2009 — The Best and Worst Books I Read

by Krishna on January 3, 2010

As I did last year and the year before that, I am here again with the list of best and worst books I read in 2009. To be clear, these are the books I read, not the books published in 2009. This year, I read over 90 books: Includes a high percentage of fiction, but does not include a few (bad) non-fiction books I returned before completing. So here goes:

Best Books I Read in 2009

  • The Big Switch, by Nicholas Carr: How cloud computing will reshape the IT infrastructure of companies, big and small. Nick Carr compares this to the the transformation of companies in the last century from using internal power generators  to getting their power from a grid. He paints a scary picture of how cloud computing will result in greater unemployment and privacy intrusions. I don’t fully agree with all his predictions, but he raises some important concerns.
  • The Drunkard’s Walk, by Leonard Mlodinow: A beautiful book on statistics — Who said math couldn’t be fun? At the same time, this is a serious book that exposes some common misconceptions about probabilities and expectations.
  • The Business of Software, by Michael Cusumano: A great example of why you should read books instead of solely relying on piecemeal wisdom in articles. Cusumano gives us a wide overview of the software business and what companies need to do to survive and thrive in the long-term. Instead of only looking at the outliers (giants like Microsoft or Google), he uses case studies of small to mid-size companies to make his arguments.
  • Code, by Charles Petzold: The author has written a beautiful book for beginners to computer hardware. Although I was familiar with the contents, it was still enjoyable to see how Petzold explained the concepts. If you want to start anyone on understanding computers, this is the book to hand them.
  • Creative Capitalism, by Michael Kinsley, et. al.: A bunch of essays from Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and several economists about if and how capitalism can be leveraged to solve some of the greatest problems (poverty, disease, under-development) facing humankind in our age.

Honorable mentions go to Orbiting the Giant Hairball (Gordon MacKenzie), Buy-ology (Martin Lindstrom), Common Wealth (Jeffrey Sachs), and Why We Make Mistakes? (Joseph Hallinan).

My favorite author for 2009 is Scott Rosenberg, author of “Say Everything” and “Dreaming in Code”. Why don’t my favorite authors find a place in my favorite books? The answer is: why does the Best Director lose out on the Best Picture award?

Worst Books I Read in 2009

  • The Inmates are Running the Asylum, by Alan Cooper: This is a seriously misguided book that makes programmers the scapegoats for every problem associated with software. Whatever good  points there are have been overshadowed by the incredible vitriol and hatred. Read my detailed take.
  • Everything You Knew about CSS is Wrong, by Rachel Andrew, Kevin Yank: This is a special award for the most deceptive book title of the year. Instead of a detailed book about CSS, all it does is provide a different method for creating a grid in CSS.
  • A Little History of the World, by E H Gombrich: An older book supposed to be a “classic” on world history, except for the fact that it doesn’t consider many historical events outside Europe. And the prejudice against other cultures and religions doesn’t help, either.
  • The Creative Habit, by Twyla Tharp: A semi-autobiography disguised as a self-help book. The best I can say about this book is that you could pick up a few pointers about generating ideas after wading through the rest of the fluff.
  • ENIAC, by Scott McCartney: Intrigue sells better than technology. At least, that seems to be the motto of the author who decided to highlight the politics and power games surrounding the development of the first electronic computer instead of elaborating upon the technical details and challenges.

Other disappointments included Donald Norman’s famous “The Design of Everyday Things” that turned out to be very outdated. I learnt that it is crazy to obsessively read all of Seth Godin’s past books as they seem to mostly say the same thing over and over again with different examples; it is perhaps time for him to write a full-fledged book. Same goes for Scott Adams: Dilbert just gets tiring after a while.

As for fiction, my hero, P G Wodehouse, turned out to have feet of clay. Having read several of his books last year, I can say that while Wodehouse has a few enormously hilarious books, it is clear that there was a marked decline (repetition and loose plots) towards the end of his career. The Albert Uderzo-only Asterix books are terrible as are the first two non-color Tintin books. And the less said about “Netherland”, the better.

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