Last year I read 17 books and thought I’d reflect on them for a moment here. Although I’ve been listing my annual reads here for years now, it’s been a few years since I’ve committed to publishing book reviews and summaries here. I still collect and publish book highlights, though.
It Came From Something Awful by Dale Beran
A non-fiction historical account of the history of SomethingAwful, an influential comedy website and discussion forum from the early 2000’s. A lot of internet lore – like memes – originated on the SA forum and I spent years frequenting the site.
To understand what the word “meme” means, it’s helpful to learn its origins. Biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term in his 1979 book The Selfish Gene as part of an argument reframing how we think about evolution. The central idea of The Selfish Gene shifted the focus of Darwin’s competition for survival from the individual organism to the genes of that organism, the instructions that produce all its traits, from the shape of its eyes to its behavior.
Technically, internet memes were invented on Something Awful (SA), where the first image macros (funny pictures captioned with white impact font) appeared, because there, too, people gathered not to exchange ideas but to compete to be funny. But around the same time 4chan was founded, Lowtax banned the practice, believing that simply copying someone else’s joke and changing it slightly wasn’t all that creative.
Unfortunately this book is a terrible read. It is filled with extended tangents on politics and society which have little to do with SA itself and more to do with the author’s political outlook. 3/10
The Godfather Doctrine by John Hulsman
In 2021 I became a fan of John Hulsman, a global risk analyst with a Substack account that publishes articles and podcasts about global geopolitics. Last year I read Disunited Nations by Peter Zeihan, a similar thinker in the same space, but I much prefer Hulsman. This book, The Godfather Doctrine, is a comparison of U.S. foreign policy to the Scorsese movie of the same title. Described by Hulsman:
The aging Vito Corleone, emblematic of Cold War American power, is struck down suddenly and violently by forces he did not expect and does not understand, much as America was on September 11th. Even more intriguingly, each of his three sons embraces a very different vision of how the family should move forward following this wrenching moment. The sons approximate the three American foreign policy schools of thought—liberal institutionalism, neoconservatism, and realism—vying for control in today’s disarranged world order.
The Godfather Doctrine is a great read if you have interest in foreign policy analysis, and especially if you are a fan of the movie also. You’ll be able to read this book more quickly than you can watch the movie, too: it’s only 100 pages. 9/10
Follow Your Gut by Rob Knight
I’ve gotten back into brewing kombucha over the last year, and I believe it’s helped to restore my gut biome after being on antibiotics for a long time. This book is filled with fascinating information about the gut, for example, the average adult is carrying three pounds of microbes, which makes the microbiome one of the biggest organs in the body, roughly the size of the heart. Here’s one more: there are ten times more microbial cells in our bodies than human cells.
The microbes on your hands are very distinct from other people’s—on average, at least 85 percent different in terms of species diversity—which means that you have a microbial fingerprint.
There’s a lot of information about probiotics like kombucha, kimchi, and sauerkraut, too. 8/10
Living Healthy in the Modern World by Henry & Friends
This is a free and open source book that I came across when looking at publicly available literary resources for healthy living. Much of the book revolves around the distinction between natural and artificial, and the authors make it clear that avoiding toxic substances (plastics in particular) is a tenet of health in globalization era, along with a host of other practical considerations for the modern world. Limiting use of technology, finding your own purpose, what to eat and avoid, and how to exercise. It’s a lot of information for a relatively shoot book which you can finish in a few sittings.
Sometimes the spiritual malaise is masked in colloquial terms like “black pill” but is ever-present even amongst normal people – this is why a film like Fight Club tapped into the subconscious felt by the masses. The error in the “black pill” or Fight Club is giving into a psychology of hate for the system or others that have nothing to do with it. They are just following along – just in the same way you are. Stop and think how giving yourself a purpose will fix your mindset and way of life.
It’s around 100 pages and available here for free online, in a number of different formats.
Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carrerou
I was recommended Bad Blood as the Elizabeth Holmes trial was getting started, and quickly learned that it is indeed the definitive book on the subject, authored by a WSJ writer who has been at the center of the criminal case. A riveting story so crazy it might not seem real, but it is. It somewhat mirrors some of the office culture I’ve experienced in China: the insular, cult-like atmosphere in a rapidly growing tech company led by a radical thinker who borders on maniacal.
Elizabeth expected her employees to give their all to Theranos, especially ones like Kent whom she entrusted with big responsibilities. Not only had Kent not given his all, he’d devoted part of his time and energy to another engineering project. It explained why he hadn’t been coming in on weekends like she wanted him to. As she saw it, Kent had betrayed her. In the end, a fragile compromise was reached: Kent would go on a leave of absence to give his bicycle-light venture a shot. When he was done indulging his pet project, they’d have a conversation about whether, and under what conditions, he could return.
This book isn’t just a good story, it is an important examination of a culture which is afflicting our national character. This is “fake it ’till you make it” stretched by absurdity. 9/10
Earthbound by Ken Baumann
A book in the Boss Fight Books series of retro video game analysis, this is about the eponymous SNES game Earthbound from 1994. The game has a cult following for its bizarre, fourth wall breaking cartoon aesthetic which was unique for the time period. Although Earthbound is a Japanese role playing game its charmingly offbeat atmosphere laid the foundation for Undertale, which is regarded by many including myself as one of the best games of the last decade.
EarthBound’s score could serve as a textbook example of how to smuggle eclectic, diverse musical styles into a piece of popular entertainment. Its biggest influence is the idiosyncratic and wide-band ethos of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Following that trail, EarthBound analysts have linked the score to other classics of late-60s and early-70s American rock, but also to music as disparate as Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, pre-Great Depression era ragtime, heavy metal, and Chuck Berry’s poodle-skirt twirling rock and roll.
This is high brow cultural analysis of a 1990’s video game. This is not a book for everyone, and I was not sure it would be a book for me, even with this being one of my favorite games of all time. Although it was informative and well written, this would be a book I’d have been fine not reading. 6/10
Final Fantasy VI by Sebastien Deken
A companion to the Earthbound book above, in the same series, except it’s about Earthbound’s contemporary: Final Fantasy IV. Considered by most to be the best game in the Final Fantasy series and by extension, one of the most influential RPGs of all time.
FF6’s director, Yoshinori Kitase, said in a 2013 interview with Edge magazine: “We began work on Final Fantasy VI with the idea that every character is the protagonist of the story. The idea was to transform the characters from mere ciphers for fighting into true characters with substance and backstories who could evoke more interesting or complex feelings in the player.”
The soundtrack of this game is very famous, and made its composer Nobuo Uematsu a household name in the game industry. The detail that this book goes into on the score is excessive. 6/10
The Authoritarian Moment by Ben Shapiro
Ben Shapiro’s podcast has fallen out of favor with me over the last year, but he has written some outstanding books and this is one. The partisanship of this book is self-evident, but the argument is convincing. Shapiro, being an orthodox Jew, is no libertarian, but the centralization of power in the United States has to be regarded as a concern by even tepid statists.
Democracy is threatened chiefly by ochlocracy: the rule of the mob. Mob rule transforms freedom into authoritarianism in two ways: through reactionary brutality, in which citizens seek protection from the winds of change, without and within—a form of brutality largely associated with the political Right; and utopian brutality, in which citizens seek to escape present challenges through the transformation of mankind itself—a form of brutality largely associated with the political Left. Often, the two forms of brutality feed on each other, creating a downward spiral into tyranny. This is precisely what happened in Weimar Germany, where the utopian brutality of German communists came into conflict with the reactionary brutality of German Nazis.
This is a well written, important book which is written precisely for this moment in history. 9/10
Facing Reality: Two Truths About Race in America by Charles Murray
A book about racial politics, crime, culture, the reality of the situation, and the national discussion. A complex topic done justice with rigor.
The new ideologues of the far left are akin to the Red Guards of Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, and they are coming for all of us. The comparison is not overblown – not when students demand that an art professor at Skidmore be fired for briefly watching a “Back the Blue” demonstration and successfully intimidate other students into dropping his classes; not when the University of Southern California places a professor on leave after student protests because he used a common Chinese term that sounds something like the n-word; not when a Yale lecturer is subjected to ugly demonstrations over an email suggesting that Yale students should be allowed to make their own decisions about Halloween costumes.
Similar to Thomas Sowell, except Murray is a political scientists. An academic examination of race in the United States, with the goal of sober analysis of root causes of inequality and inequity. It’s good. 7/10 Highlights
Unmasked: Inside Antifa’s Radical Plan to Destroy Democracy by Andy Ngo
Andy Ngo’s long anticipated book about Antifa. Written and published at exactly the right time, after the George Floyd riots, this book is the definitive text on the global group of radical anarchy. Somehow Ngo has managed to remain committed to reporting on Antifa despite being targeted by the group for years.
Simply put, antifa are an ideology and movement of radical pan-leftist politics whose adherents are mainly militant anarchist communists or collectivist anarchists. A smaller fraction of them are socialists who organize through political groups like the Democratic Socialists of America and others. Labels aside, their defining characteristics are a militant opposition to free markets and the desire to destroy the United States and its institutions, culture, and history. Contrary to what many on the right believe, they are not liberal, though that does not mean they haven’t made inroads in transforming and radicalizing the Democratic Party.
Ngo references informants in the book who infiltrate the most notorious Antifa group in the country (Rose City Antifa in Portland, Oregon) and share the details. Fascinating. 8/10 Highlights
The Law of Self Defense by Andrew Branca
This book is specifically for concealed carry holders, to intimately become familiar with criminal cases from the perspective of a state prosecutor. The book is authored by a small town lawyer named Andrew Branca who has an impressive Youtube presence, where he regularly uploads legal analysis of public self defense cases like Alec Baldwin. It’s all about how to be safe and protect yourself not just from criminals, but yourself and the danger you could cause by being ignorant about the law.
Self-defense is the opposite of an accident. You do not intend an accident to happen. Self-defense is deliberate and intentional. You perceived a threat, and you purposely threatened or used force against that threat. Self-defense and accident, then, are logically inconsistent. If your conduct was one, it cannot be the other. I mention this because you must be careful not to confuse a self-defense narrative by saying the gun “just went off” or “I didn’t mean for it to happen” or even explicitly “it was an accident,” when really your use of force was genuine self-defense. If you claim your use of force was an accident, or use words that can be interpreted as meaning it was an accident, you can seriously undermine your case. Indeed, you could eliminate any hope of meeting your burden of production in the first place. So, if you acted in self-defense, make sure you don’t contradict yourself.
I liked this book so much I bought three copies and gave two to some friends who have conceal carry licenses. If you don’t handle or carry guns this won’t be relevant for you. 8/10 Highlights
Anatomy of the State by Murray Rothbard
Published in 1974, Anatomy of the State is an analysis of statism authored by an anarcho-capitalist economist named Murray Rothbard. It’s a short and potent dose of rugged, independence-minded criticism of government. It is an unflinching, scathing appraisal of the usefulness of the American government in particular.
The increasing use of scientific jargon has permitted the State’s intellectuals to weave obscurantist apologia for State rule that would have only met with derision by the populace of a simpler age. A robber who justified his theft by saying that he really helped his victims, by his spending giving a boost to retail trade, would find few converts; but when this theory is clothed in Keynesian equations and impressive references to the “multiplier effect,” it unfortunately carries more conviction. And so the assault on common sense proceeds, each age performing the task in its own ways.
A prescient book authored generations ago, before I was born. More people are questioning the role of government now than at any point in my lifetime. You can read this one in a sitting, too – it’s only 60 pages long. Maybe the best book I read this year. 10/10 Highlights
One Second After by William R. Fortschen
The first in a trilogy of novels about an American apocalypse which is brought upon by the detonation of high altitude nukes which fry all electronics in the United States. The novel takes places in East North Carolina in the Black Mountains region near Asheville. When the power goes out, the world is transformed and rapidly descends into chaos.
Every administration since Reagan’s has placed hardening of our electronics on the back shelf. Meanwhile the equipment kept getting more delicate and thus susceptible and the potential power of the burst kept getting one helluva lot stronger. Remember how we were all wowed by the high-tech stuff back in 1991. That equipment is now as primitive as a steam engine compared to what we got now. And in constantly making computers and electronics faster and better we made them smaller, more compact, and more and more vulnerable to an EMP strike.”
I started reading this book and was instantly hooked. When I finished this, I went straight to the next two. The first one was probably the best of the three because the setting and aesthetic are thrilling. 10/10 Highlights
One Year After by William R. Fortschen
Every major city in America is down, most of them abandoned wastelands, those left controlled by ruthless mobs like those you call reivers. More than fifty thousand of them control Chicago and have declared a dictatorship under some whack job who calls himself ‘the Great.’ The prisoners he takes? The lucky ones get thrown off the top of the old Sears Tower. The rest he crucifies along the shores of Lake Michigan.
The sequel to One Second After, this book escalates the stakes and features some prominent battles of the new world. If you enjoyed the first, you’re likely to read and enjoy this as well because it is more of the same. 9/10 Highlights
The Final Day by William R. Fortschen
Etiquette was never to ask people if they had a secret stash of some precious item like chocolate, honey, coffee, or cigarettes. One waited to be offered.
The conclusion of the trilogy, which does not disappoint. Mostly takes places inside what remains of the federal government. 9/10 Highlights
Thank You For My Service by Mat Best
A trashy account of military service by social media celebrity Ranger Mat Best. I picked this book up once, stopped reading it because I found the tone off-putting, and months later picked it up again and finished it. The author enthusiastically rejects the idea of sounding like an author, so the book is filled with edgy vulgarities.
Having a fucked-up sense of humor is probably as important to keeping a soldier alive as his weapons or his armor.
Imagine a series of 1,000 tweets in a row, that’s like what reading this book is like. 6/10 Highlights
China: The Bubble That Never Pops by Thomas Orlik
Fascinating insight into the smoke and mirrors of the Mainland Chinese economy. Everyone knows it’s large and complex, but after finishing this book you’ll know more about the intricate design of China’s domestic economic policy which has driven 40 years of record growth.
The regional manager of one of China’s more commercially oriented banks explained how lending decisions were made. “First we look at what the central government’s plans are,” he said, “then we work out which local projects fit into those plans—that’s where we make our loans.” That—offered as a straightforward explanation of operations rather than a confession of poor practice—shows how moral hazard permeates China’s financial system. The loan assessment process had nothing to do with hard-nosed calculation of risk and return, everything to do with brown-nosed investigation of which projects had the backing of Beijing, and so would be immune from default.
Educational, interesting, and a joy to read. 9/10 Highlights
Looking forward to doing this again next year.