2020 By The Book, Pt. 1

Photo by Ed Robertson on Unsplash

When I originally started blogging on Medium back in 2018, I had hoped to offer content more regularly, but it has proven tough to generate a steady outflow of articles between all other commitments. Therefore I’m quite happy to at least be able to share with you a the review of my 2020 books, already kind of a tradition. A grand total auf 35 books were read cover to cover this year, which is significantly more than last year (20), but one book short of 2018. Whether this is because the books were longer on average (intuitively yes) or for other reasons I don’t know. You’ll also notice that this year’s review is quite a bit longer — long enough to convince me to split it up in two parts. This is the first, the sequel should be up in the coming days.

The most notable difference to previous year is that 2020 was quite heavy on novels, or fiction more broadly (11 — yes, that’s a lot for me). I personally applaud this trend, especially if it comes at the expense of the NYT bestseller type of pop science books that, as a rule of thumb, are seldom worth their time. As for the rest, it’s the usual wild mix of history, economics, neuroscience, politics, business, math and other fields that I happen to find interesting. For your convenience, I have marked my highlights with a little star, like such: *.

But enough with the preliminary remarks — see for yourself:

America used to be a a British colony, and as such it’s profoundly shaped by its colonizers. What’s easy to forget is that there wasn’t a unique British culture but many, and that migration happened in relatively distinct waves from different parts of the country. Just how much, for example, the Quaker culture differed from the ways of the Border reivers (they were almost polar opposites) helps to make sense of the often profound divides that determine American politics to this day.

Standing at more than 900 pages, this book requires some commitment. If you want most of the gain for almost none of the pain, read Scott Alexander’s excellent review of it (that’s how I learned about the book in the first place). That’s not to say that the book is way too long (although parts of it can be a bit dry and repetitive, if you’re not that curious about the different fashion or eating habits, for example). But in a world of trade-offs, even rewarding books face an uphill challenge.

One thing the book finally helped me understand (partially, at least) is the curious movement that is American libertarianism. By that, I don’t mean arguments for private ownership of the means of production, but the weird lower-my-goddamn-taxes, get-the-hell-off-my-lawn, guns-admiring culture that has often had a hard time drawing a clear line between itself and such things as the Confederacy — all these ideas really look like a mix of aristocratic Virginia culture and the warrior, give-me-liberty-or-give-me-death spirit of the backcountry.

Many commentators have remarked the similarity between one of the book’s central figure, Governor Willie Stark, and Donald Trump — both charismatic leaders with little educational distinction, an affinity for extramarital affairs and strict demands for personal loyalty. There’s something to this analogy, but I would argue that Stark is much more of a left-authoritarian populist (he seems to oppose segregation and favors heavy wealth redistribution). Even so, the story has lost none of its relevance and grip, and is definitely high up on my list of favorites for this year.

And in case you wonder where the title was taken from:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

The subtitle (“How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Middle Ages”) led me to expect a book about how Aristotle’s work helped to lift Western Europe out of the intellectual darkness it fell into after the collapse of the Roman Empire, and set the path for modernity. But that’s not the story Rubenstein is telling. Not directly, at least.

The book is about 80% a rehash of the first half of Russell’s famous History of Western Philosophy, with much less attention being paid to the substance of the philosophical debates and more to the biographies of its well-known proponents. The remaining part — the last chapter only, really — is an attempt to spell out lessons from the time of the great rediscovery of Aristotle that are still relevant today. Which would be a fine thing for a book to do, if it weren’t for several oddities that ruin the project almost entirely.

First, since Muslims and Jews are also mentioned in the subtitles among those who rediscovered Aristotle’s work, one would have expected to learn a bit about how his teachings shaped and influenced their respective cultures. Instead, the focus lies squarely on the Christian thinkers, and more specifically on a small subset of influential Catholic thinkers from the 12th and 13th century with connections to the University of Paris. I’m not a historian, but it seems far from obvious that even the one substantial claim he makes — that Jews and Muslim, working in Moorish Spain, preserved the Greek master’s work for Christianity — is correct, as many of them seem to have relied on the original Greek transcripts, rather than its Arabic transcriptions. There is much more to be said about the beneficial role of the pre-10th century Moor civilization in Spain, but it remains underexplored and poorly argued in this book.

Second, would one not expect to hear about how exactly Aristotle’s ideas helped to create the miracle that we call science? Yet again, Rubenstein is surprisingly vague on the actual ideas. Certainly, Aristotle’s influence on medieval Europe was enormous, but who would deny this? So if we are to make the much bigger claim that the rediscovery of his works was a decisive factor for the West’s ascendancy to world dominance, we should offer a little more evidence than can be found in his book.

But the most bizarre claim is the unexpected turn the book takes towards the end. For page after page, Rubenstein retells the complicated relationship between the Catholic Church and Aristotelian thought — the multiple attempts to censor his works, ban thinkers from lecturing on them, creating official lists which of his ideas were acceptable and which ones weren’t, to outright assassinations of ‘dangerous’ individuals. Much of the inclusion of Aristotle’s teaching was politically motivated (i.e. to be well equipped in the intellectual battle against the Cathars), and Rubenstein does a splendid job to spell out this period of mistrust, appreciation and fear between the Church and the Greek philosopher. Yet somehow, against the backdrop of all of this, he concludes that the ‘dark ages’ weren’t actually so dark, that it was a happy epoch where science and religion coexisted and enriched one another, and that the current state with a demystified science that reaches out into ever farther corners of our world, and a de-rationalized, purely personal religion on the retreat is the cause for much current strive and seemingly irreconcilable conflicts of visions.

I think there was an important story to tell here; the founding myth of science as a complete and triumphant rejection of ignorant, otherworldly scholastics leaves much to be desired, and the relationship between science and religion is certainly more subtle than we are sometimes taught — history is often a continuum, rather than a story of revolutions and abrupt breaks. But Rubenstein’s book, while an interesting read, isn’t up to the task.

I realized (too late, unfortunately) that the recommendation for this books stemmed from a time when I was a very passionate anti-government libertarian. Flynn, a prominent America Firster and staunch opponent of the US’s entry into WWII, presents a neither particularly scholarly nor nuanced view of how America started to turn into a fascist state at the very moment they very at war with fascism (Germany, Italy). Several things are annoying about the book — the lack of a clear terminology, the constant switching between “fascism is defined by Mussolini’s or Hitler’s program from ….” and “actual fascism is some kind of state capitalism plus maybe some restrictions for minorities and a lot of public debt”, the idiosyncratic style — and there isn’t really much new in it to learn. The further I advanced in the book, the more I started skimming pages. At its worst, it is really little more than an attempt to equivocate Nazi Germany and the US under FDR.

Only twice has a novel been awarded both the Prix Goncourt and the Grand Prix du roman de l’Academie Francais, and Littell’s tense, voluminous magnum opus, Les Bienveillantes, is one of them. Set during the latter half of the World War II — from the massacres at the Eastern Front in 1941 to the fall of Berlin -, the story is told from the point of view of an ex-SS officer (Max von Aue), himself involved in numerous atrocities and describing events, without the slightest remorse, “as they really unfolded”.

The book was an instant and highly controversial success, full of inexplicable violence, cruelty and graphic descriptions of bodily functions. Much of the discussion has centered around these aspects, the gracious heaping of murder upon murder, mixing war crimes, soldiers killed in combat, civilian causalities, the Holocaust and opportunistic killings into on giant maelstrom of death and destruction. Another line of criticism has focused on the unlikely character of Max von Aue, a highly decorated lawyer who advances his career relentlessly during the Third Reich despite being considered politically inept. He is homosexual but haunted by incestious fantasies with his twin sister, self-reflective yet utterly devoted to the Nazi cause, a serial murderer who despises violence, in short: someone who combines just a little too many remarkable traits at once. Similarly, the plot stretches the reader’s credulity more than once — Aue having visited all kinds of key places (Babi Yar, Stalingrad, Auschwitz, the Führerbunker…) at exactly the right moment by sheer chance, and ends up biting Hitler’s nose during a ceremony. All of this is true, and the book’s hyperrealism makes certain passages a dreadful read (one example would be the narrator’s autoerotic fever dreams towards the end of the book, stretched over countless pages).

Because of this, many critics have called the book a nightmare. It is also a nightmare in a different sense, in that it does not let you leave it behind easily. Towards the very beginning, the narrator makes a simple, but powerful claim: The guilt amassed by the lower ranks of the Nazi regime are not a result of their confessions, their vitriolic hatred of Jews or anything like that, but simple the product of circumstances they found themselves in. It is easy to reject this claim in the abstract, but a plethora of psychological experiments conducted since has, I believe, shown that almost all of us have a potential for evil, and whether or not this becomes activated is not nearly as much under our control as we would like to think. I encountered versions of this question in many different places in the book, where people make horrendous choices to advance their career, because refusing to partake wouldn’t change the outcome, or for fear of their own life. Looking at the many everyday situations where we fail to stand up for our convictions, even if the stakes are so much lower (being considered an oddball, missing out on a promotion) should give you pause.

The second thing that exerted a morbid fascination on me is the description of the Shoah from the perpetrators’ perspective. This has been, in my understanding, very much inspired by Raoul Hilberg’s famous The Destruction of European Jews, and many a reviewer has claimed that Littell does not anything new to it. Not havening read Hilberg, I cannot weigh in on the issue. For me, the Holocaust remains a giant and fundamentally incomprehensible tragedy, an inexplicable act of coordinated cruelty that one cannot make sense of in the last analysis. Of course I am familiar with the description of the bureaucratic nature of the final solution, of Hannah Arendt’s “Banality of Evil”, but maybe it took a novel to see what this actually means; what indeed it means to treat the extermination of the Jewish community as an ordinary task that has to be accomplished with the best possible results, given the circumstances.

“To have endured this and at the same time to have remained a decent person … has made us tough, and is a glorious chapter that has not and will not be spoken of” are the infamous words from Himmler’s Posen speech, and they capture the absurdities with which one is confronted in the book rather well: The sheer chutzpah (or maybe self-deception) that SS members engage in while they were discussing the most effective methods to eliminate the Jews — which killing methods are acceptable, how to spread the responsibility for the murders among many shoulders, the outrage (which one believes is not faked) of senior officials about “extralegal” killings or those that happened in a fury, rather than in the prescribed orderly manner — is absolutely mind-blowing. I don’t know what it takes to put yourself in the shoes of someone who would order the execution of prisoners for trivial reasons during the day and then go home and be a loving husband and father the night; to calmly evaluate the pros and cons of gassing vs. firing squads and then devote the evening to practicing the piano or debating German idealist philosophy, but I got a taste what it takes to construct this version of reality necessary to preserve one’s own sanity, to remain a “decent” person.

This is very weird. I should begin by saying that it’s a bad book — poorly structured, badly in need of editing, repetitious at times and lacking details at others. The title is pretentious, and so is the style. I clearly did not enjoy reading it. And yet, there’s a lot of good stuff in it if you try hard.

Pearl talks a lot about the “causal revolution” of which I’ve never heard (but in fairness, I’m also not a statistician). I don’t see it happening, and after finishing the book, I truly wonder how adopting the framework of the pioneers of this “revolution” (little causal diagrams and the “do-calculus”, which you’re invited to look up on the arXiv) would have rendered any of the persisting problems in messy but data-rich fields any easier. To be honest, I did not always follow all the technical details and so might have missed something important, but it looks absolutely implausible to me that drawing little graphs can settle questions over which statistician disagree in good faith, after years of work and debate.

One reason why it fails is that these diagrams always seem to pop up after the fact. He even has a section in the book where he discusses the remarks of one of his colleagues about how the diagram could have looked quite different, thus blocking certain types of calculations or leading to vastly different results. His reply? Well, I’m not concerned with the details of any given case, just with the general rules!

So why do I think the book is not entirely a waste of time? There are several reasons: First of all, it invites you to think about the relationship of models and data in an age where sophisticated curve-fitting (read: AI) is all people seem to be interested in. The question that’s never attempted to answer, unfortunately, is where those models come from in the first place. Are they just figments of the imagination? Do we just take the simplest model and rule them out one by one? (There are theoretically infinitely many models, we can’t test them all against the data, and in any case more than one will fit it to some degree of precision.)

The second point is about confounders, or common causes of two effects X and Y. He’s got some really good discussion about when it’s appropriate to control for them (you may think that’s always the case, but it’s not!) and when not. This also ties into Simpson’s paradox, a statistical effect where some treatment T1 will be superior to T2 on all counts (strata), but not when taking the data as a whole.

Thinking about causality is tough, and formalizing it even more so, which is why we we usually stick around the realm of correlation. There’s definitely material for a good book to be written on the subject, but unfortunately, it’s not Pearl’s.

It is probably astonishing that it took my until now to read Friedman’s classic, or any of his books for that matter. I was not too impressed — neither by his much-praised eloquence, nor by the content. I think some progressives should be surprised to see how many concessions he makes for when state action is justifiable according to his liberal philosophy. They should not rejoice too early, though: While he goes over many areas where market failure is a problem, he’s also crystal-clear that (a) the category is not arbitrary and can be applied whenever we are unhappy with the results of the market process and (b) precisely what remedies are advisable to address these market failures. Suffice it to say that almost no government consistently applies the policies that the theory of market failures suggests, casting doubt on how much of a guiding principle this really is in public policy.

Highlight: The chapter on “The Distribution of Income”.

For all the stir it has caused (one should probably take into account that it first appeared in 1951, so times have changed a bit), I do not really understand its enduring appeal. It’s a quick and easy read, but the more grandiose claims (‘a critique of a superficial society’, ‘a masterpiece on identity and belonging’) do not, in my opinion, hold up. When all is said and done, Holden Caulfield, the protagonist, appears to be little more than a confused teenager, equipped with all the attributes that make their coming-of-age so annoying for the rest of society. Why this book is being praised as a key to something important about the human condition remains mysterious to me.

This is a book that every programmer, at almost any stage of their career, would benefit from taking to heart. In retrospect, I should have read it upon starting my first job, instead of letting two years pass, although parts of it can be (and still are) confusing if you’re not coming from a CS background. It is also somewhat unfortunate that the book relies so heavily on Java, which I am not at all familiar with (anyone trying to translate it to different programming languages?), and that it’s a bit old (12 years are a lot in the world of coding). Has it aged well? Parts of it, surely, but not all of it, and an overhaul might be needed. Again, not being an expert programmer, I don’t want to weigh in too heavily on that.

But what you should know is that writing clean code is, for the most part, not rocket science. It requires work and careful thought (hence the subtitle), but you do not need to have an incredibly deep understanding of OOP to profit from it. Indeed, most of his advice is deceivingly simply: Give your methods and variables clear, explicit names. Make them short. Don’t feed tens of arguments into your methods. Avoid comments wherever you can (they tend to serve as fig leaves for badly written code). Create tests, and then some more.

Far from being a “revolutionary paradigm”, the book actually encodes a lot of common sense — but, being humans, we are often lazy or, acting under pressure, fail to clean up in the aftermath of a go-live. Highly recommended.

Given how much of a fan I am of Haidt’s earlier The Righteous Mind (which is still among my all-time favorites), this book was rather disappointing. The reason for this is that the book was exactly what I expected it to be, blaming both the toxic, overprotective campus culture and the off-campus violent far-right counterprotesters. This doesn’t mean it’s a bad book or that it’s got all of it wrong — it’s more that I learned close to nothing new from it, so it felt a bit like a waste of time. I’m also not much of a fan of their generational analysis, which reels on BuzzFeed-style “ten horrible things millennials are to blame for” articles, and their embracing of Taleb’s “genius idea” of antifragility, which doesn’t do anything to help understand the phenomenon at hand.

“How a computer works” would have been a more accurate, if less concise, title for this book. It’s been the subject of a lot of praise across the board — almost everyone who is somehow involved with “code” seems to love it, which means quite something for a community that can have passionate debates about the proper way to store and display dates. So I thought that I, too, would be swept away by it.

The truth is less rosy: Even though the book makes you marvel at the ingenuity and sheer complexity of even the simplest of computers (you could in principle build one with a lot of wire, switches and lightbulbs) and I do understand a little better what’s going on inside the machine into which I am right now typing these words, Petzold doesn’t do a great job to convey that. My main issues are the extremely slow build-up (pages upon pages on binary systems and truth tables, which really could have been condensed to a short chapter), followed by extremely dreary, technical chapters about the minutiae of two 1970s microprocessors. Put together, it’s really hard to follow the logic fully because he first “challenges” you to skim through the chapters, only to overwhelm you with information later on. Maybe with more patience, you can get more out of it, but I found the level of detail often poorly adjusted to the author’s intent.

As someone who has no familiarity at all with Japanese literature, I did not quite know what to expect from Mishima’s Confessions. The author itself remains a highly controversial, but oddly entertaining figure (seriously, read him up in Wikipedia — especially the part about the failed coup attempt). Expecting a peak into a truly freakish mind, I was rather disappointed — the plot is boring, the style bland, and I still don’t think I understand Japanese literature any better now.

A book that took me several months to finish because I put it away twice for an extended period of time. The reason for that, besides the fact that I had a physical copy instead of an eBook, was, quite simply, that I did not find it all that engaging. And that’s even though it has quite an interesting thesis to offer.

The big takeaway is that the way we typically think about the brain, as some kind of disembodied decision-making apparatus, supplied with input from bodily sensors but otherwise rather disconnected, is fundamentally mistaken. In fact, part of our reasoning is in the body proper, and emotions play a crucial role in ‘normal’ reasoning, in that they would allow us to pick options instead of deliberating forever about seemingly equal alternatives. My guts tell me that AI researchers could learn a thing or two from this, and I hope to be able to spell this out in more detail in the future. Anyone who has read Gerd Gigerenzer and his “heuristics” school will also find a lot resonating here.

I could hardly take the book out of my hands once I started reading it, which hasn’t happened to me in a good long while. A family epos spanning over two generations, it follows the path of Californian settlers in a modern retelling of the Book of Genesis. The description of both the characters and the valley where most of the story unfolds is very rich and gripping in a way I can’t quite describe. The hints at Cain and Able in are not particularly subtle, but other than that, this is clearly a master at the height of his craft.
Somehow, it also reminds me of Buddenbrooks (another one of my favorite novels), even though the plot bears only superficial resemblance with it.

So to be perfectly honest, I didn’t finish this book (only about 60 percent) and I’m not sure I’m allowed to put it in this list, but maybe I can save someone else from wasting their time on it. I have not the slightest idea why I ever considered reading it (if I just wanted to read Grillparzer, this book is a very odd choice), but I found it excruciatingly boring. It didn’t get any better along the way, so at some point, I decided to let sunk costs be sunk costs and put it away for good.

Generally speaking, I am not particularly excited about businesspeople biographies, my basic assumption being that they’re written for gullible people who imagine they’ll learn all the insider tricks how to get a multi-billion dollar business started just by looking at how others succeeded (classic survivorship fallacy). I don’t expect to be challenged or surprised by those books either.

That being said, it was almost unbelievable how much I got sucked into the story of Amazon, which I believed I already knew. There’s something quite enchanting about it — not exactly a visionary genius who succeeded against all odds, but still a business that did a lot of things they weren’t supposed to work (according to the “old rules” — for example, venturing into areas with slim or even negative profit margins!), and somehow managed to pull it off and become the biggest corporation on earth. The book is neither the work of a sycophant, nor that of a fierce critic who tries to blame Bezos for all the evil in the world. Great job!

This is definitely one of the books I read but feel I shouldn’t. Yet somehow, it captures me on a deeper level than many of the books I would recommend to others, despite being terribly written and oozing from arrogance. Here’s the thing: The typical book I describe as amazing makes me change my mind on a thing or two, but then I’ll continue my live pretty much as if nothing happened. Ferriss makes me question life choices, and not — I repeat — because he’s written a good book. This seems weird, so I’ll try to explain it a bit. Bear with me.

Ferriss very much follows the footsteps of a Nassim Taleb or a Malcolm Gladwell, only that he’s a less gifted writer. What their books have in common is typically a story about someone who managed to be more successful along some relevant dimension than his peers, and distills the wisdom thus won into nice, digestible lessons for the reader. Important ingredients are anecdata, a very messy order, random ‘authentic’ quotes of readers who have been able to transform their lives after reading it. Serious studies (don’t even think about replicability) that would support the position, by contrast, tend to be in short supply.

Ferriss certainly isn’t everybody’s darling, and he‘s damn proud of it. His business model is built on two pillars: Outsource whatever can be outsourced, and find enough gullible people to fall for your trying to pass off as an expert. It’s hard to see how this would work for but a selected few. His advice is simplistic, conventional wisdom sold as mind-blowing discoveries. A fine example of this is the 80/20 rule that he refers to ad nauseam, which is of course a fine approach for things that merely need to get done, but would rob anyone of a fulfilled life if applied indiscriminately across the board. Isn’t it precisely the striving for perfection that make us marvel at human achievements? And that’s only the part where he oversimplifies; a fair share of ‘advice’ that he shares is just really dumb and even factually wrong. So, again, why do these books haunt me more than profound scholarly works?

Because, at bottom, there’s something we should indeed be thinking about more. What is that? Opportunity costs, lifestyle choices, creating our own future instead of letting a kind of social reality forcing it onto us, do I really spend my time doing the things I find fulfilling, and how can I minimize the time spent on things I don’t care about? I don’t want to say that we should all follow his path and try to cut as much slack for ourselves as possible, while leaving the heavy lifting to everyone else, but ask yourself how often you find yourself spending your working day procrastinating to “fill the hours”, instead arrange it in a way that allows you to get your work done in half the time and do something meaningful with the other half? Or how likely it is to stick to a job you don’t particularly care about because you’re risk-averse or lazy, waiting to retire and finally be able to do…well, what exactly? In this sense, getting fired can sometimes be a blessing: At least you don’t die a slow spiritual death in a mediocre job.

So, don’t read Ferriss if you can avoid it. But make sure to think about those priorities.

Slobodian is an anti-globalist leftist, and he makes it abundantly clear. With these pedigrees, is he still able to write a solid book on the neoliberal movement? Yes, absolutely. Meticulously researched, this book provides a provocative, but not totally unsubstantiated thesis how neoliberals, rather than being closet anarchists, actually used the state (or, more concretely, federations of state) to further the interests of the property-owning class.

Neoliberals, or those sympathetic to their goals, should take his challenge seriously. But when you do so, ultimately not a lot of it sticks. Take, for example, the neoliberals’ supposed obsession with private property: No doubt they were concerned a lot about how to safeguard it from extradition, but that was a very real threat in 1920s Europe (whether it was the Bolsheviks or the Nazis), not the result of some divine characteristics ascribed to material possessions. That this activism had an anti-democratic element to it is undeniable, but exactly what sort of democratic ideal Slobodian has to offer against the neoliberals’ agenda remains a mystery.

Another example: He misses almost no opportunity to attribute sinister motives to the neoliberals. He frequently paints them as mere shills for corporate interest, and often (and repetitively) contrasts their conception of ‘capitalist’ rights with human rights. That’s disappointing for two reasons: first of all, he never really comes out and says what exactly the difference is — for example, where does freedom of worship belong here? And secondly, while some of their more ardent followers would certainly do well to consider the possibility that their idols weren’t all high-minded, altruistic intellectuals, he takes it too far when he claims they only served crony interests. After all, as he remarks with gusto, someone like Ludwig von Mises spent his final decades in a rent-controlled apartment in NYC — how come he didn’t manage to turn his years of preaching in service of untrammeled capitalism into a hefty pension?

After finishing the book, this impression solidifies — he uses a lot of clever ways to make them seem more sinister, and also more influential, than they actually were. The causal links are often weak, but if you didn’t know anything about the topic, you’d be forgiven to think that these neoliberals were just a bunch of disenfranchised Austrian aristocrats who were longing for bygone days, glorifying the reign of Kaiser Franz Joseph. Such is the danger of elevating narratives over reality, which is so much messier and complex than any simply story could fit.

Le bonheur et l'absurde sont deux fils de la même terre.