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First off: happy new year to everyone!

Second: welcome to a new year with Island Letters. I hope you enjoy the ride.

Third, I thought I might share the top 10 books I read in 2013. To provide some background:

  • These are, as you will see, not necessarily books that were published in 2013, one of them is actually 43 (!) years old.
  • Only books with a rating of at least four out of five were short-listed for this top ten extravaganza.
  • I read on average 50 books a year.
  • The books are presented in alphabetical order (author’s last name).

Without further ado:

Richard Cowper, The Twilight of Briareus

This was actually a reread. I read the book in my teens and it left a lasting impression. I took it with me on my spring holidays and discovered two things: boy is there a lot of transcendental babble in this book, and boy do I still like the book. This novel offers an interesting twist of the alien-invasion topic, in that the aliens in this novel actually are spiritual beings. In some sense you could call it a Cartesian novel. What I loved the first time I read it and what sill stays with me, many years later, is its tale of decline after the invasion, how humanity tries not to lose its grip after it has turned infertile (in contrast to Children of Men). The melancholy exuded in its elegiac portrayal of England descending into a new ice age is captivating, moving, transcendent, and touching.

Ha-Joon Chang, 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism

I already shared my thoughts about this book elsewhere.

Ted Chiang, Stories of Your Life

I was directed to this book through a podcast of the Rationally Speaking series. While I would not go as far as one of the hosts, Julia Galef, and refer to it as “pure idea porn,” its quality of scientific and philosophic story telling reminded me of Stanislaw Lem, one of my all-time favourites in Science Fiction. Chiang starts with a unique/intriguing idea and goes with it, like what the world would look like if we had empiric evidence of the afterlife, heaven, and hell (“Hell is the Absence of God”). My favourite story in this collection is “Liking What You See: A Documentary,” which explores the question of “what if we turned off our innate appreciation of symmetry in order to overcome ‘lookism’ in society”. Truly multidimensional and thought-provoking.

Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals

When faced with the news that he will become a parent, the novelist Foer revisits the question of what to eat, and thus what to feed to his child, in a world of factory farming. I have eaten mostly vegetarian over the last decades, but this fact-laden book turned me away from the occasional fish dish and directed me toward veganism. I highly appreciate the many angles under which he approaches this topic (ethics, capitalism, environment, epidemics, etc.), and that he shifts the focus to where it should be: this is not, as it might occur, a mere question about animal welfare, environment, etc. This is a question about who we want to be, as persons, as a society. What I might add: this is a question about how we want to survive as a society.

Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal

This is a captivating and enchanting exploration into the neurological, cultural and even evolutionary reasons for why we humans are addicted to stories. Why can we hardly pass on the next reality show, why is Charles Dickens still read? Reading this book was enlightening and I asked myself over and over, why on earth there has been so little research about this topic. Well, I ask myself this question about other many other topics too. Often.

William B. Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life

I already shared my thoughts about this book elsewhere.

Daniel Kehlmann, Measuring the World (Die Vermessung der Welt)

This novel provides an interwoven account of the lives of two of the intellectual giants of 19th century Germany: Carl Friedrich Gauss and Alexander von Humboldt. The novel is captivating, well written, and provides a nice introduction into the world and thinking of Gauss and Humboldt. Also, at least for me, it imbues me with ennui about a world in which everything is about measuring, and in which so little thought is dedicated to the question of what if the human condition does not automatically improve with technological progress (which it does not).

Christopher McDougall, Born to Run

Since some of my acquaintances had started using barefoot shoes for hiking (and even running) I got interested in this phenomenon, bought some pairs, and got my first experience with them. During that time I stumbled over a video about McDougall’s Born to Run on THNKR. This is not a book about barefoot shoes per se, rather about running, how we have evolved to run, and how running should be done. The thesis permeating this book is: we ran hundreds of thousands of years, often on rocky, hard ground, so why do we suddenly need hyper-cushioned sport shoes, and might they even be to our disadvantage? What caught me right away, when watching the video, was the claim that there was not a single scientific study showing that running shoes do prevent running injuries. That’s when I got hooked. Besides being a genuinely eye-opening book, it is also one of the most entertaining I had read in ages. This book is fun!, and it might change your life. Eventually I did not give it a five out of five since McDougall did not offer a single reference for the scientific claims he made and the studies he quoted. As I explained some months ago, that for me is a cardinal sin. I will write a blog post about my barefoot experiences in autumn, so stay tuned.

Tim Parks, Teach Us to Sit Still

Parks’s book is about illness, about not finding a cure, and how becoming calm again and introspection made him healthy again. What first was diagnosed as a prostate problem turned out to be a lack of calm. This is a sceptic’s look at school medicine, meditation, spiritual journeys, the good life, and it’s also fun to read. Definitely worth my time.

Jesse J. Prinz, Beyond Human Nature

I already shared my thoughts about this book elsewhere.