A synonym for "nerd" used to be "bookworm", but it's lost in today's broadband ADHD society. We still read, though. Voraciously. Here we present a collection of books, new and old, that we've enjoyed over the course of this year.
History: The Dark Pasts of Our Geekiest Treasures
There's that old expression about those who forget their history being doomed to repeat it. So it's good that there are so many chroniclers of the great achievements in tech, and in geek culture.
Googled: The End of the World as We Know It by Ken Auletta Publisher's Weekly described Ken Auletta's book as a "savvy profile of the Internet search octopus", and they're not very far off. If there was ever anything you wanted to know about the way the company on whose services we depend oh-so-very much, then this is the book to spend an evening with.
Star Wars: 1,000 Collectibles: Memorabilia and Stories from a Galaxy Far, Far Away by Stephen Sansweet We consider Star Wars: 1,000 Collectibles to be "one of the best Star Wars coffee-table books in recent memory ... Written and compiled by Stephen J. Sansweet - who, as head of fan relations for Lucasfilm and curator of Rancho Obi-Wan, has two of the awesomest jobs in our galaxy - the book covers a million different things Lucasfilm has licensed over the years, and a handful of very impressive efforts by fans as well. People love to make fun of the over-licensing of Star Wars, but a certain genius is revealed when you see all of it, all at once."
The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History by John Ortved I recall reading a New York Times review of John Ortved's unauthorized history of The Simpsons which described the book as a "300-page combination of juicy entertainment gossip, rich television history and notes from a disenchanted lover". That description, along with Adam Frucci's recommendation, make this sound like a great read for anyone who's ever watched and loved The Simpsons.
Obsolete: An Encyclopedia of Once-Common Things Passing Us By by Anna Jane Grossman Anna Jane Grossman, an occasional contributor at Gizmodo, is practically the authority on all the old things we use and love. Her book Obsolete: An Encyclopedia of Once-Common Things Passing Us By is a fantastic collection of essays and tidbits about all those things and about the many nearly forgotten objects and experiences, some we can recall fondly, others we rejoice for having escaped.
Return to the Little Kingdom: Steve Jobs and the Creation of Apple by Michael Moritz Return to the Little Kingdom is a revisit of Michael Moritz's The Little Kingdom: The Private Story of Apple Computer, a book which was often named as one of the best written about Apple. With all the expansions and additions made in this new volume though, it could be called the definitive guide on all things Apple past and present.
The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester Simon Winchester's book is about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, but even if you're not an etymology lover like me, it's an incredible read. It's full of paranoia, murder, lunacy and all the things which one man went through in order to end up being one of the key contributors to one of the most popular reference texts today.
TechGnosis: Myth, Magic & Mysticism in the Age of Information by Erik Davis Our dear Joel "Take Back Take Off" Johnson, makes Erik Davis's book sound like an incredible read: "A decade past its original publication, I still know of no other single book that can draw a thread from the alphabet - the first technology - to the internet, with dozens of fascinating cultural and anthropological stops in between. I don't even think I believe in magic, but then I read TechGnosis again and have a hard time distinguishing between magic and technology that's sufficiently advanced beyond language."
The Official CIA Manual of Trickery and Deception by H. Keith Melton and Robert Wallace When we took a look at some illustrations from The Official CIA Manual of Trickery and Deception, we described the book as being part magic book, party history of the CIA's "double top-secret and sometimes sinister MKULTRA division. MKULTRA was supposed to have been erased from history in 1973, but - in true spy fashion - the few shreds of paperwork that remained ended up telling its whole story."
Art & Design: Back to the Drawing Board
Why are we so enamoured with certain images or objects? Though an explanation on the inner workings of the soul is always just out of reach, there are books that help us understand our art and design fetishes, what informs our gear lust as well as our definition of beauty.
Glitch: Designing Imperfection by Iman Moradi The publisher describes images and text in Glitch as capturing "the fact that no one can deliberately make a mistake, although mistakes are often the greatest sources of inspiration". And the book certainly does this by showing us several hundred images from around the world which, despite (or rather because of) their odd flaws, are stunningly beautiful.
Full Moon by Michael Light Jesus Diaz captured the simple beauty of Michael Light's book when he shared a few images from it: "It shows the trip to the moon through 128 brunch-bacon-crispy photographs, many of them giant four-page spreads containing fascinating panoramas. All clean, pitch black background, no text. Like the silence of space."
Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera by Ron Schick In our gallery of images from this book, Wilson described how he felt after flipping through the book: "Meeting the real people behind the paintings, and learning that every painting was composed of masterfully planned photographs - always black and white, since the artist let his imagination add the colour - I will no longer take Norman Rockwell for granted. In fact, I'm gonna kinda worship him from now on." We described Rockwell as "The Original King of Photoshop", and it's tough to disagree after reading this book.
Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things by Donald A. Norman Joel Johnson described to me why Donald Norman's book was significant to him: "Much of the evidence of the power of good design in Norman's 2004 follow-up to 'The Design of Everyday Things' can seem circumstantial, but his ideas about why we love physical objects and how we'll integrate the best ones into our future lives is still germane today, even though the book was published long before the colour mindblanc was invented in 2017." Never hurts to read something which looks forward and beyond what we've got available to us today.
A Fine Line: How Design Strategies Are Shaping the Future of Business by Hartmut Esslinger In our interview with Hartmut Esslinger, we discussed the challenges of design, 1979 versus present day and in his book he shares the "lessons he's learned in his career and on the future of business informed by design". Plenty of history and life lessons to be found in this one.
Design Classics: Pioneers, Mass Production and New Technology by Phaidon One thousand of the greatest man-made designs, spanning the last 120 or so years. Every iconic gadget is there, and nearly every chair and lamp worth a damn. It's a compendium of achievements in practicality, efficiency and beauty, and a testament to the need for envisioning beyond the end of your nose.
Sci & Tech Lit: Tales of Science and Technology, Told With Feeling
Science is about a passionate, single-minded pursuit of an uncertain goal, but you wouldn't know it from reading most news coverage of great discoveries. Each year, though, a few brilliant writers dip into the details, and string together a story that is as beautiful as it is mind-blowing.
Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) by Tom Vanderbilt A recommendation and mini-book review from Joel Johnson earned Traffic a spot in our Reading Room: "Want to learn about humans integrate technology into wide-ranging, everyday systems? And learn even more because its about a network that's been in place for a hundred years? Maybe you should absorb the staggering amount of sociological and behavioural data that Vanderbilt has collected about our relationship with the only technology we crawl inside of every day. (Egg chair owners excluded.)" Egg chairs? Say no more.
The Best Technology Writing 2009 by Steven Johnson (Editor) Blogging, Google, sitcoms, and all the topics which keep us at our keyboards each day seem to be crammed into this collection of essays. It may be tech reading, but it's some of the best tech reading of this year.
In Search of the Multiverse by John Gribbin Whether you loved reading about string theory, quantum physics, thermodynamics, and all the crazy things that explain our universe or not, John Gribbin's In Search of the Multiverse is an incredible read. Heads up, though, it may leave your head spinning as you feel a whole new sense of insignificance.
Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives by Michael Specter The best way to gauge if you'll enjoy Michael Specter's book is to take a look at our interview with him. If that leaves your interest piqued or "if you're just tired of people bitching about stem-cell research, genetically altered foods or the alleged evil that lurks in vaccinations", then give Denialism a read.
Total Recall: How the E-Memory Revolution Will Change Everything by Gordon Bell It's scary how transparent our lives can become with some of today's technology, but at the same time all the tools we use, from social media networks to personal blogs to to-do applications, can revolutionise how we retain knowledge and what remains after we are gone. Total Recall explores angles ranging from privacy to why exactly you'd want to capture so much detail and retain it. Wonderful read, even if I doubt I'll write about it in my private diary-style blog.
The Ocean Almanac by Robert Hendrickson Brian Lam recommends this unfortunately out-of-print book and describes it as "super cool". The publisher explains that the books is an "entertaining, informative almanac offers hundreds of fascinating essays, anecdotes, facts, legends, and mysteries concerning the sea, its amazing inhabitants - both real and apocryphal - and the men and ships who have sailed it through the ages." Between those two descriptions, it's tough to resist searching through some used book stores for a copy.
Food & Cooking: What's Cookin', Good Lookin'?
We certainly try to hone our culinary skills on occasion, so it's a given that we've been reading up on tasty treats and crazy concoctions. Naturally we've got some cookbooks that we can't stop raving about, but since we're dedicated nerds about food, there's a lot more going on here, too.
Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol by Iain Gately I don't know what it says about the editor who recommended it, but this book covers the history of alcohol from "absinthe to Jay-Z's boycott of allegedly racist Cristal, from Mayan pulque to Pilsner Urquell". It appears to be one of those rare reads that's chock-full of information yet still one of the more entertaining reads you'll encounter.
Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking by Michael Ruhlman Michael Ruhlman was among our favourite guest contributes during Taste Test, our week-long celebration of all things edible and we adore the ratio-based cooking methods he describes in his book. Don't forget that there's also an iPhone app that could make a great kitchen companion to this text.
Momofuku by David Chang Our NYC-based staff has a tiny, bit of an obsession with all things Momofuku, and it's tough to resist joining the craze. David Chang's Momofuku cookbook contains the secrets to some of the incredible fare of the restaurants as well as plenty of background to be both a good read and a great cookbook.
Ad Hoc at Home by Thomas Keller One of our more food-obsessed editors recommended this book with a confession: He hasn't actually cooked anything from it, but instead just loves reading cookbooks. After laughing a bit, I actually understood his hobby. After all, books like Thomas Keller's are filled with facts, lil' tidbits of food trivia and plenty of history. They make great reads for food lovers, whether they're amateur chefs or not.
Good Eats: The Early Years by Alton Brown Alton Brown was also among the incredible guest editors joining us during our food week and according to our Wilson Rothman, Brown's book of actual recipes covering his first 80 shows is long overdue. In true AB style, there's no shortage of explanation, advice and amaze-your-friends minutiae. Between trusting Rothman's judgment and reading the great posts by Brown, I know this book is a smart read.
DIY: Doing It For Ourselves
Maybe we're not quite as prone to making nearly everything ourselves like our counterparts at Lifehacker, but we certainly love to tinker and enjoy DIY projects. Albeit it's the ones that could cause major damage which we seem to go particularly crazy for, but I promise that there are innocent projects lurking in these books, too.
Absinthe & Flamethrowers: Projects and Ruminations on the Art of Living Dangerously by William Gurstelle Danny Allen remarked that this book "looks like some hazardous, but fascinating summer reading", but I think that flamethrowers and gunpowder are great DIY projects all year 'round.
Dangerous Book for Boys Electronics Kit by Thames & Kosmos Based on Conn and Hal Iggulden's amazing Dangerous Book for Boys, this particular work is more than just a reading assignment. While there are 32 pages of vital DIY reading to be done here, the actual electronics described are included. Just ignore the bit about "boys", because this is a fantastic set for girls who like to tinker, too.
Getting Started with Arduino by Massimo Banzi Written by Massimo Banzi, co-founder of the Arduino Project, this book contains all you really need to know to dive into some mad-crazy-fun Arduino projects, recommended to us by Mr Maker himself, Phil "I Sleep 10 Feet From a 3D Printer" Torrone.
Mini Weapons of Mass Destruction by John Austin When we featured a project from John Austin's book, we described that it would "take your spitball firepower to the next level", and similar statements stand true for all the projects in Mini Weapons. Try some - just please don't inflict any permanent damage.
How to Build a Robot Army by Daniel H. Wilson Take your pick of (occasional Gizmodo contributor) Daniel H. Wilson's awesome books, like How to Survive a Robot Uprising, Mad Scientist Hall of Fame and this one, How to Build a Robot Army - even if they don't equip you with the precise electronic engineering for construction of your own creepy Threepios, they do equip you with the knowledge to survive in the worlds of today and tomorrow. Plus, they're hilarious.
Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar: How Self-Education and the Pursuit of Passion Can Lead to a Lifetime of Success by James Marcus Bach Since this is a DIY section, we felt it fitting to include James Marcus Bach's new book - it's partly a memoir, but it's also a how-to guide to get the most out of self-education. We ran an excerpt a few weeks ago. You'd be surprised how many people are doing like Bach did, and taking their educations into their own hands.
Fiction: The Art of Escape
Even the craziest DIYer, chef, historian, gadget lover or designer needs a break at some point. Here are the departures from reality that kept us sane, especially after long, busy weeks of telling the truth.
Daemon and Freedom by Daniel Suarez Daniel Suarez has earned not one, but two spots in our reading room. These techno-thrillers not only use every bit of jargon from the hacker's cookbook, and a fair amount of William Gibson and Neal Stephenson to boot, they also feature deadly autonomous motorcycles with spinning katanas instead of handlebars. A worst-case-scenario tale of computer takeover, Daemon was one of the most talked about high-tech thrillers in recent times, but it ended with a cliffhanger. Thankfully, its sequel, Freedom, is just hitting stores.
The Magicians by Lev Grossman Lev Grossman's The Magicians has been described as a grown-up version of Harry Potter, or "something like" The Chronicles of Narnia, but the truth is, it's more intimately related to them than that, and it's altogether different - and equally worthy - at the same time. If you don't know those literary landmarks, you might get lost in Grossman's beautiful story of adolescent frustration, which deftly shows off what it really feels like when the worlds of magic and mundanity collide. Possibly one of the most underrated novels of the year.
The Eight by Katherine Neville When I'm asked to describe Katherine Neville's The Eight, I tend to say that it's what Dan Brown would've written if he were as good as Umberto Eco. It's a book full of puzzles, mysteries and conspiracies, in other words, all the things that make a tale difficult to put down, even as it jumps between 1790 and present day. (Neville also wrote a follow-up to The Eight, called The Fire, which is good, but doesn't live up to the thrills of the first book.)
Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami This is a crazy book that may require more than one reading to completely wrap your mind around the alternating storylines, but it's quite brilliant and might vaguely remind you of Kafka's The Castle.
Palimpsest by Catherynne Valente A friend of Danny Allen recommended Catherynne Valente's Palimpsest with such enthusiasm that Allen immediately passed the recommendation on to us. From what I've heard about it, it's poetic, sensual and completely magical, which makes it worth a glance for a lazy weekend.
Icelander by Dustin Long Invisible Icelandic ninjas. That's all I needed to hear about this book. It doesn't matter to me whether it's "only marginally geeky" or one of Dan Nosowitz's favourite books ever, it's got invisible Icelandic ninjas. That alone make this seem like one of the coolest books around.
A Spy in My Ointment by Dav Allen Dan Nosowitz describes this book as heavy on the James Bond-style gadgetry. It's an early book (circa 1966) from the lamented master of comic crime novels, Donald E. Westlake - and it's about as long as a typical James Bond novel, which is to say it toes the line of being a novella. Hilarious, topical (well, in the mid-1960s) and a breezy page-turner, A Spy in the Ointment is one of those stories of a man thrown into the world of international espionage, despite being totally ill-equipped. Great fun.
McSweeney's Issue 15 by Various Writers Dan Nosowitz recommended this collection because of an awesome short story called "A Precursor of the Cinema", about a fictional technology that makes paintings appear to move. The rest of the short stories in this issue aren't bad either, so it's definitely worth a read.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera Milan Kundera is among my most beloved writers and while he's got many amazing books such as The Book of Laughter, Forgetting and Laughable Loves, my favourite is still The Unbearable Lightness of Being. It's a book which will will make you think about the way in which we try to find meaning in our lives, and whether there is even any meaning to be found. It's one of the very few novels I've ever thought of as a "must read", not only because of its content, but because of Kundera's writing style. Give it a try on a long weekend and come yell at me on the off-chance that you don't like it.