What are you reading?

Discussion in 'Other Topics' started by keithburgun, Jun 10, 2015.

  1. keithburgun

    keithburgun Administrator, Lead Designer Staff Member

    I looked around a bit and it seems like we don't have a "books" or other written-materials thread (correct me if I'm wrong and I'll merge 'em.

    I've been reading Stories Of Your Life (And Others) by Ted Chiang. It's a collection of his short stories that's super highly revered. I haven't fully formed my opinion on it yet (nor have I finished reading all of the stories) but they are definitely well written. They aren't really "dramatic stories", they're not character driven. They're very mechanical. The other day I said (kind of stealing from Blox) that stories are philosophical advertisements, and that REALLY applies to Stories Of Your Life. They're kind of like modern philosophical fables, or something.

    It was recommended to me by the main guy from the Geek's Guide to the Galaxy podcast, Dave Kirtley, who is an old highschool friend of mine. We got into an argument recently on Facebook about sci-fi writing, and he told me to read this as an example of very good adult sci-fi. I agree that it is that - it reminds me of the old Asimov type sci-fi, as opposed to the more modern "sci fi" which is largely a bunch of space marines shooting at shit.


    The Robot's Rebellion by Keith E. Stanovich

    I also recently bought How To Write a Damn Good Novel which was recommended by someone on the forums here (I forget who) and intend to read that soon.

    Mathematics for the Nonmathematician by Morris Kline - I'm not one of those people who go around saying "I suck at Math!!" I actually really hate that. With that said, the last time I took a Math course was in 10th grade of high school and I never really applied myself, so technically speaking my math knowledge is very low, and I need to level that up. I know it's just a set of skills I need to learn (like any other discipline) and I was told that this book was a good start.
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  2. Erenan

    Erenan Well-Known Member

    These are the main ones I'm reading right now:

    Keith Burgun - Clockwork Game Design
    Daniel Dennett - Consciousness Explained
    Barry Dainton - Stream of Consciousness

    Dennett's writing style is more fun to read than Dainton's.
  3. Waterd

    Waterd Well-Known Member

    Mental game of poker- Jared tendler

    Good read for any competitive player of any competitive game.
  4. keithburgun

    keithburgun Administrator, Lead Designer Staff Member

    Oh that reminds me. I also bought The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin a few years ago, and haven't gotten to reading it yet.
  5. Erenan

    Erenan Well-Known Member

    My Kindle rental on the Dainton book mentioned above ran out so I've switched to The Phenomenal Self, also by Barry Dainton. This one seems like it's going to be a really good book, an excellent follow up to "Consciousness as a Guide to Personal Persistence." I'm especially excited because I flipped through the index and found "amoebic fission" and upon turning to the given page found a sentence beginning with "If an amoeba traveled back in time..." I mean, first of all, the relevance of fission to consciousness is super interesting and an extremely important topic for me personally, but on top of that we're talking about sending amoebas back in time! I'm sold.
  6. keithburgun

    keithburgun Administrator, Lead Designer Staff Member

    Just started reading Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber. So far, it's really great.

    Here anthropologist David Graeber presents a stunning reversal of conventional wisdom: he shows that before there was money, there was debt. For more than 5,000 years, since the beginnings of the first agrarian empires, humans have used elaborate credit systems to buy and sell goods—that is, long before the invention of coins or cash. It is in this era, Graeber argues, that we also first encounter a society divided into debtors and creditors.

    Graeber shows that arguments about debt and debt forgiveness have been at the center of political debates from Italy to China, as well as sparking innumerable insurrections. He also brilliantly demonstrates that the language of the ancient works of law and religion (words like “guilt,” “sin,” and “redemption”) derive in large part from ancient debates about debt, and shape even our most basic ideas of right and wrong. We are still fighting these battles today without knowing it.
    Last edited: Jul 29, 2015
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  7. Elliot George

    Elliot George Well-Known Member

    I just finished the Dune trilogy. The writing varies from decent to incredibly stiff and awkward, but it does contain some interesting ideas. The second of the three books is very tedious, the author repeatedly discusses the protagonist's prescience, the way he has to navigate all the possibilities to create the ideal future, but he never says what these possibilities are, or even what the protagonist's goal is. It makes sense in the end, but by that point I was bored senseless and didn't care anymore. I would recommend skipping the second book if you wanted to read the trilogy, or just read the start and end so you can see how it fits in. The trilogy on the whole is not very coherent, the motivations of a lot of the characters are often unclear or illogical.

    I'm currently reading The Aleph and Other Stories by Jorge Luis Borges. It's interesting, not sure exactly what to think of it yet. His short stories certainly are a very different form from the novels I usually read. Instead of focusing on characters they are usually just about one event. His style is very terse but quite excellent.

    Next on my list is All The Pretty Horses by Cormack McCarthy. I'm looking forward to it, I don't know if I enjoyed Blood Meridian exactly, but it certainly stuck in my mind for a good while after reading it. I'm keen to get more of his fantastic prose, but in what is, by all accounts, a more approachable story.
  8. Bucky

    Bucky Well-Known Member

    I've read a lot of David Brin recently.

    Practice Effect, Glory Season > River of Time > Kiln People > Uplift series

    David Brin is at his best when he makes one major change to human society and spends a novel exploring the consequences. He's at his worst when he starts switching between points of view trying to synchronize the climaxes. Accordingly, his two best books are the world-books that stick to a single point of view, followed by the collection of shorts. Conversely, the Uplift books are about an alien society and mostly feature many point-of-view characters.
  9. Platyp

    Platyp Well-Known Member

    I'm three chapters into Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. It made quite a stir when it came out 11 years ago, so I thought I'd check it out.

    It's written in a palpable Romantic/Victorian style. Wikipedia says that Austen and Dickens were primary influences on the style--I've read works by both, and it really shows. And holy hell I forgot how tough 19th-century English authors are to get through. You have to read a ton of chaff to get to the meat of the work. The upshot is that good works from this period (and this novel counts among them) tend to have the following property: every paragraph has a distinct purpose. So you have to do some work to get to the meat of the work, but ultimately there's still meaning down below.

    One thing this has over novels that were actually written in the period is the theme. The novel is about the return of magic to Georgian England, so naturally there are some elements of the supernatural which can make it easier to focus on events. For instance, consider the following passage, which takes place while a magician is animating a few statues:

    The bolded sentence really caught my attention in a way that no Dickensian or Austenian passage could have, simply due to the unique combination of the absurd situation (a statue coming to life) and the author's willingness to engage in comic humor. It's a touch of modernity that really makes the reading way more tolerable than it could have been.

    One element of this particular literary tradition that isn't at all mediated by the publication date is the tendency to tell rather than show. Events are often described plainly to the reader rather than through the experience of a character, and emotions are laid out in prose rather than implied through reactions. An illustrative passage:

    Fun fact: "show, don't tell" is advice that actually dates back to the Victorian era.


    Edit: One thing that I thought was interesting about Dickens's novels is that they were originally serialized--he would publish a few chapters at a time. It was a highly effective marketing technique at the time. This book genuinely seems like it would also lend itself nicely to that forma--each of the chapters seems to come to a very satisfying conclusion while serving the greater story as a whole.

    And man oh man, this book is full of these little anachronistic gems. Another passage that made me chuckle, this time from a footnote describing a man whose "dearest friends would have admitted that he possessed not a single good quality":

    Last edited: Sep 11, 2015
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  10. Elliot George

    Elliot George Well-Known Member

    All The Pretty Horses is one of the best books I have read. Where Blood Meridian was brilliantly written, but had a very meandering plot, which I'm sure was intentional but was quite taxing, All The Pretty Horses moves fairly fast. But more than the story, it's stuff like this that draws me in:

    McCarthy's descriptions of horses are really something else.

    Then I read Walden, by Henry David Thoreau, which is also now one of my favourites. It's hard to describe why it's good, I just felt a real connection with the author, he expresses the poetry he saw in everything, it's uplifting to read a constant stream of positivity. He wrote about everything he experienced while living in the woods, this is from the chapter on sounds:

    Then I read Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. It was pretty good, it's a condemnation of the progress of society as the author saw it, there's a mix of criticisms I completely agree with and religious conservatism which I don't. Both Brave New World and Walden contain concerns about a loss of respect for high art, with Huxley idolising Shakespeare and Thoreau idolising Homer. It would seem to me though, that people of that kind of greatness were outliers, not necessarily representative of the values of the times in which they lived. Brave New World is concerned primarily with the idea that people are increasingly only interesting in seeking pleasure, and that technology and society increasingly allow them to do so, at the expense of any interest in the arts. I've thought this way before, but again I wonder if it is any more true now than it has been in the past. Overall a good read.

    Currently I am re-reading Hyperion by Dan Simmons. There are four books in this series, of which I have read the first two. I only just found out about the last two, so I thought I should read the first two again in preparation. Overall, they're pretty good. I would compare them to Dune, as they are similarly large scope sci-fi stories. As with all sci-fi I have read, the ideas here seem to be more important than the writing. The writing here is at least never bad, it is much more consistent than Dune, it never devolves into pretentious word soup like Dune, and the plot always makes sense, unlike Dune. The ideas here are pretty interesting, I quite liked how the AI's were handled, it felt quite realistic. There are a lot of different styles and themes, especially in the first book where the seven characters share their backstories, with one of the stories featuring some Cronenberg style body horror, and another feeling like a detective themed noir.
    Overall it's pretty good, but I would probably only recommend it to people interested in sci-fi.
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  11. keithburgun

    keithburgun Administrator, Lead Designer Staff Member

    From everything I know about Walden, it seems like it would be a book I would intensely hate. That quoted paragraph is just like.... ahhhh what the fuck. Feels like I'm being trolled.

    Actually shit, I think I should write that book. Just a long 300 page thing that's nothing but bragging about how you're wasting the reader's time.

    Right now I'm reading The Debate on the Constitution: Federalist and Antifederalizst Speeches, Articles and Letters During the Struggle over Ratification, Part One: September 1787 to February 1788. That's actually the title, sorry. It's a little difficult to read because people wrote in kinda a weird way back then but I find it pretty interesting to see how the debate back then relates to the debates we're having today.

    Also reading Bill Clinton's My Life autobiography. It's not great so far but it's vastly more readable than Hillary's recent "Hard Choices" book, which was basically a disaster, writing wise. One of those times you can tell there definitely wasn't a ghost-writer...

    Still trying to get around to sitting down with a math textbook that was recommended to me awhile back called Mathematics for the Non-mathematician.
    Last edited: Oct 27, 2015
  12. Elliot George

    Elliot George Well-Known Member

    It's just beautiful writing, I just like appreciating aesthetic things, I can appreciate long shots in films, paintings with no hidden meanings etc. I'm willing to trade my time for an increase in happiness, if abstract things can provide that, then so be it. Can I ask why this is more of a waste of time than music? Music seems pretty abstract to me, I never listen to an instrumental and think; "ah yes, the composer has presented a clear criticism of modern society and the power structures that shaped it". Is watching a sunset pointless because it can't give you any philosophical insights?
  13. keithburgun

    keithburgun Administrator, Lead Designer Staff Member

    Abstract isn't the problem, the problem is "extremely low meaningful information density". When someone says they're looking at a sunset - well, first of all, adults don't spend that much time looking at sunsets. Sunsets really cannot compete for adult attention the way even a decent book, TV show or game can. But to the degree that people are willing to look at sunsets, that's because with a sunset you're actually taking in shit-tons of information. On something as huge as "the vision of a skyline" there's almost always something interesting to look at.

    A sunset is nothing like "words on a page". Words on a page are very limited, the author just puts a list of symbols which refer to certain things (words) and that's all there is. You basically have to read it in a linear order - it's more of a formal system, which by the way, is precisely why it's more interesting than the loose, toy-like experience of looking at a sunset.

    So when you have this "linear list of symbols hand picked by the author", you really need to be efficient, which basically all authors understand intuitively. You need to make it absolutely clear as quickly as possible why I should give a shit about these symbols you wrote down on this page. This:

    "Late in the evening I heard the distant rumbling of wagons over bridges- a sound heard farther than almost any other at night- the baying of dogs, and sometimes again the lowing of some disconsolate cow in a distant barn-yard."

    ...does not do that. Why should I care about these sound effects? It's not good enough to me that "You Heard Them". Who are "you"? Why should I care what you heard?
  14. Erenan

    Erenan Well-Known Member

    I disagree Keith. I think the part you quoted is totally fine and interesting to read and not bad at all. I do take issue a little with the whole paragraph, but for a different reason. The paragraph began "oh hey I hear wagons" and proceeded to "they are louder than anything else I can hear" which is again fine, and then "for example, dogs, cows, and frogs" which is again mostly fine IMO, but then for some reason he goes "in fact, here let me describe the frogs' sounds to you at length with flowery poetic language" which I object to because given the first sentence I thought the wagons were the important thing that we cared about. Now it's the frogs?

    Having said that, I actually did enjoy the language a lot, I just wasn't sure why we'd want to know about the frogs over the wagons.
  15. keithburgun

    keithburgun Administrator, Lead Designer Staff Member

    Why would I want to know about the frogs OR the wagons?!

    I mean, obviously this is a section taken out of context, so perhaps there is some information that precedes this which makes the "sound of wagons" very meaningful, but I somehow doubt it.
  16. Elliot George

    Elliot George Well-Known Member

    Yeah, books require some imagination because of this, most of the information comes from your own mind, the words are mainly inspiration. Those words inspired enjoyable images and thoughts for me, they go further than the words themselves. Are books strictly inferior to films, which have much higher information density?
  17. Elliot George

    Elliot George Well-Known Member

    Come on, really? Why would I want to know about Bill Clinton's life? If I'm not interested in it, it must be inherently uninteresting right?
  18. keithburgun

    keithburgun Administrator, Lead Designer Staff Member

    I think if you want a sort of meditative, toy-like experience, yes, books are a lot worse for that than films because of their extremely linear and abstract nature. There's not enough to look around and play with.

    If you want formal experiences (i.e. the things that adults come back to time and time again however much they romanticize alternatives), such as a story, then I think both mediums are fine for that. I'm not prepared to say which is better, so for now I'll just say they're both good for it.

    Actually I'm reminded that I saw a talk from Tracy Fullerton at Practice 2013 who made a Walden interactive entertainment application. That seems like probably a better medium for what Thoreau was trying to do.

    Looking at it as a "story", Bill Clinton, the author, has to make it CLEAR AS FUCKING DAY immediately in the book why I should be interested in Bill Clinton's life, just as any author needs to do.

    However, I think autobiographies like this also get by by being kind of like history/politics textbooks. I am learning a lot of literal facts about the process of US government, diplomacy, and history, all of which are topics I am interested in. If you are saying that Walden does something like this, like it has some external textbook like value, that's reasonable, I just haven't observed that.
  19. Elliot George

    Elliot George Well-Known Member

    This was my point, I responded to your incredulity at frogs with mock incredulity at Bill Clinton to show that my disinterest in a topic doesn't necessarily affect its importance or value.

    I think the exact opposite is true. So much more is left open to interpretation with a book. While films have more authorial control over the sense of time, books give that control to the reader. All visual details aside from those given by the author are left to the reader. I think I have read my favourite books more times than I have watched my favourite films, because so much of the experience remains the same with films. It feels like there's so much more "me" involved when reading, that as I change over the years, so do the books.

    I will try to delineate what I enjoyed about that passage, maybe that will help.
    The first sentence just sets the scene, nothing spectacular here, but it gives an atmosphere, and tells you what the author was literally experiencing at the time. I doubt anyone would think twice about this sentence in a work of fiction, so I'm not sure why the scrutiny above.
    He then moves on to the frogs, the factual description of them immediately becomes an imagined mythology. While there are a lot of words in that passage, he simultaneously gives an account of their actual behaviour, and creates from them this quaint mythology that I found enjoyably visually dense. It's just kind of fun to actually visualise what he's saying. In addition to that, along with the rest of the book, it helps to build an idea of the authors ways of thinking, in this passage I feel he's just having fun letting his imagination run wild anthropomorphising frogs, and making allusions to the greek mythos he was so enamoured of.
    In general, this passage, as well as a lot of the book, is not about trying to find applicable life lessons, or maximising information density, although the author does espouse his philosophical views at various points. I just enjoyed thinking about and having emotional reactions to what was written. It certainly wasn't a waste of my time, I enjoyed it enough that I can say it noticeably improved my mood for a few weeks. Not everything has to be an intellectual exercise in order to be enjoyable.
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  20. keithburgun

    keithburgun Administrator, Lead Designer Staff Member

    Good, fair points. Only thing I'd say is that your last line kind of betrays the rest of what you said, because you just went through the explanation at how the work *is* an "intellectual exercise"; I guess maybe there's some wiggle room on what this term might mean, but in general you laid out the intellectual value of the piece and then seemed to say, "not all pieces have to have intellectual value to be enjoyable".

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