Prague Castle


recommended by Philip Greenspun

I started this in April 1997. I'm going to try to write mini-reviews of the books that I read and like. I'm not going to attempt to go back through everything I read when I was actually reading (before I had Web servers to maintain).

Here goes...

Microserfs, by Douglas Coupland
After reading Tracy Kidder's acclaimed (by the New Yorker crowd) Soul of a New Machine, I thought to myself "here's a guy who spent 12 hours/day with engineers for an entire year and learned nothing about engineering, nothing about what matters to engineers, and nothing about the hearts and minds of engineers. After reading Microserfs, I thought "here's a guy who seems to have spent a week with engineers and effortlessly absorbed everything that is important about engineering culture, everything that matters about working at a big company, and everything that matters about working at a startup." Coupland's writing is better crafted here than in his earlier books, e.g., Generation X.
Travels with Lizbeth, by Lars Eighner
I reviewed this in Web Travel Review. Just click on the title to find out what I learned about being poor in America.
The Information, by Martin Amis
MIT kids graduate with a profound sense that the world is and should be a meritocracy. There is always then that horrible moment when they are forced to confront the fact that the best things in life go to the ass-kissers and incompetents with big PR budgets. This book is for them. It is about Richard Tull, a brilliant writer of modern fiction. His books are so great that that they are not only unreadable but actually make readers too ill to finish. He starves while watching his friend Gwyn Barry make millions writing tripe with a sentimental appeal.
Lives of the Monster Dogs, Kirsten Bakis
This is science fiction in the tradition of H.G. Wells and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Written by a young woman living in Manhattan, it is about a young woman living in the Manhattan of the year 2009 when 150 dogs laden with jewels and gold arrive in the city from a remote town in northwestern Canada. The dogs have artificial hands and voiceboxes and, because they are rich, are accepted to a large degree by the human society. They end up with fancy apartments, limousines, and human servants. But happiness is more elusive. The book makes you think about what it means to be an outsider. Bakis has a convincing way of getting inside the head of a dog (though her Malamute has blue eyes, a disqualifying fault according to the AKC). One great touch is that the future is exactly like the present. Occasionally, Bakis has people talk casually about a fabric or fashion that we don't have. Otherwise, New York is exactly the same. The poor and young roast in unairconditioned flats; the rich (dogs or otherwise) cruise by in huge limousines. Bakis gets bonus points for writing in a Samoyed bitch who receives love poetry from a scruffy mongrel.

(My friend Neil gave me this book, in honor of my own monster dog's first birthday.)

Angela's Ashes, by Frank McCourt
It won a Pulitzer Prize and was a bestseller so you don't need me to tell you that it has merit. I bought it after I'd had my car broken into and bike stolen. I thought that I was feeling a little too sorry for myself considering that there are plenty of people in this world without cars or bikes to begin with. McCourt's memoir of growing up poor in New York then poorer in Ireland will definitely remind you that there are people who are worse off. Asked by a teacher to write a composition on what it would have been like if Jesus had grown up in Limerick, the young McCourt wrote "... It's a good thing Jesus decided to be born Jewish in that warm place because if he was born in Limerick he'd catch the consumption and be dead in a month and there wouldn't be any Catholic Church and there wouldn't be any Communion or Confirmation and we wouldn't have to learn the catechism and write compositions about Him. The End."

Angela's Ashes demonstrates that it is difficult to starve gracefully and unselfishly but that some people manage nonetheless. The rich, whether English Protestants or Irish clerics, don't come out looking too good. I finished the book just before Bill Gates topped the Forbes 400 again with his $38 billion.

Independence Day, by Richard Ford
The most impressive page of this Pulitzer-winning novel would be numbered "-2". It is where the author thanks two foundations for paying him to stay home and write it. A great gift for your engineer friends, they'll think Richard Ford novelized the science fiction movie Independence Day. Actually the book is about a long uneventful weekend in the life of Frank Bascombe, a divorced real estate salesman in Haddam, New Jersey. Don't read it for the plot!

"Unmarried men in their forties, if we don't subside entirely into the landscape, often lose important credibility and can even attract unwholesome attention in a small, conservative community. And in Haddam, in my new circumstances, I felt I was perhaps becoming the personage I least wanted to be and, in the years since my divorce, had feared being: the suspicious bachelor, the man whose life has no mystery, the graying, slightly jowly, slightly too tanned and trim middle-ager, driving around town in a cheesy '58 Chevy ragtop polished to a squeak, always alone on balmy summer nights, wearing a faded yellow polo shirt and green suntans, elbow over the window top, listening to progressive jazz, while smiling and pretending to have everything under control, when in fact there was nothing to control."

I think that with those two sentences, Ford managed to say what his book was about. So I'll shut up.

The Sportswriter, by Richard Ford
You should actually read this one before Independence Day. It covers a week in Frank Bascombe's life during which he gives us his career. A fun part is Frank talking about why he quit his job as a college English professor:
"What I did hate, though, and what finally sent me at a run out of town after dark at the end of the term, without saying goodbye or even turning in my grades, was that with the exception of Selma, the place was all anti-mystery types right to the core--men and women both--all expert in the arts of explaining, explicating and dissecting, and by these means promoting permanence. For me that made for the worst kind of despairs, and finally I couldn't stand their grinning, hopeful teacher faces. Teachers, let me tell you, are born deceivers of the lowest sort, since what they want from life is impossible--time-freed, existential youth forever. It commits them to terrible deceptions and departures from the truth. And literature, being lasting, is their ticket.


In my view all teachers should be required to stop teaching at age thirty-two and not allowed to resume until they're sixty-five, so that they can live their lives, not teach them away--live lives full of ambiguity and transience and regret and wonder, be asked to explain nothing in public until very near the end when they can't do anything else."

The Bookshop, by Penelope Fitzgerald
This novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1978. It is incredible because the thing is only 115 pages long, has a well-defined linear plot, and is starkly realistic. Such is the state of modern fiction that nobody bothered to publish it in the United States until 1997. Edith Wharton meets East Anglia.
Nathanael West, a Library of America collection
Thanks to the efforts of a bunch of Harvard grad students, this is the only book you need to become a cocktail party expert on Nathanael West (born Nathan Weinstein, 1903; died in Hollywood in 1940). My favorite part of the book is the capsule biography in the back. He drops out of high school (like me!) and alters his transcript to get into Tufts. He flunks out of Tufts but gets hold of a transcript for another Nathan Weinstein, who was apparently a pretty good student. He uses this to get into Brown and becomes an Ivy League graduate in 1924.

Oh yes, the writing... West's prose could easily pass for a New Yorker story circa 1985. Furthermore, his characters behave a lot like our contemporaries. None of this struck me as remarkable but I think it accounts for why he was so widely admired by good writers of his day and so roundly ignored by readers during the 1930s (perhaps 6,000 copies of his books were sold during his lifetime). Even if his writing style hadn't been so modern, releasing the bleak Miss Lonelyhearts in 1933 cannot have been an inspired marketing idea (the publisher went bankrupt just as the book was released).

If you want to read just one West novel, my personal choice would be Day of the Locust (1939), his last work. It is about the people destroyed by their dreams of California and Hollywood, seen through the eyes of a journeyman studio artist. He's obsessed with an aspiring actress, Faye Greener: "Her invitation wasn't to pleasure, but to struggle, hard and sharp, closer to murder than to love. If you threw yourself on her, it would be like throwing yourself from the parapet of a skyscraper. You would do it with a scream. You couldn't expect to rise again. Your teeth would be driven into your skull like nails into a pine board and your back would be broken. You wouldn't even have time to sweat or close your eyes."

The strangest novel in the collection is A Cool Million, wherein a Candide-like young man, Lemuel Pitkin, goes out to make his fortune in what a variety of Panglosses keep telling him is the Land of Opportunity. As in a Horatio Alger story, Pitkin meets a lot of rich and powerful men who are in a position to help him. West departs from Alger in that Pitkin is cheated and mutilated by all of his encounters with the rest of humanity.

High Fidelity, by Nick Hornby
Good airplane reading for any single person who pours all of his or her energy into an obsession that the rest of society thinks is stupid. In Rob Fleming's case, the obsession is music. He and his friends won't talk to anyone who owns fewer than 500 records, who owns a Tracy Chapman or Beatles CD, or "who goes 'Woooh!' to the fade-out of 'Brown Sugar.'" His girlfriend Laura grills him: "There is no greater crime than that, as far as you're concerned, is there?" There isn't, for Rob, just as my friends get apoplectic talking to anyone who thinks Bill Gates or Microsoft invented anything.
The Forsyte Saga, by John Galsworthy
The 1933 Scribner's edition of this classic trilogy is worthwhile because of the preface by Ada Galsworthy, the author's wife. Combined with the dedication (from John to Ada), it paints an inspiring picture of a marriage between two creative minds who respected each other's talents. The trilogy itself is an inspiring artifact of a life spent working hard. Galsworthy finished the first book, Man of Property in 1906, at the age of 39. He put the project aside for something like 12 years and then finished the last two novels when in his mid-50s. Most people only read the first book but the last two deepened my appreciation for the first and for Galsworthy's talent.
Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents, by Ellen Ullmann
I like books that record the experience of being an engineer. This one is about what it is like to be a contract software developer in Silicon Valley. One of my favorite sections chronicles a meeting where Ullman's brand new client/server system was scorned by a team of sharply dressed Star TAC-toting consultants who wanted to replace it with an Intranet. You can skip the first chapter or two, which read like articles in WIRED magazine.
The Woman Lit by Fireflies, by Jim Harrison
My cousin Harry is a movie producer at Sony Pictures and has to read movie scripts all day. He told me to read this. A Good Day to Die is another fine Jim Harrison book if you're interested in fishing, road trips, drugs, and the inability of men to provide for women. One caveat about the 176 pages of A Good Day to Die, though, is that Harrison does not put a lot of effort into his female characters.
A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander and colleagues
Nominally about architecture and urban planning, this book has more wisdom about psychology, anthropology, and sociology than any other that I've read. Nearly every one of this volume's 1170 pages will make you question an assumption that you probably didn't realize you were making. In a section entitled "Four-Story Limit", Alexander notes that "there is abundant evidence to show that high buildings make people crazy." Underneath is a photo of San Franisco's Transamerica tower, captioned with a quote from Orwell's 1984:
"The Ministry of Truth--Minitrue, in Newspeak--was startlingly different from any other object in sight. It was an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete, soaring up terrace after terrace 300 metres in the air."
Alexander backs up this polemic with convincing arguments that high-rise living removes people too far from the casual society of the street, from children playing in the yard, and that apartment-dwellers therefore become isolated.

Alexander spends a lot of time in this book trying to figure out how to restore the damage to our communities that have been done by automobiles. He argues for better public spaces and for more integration of children, old people, and workers. He argues for more access to water by more people.

Many of Alexander's arguments are against the scale of modern systems. Public schools spend a fortune on building and administration precisely because they are so physically large [I've seen statistics showing that our cities spend only about one-third of their budgets on classrooms and teachers]. If we had shopfront schools and fired all the school system personnel who don't teach, we might be able to get student-teacher ratios down to 8 or 10:1 without an increase in cost. Similarly, Alexander argues for smaller retail shops, smaller factories (or at least identifiable small workgroups within factories rather than hundreds of faceless cogs) and more master/apprentice instruction.

What if you like the depredations of modernity and aren't interested in a utopian world where basic human needs are met? Can you learn anything about architecture from this guy? Absolutely. You'll learn that light is everything. Your bedroom has to have eastern light so that the sun wakes you up. Your best living quarters should have southern light. All the rooms should have light from at least two sides, otherwise there will be too much contrast and you'll just have to draw the shades. If you've got kids, make them sleep and play in their own wing of the house. Build a realm for yourself and your wife on a different floor. Meet the kids in the kitchen.

To avoid cluttering my apartment, I give away virtually all the books that I buy these days. I'm keeping this one and plan to re-read it every year.

The Shadow University; The Betrayal of Liberty on America's Campuses, by Alan Kors and Harvey Silverglate, published September 1998
University administration grows even when faculty size remains constant (at MIT, the administrator-to-faculty ratio doubled in the 20 years from 1969 to 1989). The obvious result is a rise in the cost of university education, something I've decried elsewhere. The less obvious result is that university administrations begin to do all kinds of things that they aren't qualified to do. Kors and Silverglate focus on administrators limiting freedom of speech, starting with rules that are poorly drafted and ending with internal court systems that afford defendants very few rights.

The famous University of Pennsylvania "water buffalo" case is here. MIT puts in a fairly impressive showing, notably our decision to pay administrators to watch porn movies to decide whether they were obscene. Under this policy, proposed in 1984, Dean James Tewhey prosecuted an MIT undergrad for showing Deep Throat, a film held by the Massachusetts courts to be acceptable under Cambridge's community standards. Under MIT rules, the undergrad, Adam Dershowitz, was not entitled to legal representation before the MIT Committee on Discipline (COD). However, he could bring a relative, so he asked his uncle, Alan Dershowitz, to come down the street from Harvard Law School. This resulted in an acquittal for young Dershowitz and some changes in MIT policy. COD hearings would no longer be open to the student press, students would no longer be entitled to bring a relative, and it would henceforth be forbidden to tape-record proceedings.

[Note: Tewhey is actually my favorite MIT administrator of all time because, after years of giving students lectures on how to run their romantic lives, his own affair with another MIT employee turned sour. They were both married (to other people). She accused him of following her around and harassing her. They both got restraining orders from the Massachusetts courts against each other. She asked MIT to fire him for harassing her. With about as much due process as Tewhey had ever given any of the students, MIT fired him. Or we said that we did. But then it turned out that we were paying him for not working for about a year after we'd allegedly fired him. And then he sued MIT in Middlesex Superior Court for wrongful discharge. And then we sort of lost track of James Tewhey.]

Kors is a scholar and Silverglate is a civil rights lawyer. So the book differs from what a journalist might have written in the provision of philosophical and legal underpinnings for all of the newsworthy cases. Most interestingly, the roots of speech limits on campus are traced back to Herbert Marcuse (the only philosopher ever to appear on the cover of TIME Magazine). Marcuse argued that as long as society was oppressed by the powerful, free speech does not help the weak. True toleration and liberation could only be achieved by withdrawing "toleration of speech and assembly from groups and movements which promote aggressive policies, armament, chauvinism, discrimination on the grounds of race and religion, or which oppose the extension of public services, social security, medicare care, etc."

I was recommending the book to a friend and she asked "Who is it written for?" We thought about it for awhile. It can't be the administrators because they presumably enjoy the status quo. It can't be the students because they are just passing through the university in order to pick up a credential. It can't be the professors because they've mostly abdicated control of the university to the administrators. Most faculty see themselves either as employees of a bureaucracy vastly more powerful than themselves or as low-grade autonomous entrepreneurs only loosely connected to the university.

In fact, there might not be anyone in the United States whose has both the power and the inclination to redress any of the wrongs outlined in the 400 pages of The Shadow University. That is a thought much scarier than any in the book itself.

Amsterdam, by Ian McEwan, published 1998
As Amsterdam won the 1998 Booker Prize, I was shocked to find it tipping the scales at a modest 193 pages and consumable in under three hours. The book is good demonstration of the unique potential of the novel as literary form. With poetry, you get the interior. With theater, you get the exterior. In Amsterdam, you find
Mourner: "It's a great honor, Mr. Linley. My eleven-year-old granddaughter studied your sonatina for her final exam in violin and really loved it."
Clive (the composer): "That's very nice to know." The thought of children playing his music made him feel faintly depressed.
There is a lot of interesting material about successful British middle-aged men: "How properous, how influential, how they had flourished under a government they had despised for almost seventeen years. ... Nurtured in the postwar settlement with the state's own milk and juice, and then sustained by their parents' tentative, innocent prosperity, to come of age in full employment, new universities, bright paperback books, the Augustan age of rock and roll, affordable ideals. When the ladder crumbled behind them, when the state withdrew her tit and became a scold, they were already safe..."

McEwan is also interesting when writing about old friendships and jealousies, the struggle to create, and the pain of self-doubt about accomplishments. Bottom line: there is more than enough here to keep you thinking for three hours and it is a fun plot-filled three hours...

Enduring Love, by Ian McEwan, 1998
A great book for any man who has been with a woman who reads volumes into off-hand comments, gestures, or silences. The meaning is a reality to the woman, a bizarre nightmare to the man. In this book, the "woman" is actually another man and the consequences of being misunderstood are extreme, but it all seems ordinary and plausible.
Birds of America, by Lorrie Moore
"The thing to remember about love affairs," says Simone, "is that they are all like having raccoons in your chimney. ... We have raccoons sometimes in our chimney ... And once we tried to smoke them out. We lit a fire, knowing they were there, but we hoped that the smoke would cause them to scurry out the top and never come back. Instead, they caught on fire and came crashing down into our living room, all charred and in flames and running madly around until they dropped dead." Simone swallows some wine. "Love affairs are like that," she says. "They all are like that."
Publish and Perish , by James Hynes
Hynes perfectly captures the futility, small-mindedness, neuroses, and vanity of humanities academics beautifully. I didn't realize that these three interlinked stories had any supernatural element until I was 80% of the way through the first one, which describes Paul, a pathetic post-doc at Iowa in a commuting marriage to an accidentally rising star wife at University of Chicago. Paul is having an affair with an undergraduate whom he picked up at a department picnic when her date, a doctoral candidate in English, ignores her in order to "work his dissertation committee". This book is the ultimate airplane read for anyone in the university world.
Survival of the Prettiest : The Science of Beauty , by Nancy Etcoff
Most humanities types don't know when to stop quoting literature, though the references become increasingly irrelevant and obscure. Most scientists don't know when to stop citing colleagues, though they themselves might not have even read the journal papers in question. Etcoff deftly sidesteps these obvious pitfalls to come up with an elegantly written book. It is formal and backed up by science when it needs to be. When it can't be, it is illumined by literature.
Good-Bye to All That : An Autobiography, by Robert Graves
Written because Graves was out of money and threw in everything from his life that he thought would make the book sell (e.g., anecdotes about T.E. Lawrence), this is a great book for understanding the terrible gulf that separates a public's enthusiasm for war and a soldier's actual experience of war. Trench warfare in World War I is different from a ground war in Kosovo but the basic idea is the same: a bunch of old guys in suits lead a cheering public to send their young men off to die. What is a clear-cut moral case to someone reading a newspaper at the breakfast table isn't so clear-cut to two 18-year-olds who are supposed to try to kill each other in the field.

The book also has some interesting portions about the life of a poet and a writer (hint: don't try it unless you were born rich and aristocratic) and a particularly funny anecdote about how Oxford wouldn't accept a thesis from Graves because it was not written in standard academic style (I have some personal experience in this area). He worked it into an ordinary book instead.

The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler
An autobiographical novel about a Victorian boyhood and early manhood, The Way of All Flesh centers around the question of how to act when everyone loves your parents except you:
"There are orphanages," he exclaimed to himself, "for children who have lost their parents--oh! why, why, why, are there no harbours of refuge for grown men who have not yet lost them?"
Human Voices, by Penelope Fitzgerald
Appointment in Samarra, by John O'Hara
This is the story of two big fish in a tiny pond. The big fish are Julian English and his wife Caroline, leaders of the country-club set in Prohibition-era Gibbsville, Pennsylvania. Julian is a Cadillac dealer, making Appointment an odd prefiguration of Updike's Rabbit series. O'Hara shocks his 1934 readership with his frank treatment of sex. A modern reader is more likely to be impressed by how little has changed in relations among couples, in adults searching for meaning in their lives, and in the suffocating smallness of small towns.
All the King's Men, by Robert Penn Warren
I'd always shied away from this classic because I thought it was about a Louisiana politician, Willie Stark, modeled after the recent assassinated Senator Huey P. Long. He's the background. But the real story is 15 years in the life of Jack Burden, Governor Stark's assistant. The novel follows Burden from his failed engagement to a college sweetheart, to his failure as a grad student in literature, to cynical newspaperman, to his job digging up dirt on opponents of Stark's political ambitions. The most interesting things that he digs up on behalf of Stark turn out to yield surprising information about his own family.
The Nurture Assumption, by Judith Rich Harris
This book is great for blowing the lid off the arrogant assumption that children want to be like their parents (Harris argues that they want to be like their peers and supports it with a lot of interesting experimental psychology research).
The Country of the Pointed Firs, by Sarah Orne Jewett
There isn't enough action here for an Arnold Schwarzenegger film but if you're going to visit Maine, this 19th-century classic will give you some background. Beautifully crafted.
Grace Notes, by Bernard MacLaverty
I picked this up Booker Prize shortlister up before a trip to Ireland. It turns out to be about Northern Ireland and a woman who exiles herself to Scotland. Still a great book and impressive given that it is a man writing about a woman.
Horace Afoot, by Frederick Reuss
Read this if you're a consultant of some sort stuck in a small town somewhere in the Midwest.
Straight Man, by Richard Russo
Therapy, by David Lodge
A good beach novel, esp. paired with Lodge's Small World
Youth in Revolt, by C.D. Payne
This book will remind you how fundamentally destructive human beings are. The Devil does find work for idle hands and nobody's hands are more idle than those of a high school kid. But this isn't a book about high school. It is about what happens when clever people turn their efforts toward destruction. The sequel, Revolting Youth : The Further Journals of Nick Twisp is just as funny though not as illuminating. Civic Beauties explores the additional possibilities for destruction engendered by twinship.
Europa, by Tim Parks
You have to appreciate dark obsessive moods to enjoy this book. If you're an American academic, it might cheer you up to know that your counterparts in Italy don't have it any better.
Disgrace, by J.M. Coetzee
Winner of the 1999 Booker Prize (Coetzee is the only author to win twice), this is about a 52-year-old college professor who has an affair with a student:
He ought to give up, retire from the game. At what age, he wonders, did Origen castrate himself? Not the most graceful of solutions, but then ageing is not a graceful business. A clearing of the decks, at least, so that one can turn one's mind to the proper business of the old: preparing to die.
Academia and sex are just the hooks that get people to read into the interior of what is ultimately a very challenging work. You can read the 220 pages in two hours but you might be thinking about the ideas for a long time.
Offshore, by Penelope Fitzgerald
Winner of the 1979 Booker Prize.
Crossing to Safety , by Wallace Stegner
A 332-page book that covers 50 years in the lives of 4 people.
The Blue Flower, by Penelope Fitzgerald
A historical novel without the Masterpiece Theater costume baggage. It is set in the Germany of Goethe but is not about the Germany of Goethe. If you are new to Fitzgerald, though, start with one of her other books.
Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney
A good character-building tale for kids and an easy airplane read thanks to Heaney's translation.
Foreign Affairs by Alison Lurie
This is the ultimate book for reading on a flight from the US to the UK. Recipient of the Pulizer Prize for fiction, this book updates Henry James's perspectives on Americans in England while covering the love lives of the middle-aged. The protagonist is Vinnie Miner, a 54-year-old English professor (not terribly unlike Alison Lurie, a professor of English at Cornell). The book is beautifully written, even when describing Miner settling in for the flight to London:
In this culture, where energy and egotism are rewarded in the young and good-looking, plain aging women are supposed to be self-effacing, uncomplaining--to take up as little space and breathe as little air as possible. All very well, she thinks, if you travel with someone dear to you or at least familiar: someone who will help you stow away your coat, tuck a pillow behind your head, find you a newspaper--or if you choose, converse with you.

But what of those who travel alone? Why should Vinnie Miner, whose comfort has been disregarded by others for most of her adult life, disregard her own comfort? Why should she allow her coat, hat, and belongings to be crushed by the coats and hats and belongings of younger, larger, handsomer persons? Why should she sit alone for seven or eight hours, pillowless and chilled, reading an outdated copy of Punch, with her feet swollen and her pale amber eyes watering from the smoke of the cigarette fiends in the adjoining seats?

Much ink is spent on the life of the plain woman, notably the plain middle-aged woman:
Within the last couple of years she has in a sense caught up with, even passed, some of her better-equipped contemporaries. The comparison of her appearance to that of other women of her age is no longer a constant source of mortification. she is no better looking than she ever was, but they have lost more ground. ... Her features have not taken on the injured, strained expression of the former beauty, nor does she paint and decorate and simper and coo in a desperate attempt to arouse the male interest she feels to be her due. She is not consumed with rage and grief at the cessation of attentions that were in any case moderate, undependable, and intermittent.

As a result men--even men she has been intimate with--do not now gaze upon her with dismay, as upon a beloved landscape devastated by fire, flood, or urban development. ...

On tourism:
His earlier anomie, Fred realizes now, was occupational. Psychologically speaking, tourists are disoriented, ghostly beings; they walk London's streets and enter its buildings in a thin ectoplasmal form, like a double-exposed photograph. London isn't real to them, and to Londoners they are equally unreal--pale, featureless, two-dimensional figures who clog up the traffic and block the view.
Cod, by Mark Kurlansky
Learn who really discovered America, and why.
In the Heart of the Sea, by Nathaniel Philbrick
In November 1820 the Nantucket whaleship Essex was attacked by an angry spermwhale, 1,500 miles off the coast of Peru. This is the true story that inspired Melville to write Moby Dick. After the Essex sank, the 20 crew members took to the open seas of the central Pacific in three whale boats. In the Heart of the Sea is a historian's account of the Nantucket whaling industry, the personalities of individuals, the destruction of the Essex and the three-month open-boat journey plagued by thirst, hunger, cannibalism, and bad management decisions. The book reads as smoothly as any novel yet is backed up by the authority of years of research by a historian specializing in Nanctucket Island (off the Cape Cod peninsula in Massachusetts).
The Groves of Academe, by Mary McCarthy
Published in 1951, this is a book about the lengths to which college humanities professors will go in order to obtain a bit more job security. Henry Mulcahy, a middle-aged instructor of literature at Jocelyn College, Jocelyn, Pennsylvania, is fired by the president of the school.
It was the usual mistake of a complex intelligence in assessing a simple intelligence... Like most people of literary sensibility, he had been unprepared, when it came down to it, for the obvious: a blunt, naked wielding of power.
McCarthy has a very deft way of characterizing the students.
Badly prepared, sleepy, and evasive, they could nevertheless be stirred to wonder and pent admiration at the discovery of form and pattern in history or a work of art or a laboratory experiment, though ceding this admiration grudgingly and by degrees, like primitive peoples who must see an act performed over and over again before they can be convinced that some magic is not behind it, that they are not the dupes of an illusionist.
The faculty don't come out too much better...
Whenever, during the summer, [Professor Aristide Poncy] took a party of students abroad under his genial wing, catastrophic events attended him. As he sat sipping his vermouth and introducing himself to tourists at the Flore or the Deux Magots, the boys and girls under his guidance were being robbed, eloping to Italy, losing their passports, slipping off to Monte Carlo, seeking out an abortionist, deciding to turn queer, cabling the decision to their parents, while he took out his watch and wondered why they were late in meeting him for the expedition to Saint-Germain-en-Laye. Returning home, usually minus one student at the very least, he always deprecated what had happened, remarking that there had been "a little mix-up" or that the Metro was confusing to foreigners.
And finally there is ridicule for the whole idea of progressive education. From a discussion among the faculty...
What you're invoking, nevertheless, Domna, is a medieval standard of scholarship as an end in itself. Here at Jocelyn, I've been given to believe, we're after something different: an active, two-way relation between the student and the faculty-member. Great learning can be an impediment to this; it opens up too great a hiatus, as in Hen's case, between the student and the instructor. Hence we don't insist on the Ph.D. or even the Master's; in fact, we regard advanced degrees as a liability, if anything.
Layered on top of all of this is a Rashomon-like exploration of how different events look when interpreted from different perspectives.
Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov, read by Jeremy Irons
Even if you're read the book and seen the Kubrick film, you must listen to this unabridged book on tape. A major element of Nabokov's work is the contempt that a cultivated European would natural have felt for the post-War United States. If you're a native-born American, it is impossible to summon the necessary feeling yourself while reading the print edition. Jeremy Irons's reading is perfect. See also the original Atlantic magazine review, the hardcover, the 1962 Kubrick film with James Mason and Shelley Winters (and a script by Nabokov himself), and the 1998 film with Jeremy Irons (which I've not seen).
The Restless Sea: Exploring the World Beneath the Waves, by Robert Kunzig
Did you know that we could send 17% of the excess carbon dioxide that we generate every year to the bottom of the ocean? And do it by fertilizing the plankton with iron spread from a freighter? And that this has actually been tested by marine scientists? If not, read The Restless Sea and learn this plus dozens of other fun facts to know and tell. Kunzig is a kind writer. If a scientist has no personality, he writes about the science. If a scientist happens to be a truly warped human being, we get a paragraph or two about the warpage before Kunzig dives back into the science. If you hate James Gleick's endlessly tedious books (e.g., Chaos), you'll be refreshed by Kunzig's work.
The Diagnosis, by Alan Lightman
Give this one to your friends who are working their way up toward partner at a law firm or a management consulting firm. It is horribly disturbing and will unsettle the smug.
The Wild Party by Joseph Moncure March, drawings by Art Spiegelman
Indulge yourself with a box of chocolates or a bottle of wine and make them last through the 100 pages of this vividly illustrated poem. You'll feel a kinship with the characters indulging themselves in Jazz Age New York. A boxer comes into the party:
His woman at present was Mae.
She was blonde, and slender, and gay:
A Passionate flirt,
So dumb that it hurt,
And better for night than for day.
Red China Blues: My Long March from Mao to Now by Jan Wong
You'd think that the best way to understand China would be to read books by native Chinese. And certainly works like Wild Swans would tend to confirm this theory. But Jan Wong's book is unusually good for Westerners partly because of the broad access her career as a journalist afforded her and partly because she grew up in North America.

Pack this one on the plane to China!

The Lecturer's Tale by James Hynes
James Hynes must have had a tough time in grad school and as a English department lecturer. His books just keep getting more savage regarding the persecutors of the oppressed (i.e., tenured professors of English). If you've been fed on a diet of genteel novels of academia, the ending may shock you. Still, you have to love a guy who imagines a textbook publisher taking over a university and changing the motto from "Sapienta prima stultitia caruisse" to "If We Don't Teach It, You Don't Need to Know It."
Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata
Born in Osaka in 1899, Kawabata won the 1968 Nobel Prize for Literature, committed suicide in 1972, and seems to have become a non-entity in American bookstores shortly thereafter. American authors at the end of the 20th century spent much ink romanticizing the Kyoto geisha life. Kawabata's 175-page vignette of the onsen-geisha life opens a window into a Japan that is hard to imagine from the usual tourist perspective. Oh yes, don't expect to see this one in Oprah's Book Club anytime soon... people do not triumph over adversity.
The Cichlid Fishes by George W. Barlow
You've got to love a U.C. Berkeley professor who quotes from the AP wire to reinforce the difference between soft-rayed and spiny-rayed fish:
... when I read the headline to an article in ... the San Francisco Chronicle (1 April 1997), I knew both it was not an April Fool's Day joke and that the fish was most likely a cichlid, and it was.

Man Chokes on Tropical Fish
Bayou Visa, La.  Stephen Hill Epperson, 36, popped a
friend's 6-inch tropical fish into his mouth as a joke Sunday 
and died when it got stuck in his throat.  The Jack Dempsey fish 
became wedged in Epperson's airway, said Dr. F.H. Metz, coroner 
for St. Mary Parish.
The Jack Dempsey is indeed a cichlid and performed the typical response of a spiny-rayed fish when engulfed by a predator: It locked its fine spines in the upright position to thwart being swallowed. Had the fish been a soft-rayed fish, such as the goldfish that have so often been safely gulped down by college students, the unfortunate Mr. Epperson would still be alive.
Cichlids are freshwater fish that provide parental care for their children. They are among the most intelligent of fish. Among the thousands of species of cichlids, it is possible to find behavior that is familiar to students of human psychology. There are cichlid fathers that stay with the wife and kids when times are tough but desert to find a new mate if predation levels are low enough that the female and his offspring by her can survive on their own (cf. American ghetto life after Aid to Families with Dependent Children).

If you decide to skim the book, make sure to read the last chapter carefully. It contains some important ideas about human impact on ecology.

The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells
My friend Paul caught me reading this book and said "Wow, I'd have to believe that I was nearly immortal in order to read Howells." For the early 1880s, though, this is a pretty readable book. The ideas are familiar: "Money is to the fore now. It is the romance, the poetry of our age. It's the thing that chiefly strikes the imagination. The Englishmen who come here are more curious about the great new millionaires than about any one else, and they respect them more." My favorite section:
"This comes of the error which I have often deprecated," said the elder Corey. "In fact I am always saying that the Bostonian ought never to leave Boston. Then he knows--and then only--that there can be no standard but ours. But we are constantly going away, and coming back with our convictions shaken to their foundations. One man goes to England, and returns with the conception of a grander social life; another comes home from Germany with the ntion of a more searching intellectual activity; a fellow just back from Paris has the absurdest ideas of art and literature; and you revert to us from the cowboys of Texas, and tell us to our faces that we ought to try Papa Lapham by a jury of his peers. It ought to be stopped--it ought, really. The Bostonian who leaves Boston ought to be condemned to perpetual exile."
Hypnerotomachia Poliphili: The Strife of Love in a Dream by Francesco Colonna, heroically translated by Joscelyn Godwin
Colonna was a monk who lived about 500 years too soon. Deprived of 3D modelling software, he created fabulous worlds of architecture with text. If he were alive today, he'd work at id Software.
Spectacular Happiness by Peter Kramer
I grew up in Bethesda, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C. Most of the houses in the neighborhood were built in the 1960s. They lie low against the forested hills. Many of the 1960s houses can barely be seen from the street, despite the quarter-acre lot sizes and the fact that most of the houses are 4-bedroom affairs. Returning to this neighbor (Mohican Hills) today, one's senses are assaulted by the 1990s houses. The builders razed the trees and pushed the foyer roof as high as possible. The new houses have perhaps twice the interior space as the old ones but 10 times the visual impact.

Kramer's well-written, smoothly flowing book is about the same phenomenon on Cape Cod and how a representative couple of old-style Cape residents deal with it.

Caveat: It feels as though the psychiatrist author mined his patients' collective neuroses to build the characters in this book. This gives the characters a rich texture but it also is a bit scary. Is this what we (Americans) are really like? Are we all this damaged?

IBM and the Holocaust by Edwin Black
This brilliantly researched, badly organized, and spottily written book should prove thought-provoking for every engineer in the West. Modern computing technology began with the punch card. The punch card was developed in the 1880s for counting people and tabulating their characteristics. Specifically, the card was invented by German-American Herman Hollerith for the US Census Bureau. At some level this book is the story of how governments came to know their people, how that knowledge could be used to target groups within a population, and one company's at-all-costs determination to be the world leader in supporting governmental information processing.

Black does not neglect the human side of this story. We learn that Hollerith named his cat Bismarck. We learn about Thomas J. Watson's history at National Cash Register, including his conviction in 1913 on federal charges of "criminal conspiracy to restrain trade and construct a monopoly", his firing by "The Cash", and his vow "I am going out to build a business bigger than John Patterson has."

The story of IBM's involvement with Hitler truly begins in 1933, when the German government set forth the goal of counting the 41 million people living in Prussia within just four months. The main goal was to identify the Jews among those 41 million. Hollerith equipment is not like a modern computer. It cannot be programmed by the end-user. IBM employees had to know the exact business goals of every customer so that they could lay out the columns on the punch cards and program the tabulating machines appropriately. In the case of the Prussian census, however, IBM went further than usual. Aside from the door-to-door work, the entire job was handled by IBM employees in an IBM facility. It was perhaps the first dotcom:

A continuous "Speed Punching" operation ran two shifts, and three when needed. Each shift spanned 7.5 hours with 60 minutes allotted for "fresh air breaks" and a company-provided meal. ... Free coffee was provided to keep people awake. A gymnast was brought in to demonstrate graceful aerobics and other techniques to relieve fatigue. .. When Jews were discovered within the population, a special "Jewish counting card" recorded the place of birth. These Jewish counting cards were processed separately."
It would not have required sophisticated information technology to shoot some thousands of Jews and leave them in the street to rot. But the German goal was to confiscate Jewish assets, put Jews on trains to move them into ghettos, assign each person to some kind of job that would benefit the Reich, put those same people back on trains after the concentration camps were built, then work each one to death according to his or her skills in a way that would provide maximum benefit to the German war effort. When the punch cards were working smoothly, the Nazis were very successful; without punch card automation, the process was slowed substantially.

For example, in Holland the head of the census was Jacobus Lambertus Lentz, an energetic and diligent statistician. Thanks to his efforts, the Nazis were able to round up and ultimately kill 75 percent of Dutch Jews, despite their being embedded within an uncooperative civilian population (Lentz was never punished for his enthusiastic support of the German war against the Jews but ultimately was sentenced to three years in prison on unrelated charges). By contrast, the head of France's National Statistical Service in Vichy was René Carmille, a member of the Resistance. Carmille slowed things down, which helped Jews who'd moved from city to city. He instructed his staff not to bother punching column 11, which was supposed to identify Jews. Carmille pulled 100,000 Jewish cards out of the system and kept them in his office. The personal cost to Carmille was high. He was arrested by the SS in early 1944, tortured by Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon, and deported to Dachau where his death, as prisoner number 76608 on January 25, 1945, was recorded by the IBM punch card equipment in that camp (every concentration camp had a Hollerith Abteilung to make sure that employers of slaves got the required labor and that all potential labor was exploited). The Jews of France have Carmille to thank, however, as the Germans were only able to locate and kill 25 percent before Allied liberation.

Most of the solutions provided to the German government were developed by IBM's German subsidiary. However, the head office in New York provided substantial support before and during the war. For example, the Germans were chronically short of paper, particularly the high quality paper that was required for making punch cards. IBM shipped hundreds of millions of punch cards from the US, even after the shooting war started, to ensure that the Nazi's projects could go forward. IBM's main problem was getting its profits back to the US. "Nazi" stands for "National Socialism" and the German government insisted that profits remain inside Germany. IBM got around this problem to some extent by having its German subsidiary pay enormous patent royalties to IBM headquarters. When that wasn't enough, IBM Germany invested in Berlin apartment buildings.

Throughout the 1930s, T.J. Watson invested a lot of personal effort in helping Hitler's government. Watson used his company's reputation and power to encourage businessmen worldwide to continue trading with Germany. Watson pleaded for "an equitable redistribution of natural resources" and a rearmed Germany. In return Hitler honored Watson with the Merit Cross of the German Eagle with Star, the highest honor available to non-Germans.

IBM's support of the German war effort did not go unnoticed. The British complained "it is only too clear that where US trade interests are involved, these are being allowed to take precedence over 'hemispheric defense,' and ... over cooperation with us". Harold J. Carter, a US Department of Justice employee, conducted an extensive investigation of IBM starting in 1942. After interviewing IBM executives in New York and examining records, Carter concluded that, even during the war, IBM was micro-managing its German subsidiary through IBM NY and IBM Geneva. Carter was prevented from prosecuting IBM because high US officials saw IBM as such a critical vendor for its own wartime activities. IBM automated the US Army. IBM enabled the US to round up citizens of Japanese descent and send them to concentration camps. IBM would enable the US to govern recaptured European countries.

At the end of the war, with the help of the US Army, IBM quietly collected up all of its machines and assets. The German subsidiary alone was worth RM 56 million in 1946 and was turning a profit of RM 7.5 million. Nobody really asked what the machines had been used for until 1967 when IBM published a book entitled The History of Computing in Europe. There were quite a few chapters devoted to "The Solutions Company's" crucial role in supporting the Nazi war machine and death camp system. Somehow these escaped notice until the book had been printed and distributed. IBM hunted down all the copies and destroyed them and there the matter sat until 2001 when IBM and the Holocaust was published.

What can we learn from all of this history? First the dangers of the amoral multinational company. IBM employees were trained to see their company as more important than any mere government or moral system. Maintaining their worldwide monopoly was of primary importance and there was really no room on the spreadsheet for moral qualms. Second the consequences of US foreign policy that puts American business success ahead of human rights. We cared about human rights in Kosovo where it didn't cost us anything--Serbia isn't significant economically. We are willing to look the other way on human rights in China where competing against Japanese and European companies is critical.

Courtesans and Fishcakes : The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens by James Davidson
Brings the ancient world to life. A bit tough to finish. Don't feel guilty if you quit halfway through.
Rossini: The Man and His Music by Francis Toye
A bit of inspiration for early retirees (Rossini retired from writing opera at age 37, after completing William Tell). Toye quotes Heine: "An artist who possess only talent preserves to the last an impulse to make use of his gifts; he is stimulated by ambition, feels that he is approaching ever nearer perfection... A genius, on the other hand, conscious of having already produceds his best work, is satisfied; despising the world and its petty ambitious, he goes off to Starford-on-Avon like William Shakespeare, or, like Gioacchino Rossini, strolls down the Boulevard des Italiens with a smiling face and a caustic tongue."
Fish Behavior by Stephan Reebs
Learn how fish hear, recognize each other, navigate around obstacles despite blindness, take care of their kids, and many other interesting facts. Reebs is a Biology professor but he saves the references for the back of the book.
The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner
Look over the shoulders of biologists studying real-time evolution. Darwin thought evolution would take tens of thousands of years to effect a noticeable change. In fact, if you're willing to measure beak dimensions to 0.5mm, Galapagos finches exhibit the effects of evolution on an annual basis. Sadly for us, so do bacteria as they develop resistance to antibiotics and insects as they develop resistance to pesticides. AIDS and other viruses may evolve fastest of any organisms. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
Path Between the Seas by David McCullough
Set aside $1000 before reading this book because you won't be able to resist visiting the Panama Canal afterwards. (Some of my pix from the trip are towards the bottom of "Learning to Fly Helicopters")
Modern Baptists by James Wilcox
And any of James Wilcox's other novels, e.g., Sort of Rich
The Prize by Daniel Yergin
The standard history of the oil industry and a must-read if you want to understand Middle East politics.
About Schmidt by Louis Begley
My cousin made a movie, entitled "About Schmidt" and featuring Jack Nicholson, from this novel. Both are thought-provoking but almost entirely different.
Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt
I read this during a trip to Argentina and ended up feeling sorry for Adolph Eichmann, a German official during World War II who went around Buenos Aires bragging that he was responsible for the deaths of millions of Jews. The Israeli government dragged him back from Argentina and tried him in Jerusalem. He was convicted and executed, the only person ever subjected to capital punishment by the Israeli judicial system. Arendt makes you realize that Eichmann erred in fleeing to Argentina. Europeans convicted of similar crimes in European courts were seldom sentenced to more than 2-4 years in prison.
American Pastoral by Philip Roth
We have to be grateful that professionals like Roth continue writing into middle and older age. American Pastoral and The Human Stain are much more interesting than his early work.
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Not a whole lot to add after a book wins the Pulitzer Prize. I read it. It was good.
Peloponnesian War by Donald Kagan
Easier to read than Thucydides and really good maps...
Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx
I read this one before my 1997 cutoff date but put it here to remind myself to read it again some day. The movie based on the book was a disappointment.
Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
Also read before 1997 and again well worth a re-read.
The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope
Our late 20th-century financial/Internet house-of-cards scammers never did anything that wasn't written about in this book... written 100 years ago. If you want to reach back another 100 years and see how little human nature has changed, try Vanity Fair by Thackeray.
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
Fun reading for the airplane on your way down to Peru (the book is loosely based on the 1996 four-month hostage-taking at the Japanese embassy in Lima)
History of the Conquest of Peru by W.H. Prescott
Many of the most important actors in this story were surprisingly old considering the hardships that they endured. For example, Pizarro himself was 60 when he started heading down towards Peru through terrible storms in wooden boats, often getting stranded in mosquito-infested jungles without food for months at a time. He was 65 by the time he actually conquered Peru. One of the Pizarro family's most effective generals in their fights against other Spaniards was 80-84 during the period of these civil wars.
Victorian Internet by Tom Standage
In the story of the world-wide telegraph system, built from the 1840s until 1900 when the telephone rose to supplant it, Standage develops fascinating parallels with the rise of the Internet. Western Union "insisted that its monopoly [on US telegraphy] was in everyone's interest, even if it was unpopular, because it would encourage standardization." Today's high-pressure startups have nothing on Thomas Edison who "locked his workforce in the workshop until they had finished building a large order of stock tickers." As with the Web, the true inventor, Samuel Morse, made "a respectable sum, though less than the fortunes amassed by the entrepreneurs who built empires on the back of his invention." Standage pairs modern pundits such as Nicholas Negroponte predicting that the Internet will bring about world peace with their 19th century equivalents predicting that the telegraph will enable a perfect understanding between governments and peoples and bring an end to wars. If you made big bucks in the dotcom world of the 1990s, page 205 may cause you a moment's reflection:

"The heyday of the telegrapher as a highly paid, highly skilled information worker was over; telegraphers' brief tenure as members of an elite community with master over a miraculous, cutting-edge technology had come to an end. As the twentieth century dawned, the telegraph's inventors had died, its community had crumbled, and its golden age had ended."

Present Value by Sabin Willett
Suburban Bostonians drive from their McMansions to the private school in their pavement-melting SUVs. Real life, keely observed.
Conspiracy of Fools by Kurt Eichenwald
Enron demonstrates that McKinsey and Harvard Business School ideas do make money... for managers if not for shareholders.
The Book of Evidence by John Banville
Sick and strange.
Those Who Forget the Past: The Question of Anti-Semitism, collected by Ron Rosenbaum.
I never thought my own essay would end reprinted next to writings by Larry Summers, Cynthia Ozick, Philip Roth, and David Mamet. But it is in there! My mom was proud.
Einstein by Walter Isaacson
Not technical and a good reminder of just how strange the world was in first half of the 20th century, e.g., the incoming freshmen at Princeton in 1938 chose Adolf Hilter as "the greatest living person".
Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff
A Farewell to Alms by Gregory Clark
You will be amazed at the data assembled by the author, e.g., wages, prices, and rents going back to 1300 in England.
The Forgotten Man by Amity Schlaes
The U.S. economy was not robust to government incompetence back in the 1930s. The result was the Great Depression.
Augustus by Anthony Everitt
Life in Rome around the time of Jesus seems awfully familiar.
Devil in the Mountain by Simon Lamb
The geologist author chronicles ten years spent in the Bolivian Andes trying to figure out what created such high mountains. It is definitely not as simple as the grade school story of "two plates push against each other and the rock crinkles into mountains." Good drawings and explanations without burying the reader in jargon or math.
Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone by Rajiv Chandrasekaran
As a U.S. taxpayer, it is painful to read about the colossal scale of the waste in Iraq. The Feds give a cost-plus contract to SAIC to run a media network in Iraq. SAIC buys an SUV in the U.S. and charters a DC-10 cargo plane to get it to Iraq. Total cost of acquiring the vehicle? At least $380,000. The electric power story involves less waste, but more money. Saddam had not invested in generating plants for a decade or two while the country's population continued to soar. Prior to the American occupation, the country had enough power to supply Baghdad, but not the smaller towns and cities. The U.S. government decided that somehow it was the U.S. taxpayer's responsibility to make up for these decades of underinvestment in electric power in Iraq and guarantee enough power for every Iraqi, 24 hours per day. The book is flawed because the author spends so much time trying to attack the character and motivations of various officials. There really is no need to "tell" because the dismal facts "show" quite adequately.
Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan
Corn, corn, corn. Everything that we eat is made from (taxpayer-subsidized) corn. Everything sold at Whole Foods as "organic" or "free-range" is a scam.
Blue Latitudes by Tony Horwitz
Bounces between Captain Cook's explorations and what those islands are like today.
Lost City of Z by David Grann
The last Victorian explorer disappears in the Amazon in 1925. Rather slow but the ending is interesting and surprising.
The First Americans by James Adovasio
Bitterly feuding academics excavating 12-16,000 year-old sites in the Americas.
Vagrants by Yiyun Li
This young writer creates a world of characters with remarkably few words. Tremendous craft.
Fly by Wire: The Geese, the Glide, the Miracle on the Hudson by William Langewiesche
Brief yet carefully researched.

Reading Photo Gallery

MIT Graduation 1998 MIT Graduation can be a bit dull for the faculty unless they've got a novel hidden inside their programs.
From my Cape Cod essay
Steamship Authority terminal, Woods Hole, Massachusetts Girl waiting for the ferry to Martha's Vineyard, from my Cape Cod essay.
Western Wall.  Jerusalem. At the Western Wall (Israel)
Prague In Prague.
Subway.  Tokyo In Tokyo.

Reader's Comments

Did the Monster Dogs make a mistake by following the American Dream and coming to NYC. Would they have been better off staying in the Canadian-Prissian town after they destroyed their master? I don't know but would like to hear from others. I loved the book and sonce some of the dogs survived I would like to see a sequel.

-- Stew Albert, May 23, 1997
Per the recommendation of one of the reviewers at and the author himself, I bought both A Pattern Language and A Timeless Way of Building. Pattern Language has the nuts and bolts, but Timeless Way is written with such lyrical beauty that I don't think you should miss it. Read both books together if you can, for each illuminates the other.


-- David H Dennis, July 24, 1999

For readers of "A Pattern Language" who are as dense as I was, and can't figure out why it seems to contradict itself, remember this:

It's a dictionary, not a novel.

Just as we do not construct sentence by using EVERY word in the english language at once, we do not devise our built environments by using every "word" in the "Pattern Language" at once.

Those interested in the physical as well as the philosophical aspects of Alexander's work should also seek out "The Linz Cafe" (regrettably out of print) and "The Production of Houses".

-- Ryan Young, July 28, 1999

Microserfs is my favourite novel. I first read it when I was in my third year of varsity and have re-read it many times since. It is a story that inspires me to work harder/longer/better _and_ to get a a life at the same time

-- Joe Mahoney, August 29, 2000
I am very surprised than you, Phillip, a great programmer, have read Independence Day. That talks very well about you.

This novel is maybe the best one I have ever read. I don't know if you know who is Pío Baroja and Benito Pérez Galdós. They both are spanish, and I can recognice their style here.

I am a graduate in spanish literature, but I haven't read any other spanish novel after this.

If anybody reads in spanish, there is a long review about this written by me in

-- Albert Walnut, December 10, 2001

Nice writeup on IBM and the Holocaust - I was intrigued when the book was first released, but kind of forgot about it. I remember discussing it with a few co-workers (my career has been spent programming on IBM "big iron" mainframes) who dismissed it as bunk. I think these lessons will be missed though - and they're pertinent today just as they were yesterday with the onset of globalism and obliteration of borders. Going to get a copy, but I'll have to ask for it at the local library, as for the 1st time in my career, I'm an unemployed computer programmer.

-- Naum Trifanoff, December 15, 2001
It's nice to see a little literacy in a sea of techie stuff. By now you have probably read W.G.Sebald's Austerlitz. If you haven't, then you should. Then we can talk.

-- geoffrey james, December 1, 2002
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