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Sunday, December 31, 2006

Books of the Year

There were a few articles recently in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times about the new face of Philantropy: in an age of global information, new philantrophists are now finding it hard to justify giving money to the arts (such as Opera, or Ballet) where there are so many more important initiatives that need funding (such as poverty, global warming, and disease).

Similarly, when contemplating the books of the past year, I find it difficult to rank the Fiction highly when compared to non-fiction. How could one compare even the most well-written piece of fiction to books that teach you how to manage assets, change your mind about the causes of poverty, or unveil why the politics of the country is the way it is? Kelly Link and Karen Joy Fowler when they visited this year at Google said that the biggest challenge of a fiction author is to be a more compelling read than the latest non-fiction, in an increasingly science-fictional world where the web by itself would serve up article after article of interesting stories about MIT students making money on blackjack, or fascinating economic commentary from Berkeley professors.

Having said that, I'd feel like I am chickening out if I didn't make fast and hard decisions, so here they are.

The book of the year is Joseph Stiglitz's Making Globalization Work. Scarlet will tell you about the arguments we've had over the years about globalization. For me, there was never a doubt that free trade was a universal good. The mathematics of Comparative Advantage was undenial, and perhaps I was even a bit too smug about understanding it. Stiglitz changed my mind about all that. The brilliance of a man who not only understood the theory, but also understood the assumptions that don't apply in the real world behind it, coupled with his experience at the world bank makes this book easily the most important book of the year, and a rare book in that it will change your mind about what important problems are most critical to tackle. It even seemed to open up the minds of a few rabid libertarians at my workplace, which I think is a first. Libertarians seem to me to be no different than fundamentalist devotees of middle-eastern religions (of which Islam is only one) in that their minds are already made up and their attitude is, "don't confuse me with facts!" Well, this book has a lot of facts, all put together well, and very much worth reading.

A close runner up was The Way To Win, an expose about our modern political system, which I find interesting. I had an argument 13 years ago with Reed Hastings (CEO of Netflix) that I felt modern elections were too much about character and not enough about issues. After 8 years of Bush politics, I feel vindicated in that assessment. A book explaining how all the dirty and not-so-dirty tricks that go into running for the presidency (an important topic, especially in the upcoming years, which will determine whether or not we will ignore global warming or start to do something about it) is definitely something worth reading.

The best fiction I read this year was a toss up between Iain Bank's excellent The Algebraist, or Lois Bujold's The Curse of Chalion. I find myself tipped towards Bujold's book for many of the reasons why she's won so many Hugo awards: she's got a lovely flowing prose style that's extremely easy to read and drags you along the story. When she doesn't have a good story to tell, it feels a lot like drinking a lot of empty calories, but in this case it's a great story and you feel like you got a lot out of it. I also must say the Neil Gaiman in Anansi Boys had the first non-graphic novel of his that I could read all the way through and find it enjoyable.

Even though he didn't make any of the best books of the year, Charles Stross was a great find for me this year. This versatile writer hasn't found any fiction that he can't write. The style is quite kinetic and can sometimes be a chore to read, but it never fails to entertain.

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