I’m not sure why, but for some reason I’ve been going on a reading and writing spree in the past couple of weeks. It may have something to do with the fact that I’ve stopped playing Civilization 4 (at least until the patch comes out) – that saves an hour or two every night, but it’s not just that, since I wasn’t reading much before then either. Perhaps it was just some ‘reading potential’ that was building up in me. Here’s what I’ve been reading:
The Company of Strangers by Paul Seabright
This book is emblematic of the sort of thing I really find interesting. The central idea is that humans have developed the ability to deal with strangers without robbing or killing them, and this is what’s driven economic and social progress over the last few thousand years (and also caused countless wars). It’s a combination of biology, psychology, history and economics, and it’s really very well written. An illustration that runs through the book is the sheer number of strangers who work together (often unknowingly) in order to produce a single cotton shirt.
Ripples of Battle by Victor Davis Hanson
I can’t recall where I read about this book – it was either from The Economist or some worthy site linked to from Arts & Letters Daily. In any case, Hanson writes about how three battles spread over history (Delium, 424BC; Shiloh, 1862; Okinawa, 1945) have influenced the world in very unexpected ways. When I received the book, I was expecting it to basically be about military history, and the the influences of the battles Hanson would consider would be on military knowledge. After reading the lengthy introduction about how Hanson’s uncle was killed during the battle for Okinawa, which initially left me wondering why he was spending so much time talking about it, I realised that the ‘ripples of battle’ he was going to talk about would not just be about military matters.
To be sure, the first chapter, on Okinawa, mainly dealt with the consequences of the huge bloodshed there and how that affected short and long-term military thinking with regards to attacking the Japanese mainland, and also dealing with Korea and Vietnam. However, the next two chapters on Shiloh and Delium are rather different. Shiloh started off just as I expected – all sorts of interesting stuff about how Sherman’s strategy of taking the battle to the heartland of the South was a prelude to the sort of ‘surgical strikes’ on infrastructure employed by the US in the future. Unexpectedly, Hanson spent several pages talking about how wonderful Albert Sidney Johnston (the general in charge of the losing, Southern, side at Shiloh) was. I was rather puzzled by this, until Hanson tied Johnston’s death at the battle to the way in which the South felt that they had only lost the Civil War by an accident (rather than being totally outclassed by the North). There were a couple more examples to do with Ben Hur and the KKK as well.
Delium goes much the same way – Hanson relates it to the development of battle tactics, the development of Western philosophy, and much besides. Ripples of Battle was a fun book to read, and all the more pleasing because it confounded my expectations. Unfortunately you won’t have that same experience because I’ve spoiled it for you, but perhaps it might convince you to read it anyway.
Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software by Charles Petzold
I began reading this book about a week ago, and finished yesterday. That doesn’t sound particularly impressive until you realise that Petzold explains exactly how computers work, starting from binary and a simple circuit consisting of a battery and light, slowly building up to electrical relays, logic gates, adding machines, random access memory, transistors, microchips, operating systems and finally culminating at graphical user interfaces. And I mean exactly – he doesn’t gloss anything over; if you read this book, you’d understand how to build and programme a computer from scratch, providing you had the parts.
I love these types of books. I always had some trouble with complex concepts like these in maths or physics, where you’d spend a lot of time on some outrageously simple example (like a lightbulb circuit) and then suddenly jump to a calculator, without enumerating the steps in between. Petzold fills in the steps, and he explains them clearly and concisely; not too fast, not too slow. He also takes the time to properly explain how to construct all those interesting things like logic gates that we all know about, but don’t really know how they work. This is the sort of book that I would like to write – an interesting, enjoyable book that leads you from simple beginnings to highly complex systems. In some ways, it’s not too dissimilar to Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything in its clear writing style.
I’m going to break this chain of factual books with Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon, one of my favourite authors. I’ve read most of his other books, but oddly enough, not his most famous. I have a bunch of other books on their way, including The Emperor’s New Mind, which I’ve already read but could do with rereading, School of Dreams and A War Like No Other. I figure that if I’m in the mood for reading, I might as well keep the books coming until it passes.