Strong Book Recommendations
Books I've read that I treasured; something like a 8/10 or above.
Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow
by Gabrielle Zevin
Life forced me to take an unplanned break from reading, but Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is almost a perfect book to bring me back. A chunk of this book feels like lived experience: from Boston and Los Angeles (I didn’t expect to be so surprised by zip codes) and being completely immersed in the culture of video games to a full life of trauma and pain - it all felt almost a little too real. In broad strokes, I think this book occupies the same space as Scott Pilgrim and Ready Player One: a cult classic that leans into (elements of) nerd culture and a terminally-online mastery of references to drive home a point about the human condition (and in particular, love). While it’s not perfect - in many ways, for the same reasons as Scott Pilgrim and Ready Player One - this is a fantastical book in its own right. A hefty recommendation, particularly for anybody who’s a bit too online or delved a bit too much into making games.
Stories of Your Life and Others
by Ted Chiang
Arrival is one of my favourite movies; I owed it to myself to read the original, and wow, am I impressed! Stories of Your Life is remarkably moving for such a concise short story. But, it doesn’t steal the show. Tower of Babylon shows off Chiang’s amazing world-building skills, while Hell Is the Absence of God demonstrates his unique take on seemingly over done science fiction and fantasy tropes (in this case, angels on Earth). Liking What You See and Seventy-Two Letters provide opposite approaches in how science fiction engages ethics (ranging from as in-your-face as possible to an ambient background noise). All in all, a wonderfully short set of reads, and a strong recommend!
The Shame of the Nation
by Jonathan Kozol
Three strong recommendations in a row - I can’t get enough of Kozol. I’m surprised at how versatile and personable he is. This book reads just like Death at an Early Age and Letters to a Young Teacher, even though the latter two are first-hand and epistolary in nature. He makes a blistering argument against the regression back into segregated schooling by providing a delicate balance between individual stories about children and teachers, arguments about school districts and states, and heavy-handed analysis of federal policy. His argumentation is so effective yet so polite; filled with rage, but directed with a measured approach. It’s a depressing read, and unfortunately, the backslide has continued. For example, the Thurgood Marshall school he writes about still is almost entirely black and hispanic. This is one of those books that I really wish every American would read; I’m honestly even going to recommend this to my students.
by Emily Chang
In a depressing way, this is a great read for anybody who works adjacent to tech. Brotopia serves a great balance between delving into individual experiences (which much of tech reporting doesn’t) while still tacking the underpinning social dynamics and properly attributing blame (which is lacking from books like Lean In). I’m quite impressed by how ahead of the curve some of Chang’s reporting has been; in 2018, I don’t think the relationship between tech, polyamory, and sex was as commonplace as it is now (post-SBF/FTX). I did chuckle a bit at some of her examples of “good” companies - Riot strikes me as one that seems particularly poor in retrospect. If anything, it’s a reminder that tech doesn’t inherently create good examples of anti-sexism; it requires deliberate, prolonged work. I’m curious what Chang would add if she rewrote this book today, and look forward to her next work!
A Brief History of Equality
by Thomas Piketty | translated by Steven Rendell
I’m too used to the American political battleground and culture. Living in the US for almost 5 years is making me a bit complacent! Piketty rips me straight out of this bubble in his most accessible work yet; analyzing in-depth the history of equality from the 1800s to the present-day. He doesn’t pull any punches; it’s been a while since I’ve read an economics book that is so concise, ambitious, and at times, ruthless. I’m just in awe of how much he’s able to convey in so few pages; I’m particularly impressed by just how well he argues points about slavery and colonialism, inequality in education, and environmental justice. His ambitious future is one that I want to fight for. I can’t recommend this book enough for anyone remotely interested in economic justice. And, it’s pushing me to reread Capital again … which I’ll do soon :)
What If? 2
by Randall Munroe
I love love love all of Randall’s work (this is especially apparent if you’re my student). No exception here - an extraordinarily fun and slightly educational read. I loved the focus on kids’ questions this time around!
by Ha-Joon Chang
With no exaggeration, this book is one of the best critiques of economic neoliberalism that I’ve ever read. Ha-Joon masterfully engages with free trade on all fronts: through history, theory, case studies, and counter-examples; with die-hard theorists and relentless empiricists. He’s effective at challenging the assumptions of predominant economic models, centering on myopic views of technology, culture, and policy. I particularly enjoyed his commentary on the absurdity of calling entire cultures “lazy”. And, I love Ha-Joon’s writing style - it feels like a wonderful conversation between two friends. Overall, a book I’d recommend to the vast majority of my friends!
Failure to Disrupt
by Justin Reich
Justin Reich clearly enunciates a lesson that I wish I knew earlier: tech hasn’t, and probably never will, “solve” education. He nails many of the things that have been on my mind over the past ten years; I grew up in the age of MOOCs and hypergamification and have lived his area of expertise. An extraordinarily fitting book for me to read before my UW interview, and a stellar recommendation from Shriram. I’m a bit biased, but I think this is mandatory reading for anybody in EdTech (or CS Ed). My only wish is for more depth.
Everything I Never Told You
by Celeste Ng
Celeste Ng’s debut book is already a masterclass in family drama. Every character is motivated perfectly, every twist and turn is unexpected but completely reasonable. I’m especially moved by Lydia’s trials and tribulations. It makes me even more excited for her next work!
by Ling Ma
Embarassingly, I thought this was related to the Apple TV show. The embarassment ends there - Ling Ma creates a page turner out of corporate monotony, office politics, and offshore manufacturing. The zombie experience alternates between the literal and metaphorical almost seamlessly. It was too easy to read the entire book in a day. Stellar recommendation.
by Blake Crouch
Recursion blends the heart-pounding nature of a straight thriller with some of the philosophical questions that classic science fiction poses: what, really, is a memory? Crouch’s protagonists are convincingly human; like great sci-fi, the core is about people, not technology. This is exactly where I want to see the sci-fi thriller genre in the future! As an aside, it’s funny reading sci-fi that also incorporates recent current affairs - like namedropping Glenn Greenwald (staying with the Guardian?).
by Andy Weir
This was one of the easiest books to read: Mark Watney’s inner dialogue rolls off of each page effortlessly. The science satisfies the part of me that wanted to become an astronaut, and the character almost feels more lively than the movie. I’m flabbergasted that this is Weir’s first novel, and that he’s a software engineer by training! Certainly a book I’d recommend to people who find it hard to get back into reading!
by Susanna Clarke
Wow, just wow - this book is making me rethink all of my previous strong recommendations. Susanna Clarke brings you along for what I can only describe as calm psychological thriller. It’s a book that I imagine I’ll want to read again for the first time for many years to come. In some ways, the Portal 2 of books? Strong strong recommend.
The Handmaid's Tale
by Margaret Atwood
I feel like I’ve done my due diligence as a Canadian - but beyond that, Atwood is concise and provocative. The book itself reads well, and the stream-of-consciousness / metafiction elements are done quite well. However, what I think is most interesting is Atwood’s framing of the book itself - that, in writing it, she hasn’t invented a new reality, but simply extended upon history. For that reason alone, I find The Handmaid’s Tale spectacular.
Debt: The First 5000 Years
by David Graeber
I’m now torn. On one hand, I think the storytelling and narrative of this book is resoundingly novel. It challenges the creation myths of barter, coinage, and ultimately, modern economics. Many of its ideas are revolutionary and provide a stellar alternate perspective on the world. That being said - I think I’ll need to think a bit more about how verifiable these claims are. Still, an absolute stellar recommend for anybody interested in economics and/or human history - the intro chapter alone is all worth it.
Little Fires Everywhere
by Celeste Ng
Celeste Ng’s sophomore novel is an absolute sucker punch. Without spoiling the main premise of the book, it is a masterpiece in family and relational drama. I’m teleported to Shaker Heights and feel the stress of the Richardsons and Warrens. I’m especially impressed by the last third of the book, where all of Ng’s setup and various moving parts all click into place. A strong and timely recommendation.
by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, John Higgins
Who watches the watchmen? The comic book that changed societal perspectives on comics as a medium is as poignant as ever. Watchmen is a stellar commentary on superhero vigilantism, American imperialism, and the fundamental nature and morals of humanity. It also juxtaposes the icons of Western culture with the horrific reality of its product. My only regret is reading the book after watching the movie. The HBO series is definitely next on my list.
by Sasha Costanza-Chock
Wow, I’m in awe. Sasha Costanza-Chock does a stellar job of deconstructing design and analyzing it through the lens of intersectionality and the matrix of dominantion. This book is in rare form - the ideas are novel and groundbreaking, but the text is extremely accessible with strong ties to real practice. I especially enjoyed their discussion on design sites, challenging the exclusive culture of hackathons, makerspaces, and other hacker clubs. I wish I read this book before I ran Teach LA; a must-read for anybody with decision-making in the design process.
by Kurt Vonnegut
This book was not at all what I imagined it to be. Vonnegut’s breakthrough is the prototypical everything: an anti-war book, a satire, humanistic science fiction, and a razor-sharp prose and style that has defined postmodernism. It is memento mori. So it goes.
The Memory Police
by Yōko Ogawa | translated by Stephen Snyder
The Memory Police is a harrowing exploration of humanity grounded in memory. Ogawa creates a mysterious authoritarian state that rivals Orwell’s or Bradbury’s, but brings a certain balance of intimacy and coldness that renders this novel particularly terrifying. Her writing style is terse, exploratory, wrapping tendrils around your mind - and she doesn’t let go. Overall a strong recommend.
Crying in H Mart
by Michelle Zauner
I’ve never been a huge memoir person, but Michelle Zauner is changing my mind. Crying in H Mart is a direct channel for her emotions: pain, love, and loss bleed through each page. She brings us intimately into her family and tells a story that you can taste and smell as much as you can read. She juggles a set of experiences that I find all too relatable: of parental struggle, fitting in neither in America nor in Asia, and ultimately, a feeling of hopelessness. A strong recommend.
The Three-Body Problem
by Cixin Liu | translated by Ken Liu
The Three-Body Problem is everything I love about science fiction: not just pushing the limits of technology and imagination, but exploring the nature of humanity at technological extremes. Cixin Liu balances the philosophical nature of science and interstellar physics against the backdrop of the Cultural Revolution; Ken Liu’s translation is immaculate.
by Gretchen McCulloch
Because Internet is everything I love about linguistics and the internet. McCulloch is a masterful (but witty and hip) writer, and deconstructs the history, sociology, and ultimately the core language of the ~ online ~. Each chapter gave so much context to internet-isms I’ve taken for granted, from lowercase texting to sparkle sarcasm to a history of memes. Strong recommend for … literally anybody. (I didn’t get a chance to read at all during spring quarter, but that’s no reflection on the book)
by Min Jin Lee
I’m in awe. Pachinko is a master class in epic fiction. I would say it is one of the best books I have ever read, period. It is a story of tragedy, perserverance, identity, and family like no other. I don’t have much else to say, other than that it’s been the first piece of media to make me (almost) cry for a long while. Please read this book.
by David Graeber
A stark, nuanced peek into meaningless jobs and the ruthless capitalism that underpins it. I think Graeber produces a very convincing paradigm of “bullshit jobs” and their impacts on the human psyche, productivity, and capitalism. Compared to many of the cut-and-dry economics books I’ve read, I especially appreciated Graeber’s human take on fulfilling jobs. My one wish: I hope we get more quantitative research into this field, whether or not his theory is empirically correct. RIP to David Graeber.
Death at an Early Age
by Jonathan Kozol
Wow. Just wow. This book makes me angry. It is, truly, the classic indictment of inner-city education - beyond that, a cold hard look at the American public education system at large. Even though the events of this book precede the Voting Rights Act, the institutions that Kozol criticizes still continue to marginalize students 55 years later. Each chapter is a cycle of sobering insight, heartbreak, and rage against the system. An essential read for anybody looking to get into education.
by Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo
This book is ultimately a manifesto for the work that Banerjee and Duflo (and to an extent, Michael Kremer) undertook that ultimately won them their Nobel prize: a granular, experimental approach to alleviating global poverty (especially with RCTs). I really enjoyed their systematic analysis of what causes poverty, and likely more importantly, their ability to admit that there is no silver bullet to fixing inequality. Definitely one of the first books I’d recommend to anybody looking to get into economics.
Why Nations Fail
by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson
One of the most influential economics books in the past decade. The most cited economist of the past 10 years. Possibly the most important question at the crossroads of political science and economics. Why Nations Fail pulls no punches as Acemoglu and Robinson explain their simple but crucial theory: that nations thrive from inclusive economic and political institutions, and fail by their extractive counterparts. They analyze nations throughout human history, starting with the Roman Empire and ending with the status quo and American neoimperialism; and in each case, they prove their mettle as award-winners in their field and reinforce the importance of inclusive institutions. At the end of the day, this has been one of the most comprehensive magnum opus-style books that I’ve read, and one that I’d wholeheartedly recommend to anybody.
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
by Haruki Murakami | translated by Jay Rubin
To many, this is Murakami’s magnum opus, and I wouldn’t disagree. From an extremely mundane and typical man and environment, Murakami conjures yet another fantastical story: one that touches on Japanese suburbia, war crimes in World War II, and a set of relationships set around existentialism and death. As magical as this book is, it’s definitely in the “odd reads” category; but still, it has my complete recommendation.