Monthly Archives: April 2011

5 good books I’ve read this past year

I’m a huge fan of reading – especially science and history books – and I don’t even want to know how much money I’ve spent at and Barnes and Noble over the years. I’ve read (or, in some cases, re-read) a number of really good books over the past year or so, and wanted to share them along with some short notes about what liked or thought about them.

1. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

A Short History of Nearly Everything is a fun examination physics, chemistry, biology, and general science. The book is quite enjoyable to read and Bill Bryson is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors (Life at Home: A Short History of Private Life is another book of his that I recently read and really enjoyed).

One major theme that stands out is just how tenuous our existence on Earth is. Consider this quote:

“To appreciate just how narrow, you have only to look at Venus. Venus is only twenty-five million miles closer to the Sun than we are. The Sun’s warmth reaches it just two minutes before it touches us. In size and composition, Venus is very like Earth, but the small difference in orbital distance made all the difference to how it turned out. It appears that during the early years of the solar system Venus was only slightly warmer than Earth and probably had oceans. But those few degrees of extra warmth meant that Venus could not hold on to its surface water, with disastrous consequences for its climate.”

The book is full of examples of how tiny changes to one of a number of variables result in us not being here – a truly humbling notion. If you are looking for a fun, easy to read introduction to a great deal of interesting science, this book is worth picking up – I got the illustrated version for my Dad for his birthday, and he’s been enjoying it as much as I did.

2. 1776 (Illustrated Edition) by David McCullough

David McCullough has written a number of well-researched, interesting historical books. My interest in his work was kicked of by 1776, which examines the military side of the beginning of the founding of our country.

Calling this new version of 1776 “Illustrated” is selling it a bit short – there are indeed a lot of interesting illustrations, but it also includes a number of sealed pouches that contain maps, letters, and historical articles that help bring the most important year of our country to life. McCullough’s writing also has a way of bringing the main cast of characters in the revolution to life.

Much like Bryson shows us how fragile our very existence is, McCullough shows us how victory in our fight for independence was never assured and was often close to failing, only sustained by unlikely and lucky events – Washington’s crossing of the East River, aided by a fortuitous fog comes to mind.

1776 is a great read, and the documents that accompany the illustrated edition make it come alive even more.

Other books from David McCullough I’ve really enjoyed: The Great Bridge – a history of the Brooklyn Bridge and the men who built it. Truman – A look at an unlikely president who oversaw a lot of important events in American history.

3. American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin

I have a huge interest in World War II history, and I’m also interested in science and technology, so this book about Oppenheimer seemed like it would be a good read. I found the book to be an interesting look at Oppenheimer’s life, the development of the atomic bomb, and the terrible way in which he was treated after the war.

I find it somewhat disgraceful the way the western allies treated some of their scientists after the war – these were men who applied their genius to hasten the end of the war and undoubtedly save millions of lives. Oppenheimer and many of his fellow Manhattan project scientists became casualties of McCarthyism. Alan Turing, the British scientist instrumental in breaking German ciphers and an important figure in the history of computer science, was relentlessly persecuted for being a homosexual and eventually committed suicide in 1954 (Britain issued an official public apology for this in 2009).

Interestingly, Truman is portrayed somewhat less charitably in this book than in McCullough’s “Truman” – as Oppenheimer is dealing with feelings of guilt about developing the atomic bomb, Truman (who ultimately approved its use) grows impatient with him, perhaps dealing with his own feelings about it.

4. Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, and perhaps no single individual is more central to this period of history than Abraham Lincoln. Team of Rivals concentrates on Lincoln’s relationships with important members of his cabinet – Seward, Bates, Chase, and Stanton – who were once his bitter political enemies. Unlike many political and business leaders who surround themselves with yes-men, Lincoln recognized the intelligence and usefulness of his political rivals (who, for the most part, had little respect for him at the time) and included them in his cabinet, knowing full-well they would challenge him.

Team of Rivals shows the intelligence and shrewdness of Lincoln, and how he eventually earned respect and friendship from his former enemies.

5. Conspiracy of Fools by Kurt Eichenwald

Greed, corruption, and incompetence have been major components of corporate america and wall street for the last few decades, and I really enjoy books that go into the details of some of our biggest scandals. Conspiracy of Fools takes a look at one of the more infamous scandals – Enron.

Eichenwald tells a fascinating story about what went on at Enron, and how the company was ultimately ruined by greedy executives who did anything they could to make more money. The large amount of research that went into Conspiracy of Fools is evident, as is some of the bias in that research – Ken Lay is portrayed as almost completely oblivious to any wrongdoing going on, Jeff Skilling’s portrayal is likewise somewhat sympathetic, and others like Andy Fastow, Dick Causey, and David Duncan are portrayed quite negatively.

Ultimately, it is a fun and interesting inside look at one of the bigger business scandals in recent history.