My favourite books of 2019

In 2019 I read 66 books (with an average length of 289 pages). Here are the ones I rated 5 stars.

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Nikko, Japan



Sustainable Energy — without the hot air, David J.C. MacKay

Despite the well-structured approach to describing the problem, the outlook for sustainable energy is not a positive one. This book explains why renewables will never be able to provide 100% of the energy in the UK unless we deploy country-scale facilities — something I doubt will ever happen. This is a good example of how to walk through a difficult topic so that it is accessible for non-specialists (particularly politicians) but still offer scientific detail if the reader wishes.

The Social Contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau

The UK has had some kind of election major every year for the last 5 years and every time the “wrong” party wins, I find the inevitable protests amusing. I have nothing against protests per se, when they are reasonable and targeted at specific causes, but I find protests against legitimate, democratic votes to be absurd. You might not agree with the result but to use your right to protest against the legitimate outcome of the right to vote makes no sense at all.

Steering the Craft: A Twenty-First-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, Ursula K. Le Guin

Supported by great examples and clear tips, Le Guin provides the core foundations for fiction writing, plus a few hints for narrative non-fiction. The exercises are fun and relevant, and they make you think about the points you just read. My favourite tips were around creating memorable character names and how it’s always a good idea to throw away the first 3 pages of anything (3 paragraphs for shorter works). I look forward to trying these!

Environmental Economics: A Very Short Introduction, Stephen Smith

It’s all very well saying we want zero pollution and to have a perfect planet, but that isn’t realistic and indeed isn’t possible if human civilisation is to exist at all. This is a good introduction to how to think about the environment in pragmatic manner, using real world economic concepts to understand how to make the best decisions with the appropriate tradeoffs.

The Absent Superpower: The Shale Revolution and a World Without America, Peter Zeihan

The first part of this book is about shale — what it is, how it works and what the history is. It’s written in a somewhat technical but still easy to understand way, is mostly neutral but is definitely on the positive side of the technology and its benefits (the Appendix covers the negatives and counters to them). This is interesting, but not revolutionary. What it does do is set up the rest of the book.

Energy: A Beginner’s Guide, Vaclav Smil

I found this to be a good introduction to the concept of “energy” and the historical changes of how energy is used in society. A large part of the book is dedicated to that history and the biological processes that involve energy. Only a small part considers how we might move away from fossil-fuel based sources of energy and what the future of energy will be.

Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty, Daron Acemoğlu, James A. Robinson

There are many sophisticated theories for why certain countries are poorer than others but given the broad distribution of geography and history, none actually stand up to scrutiny.

World Order: Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History, Henry Kissinger

Kissinger provides an excellent guide to the current state of world order and how states interact with each other. He includes the necessary historical context for the development of all major societies that have a key role on the world stage, explaining how they interact and offering a commentary on the causes of key events. He has particular insight into the period where he was directly involved with key foreign policy decisions, particularly around the Middle East and China.

The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind, Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, William W. Behrens III

Although completely out of date, there are several key principles explained in this book that are vital to understand, and somewhat unintuitive. Exponential growth is a well known confounder when it comes to what one might normally expect, but combined with modelling potential productivity improvements due to technology and what that does (or doesn’t do) to the ultimate outcome, this book does a great job at explaining the challenges we face as a civilisation.

On the Shortness of Life, Seneca

Clear, simple and still relevant. Not much else to say really — this is classic philosophy and very much matches how I try and think about the world. The key principle is explained on the first page:

In Praise of Shadows, Jun’ichirō Tanizaki

The flow through so many topics is impressive in how smoothly Tanizaki covers so many seemingly different but completely relevant areas. It reminds me of Lost Japan in lamenting some of the past but still seeing how it could be reimagined and appreciated in the present, even if the present of this book is now many years in the past.

Co-founder — the best tools for developers. Researching sustainable computing at Uptime Institute.

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