I was a tragic failure in the “blogging about reading” department this year – although the reading did actually happen.
To close out 2020, here are the other things I read, with some brief commentary. Separately, I am putting together a list of top reads, period.
Empire of the Summer Moon – I love this book. I couldn’t shut up about it for about a month. It’s fascinating, tragic, horrific, and fun (people say the same thing about our great nation! har har). We were headed for a safe, socially distanced getaway in beautiful Amarillo, Texas to go hike Palo Duro Canyon, so I thought I’d pick up some relevant reading to bring the trip to life. Here I thought I was going to have a relaxing vacation read, and about 10 pages in I was having a meltdown over scalpings. Yikes. This book has it all: the anthropological relevance of the horse in North America, the subsequent rise of the Comanche Nation, the brutality of the Texas frontier, the birth of the Texas Rangers, frustrating, aggravating detail of the bullshit, unenforceable or simply unenforced treaties laid out by the United States government and offered to indigenous nations, and the final, total genocide of a people. There is graphic detail of the torturous horrors the Comanches and colonists visited upon one another – my heart still broke when I read about The End – the final face-off in Palo Duro Canyon. Somehow, without a single drop of human blood being spilled, the symbolism of a culture razed to the ground was stark. If you live in Texas, you need to read this book.
The Man Who Solved the Market: How Jim Simons Launched the Quant Revolution – This was… fine. If you’re in the industry, it’s a good read and contextualizes the direction of financial markets in modernity. At the same time, as somebody in the industry, it was fairly repetitive. I lost count of the number of times Simons plucked a quirky, brilliant mathematician or scientist from academia to take the models to the next level. They’re super smart and they don’t do it for the money, they do it for the game. I got it. If I’m missing some nuance here, please let me know.
Uncanny Valley – I read this in 48 hours. An exercise in portraiture of Silicon Valley, it’s outstanding, fairly amusing, and frequently cringe-inducing. It’s squarely in the Millennial Memoir genre, a la Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror. I enjoyed the narrator’s POV, and in particular her self-deprecating self consciousness about being a non-technical person in a technical person’s utopia, her very pro-analog, Brooklyn-esque rejection of Silicon Valley’s cult of optimization, and her open-mindedness as she looked to unpack this world.
I spend a fair amount of time obsessing over several topics she touches open but there are two topics which I find myself talking about a lot: 1) : a culture in which your identity is tied up in your job 2) the presumption that societal issues with which people have grappled for decades, if not centuries, can simply be disrupted or coded away. The latter topic is very much a “pick up a history book please” kind of topic, while the former is, in my mind, tied to the journey all human beings must travel. Who are you, and how do you define yourself? Organized religion has served to fill the void for a very long time, but rising levels of non-religiosity and atheism (myself included) mean that people look to ground their place in the world by other means. Sometimes, people choose sports teams. Their alma mater. In my cohort, I see people principally defining themselves by their jobs. This can be wonderful – it can also really, really hurt. If it all goes away tomorrow, are you still the same person? How profoundly does that affect your sense of self?
My theory is that you need to diversify your sources of identity. You don’t want to give any one thing too much power over who you are. If you have a family, spouse, or children – they matter a great deal to who you are, but you are not solely defined by them. Similarly, a job, vocation, profession are defining, and from a raw numbers perspective, a significant tenant in your mind. But nothing is permanent. Everything is temporary. If various sources of identity fade away or disappear – what’s left, and who are you?