My favorite books of 2008

Yesterday I finished a pre-galley version of Jeff Jarvis’ upcoming book What Would Google Do? and I twittered that it was the best book I’d read this year 🙂

But I also said that it would have ended in my top 3 of 2008 had I finished it a few days earlier. Then James Gwertzman asked me on Twitter what my top 3 for 2008 would be. A good question, and I had to narrow down a list of about 10 books, but I finally came up with these three (in random order):
The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable – Nassim Nicholas Taleb
God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything – Christopher Hitchens
Mao: The Unknown Story – Jung Chang and Jon Halliday

Only non-fiction on 2008’s list, even though most books I read are fiction. Most novels, however, I forget about the day after I finished them. A nice way to relax at the end of the day or on a holiday, but nothing more. But these three books I still think about and discuss regularly with friends. In case you have not read them, below a quick take on why I like them.

The Black Swan is actually the second book by Taleb that I’ve read this year, I should probably also mention Fooled by Randomness here because both books cover the same subject. Mr. Taleb is a financial trader with a very strong mathematical background. His message is very simple, don’t look for patterns in events. The most important events are random and unpredictable, but most people (including traders) do not realize this. When something happens people look for explanations, but not everything can be explained.

Why does someone become a millionaire? Can you repeat what he or she did and also become rich? No, often it is just random factors, so no need to buy books about how to become a millionaire. Observing something once does not mean it will happen again, and even if something happens a few times it still does not mean it will happen again. The book derives it title from the fact that for centuries Europeans had only seen white swans, so it was a scientific truth that all swans are white. Until in 1697 black swans were discovered.

The Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness are the least easy-to-read from the three books on my list, but both books are a must read if you want to understand the world a bit better. Mr. Taleb knows what he talks about and had done his homework before writing this book. The book is full of real life examples, making the theory easier to understand and making it a sometimes even fun read. The global financial crisis and the resulting stock market crash have proven the author right, they are exactly what the author is talking about: unpredictable.

God is not Great I bought last year around Chinese New Year and I was immediately hooked. Mr. Hitchens is known for his controversial ideas and that’s why I like him. You need people like him to stir things up. Watch some of his video’s on YouTube to get an idea of who Mr. Hitchens is. I sort of like him, but he is certainly not somebody who wants to be liked.

In this book Mr. Hitchens convincingly argues that religion is man-made and actually quite dangerous. Religion is based on ancient beliefs, it stems from times where most people were illiterate and tried to explain the world with the little scientific knowledge available to them. I agree with him on that and this book has changed my view on religion.

However, Mr. Hitchens could have made his case stronger by being a bit more tolerant of believers. Religion also has it good sides (it gives people hope for example), he is too much focusing on the problems that religions have caused (and are causing) for this world. By being a bit more open to other opinions and by not only trying to offend believers he could have been even more convincing.

The book is in my top 3 because of the impact it had on me and my thinking about religion. As some of you may know I lived in a fundamental Christian family for a while in the late 80’s in the US, and that experience changed me at that time. Looking back it was one of the best things that could have happened to me, because I have a lot more understanding now for people with different views of the world and how they get these ideas (a lot is based on peers having the same views and wanting to be part of the group). I am not a Christian anymore, however, mainly because I saw how absurd fundamentalism when I was able to look at it from a distance. This book reinforces my ideas, but I am afraid it is close atheist fundamentalism.

The third book, Mao, is also quite fundamental in its views. It is a very one-sided account of who Mao really was. Living in China for many years, I have heard numerous stories about Mao. Some from people who still fully support his ideas and even his ways to reach his political goals. Others from people who are more moderate and follow Deng Xiaoping’s line that Mao was 70% good and 30% bad. And some, but a minority in China, completely denouncing Mao and everything he has done.

This book follows the last view. And just like God is not Great it loses some credibility because of this. It shows Mao as an opportunistic crook, a mass murderer who was only thinking about himself. He was a brilliant politician playing out all his opponents against each other in order to reach his goals. Even though I think it’s a pity that Jung wrote the book from a very one-sided perspective it makes for an extremely interesting read for anybody who wants to know more about what has happened in China during the first three quarters of the 20th century. The book reads like fiction, and it’s sometimes hard to believe that everything really happened. Be prepared for a long read though, the book is over 600 pages plus almost 200 pages of references.

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  1. I’ve just finished Mao and yes it’s a very interesting book. We learn a lot of things about the reds but also many things about the KMT and how, despite the help of the USA, they lost the mainland.

    It’s a quite hard book to read, I sometime needed to breath a bit before continue my reading, especially when they talk about the Ruijin period and some other torture description.

    I feel very interested by the Hitchens’s book. I also believe that that religion is man-made and could be quite dangerous (but I don’t see any danger or what in the chinese religion, this philosphy is quite different than the 3 other ones) and I’ll by this book in HK once I’ve finished the one i’m reading now : Gomorra – In thye Empire of the Camorra; by Roberto Saviano.

  2. Marc,

    Taleb’s books sound pretty interesting, I’ll check them out myself. But which book would you recommend if I can only pick one, the black swan or fooled by randomness?

    My number one favorite book in 2008 has to be “The China Study” by T Colin Campbell, a book I just read very recently. Despite its name, it’s actually a book on nutrition and health. I love it because of the shocking truths it reveals, also it’s probably the most scientifically convincing book in the category of health and nutrition. I think this book has huge implications for the future.

  3. @tortue Mao is indeed not a book to read at once. You will get lost in all the details if you do that, and you might lose the overview. It's a book to read for an hour, put away and think about what you read for a while. That makes it more enjoyable, although it also makes you wonder about humanity sometimes – amazing how cruel people can be.

    Will check out Gomorra, did you buy it at Chaterhouse in Shanghai?

    @Lei: Fooled by Randomness is a bit easier to read, and I started with that before I read Black Swan. This review may be helpful in making a decision on which book to read:

    BTW, are the conclusions from The China Study comparable to those from The Tao of HS&L?

  4. @Marc: I never read the The Tao of HS&L. But The China Study has nothing to do with philosophy, spirituality or raw food,it's mostly about science and scientific evidences (lots of them). The author is one of the world most respected scientists, although he does advocate a whole food, planted based diet, he asks you to read all the evidences and arrive at your own conclusion. I don't tend to easily fall for all those new agey (or maybe ancient) theories or ideas. But this book is really quite different because it has a much wider application than all the other books in the similar categories, I truly believe the real impact of it will be for years to come. Also, lots of findings in the book are very shocking, it really makes you wonder how much we've been brain-washed as a result of money and politics. We need to know the facts rather than myth even if just for the sake of our family and most close friends, so that they won't be the victims of the mass misinformation. Anyway, I really think you'll enjoy the book.

    Btw, despite the name, the book only talks a little about China. I believe the book is called The China Study simply because it's the biggest and most famous research study covered in the book.

    Best luck for the new year!

  5. @Marc, thanks for the link, The Tao of HS&L book actually covers lots of the things that the raw food community also talks about. I think I'll probably agree to lots of the principles in that book. Also, I probably feel more kinship with the Taoist philosophy than any other philosophies or religions, one of my all time favorite books is the Chinese classic – The Tao Te Ching.

    But, the China Study actually says nothing about the traditional Chinese views on health and nutrition. Although the holistic way of thinking about nutrition is also a key principle the author advocates, the book itself is strictly about diet and nutrition, especially the science and scientific evidences on relationships between diet and diseases, which are the most shocking and revealing, in my humble opinion. I think it's probably worth checking it out on amazon 🙂

  6. I couldn't find "What Would Google Do?" at Chaterhouse..
    I don't think the English edition would be available at NewOriental..
    So, I downloaded the e-book version of it..
    Reading a PDF doesn't give the same feeling as reading a hardcopy of a book, but I guess there is nothing much to do..