Books I Read and Listened to in 2022
Here are all the books I can remember reading or listening to in 2022. In rough order of how good I thought they were and with some accompanying thoughts.
How the World Really Works - Vaclav Smil (paper)
Stewart Brand once said "Science is the only news". Accordingly, this book barely mentions politics or history (except for the history of science and engineering), instead focusing on how the human world really, mechanically, works. Impressively, I think it does so very well. If you're the sort of person who's ever been excited about ammonia production you should definitely read this. It paints a coherent picture of how we produce the things we need and get them to where they need to be, and I would estimate it contains at least one eyebrow-raising fact per page. Books with this amount of interesting information woven into a grand overview are usually at least 500 pages long, but this one only needs 233. Or 229 if you already understand numbers, and can therefore skip the Understanding Numbers chapter at the end.
The Future Of Fusion Energy - Jason Parisi and Justin Ball (ebook)
I was surprised to find I struggled to put this book down. It's a great explanation of the history of fusion, how it works, and where it stood at the time of writing. The good news is the chapter on the progress of fusion startups (which are a thing now) is already out of date as far as I can tell. It doesn't even mention First Light Fusion, and yet they've already achieved fusion. The authors don't shy away from using equations, and do a really good job of explaining just how grisly of a problem fusion is, it's just the right level of difficulty for someone who learnt a good amount of physics ten years ago, but forgot most of it since then. Whoever that might be...
Revolutionary Road - Richard Yates (paper)
An excruciating study of human nature in an utterly banal suburban setting, excellently written, one of my favourite novels.
Fire & Blood - George R R Martin (ebook)
This took over my life like no other book on the list. The best GRRM book I've read since A Storm of Swords (though I haven't read the Dunk and Egg books).
End State - James Plunkett (audiobook)
This was a surprise favourite. In some ways it's a UK/USA-focused compliment to How the World Really Works. It looks at a handful of functions of modern society (the welfare state, adult education, the work week), gives a historical overview of how they ended up as they are, and then gives some proposals for how you might want them to look if you were to sit down and design them properly. The numbers-focused discussion of a minimum income was a highlight for me. This isn't really relevant, but I listened to this whole book while kayaking around the Stockholm archipelago and it did an excellent job of drowning out nature's din.
Klara and the Sun - Kazuo Ishiguro (paper)
Yes, Kazuo Ishiguro's new book is very good.
The Road - Cormac McCarthy (ebook)
If you can get over the fact no one taught McCarthy how to use punctuation this is sublime writing. And relentlessly, crushingly bleak. More or less a detailed answer to the question: what would total biosphere collapse mean for individual humans? The abridged answer is: nothing good.
There Is No Antimemetics Division - qntm (ebook)
It's very rare to come across a book as truly original and imaginative as this. It is also horrifying and I highly recommend it.
What We Owe The Future - William MacAskill (paper)
I didn't enjoy this as much as I enjoyed Scott Alexander's review of it, but that's a high bar and there's a lot to like here. It contains some pretty accessible philosophy, the discussion of the repugnant conclusion alone makes it worth reading. MacAskill also gives an interesting account of the abolition of slavery, and makes a pretty good case that it was a contingent event.
I spend quite a lot of time thinking about whether the human population—and sentient beings generally—have lives that are worth living (while humming This Be The Verse to myself) and WWOTF has the best overview of the state of research on this topic that I've come across. The team behind the book even commissioned a global survey to try to find an answer, I think that's a really valuable thing.
In the end I was left a little bit disappointed by the main argument of the book: the case for long-termism. I think in order to be as important as its marketing blitz claims it to be, long-termism has to involve some tough trade-offs against other concerns. There might be a good long-termist case for being concerned about climate change, but given (as MacAskill points out) there's no shortage of short-termist reasons to be concerned about climate change, the long-termist case feels a little redundant. On the other hand it's important to make the case for vegetarianism because locking animals in death camps is the only way we know of to get cheap protein-rich food that tastes exactly like animal protein—which is to say: delicious. It was important to make the case for abolitionism (to non-slaves) because (for non-slaves) slavery was a great source of free labour, which must have been quite useful.
I read the book a few months ago so maybe I'm being unfair here, but it feels a bit like MacAskill fails to give any really good examples of tough trade offs because whenever a tough trade off arises long-termism is likely to lose. Why save the life of a child today when you could save the lives of a billion children in the distant future? Well, maybe because it's really really hard to know how your actions will affect the distant future. One of the most important ideas the effective altruism movement (of which MacAskill is an originator) has helped popularise is that it's often really really hard to know whether you're saving the life of a child in the present day.
In Animal Liberation (the book to which this book would surely want to be compared) Peter Singer makes a compelling case that testing drugs on institutionalised humans with no family and severe learning difficulties is preferable to testing them on animals, and if we're not comfortable with testing drugs on the former then we shouldn't be comfortable with testing them on the latter. That's an impressive amount of confidence-in-your-argument, and I find it pretty hard to imagine long-termism inspiring a similar amount of confidence in me any time soon.
The Disaster Artist - Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell (audiobook)
Another surprise winner. Kind of a character study of an incredibly strange guy who, inexplicably and unlike most incredibly strange guys, got rich enough to force his strangeness on the world.
Empire of Pain - Patrick Radden Keefe (audiobook)
This is sort of a narrative non-fiction biography of the Sackler family, who got incredibly rich from lying about the efficacy of the drugs their drug company were hawking—mostly OxyContin. Everyone knows biographies about awful people are more fun to read than biographies about good people. As a book about a whole family of awful people this is pretty good too. Keefe did some muckraking and found out some things that hadn't previously been known about the family, and generally seems to have brought some attention to them. Which is a good thing as they had been trying to whitewash their image by being quiet about where they got their money from and dumping lots of it into philanthropy. Though they were doing the kind of philanthropy where you get art galleries to name a wing after you, not the kind where you try to work out how to use your money to do the most good for the world.
The Central Park Five - Sarah Burns (audiobook)
Yet another unnerving peek behind the curtain of the United States' impassive, soul-eating justice system.
The Invincible - Stanislaw Lem (audiobook)
I drifted off a bit while listening to this. But it's well written sci-fi which—like the other Lem book I've read: Solaris—has stood the test of time quite well.
The Ministry for the Future - Kim Stanley Robinson (audiobook)
This one contains spoilers, so the ts;dr is: everyone should read the first chapter, but the rest is a mixed bag; interesting but grated against my worldview too much to be truly enjoyable.
There's something in this book to annoy everyone. If you're wondering, the thing that annoyed me the most was the part where the whole world put carbon emissions on the blockchain. The thing that annoyed me the second most was when the protagonist takes an airship from Europe to America, and spends her time working on her laptop while wondering why people ever used to travel on planes. Missing the obvious answer that not everyone has a job that allows them to spend two weeks wafting across the Atlantic.
Having said that, it's a sci-fi book with nice writing, and that's a bit of a rarity in my opinion. And the writing is never better than in the first chapter which, as I said earlier, everyone should read. It's an incredibly vivid depiction of what some of the worst consequences of climate change might look like.
Putin's People - Catherine Belton (audiobook)
I'll be honest, I lost focus a bit while listening to this one. But what I did learn was quite interesting.