The Year in Reading 2014

Inspired by Diana Kimball (as I often am) and The Millions posting wonderfully personal summaries of the year in reading, I decided write up mine to share, too. My total count was a few more than I had anticipated: 30. And the favorites that stood out or stuck with me:

A large portion of what I read in 2014 was Tech Book Club picks. I love having a group to read with, provides the obligation and constraint to make time for reading (more on the idea behind Tech Book Club). Working backwards...

We had the priviledge of author Molly Sauter joining us by Skype to discuss The Coming Swarm, her new book on DDOS actions, hacktivism, and political speech online. Sauter does a great job of outlining the ways speech and protest are different in public space online when it does not exist in the same ways it does in meatspace. Her considered research builds a much more subtle and nuanced narrative around political action online. It was a pleasure to read a dear friend's first book in print. Go Molly!

After what I think was my third try, I finally made it through The Information with TBC this time around. Final verdict: Gleick presents a well-researched compilation of everyone who has ever had something to say about information, but I still felt he relied too heavily on source material and sometimes these block quotes felt disjointed.

Part of the goal in Tech Book Club is to take a very liberal definition of what consitutes a book about technology, and we try to tackle concerns from all angles and disciplines. Realizing that many in our group hadn't heard of Seeing Like a State, we dove into this sociological take on power dynamics and instutional improvement schemes that quite literally miss the tress for the forest, that is local knowledge. Though Scott's field examples are dated, the technocratic critique is easily applied to present concerns about Google/Facebook/Amazon etc. and their problematic role as nonstate, technocratic actors. I'd say it should be required reading for anyone worried about power and scale of scientific and technological forces.

Little Brother intends to be young adult fiction, but it works for anyone with an interest in our technological society. Doctorow writes a special brand of near-future fiction and I'm inspired by how he gets people to care about current technological issues through stories.

I hadn't read any Margaret Atwood before Oryx and Crake, but I loved it. I loved the postapocalyptic unwinding, the inevitability of developing religious meaning to make sense of the world, the ambiguity in judging the actions of the characters in the fall out. 

Our summer of fiction started out with I, Robot, classic Asimov pulp science fiction. We talked a lot about the political job of I, Robot in the context of civil rights tensions and labor issues, as well as its more literal dealing with ethical concerns about robots. Others got hung up on style issues that didn't age well.

Flash Boys was an interesting deep dive into High Frequency Trading and the marginal infrastructure competition at play, but I was underwhelmed. Lewis weaves together stories uncovering the activity behind high frequency trading but it ends up reading like an impressionistic pastiche. To be fair, dark pools and algorithms are difficult black boxes to unpack. Lewis attempts to do so with lots of metaphors and aids, but I was left with the distinct fear that I didn't understand any better how HFT works than when I started.

Addiction by Design forever changed the way I think about gambling and casino design. I nearly walked into the casino in Singapore Marina Bay Sands just for the sake of research after reading Schüll's fantastic ethnographic and theoretical take on industrial design.

Many of us were very familair with danah boyd's work before reading, It's Complicated, and we were all impressed how accessible the structure brought parents and the wider media into a dialogue about subtlties in treating teens like human beings with agency, and not taking a technological deterministic view to oversimplifying the concerns about their safety and behaviors online.

A classic of virtual reality and corporatization of government, we talked through the ways Snow Crash holds up, or doesn't. And we were joined by super fan Ethan Zuckerman, who reads the book once a year.

Biella Coleman's Coding Freedom was an interesting ethnographic take on the F/OSS  development community addressing the political and ideological nature of their collective contributions and actions. 

I also read along with Diana's 24-Hour Book Club, in which we take a day to read, disperesed throughout the twittersphere and share our reactions over the hashtag—a distributed "flashmob" reading group. I love these marathons because they are both indulgent, giving me an excuse to spend all day reading, something I love but rarely allow myself to do, but they are also wonderfully communal, participating between breaks in chapters as I get a fresh cup of tea. Highly recommended. This summer, we read The Hotel Eden, a collection of beautiful short stories. I wasn't familiar with Ron Carlson before, but I really enjoyed the stories individually and as a set, and was thankful for the introduction.

Another large portion of my reading list was for a wonderful class I audited in the spring led by Naomi Oreskes in the History of Science and Technology department at Harvard. The course covered transformative technologies, dealing with the storied social histories of development and adoption of large-scale infrastructure. Oreskes' brought her current interests in the hisitorical implications for current infrastructural climate change concerns, and I had a similar interests in the implications for consumer technologies and the cloud, big data, social media, and so on. This post is already getting too long so I won't go into too much detail for each, but the entire syllabus was fantastic and I enjoyed expanding my historical literacy of technology. 

And on the topic of social histories of industrial automation, I got an advance copy of Nicholas Carr's The Glass Cage for a book review, but I backed down from writing it. Carr continues to be a contrarian voice to counter the main trends in technology, yet critiques without offering up alternatives to the dominant trajectory he is reacts to, in this case, automation. He equates automation in consumer tools like Siri to the automation of piloting commercial airplanes, altogether unhelpfully broad definition. The book is too wideranging to be helpful, and ends with a  romanticized, idealized a view of technology as extensions of bodies (in the scythe sense of a tool that enhances work capabilities) rather than taking humans out of the work entirely. Carr makes genedered arguments about the emasculating effects of automation, without considering the female embodied perspective at all. He dabbles with historians who have worked on the narratives around technolgical progress, but does little with their insights. And that, I suppose, serves as my belated review.

I also read a few things for fun, generally while on vacation. 

Reading about The Blue of Distance in A Field Guide to Getting Lost while in front of the Pacific Ocean was trascendental—not at all surprising given Solnit's ability to weave ideas and times and places together in poetic and revelatory ways. She's one of the people I read to observe the craft of writing. And I will keep reading whatever she publishes.

Gone Girl was the perfect beach read, even for people who don't do beach reads. Well crafted.

I loved The Flamethrowers, largely because I loved revisiting my post-war art course in undergrad. I also enjoyed details about the medium specificity of film and cinema, as well as themes about womens' expressive abilities and limitations. 

The Goldfinch was epic, Dickensian, and lovely, also for all it's dealings in the worlds of New York and the art world. It was engrossing and sad, too. I also discovered that Donna Tartt is my androgynous style icon.

I finished out the year reading The Bone Clocks. A David Mitchell fan for a while, I was not dissappointed. It was full of wonderful voices and places, spanning decades of the past and the future. And the magical realism planted enticing details that unfolded as time played out. 

All accounted for, 2014 was a pretty great year in reading for me. I learned more about how to think historically,  enjoyed countless conversations about great books, I was inspired to dabble in speculative fiction to address the near future of technology, and I thoroughly enjoyed some new literary fiction to keep things fresh. Here's to more great reading in 2015, which starts off with Tech Book Club's January pick, Where Wizards Stay Up Late. Join us!