwise, we end up in a world where all we can see are the triumphs of the people around us, in stark contrast to our own failures. (Some people refer to this as “Facebook envy”.)
So I’m swimming against the tide, by showcasing the times I wrote something with all my might, only to receive a rejection letter.
Imagine that an all-knowing genie manifests in your bedroom.
The genie tells you that sometime in the next ten years, you will have a chance to save a total stranger from dying by performing CPR.
But you don’t know when it will happen, and there’s no guarantee you’ll succeed when the time comes.
How would you respond? How would your life change, from that moment?
I don’t get cold anymore.
I’ve been keeping a journal for the last eight years.
This is one of my best habits: The journal compensates for my awful memory and helps me feel like a complete person with a deep and meaningful history. It reminds me that I’ve spent the last 24 years actually existing, 24 hours at a time. It shows me all the friends I’ve ever had, and all the bad days I’ve put behind me. It’s also fun to read (once enough time has passed, and transient emotions like embarrassment are mostly gone).
Until recently, it was also a pain in the ass.
The Microsoft Word file that stores one-sixth of all the words I’ve ever written is called “Daily Journal”. But it’s been a long time since I’ve really kept a daily journal.
Why? It’s not that my life is boring. Well, it is — objectively speaking — but I find it exciting.
One problem is Microsoft Word, which doesn’t perform well with 750,000-word, 1000-page documents, at least on my old machine.
The bigger problem is motivation. Without some kind of external prompt, I found myself forgetting the journal, or skipping it in favor of something more fun — sometimes for weeks at a time.
Last year, I switched to an email system. This eliminates the loading times and makes it very easy to finish daily entries. I’ve also begun to ask myself questions, to mitigate the menace of the blank page.
If you’ve ever wanted to journal, or to resume journaling, you can set up this hyper-efficient, automatic system yourself. In ten minutes.
Sometimes, I do a good thing. Not a great act of heroism, but a simple, fundamentally decent thing that helps someone else.
When that happens, I congratulate myself for doing the right thing.
Then I criticize myself, since I don’t deserve congratulation for doing the “right thing”. After all, everyone should do the right thing.
Then I congratulate myself for being so humble and morally strict.
Then I criticize myself for bragging about my own humility.
My record for this is four cycles. I almost always stop on self-criticism.
Perhaps there are two kinds of people in the world: People who usually stop at self-congratulation, and people who usually stop at self-criticism.
Which kind of person are you?
Adapted from something I wrote in Yale’s “Daily Themes” class. (Great class, by the way!)
Write twelve possible first lines to twelve different stories (fictional, non-fictional, or some combination of both). For a real challenge, let those lines start to feel like they hold together by juxtaposition. See the work of David Markson for a model.
These aren’t good sentences, but I wrote them hoping they could become first lines for first drafts of good stories.
I haven’t written those stories yet, but if you’d like me to write one, let me know and I will do that, just for you.*
- Our god is cruel and jealous, and we wish we had a better one.
- Today my Anti-Procrastination Friend saw me on Facebook and…
- We know that our island is an experiment, run by someone we don’t understand.
- The main character of this story was hit by a car just after you finished this sentence.
- “This has been my favorite funeral of the year.”
- Gambling is for suckers, he thought, and pushed the button again.
- There he was, waving his sign like a madman and shouting the true heights of various mountains.
- This is my history of the world, factual and proportionate, slave to neither narrative nor…
- We abandoned the Earth in our ships, but we left the Amish behind.
- You might think that even a very intelligent cloud could never kill a person, but…
- According to the actuary table, one of us was dead by now.
- They were looking for souls all along!
- “This week, life was just one long fire alarm.”
- She’d learned to run on water, but that wouldn’t save her when she came back to shore.
- You do not fuck with Liz when she’s delivering a pizza.
*With the exception of #9, because the Amish deserve an entire novel. And #8, because it’s the friggin’ history of the world.
(To see all 60+ prompts from Daily Themes, click here.)
Are You Smarter Than a Coin-Flipping Monkey?
30 years ago, a man named Philip Tetlock decided to figure out whether the people we pay to make predictions about politics were actually good at predicting things.
He picked two hundred and eighty-four people who made their living “commenting or offering advice on political and economic trends,” and he started asking them to assess the probability that various things would or would not come to pass, both in the areas of the world in which they specialized and in areas about which they were not expert. Would there be a nonviolent end to apartheid in South Africa? Would Gorbachev be ousted in a coup? Would the United States go to war in the Persian Gulf?
–Louis Menand, Everybody’s An Expert
Tetlock’s discovery: On average, the commentators were slightly less accurate than a monkey flipping a coin with “yes” printed on one face and “no” on the other. They’d have been better off if they’d made completely random predictions!
What’s more, being an expert on a topic didn’t help much. At some point, more expertise even led to more faulty predictions.
Can We Do Any Better?
There are lots of reasons we make bad guesses about the future. But Philip Tetlock’s particular interest was in figuring out how to do better.
Prediction, after all, is one of the most important things a person can ever do: Will I divorce this person if I marry them? Will I be happy in a year if I accept this job offer? It’s also an important skill for governments: How much will the Iraq War cost? Will this gun-control bill really lower the crime rate?
But if political experts aren’t good at prediction, who is?