Reading Review 2021

Ryan James Spencer

Instead of focusing on the entirety or majority of books I’ve read this year, I wanted to focus, instead, on the books that made a mark on me in some way or another, and the key takeaways for each book.

Summaries for books vary drastically. Good writing is an interplay between compression of information on the part of the author as well as compression of information on the part of the reader. To put it another way, a good author engages with an audience, and that engagement requires a magical sense of economy with words.

All the takeaways here are from memory. I’ve explicitly not gone back to dig up quotes or reread anything. I think the impressionism of this approach may be more useful to you, the reader of this article, as it shows my reflections and digestions of the work, rather than giving you a digestion of the book in its raw, unaltered form.

Write Useful Books

This was likely the best book I read all year. It had the most tangible information for writing I’ve yet to encounter. It practices what it preaches, and the bulk of useful information is at the front, while the rest of the book fills out information without being too lengthy. Rob’s other books, such as The Mom Test, are equally as effective at delivering value for the topics they address.

A Monk’s to a Clean House and Clean Mind

How you treat objects translates to how you treat others. There is a great deal of practice, habit, and care in each of the common tasks in this book. Little notes such as opening windows or clean your face when you first get up drive the essence of cleanliness which helps, per the author’s sentiment, hone the mind in a way similar to meditation.

Goodbye, Things

Living minimally doesn’t have to be reductionist for the sake of being reductionist. Given there is an upper threshold to the things we can reasonably care about, a la Marie Kondo’s “spark joy” enthusiasm, we can offload the storage of things onto other places, such as accepting that stores will have the things we need when we need them or search engines the results rather than us having to hoard bookmarks, as well as stripping back to the things that matter to us in the most direct forms as possible, such as giving away whole lots of possessions or throwing things away without worrying about the lost value.


A young indigenous boy is left out of a freak accident that causes his whole island to be killed off. A shipwrecked girl winds up on the same island. The two meet and eventually work together to rebuild the island as other stranded individuals seek refuge. Classic Pratchett, but with the silliness knob turned down drastically.

Tao Te Ching, Le Guin translation

I’ve lost count of how many translations of the tao te ching I’ve read over the year. Some have been quite dry, unintelligible, others a bit too imaginative. This version has interesting twists and turns around power dynamics with a modern light. I’ll break my promise about finding quotes and will share my favorite section, although favorites always ebb and flow on subsequent readings.

Raw silk and uncut wood

Stop being holy, forget being prudent, it’ll be a hundred times better for everyone. Stop being altruistic, forget being righteous, people will remember what family feeling is. Stop planning, forget making a profit, there won’t be any robbers.

But even these three rules needn’t be followed; what works reliably is to know the raw silk, hold the uncut wood. Need little, want less. Forget the rules. Be untroubled.

A Wizard of Earthsea (first four books)

Another from Ursula K. Le Guin, the story of a sorcerer named Ged. It is a fun read in light of Rust’s focus on ownership around names and the emphasis of names being the means of power over the world; this isn’t a new thought in fantasy fiction, as Gandalf mentions how “the I belong to the name” in the Lord of The Rings and others, as well as the Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs talking about the notion that names allow a sorcerer/wizard power of the spirits.

An interesting note from Le Guin I read this year had to do with her regretting that Ged was chosen to be a man. There is a surprising lack of female characters. Nonetheless, Ged’s exploration into the rift of the world where names may not apply is an interesting existential investigation on the manner of how we struggle with meaning and uncertainty, but not something that means all hope is lost to the chaos lurking underneath. As Pema Chödrön would say, “welcome chaos with a cup of tea.”

Klara and the Sun

An artificial friend is chosen by a sickly child to accompany her at home in a world where children are regularly genetically enhanced and attend school remotely. Klara is convinced that the sun is a living entity that nourishes her, and views pollutants as “his” (the sun’s) enemy. Despite being a material good purchased for “socialisation” in the place of a child’s life, there is no denying that Klara has had her own experiences, perceptions, and a reflections after she is finally scrapped in a yard with other artificial friends.

Thinking Physics

It doesn’t teach you physics, but it can teach you aspects and characteristics of physics through a question and answer styled puzzle book. The book poses a problem, has you think about it and come up with an answer (multiple choice), and then read the solution. It builds up an understanding over time that helps drive other solutions, but it does lack a reflective, conversational tone that I find better helps instill the ideas. That said, I do think it is a style of important deliberate practice that is often missed in many other books, or relegated to oft ignored “exercise” sections.

The Practice

I can see how people hate this book. At it’s core it is an assemblage of various commentary around consistent practice of anything you are involved in doing. The points about receding into the shadows as hiding, which is unfair to others, and how a fear of sharing comes from lack of identification with an abundance mindset resonated particularly well. I find books like this good because they are fractal in that you can open the book wherever you please and find something useful.

4000 Weeks and The Practice Of Not Thinking

I mention both of these books in tandem because some of thoughts overlap.

In 4000 weeks, we are confronted with a discussion around the point that we will inevitably need to make hard, uncomfortable choices around what we really want to do; that in the end, we will not be able to do everything we set out to do, no matter what productivity hacks we employ. This ties into something I’ve been thinking about as of late, which is that we tend to de-emphasize the importance of estimations and think less and less about targets or deadlines for ourselves with the assumption that we will simply live forever, even though we may consciously be quite well aware of the counter being true. In this sense, we turn some things into games. Wondering how fast you can summarise an article or a book? How quickly can you finish one piece of the puzzle of your work or hobby?

I want to give a head tilt to Seth Godin’s The Dip here, where the notion of knowing when to quit or not is the main treatise of the book. It is generally applied to whole sets of skills, but I think this same sense can be equally applied to anything we do; is it really worth me summarising this article in a short period of time? Is this project really the thing I want to be doing right now?

In The Practice of Not Thinking, the author Ryonuske Koike explores the notions of meditation around the fundamental premise that, practically, being attached to our thoughts is an issue all of itself. If we can constrain our focus to singular points rather than pretending we can multitask, then we can feel more connected with the world and ourselves. If we can reduce work in progress, we not only are making the hard choices in face of the facts, but we are also getting better at focusing itself.

The big thing here for others is probably handling information. The crux of this is that we tend to drown ourselves with information without considering how we can better cut through it. This also means being ruthless in how you approach any sort of content, in any sort of medium. Calling a book done doesn’t have to be because you read every imaginable word. It can be “done” for you because you’ve cleared through the chapters or subsections that matter most to you. In the same sense, work can be “done” given what you’ve built up so far in an iterative or incremental way. In short, I like a lot of this thinking because I really like the idea of incremental computation, and I think that the notion of incremental computation doesn’t stop at just how we design systems or programs.

The Dawn of Everything

I haven’t quite finished this one yet, but the premise of the book is a great one; indigenous people have been marginalised unnecessarily despite sparking the enlightment period itself with their insights, imagination, and ability to consider complex social structures where individuals can act as autonomous authorities in the context of a larger collective. This last point is interesting to me; I and others I’ve seen often act in a constrained way, fearing the repercussions of the larger group, and while this is valid in itself, it also means individuals don’t act as boldly or as outwardly as they could while still being OK according to social norms. I think part of the restraint may be because social norms aren’t as loose, hence a new wave of “don’t give a fuck” attitudes floating around. To quote an amazing line from Arvid Kahl’s The Embedded Entrepreneur, “embrace fear, listen to it, invite it in, but ultimately, ignore it.” To paraphrase, while it’s good to contemplate your fears, they should not be the thing that guides who you are as a person through being the core of your actions.