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The Books I Read in November 2021

Since last spring, I’ve been pursuing the goal of reading five books a month. To meet this mark, I start with a foundation of daily reading, but then, when I get momentum going on a given book, I schedule extra reading sessions in my time block schedule, allowing me to accelerate toward completion. I also include at least one audio title each month, and try to mix together a diversity of genres to keep things interesting.

Recently, on my podcast, I adopted the habit of of briefly reviewing the books I read each month. I thought it might be fun to replicate these reviews here in written form (an homage, I suppose, to my friend Ryan Holiday’s epic and longstanding Reading List newsletter).

Without additional preamble, here are the five books I completed* in November 2021:

Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

One of the best thrillers of the 1990s. I re-read this book in honor of Halloween this year (but didn’t finish until November) and was pleased to find that it held up. The basic plot is straightforward: an apparent monster is loose in the American Museum of Natural History. The execution, however, is superb. The book mixes multiple genres, including techno-thriller, mystery, and horror, and leans into the fact that Preston spent eight years working at the Museum before hatching the scheme to write this thriller with Child.

Steven Spielberg: A Biography
Joseph McBride

After reading a film studies textbook in October (long story), I’ve been on a bit of a popular cinema kick. It was this interest that led me to Joseph McBridge’s exhaustively researched 1997 biography of the wunderkind director.  McBride deploys a loosely Freudian approach to his subject, meaning that you should prepare for a long analytical treatment of Spielberg’s childhood. The narrative picks up steam, however, when a family friend at Universal, impressed by Firelight, an amateur 8mm feature Spielberg filmed using his friends and neighbors as cast, wrangles up an internship for the teenager on the studio lot. Spielberg haunts sets and the commissary, obsessively soaking in the trade. He then puts everything he learned into a feature short called Amblin, which is so polished that Universal pulls the trigger to hire the precocious 21-year-old to a television directing contract. Spoiler alert: things subsequently go quite well. My key takeaway from the book: Spielberg, for reasons that McBride can never quite nail down, was capital-D driven. His story provides a master class in the potential of mixing relentless ambition, talent, and perfect timing.

K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches
Tyler Kepner

I actually bought this book back in July from one of my favorite booksellers, Labyrinth Books, on Nassau Street, in Princeton, New Jersey. I didn’t get around to really reading it, however, until this fall. The book provides a brief oral history of ten important baseball pitches. Kepner, a baseball columnist for the Times, mixes a lot of original interviews with aging baseball greats with archival research. As you might expect from a Times reporter, the writing craft is superb. As someone who came to baseball relatively late (my twenties), however, I occasionally found myself drowning in repeated references to players I didn’t recognize. The book leans more towards nostalgia than a Moneyball-style contrarian sharpness.

Future Ethics
Cennydd Bowles

For obvious reason, I’ve recently taken up a professional interest in digital ethics. Bowles’ 2018 book provides a useful survey of the various problems tackled by this nascent field, and the frameworks that have emerged to tackle them. I particularly enjoyed Bowles sharp summary of Peter-Paul Verbeek’s Mediation Theory, which I first came across in Verbeek’s classic, Moralizing Technology, and which I think provides arguably the best take we currently have on our complicated relationship with modern tools. (Indeed, I would argue that Digital Minimalism is itself a practical instantiation of this theory’s main proposals.)

Number: The Language of Science
Tobias Dantzig

Original written in the 1930s, and boasting a book jacket blurb from Albert Einstein (“Beyond doubt the most interesting book on the evolution of mathematics which has ever fallen into my hands”), Number provides a cultural history of our increasingly complicated understanding of what we mean by the notion of a number. Dantzig starts with the emergence of a “counting sense” in humans that goes beyond what other animals can manage, and ends with Cantor’s uncountable infinities. Though the book perhaps gets a little too math-ey by the end (and this is coming from someone who is literally teaching discrete mathematics to university students at the moment), Dantzig provides a compelling overview of what we mean when we talk about “numbers,” and why this is a question that we must repeatedly keep re-visiting.


* Not every book is read within the exact days of a given month, so my rule is to count each book in the month in which I complete it.

16 thoughts on “The Books I Read in November 2021”

  1. Awesome; Have you read “A Promised Land” by Barack Obama yet?

    I also think you’ll like “Tiny Habits” by BJ Fogg, since it relates to Deep Work, and perhaps “Project Hail Marry” by Andy Weir – since you are looking at future ethics 🙂

    On second thought, the last book might make you happier than it will inform you.

    • I literally just finished reading Weir’s Project Hail Mary – it was fantastic! And while yes, I agree it’s likely far more entertaining than “informative,” it certainly posits a future not unlike the one we currently face, if not for slightly different reasons. ?

  2. Reading 5 books a month is amazing. For non-fiction books what do you do to retain the information. Not sure if you’ve posted any articles about this before

    • I think it’s just fine to read non fiction for the pure joy of reading and to whet your intellectual curiosity, without worrying about having to retain the information in your head over the long term.

      I just finished reading Bill Bryson’s “The Body”. As a software developer by profession, I’m sure I’ll remember none of what I read in a couple months, and I don’t have to either. But I still don’t consider it a waste of time.

    • I just do active recall after each chapter and maybe the next morning on my drive to work. Sometimes I’ll try explaining to a coworker what I’m learning in the book. This helps cement the concepts. If I really want to retain it I will try making brief notes from memory several days later, and try to connect what I’m reading to other concepts I’ve learned.

      I read Learning How to Learn by Barbara Oakley (written for children) a few years ago and it improved my active reading ten-fold.

  3. This may seem a tad sacrilegious, but is there a significant additional benefit in reading sixty books a year versus reading, say fifteen? Reading is great (i.e. it’s obviously a better way to spend your time than watching Netflix or scrolling through social media), but at the end of the day isn’t it just another form of entertainment? Obviously Cal writes professionally so it’s a good idea to read a lot of books in order to generate ideas etc. But would the average person get a significant return on investment from being more aggressive in their reading habits? For context I currently read around fifteen to twenty books a year. I’m not sure reading more than that is really worth it…

    • Cal might have a good answer, but here is my take. It depends on your:
      1. aspirations,
      2. level of ambition, and
      3. circumstances.
      (Takeaway: If you are Tiger Woods, read 15 books; if you are a Georgetown professor, blogger, author, researcher, and professor read 60)

      What are the benefits if you are the latter?
      You don’t know. The coming century is WAY more complex than ever before, and the smartest people with the best brains are going to make the most influential strides; so reading one book leads to another and so on. 5 years later you have no clue how you’re THIS smart.
      1. It forces you to cut out any and all distraction,
      2. It forces you to read faster and understand more,
      3. It forces you to reflect on your assumptions, before a smart student says “I know more than you, frankly,”
      4. It changes your brain to like academically and intellectually difficult activities.

      Disclaimer: I am 19, so all this could be drastically wrong; but I need to have an opinion, since I am no Tiger Woods 🙂

  4. I love this! 60 books a year: what a cool goal.

    Have you already started a public reading log to share your progress with your audience?

    I would be very interested in seeing your list and I’m other fans would like that too. You might have already done this but I haven’t found it yet (and I’ve looked).

    Here is an example of my own reading log:

    It’s pretty simple: I just put start date and end date for each book as well as the title and author. If at all possible, I link to the author’s homepage as a way to show respect to their work. You’ll notice your name is on this list in multiple places (I bet I’ve sold tens of copies of your books to my students). Within the last year, I’ve added a “Suggested by” line if I read the book because of a suggestion. That is a fun way to show my communities that they are having an impact in my life.

    I love to see your list and perhaps this would be a fun way to keep yourself accountable and provide value to your readers. The initial build took a bit of time (maybe 2 hours). But upkeep takes no more than about 2 minutes every time I finish.

    Thanks for all the great work you do and cheers to your goal. Si se puede!


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