The best things I read in 2016

In 2016 I read a lot less than I had hoped. This is primarily because, as you can see from my last year of blogs posts, I’ve spent a lot of time learning JavaScript and a little bit of Linux system admin. Nevertheless I did read some great things, and I thought it might be nice to share them. Note that these are things that I read in 2016, not necessarily things that were published in 2016.

The Utopia of Rules: on technology, stupidity ,and the secret joys of bureaucracy

“Police are bureaucrats with weapons” p73

The first of two David Graeber books I’ve included here, The Utopia of Rules set me thinking about all sorts of things I hadn’t expected. Graeber, an anthropologist[1], writes about bureaucracy, yes, but positions it in a larger conversation about power, violence, scientific progress and what it means to “think rationally”. Perhaps in part it’s because my job is, ultimately, to be a local government bureaucrat, but what I like about this book is that whilst it’s clear that Graeber is sceptical about modernist governments and scientific rationalism, he makes no attempt to hide or dismiss the attractions of bureaucracy:

“The simplest explanation for the appeal of bureaucratic procedures lies in their impersonality ... Bureaucracy holds out at least the possibility of dealing with other human beings in ways that do not demand either party has to engage in al those complex and exhausting forms of interpretive labor ... where just as you can simply place your money on the counter and not have to worry about what the cashier thinks of how you’re dressed, you can also pull out your validated photo ID card without having to explain to the librarian why you are so keen to read about homoerotic themes in eighteenth century British verse.” p152

This is a great piece of social theory, and fun to read too.

Real Mean Do Hit Women: the violence at the heart of masculinity

This was a difficult read, but Mike Salter really touched a nerve in this insightful peace for Meanjin. Hearing politicians glibly uttering the magic words “real men don’t hit women” never sat well with me, and here Mike breaks down exactly why this is such a problematic way of framing men’s violence against women:

The premise of ‘real men don’t hit women’ is that this violence is unseemly but otherwise gender inequality is unproblematic. In truth, leaving oppression in place while prohibiting its violent expression is not only unlikely to work, since the fundamental causes of violence remain in place, but it is wholly unjust.

No Neutral Ground in a Burning World

This is a talk by Eleanor Saitta and Quinn Norton at the Chaos Communication Conference in 2013. It explores the relationship between technology, people and governments over centuries rather than decades. The good, the bad and the ugly. I love the ambition of this talk, and it’s nuance. It’s just as relevant in 2017 as it was in 2013.

Seeing Like a State: how certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed

A couple of different books I read earlier referenced this one, and I was not disappointed. James C Scott delves deep into High Modernism, explaining the tendency of governments to want to make their territory and population legible. The act of making certain things legible, however, often renders other aspects more invisible than they were in the first place. Thus we have ‘scientifically managed’ forests that are destroyed by pests that were previously kept under control naturally. Decisions made to make things easier for central record-keepers also have the potential to profoundly change whole societies and ways of life. Moving from community-managed strip farming to consolidated fields, for example, is not simply a change to where each family’s vegetables are grown. This was a fascinating read, and helped clarify my thinking around why governments sometimes do things that seem wilfully stupid.

Command and Control

This book is terrifying. Eric Schlosser masterfully recounts the history of nuclear weapons in the United States, anchored by the story of an accident at a Titan missile silo in Arkansas that ultimately resulted in the explosion of the missile, but, amazingly, no detonation of the warhead. I’d never heard of this incident, and whilst it is in itself horrifying, it is simply one in a long list of near-misses and miraculous recoveries in the history of US nuclear arms. Whilst many are terrified of the prospect of Donald Trump having his finger on the nuclear button, the reality is that for most of the last 60 years the biggest danger posed by the world’s nuclear arsenals has been accidental detonation rather than deliberate annihilation.

Learning JavaScript

As I wrote in my last post, I spent a lot of my spare time in 2016 trying to improve my coding skills, and, like Jon Duckett’s books on web design, this book was hugely helpful. This is a solid and reasonably readable book from O’Reilly, designed for programmers coming to JavaScript from other languages, or for those who want to get up to speed with the latest changes to the language. Having learned and used the basics, this was a really useful book for me. Ethan Brown does a great job of explaining some of the more complex parts of JavaScript simply, and unlike many of the introductory texts I’ve read, he makes no assumptions about where you might be using JavaScript, so it’s just as useful for a nodejs programmer as a web developer. Great if you want to understand what’s changed with ES6 (though having read it I still struggle with where I can use let and where I still need to use var instead of const), and breaks down things like Promises really well. I’ll be referring to this for a while to come.

Phantom Terror: the threat of revolution and the repression of liberty 1789-1848

Adam Zamoyski has put together a highly readable history of ruling class paranoia, repression and the birth of the modern secret police in Europe. Zamoyski shows that the ruling classes of Europe were so spooked by the bloodiness of the French Revolution that they saw conspiracies everywhere. The Illuminati were thought to be formenting revolution across Europe, whilst in France the police had so many informers with so little real revolutionary conspiracies, their informers ended up falsely accusing each other of revolutionary intent. Whilst Zamoyski writes in his introduction that this was not his intent, he has produced a cautionary tale perfect for our times.

Stuff: compulsive hoarding and the meaning of things

This is a great book from two researchers specialising in the study of hoarding. Their conclusion is intriguing - people who hoard generally don’t actually have an attachment to their things so much as an inability to decide what is important and what is not. It’s also full of fascinating (if often horrifying and sad) stories about extreme hoarding and literal cat ladies.

Drone

In this small volume, Adam Rothstein recounts the history of drones, and explores the surprisingly complicated question “what is a drone”? From delivering pizzas to delivering missiles, drones are the technology of our historical moment - combining remote networked control systems, artificial intelligence, ubiquitous surveillance and, sometimes, 3D printing. Rothstein does a great job breaking down what exactly drones are, and how we talk about them.

Debt: the first 5,000 years

After reading The Utopia of Rules I was keen to read more from David Graeber[1:1], and Debt did not disappoint. Graeber delivers on the promise to go back 5000 years, resulting in a book that is right down my alley - epic historical scope fused with a currently-relevant politics, focussed on a particular aspect of the human experience. Graeber wastes no time in explaining that, contrary to common assumptions, credit and debt systems are far older than money, and cash economies are unusual in the broad sweep of history. Debt, religion, sex, honour and politics have been intimately related throughout history, and Graeber has written a classic connecting all the dots.

So, what next? I’m ashamed to discover that, with the exception of Stuff (co-authored by Gail Steketee) and No Neutral Ground in a Burning World, everything listed in my ‘top reads’ was written by men. There are lots of reasons for this, but it indicates that I need to make a conscious effort to find and read great books by women. In 2017 I still have an enormous ’to be read’ shelf (not pile), and given my propensity to walk into bookstores and exit with a bag full of new acquisitions, it’s sure to grow. I’m hoping to read less Twitter and more books this year, so hopefully I’ll have some great books to share in 12 months. Stay tuned.


  1. Yes, I’m aware Debt was written first. As an aside - Melville House’s cover design for both books is amazing and very clever. ↩︎ ↩︎