Jordan Koschei jordan koschei

Books

Radical Technologies

I’ve been reading the book Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life by Adam Greenfield, and I thought this quote insightful, on how smartphones shape our lives:

It’s easy, too easy, to depict the networked subject as being isolated, in contact with others only at the membrane that divides them. But if anything, the overriding quality of our era is porosity. Far from affording any kind of psychic sanctuary, the walls we mortar around ourselves turn out to be as penetrable a barrier as any other. Work invades our personal time, private leaks into public, the intimate is trivially shared, and the concerns of the wider world seep into what ought to be a space for recuperation and recovery. Above all, horror finds us wherever we are.

I started reading the book a while back, but life got in the way and I’m finally picking it up again. It’s a breakdown of how nine different technologies are reshaping the world in invisible ways, from how the Internet of Things promotes a worldview of “unreconstructed logical positivism” (the belief that everything can be perfectly measured, and thus perfectly controlled, and human bias can be eliminated) to how smartphones make us nodes in a network, rather than discrete individuals.

Most books in this genre are either too optimistic or too pessimistic for my taste, but this one is neither technophilic or technophobic. Also unlike most books in the genre, it doesn’t read like a BuzzFeed article (“You won’t believe how these 9 technologies will make your life awesome!!!”)… it feels more like something Marshall McLuhan would write.

All-in-all, it’s been a lot to chew on, and I’m left with the feeling that it’s an important read. It’s certainly changing my understanding of the technologies that are coming down the pike. I’m a particular fan of the chapter titles, which sum up the thesis of each chapter and contain gems like:

  1. The internet of things: A planetary mesh of perception and response
  2. Digital fabrication: Towards a political economy of matter
  3. Automation: The annihilation of work

With a last name like Greenfield, it’s no wonder the author writes about high technology.

How to Find a Book to Read

Reading is the best.

I grew up reading a ton — one of the benefits of being an only child, and of having been born in the days before YouTube and Buzzfeed existed to divert one’s attention — and loved the sensation of sinking into a good book. You’d open up page one, find yourself gripped by the story… and emerge hours later, unsure of where the time went. You’d have knowledge you didn’t have before, or empathy and understanding for minds other than your own. Books can change you.

My reading fell off in college; there are few things that can suck the magic out of a book like someone forcing you to read it. But the past several years, as I try to counterbalance the mental effects of working on the web, I’ve been reading a lot more and rediscovering the joys of a good book.

Here are some thoughts on how I read, why I read, and how I find books I’ll enjoy. Your mileage may vary.

How I Read

  • I prefer paper books to ebooks, because I find my retention dramatically decreases if I’m reading on a screen. I suspect it has to do with the topography of the page — words on a physical page are tactile and have a location in physical space, whereas on a screen everything appears in the same ever-changing glowing rectangle.
  • I make heavy use of the library, and generally only buy books that I think I’ll want to have in my personal collection. The exception is the two books a month that I get gratis from work (thanks, Dwell!)
  • I use the online library catalog a lot, and hitting the “Request Book” button scratches the same itch as “Add to Checkout” on Amazon. Much cheaper, too.

I generally leave the library with three or four books at a time, with some diverse offerings to make sure that I can switch gears if I feel burnt out on any one book. I like to switch up the topics I’m reading about, too, so I don’t get caught in a rut. I know some people like to dive deep into a single subject at a time; I like to dabble, and see how connections form between the different subjects in my head. Maybe that makes me a dilettante; I prefer to think I’m just well-rounded.

Why I Read

There’s a difference between reading to read and reading to have read — in other words, reading for purpose vs. reading for pleasure.

Most fiction, I read to read. Much nonfiction, I read to have read. I’m trying to close the gap between the two — ideally, everything I read would be for pleasure, and not solely because I want to accumulate the knowledge therein.

I find that there are three reasons I typically read a book:

  1. For pleasure — the mere enjoyment of reading.
  2. To grow my breadth of knowledge — to expose myself to something new.
  3. To grow my depth of knowledge — to expand my knowledge on a subject I already know something about.

Most books check at least two of those boxes. Some books — Guns, Germs, and Steel, for example — checked all three. That book deepened my knowledge of some ideas that I’d already encountered through Michael Pollan’s writing, introduced me to broader knowledge of sociology and anthropology, and was also a magnificent romp of a read. If I read it again, it’ll be for the sheer pleasure of it.

How I Find Books to Read

I keep a running list of books I’m interested of reading. It’s currently tracked in Things, using category headings to keep things organized, but anything will work.

It’s a flexible list — I add books liberally, remove occasionally, and feel no pressure to read everything on the list (good thing, too, since it’s got more than 80 items now). I just want a way to keep track of recommendations and interesting-sounding titles so I always have something new to read.

I also go off-list very often; if I see something interesting, I’ll read it. I don’t want to be one of those people who’s systemized every aspect of his life… that seems like a surefire way to suck all the joy out of it.

There are four ways I typically find books I’m interested in reading:

  1. Personal recommendations. If someone I know recommends something to me, I always put it on the list.
  2. Podcasts. If a podcast I like mentions a book, or has an interview with an author, I’ll often add it to the list.
  3. Other books. If a book cites another book, and I’m interested in going deeper on that subject, I’ll consider adding it to the list.
  4. A random walk through the library. Sometimes I like to just wander the library and look at the shelves. If a title or cover pops out at me — boom, new book to read. I’ll occasionally do this with a shelf I rarely visit, just to see if there’s some new subject I may be interested in pursuing. It feels like browsing the course catalog at college again — full of possibilities.

I try not to pay much attention to Amazon’s recommendations because I know they’ll be books that I like… which means they’ll probably be books that reinforce my existing taste. I’d rather broaden my taste by reading a wide variety of books than get into a rut by reading the same sort of thing over and over. I do have genres and authors I keep going back to, but I want to supplement those with non-obvious choices that no algorithm would think to recommend for me.

Bonus: A Few of My Recent Favorites

  • The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt/Theodore Rex/Colonel Roosevelt, Edmund Morris (Biography)
  • Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond (Geography, Sociology, Anthropology)
  • Cooked, Michael Pollan (History, Food)
  • Annihilation, Jeff VanderMeer (Science Fiction, Weird Fiction)
  • Red Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson (Science Fiction)

Annihilation

Southern Reach Trilogy book covers
Book covers of the Southern Reach trilogy, courtesy of Wired.

A section of the Florida coast has suddenly, inextricably reverted back to nature. All traces of human life have begun to degrade, and the region — now behind a shimmering border of unknown origin — is only accessible via a hole of indeterminate size and stability.

A government agency known as the Southern Reach has been sending in expeditions to determine the cause and properties of the phenomenon. Each expedition has failed, plagued by disappearances, deaths, cancers, and mental trauma. We pick up with the Twelfth Expedition, comprised of four women known only by their functions: the Biologist, the Anthropologist, the Surveyor, and the Psychologist. What they encounter inside the phenomenon (known as Area X) can only be described as weird.

St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge shoreline near Lighthouse
St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, on which Area X was based. This public domain image comes from Wikipedia.

That’s the beginning of Annihilation, the first book in the Southern Reach trilogy by author Jeff VanderMeer. The trilogy is stranger and more unsettling than can be conveyed in those two introductory paragraphs. VanderMeer is a writer of weird fiction, picking up the mantle left by authors like Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft.

It’s hard to pigeonhole the trilogy into a particular genre. It’s science fiction, I suppose, but only in that it’s fiction that involves science. I’ve heard it described as “bio-horror,” which sort of fits, since it deals a lot with bizarre and macabre elements of biology: animals that appear to be plants. Plants in the shape of humans. Weird chimeras of unknown origin.

VanderMeer has crafted a world that’s so fully-realized that leaving the book feels like waking up from a dream. It’s been two months since I put down the last book, and I still find my thoughts drifting back to it.

The lighthouse. The brightness. The strange fate of Saul Evans.


There’s a movie adaptation of Annihilation coming out starring Natalie Portman, and I probably won’t see it.

It’s not that I don’t want to. I loved every page of the Southern Reach trilogy. But it was also the most unnerving, dread-inducing, existentially horrific book I’ve ever been unable to put down. VanderMeer is an expert at creating a tone of mystery permeated by fear and dread. There were parts that made me nauseous. There were parts that made me short of breath. I have no desire to see those things brought to life on-screen.

There’s also my fear that the trilogy can’t be properly adapted into film. So much of Annihilation takes place in The Biologist’s head, and so much of it involves being able to make connections between words and phrases and thoughts in the character’s interior life. For a book so thoroughly about the nature of communication, something’s bound to get lost in translation.

Finally — and this is even though Jeff VanderMeer himself has given the movie his seal of approval — the movie was written based on the first book alone, ignoring the second two in the trilogy. The trilogy was released over the course of an 8-month period, and functions as a cohesive whole. The first book is informed by the second and third, so creating a standalone work without understanding the latter two makes it a different thing than the books. I suspect it will be more of a tonal successor than a strict adaptation.


I loved the Southern Reach trilogy, but I also don’t know if I can recommend it outright. As with any media, I think it’s wise to consider how it will affect you: Will I be a better person for reading this? Will reading this be time well spent? How will this affect my spiritual life?

Had I known how disturbing the book would be, I’m not sure I would’ve chosen to continue reading it. On the other hand, had I predicted the richness of the experience, I don’t know if I could have chosen to do otherwise.

2017 Book List

I’m making an effort to up my reading this year.

I used to be a voracious reader, but that fell off around college (yes, pursuing a degree was the main thing holding me back from getting an education). Lately I’ve been trying to spend less time immersed in the feeds on my phone and more time buried in books.

These are all books that I’ve read on paper — I find that my retention is much, much lower on a screen, even on e-ink devices like the Kindle — and that I enjoy being able to flip back a few pages when necessary to recall or revisit something.

I also find that the more I read, the more I’m able to read. I think a lot of people avoid books because there’s that initial friction to getting into them, but that friction goes away quickly the more you read. I suspect the friction comes from training our brains to expect the quick dopamine hits of Facebook and Instagram and quick-cutting TV commercials. I find it also helps to keep my phone in another room — if it’s out of sight, I can sink into the book much more easily.

What I’ve Read So Far This Year:

  1. When You Are Engulfed in Flame, David Sedaris
  2. The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry
  3. Seveneves, Neal Stephenson
  4. In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan
  5. Mindless Eating, Brian Wansink
  6. The History of the Hudson Valley, from Wilderness to the Civil War, Vernon Benjamin
  7. Starbucked, Taylor Clark
  8. Bonhoeffer, Eric Metaxas
  9. Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond
  10. New York 2140, Kim Stanley Robinson
  11. Monsignor Quixote, Graham Greene
  12. Growing a Farmer, Kurt Timmermeister
  13. Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders
  14. The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
  15. Hillbilly Elegy, JD Vance
  16. Deep Work, Cal Newport
  17. Legends of the Fall, Jim Harrison
  18. Rocket Men, Craig Nelson
  19. Rest, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
  20. The Planet on the Table, Kim Stanley Robinson
  21. The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan
  22. The Years of Rice and Salt, Kim Stanley Robinson
  23. Modern Romance, Aziz Ansari
  24. Dreamland, Sam Quinones

That works out to 8 fiction and 16 non-fiction.

Of the fiction, 4 were hard sci-fi or alt-history speculative fiction, 2 were character studies told via trips through Spain, and 1 was about the soul of Abraham Lincoln’s son traveling through the Tibetan Buddhist afterlife.

Of the non-fiction books, 2 were biographies, 10 were sociology, and 5 were related to food and agriculture.

My most commonly-read authors this year have been Kim Stanley Robinson (2 novels and 1 anthology of short stories) and Michael Pollan (2 books on food).

Upcoming:

  • Radical Technologies, Adam Greenfield
  • Southern Reach trilogy, Jeff VanderMeer
  • Augustine’s Confessions, new Sarah Ruden translation
  • Annals of the Former World, John McPhee

I’ll read more, I’m sure, but I try not to plan out too far in advance. I prefer to order a few books specifically, and take out a few from the library spontaneously at the same time. That way I always have several books to choose from on my nightstand, some planned and some not.