December 09, 2014

Thinking Aloud: a year of reading thought-provoking books


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One of the big resolutions I made a year ago (that has actually worked!) was to read more books.

Making video essays on has helped: it has given me a reason and a focus for my reading. I've read more widely and more deeply than I have in years, and it feels great.

'Tis the season, so I've put together a list of the most challenging and provocative reads I have enjoyed this year. 

You Are Not A Gadget by Jaron Lanier
I want to dislike this book and Lanier's pretentious writing style makes that very easy; but I can't deny the fact that this has been the most thought-provoking thing I've read all year. Lanier was one of the early pioneers of both the internet and virtual reality and his starting question is simple: after 20 years, is the internet making life and culture better or worse? He argues compellingly that the way the internet is built causes its biggest problems, including trolling and cyber crime. His warning is simple too: we don't have long to change the internet before its design becomes 'locked in'. It's a powerful antidote to the generally optimistic coverage of technology we see elsewhere (I also read Chris Anderson's The Long Tail and Free either side of this book, and they seem naive in comparison). You'll want to angrily disagree with Jaron Lanier, but like me, you might find yourself converted. Try it out.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami
This short semi-autobiography by Japanese author Haruki Murakami is ostensibly about running, but it's really about what it takes to make good art. Murakami is famous for his intense daily routine when he is writing: he wakes at four in the morning, writes for six hours and then runs for several hours in the afternoon. WITAWITAR also contains a stoic message about dealing with adversity which I related to well. Don't run? You should still read this book!

Orson Welles by Barbara Leaming
Orson Welles is one of the exceptions to The Long Game rule I explored in these two video essays. He rose, seemingly from nowhere, to become first a prominent Broadway director and, shortly after, the first Hollywood director to be given carte blanche by a studio - at the age of 26! This hefty biography reveals how he did it, and how quickly it fell apart afterwards. 

Napoleon by Paul Johnson
I love Paul Johnson's biographies. They are short, insightful and extremely witty. I knew virtually nothing about Napoleon and this very short book was a great primer. That said, Johnson focuses too much on Napoleon the soldier at the expense of everything else.

Capital in the 21st Century by Thomas Piketty
Who didn't read Capital in 2014? But seriously, it's rare for a hardcore economics book to break onto the bestseller list but this detailed tome from an otherwise unknown French economist did just that. I skipped over parts that got a bit too mathematical, but you can't escape Piketty's highly relevant warning: we need to solve the problem of wealth inequality, or things might get nasty.

I also kept up my study of storytelling and visual narrative as I worked to improve my craft. Three books were really insightful for me this year: The Lean Forward Moment by editor Norman Hollyn and The Art of the Film by Ernst Lindgren helped me understand the cinematic language more profoundly. The latter, sadly, can only be found in libraries. And I really enjoyed sitting down with Hitchcock and Truffaut; my admiration of Hitch went up even more.

If your brain needs some challenging new ideas in 2015 then I can't recommend these books highly enough. And please, if you have any recommendations for my reading list for next year, I'd love to hear them.

Finally, I know this newsletter has had a very quiet year, as other projects have taken over. I have all sorts of ideas that are swilling around my mind at the moment and I'm itching to get them out to you - I'll do my best in the new year. 

Thanks and have a great holiday season!


P.S. all the links in this newsletter are Amazon affiliate links, but I really don't care if you buy through me or not. Just enjoy the books!