Okay, so we’re more than halfway through 2008. I’m a voracious reader, and I wanted to share my favorite books that I read in the first half of 2008.
1. American Shaolin. Matthew Polly grew up in Kansas and decided to go study martial arts in China with Shaolin monks. I dare you to read the first chapter and then try to stop reading. Polly sets up a hook — the beginning of a fight in which he is over-matched — that is irresistible. Whether you want to learn more about Chinese culture or kickboxing, I think anyone would enjoy this book. Polly’s book is rewarding and genuine.
2. Little Brother. Cory Doctorow has written a book that is both thrilling and (gasp) educational. The story revolves around a inchoate hacker named Marcus who is wrongfully imprisoned and humiliated in the aftermath of a terrorist attack. Marcus’ experience crystallizes his opposition to the overreaching security measures in the post-attack hysteria, and Marcus dedicates himself to exposing the flaws of the brave new world in which he finds himself.
Let me add a detour about books that educate: I’ve always wished that more fiction authors would slip in just a few tidbits to teach readers. Usually such attempts miss their mark, either because the education feels just a little too heavy-handed (e.g. Hackerteen), or the material is too easy. For example, Kaplan started a line of comic books with SAT vocabulary, but the words are stuff like roster and barricade. Sorry, not hard enough. Give me meretricious and quotidian and calumny and inchoate, but not roster.
I love that Little Brother is able to throw some education into the mix of entertainment and adrenalin. A friend of mine is reading it and remarked that it made her want to learn more about cryptography. I have to think that those little epiphanies are exactly what Doctorow is trying to achieve with his book. The book ends with an afterword by Bruce Schneier, a well-known security researcher. In his afterword, Schneier discusses what a “security mindset” is and why it’s important. Schneier has written a very good article online about the “security mindset,” and I encourage everyone to read it.
In the past, I’ve been on the fence about Cory Doctorow’s writing. I enjoyed Down and Out In the Magic Kingdom for its description of “whuffie” (think of whuffie as a reputation measure like PageRank, but it exists along a richer number of dimensions instead of as a single number). But Eastern Standard Time didn’t grab me enough for me to finish it.
In Little Brother, Doctorow’s writing is crisp and sure. I read William Gibson’s Spook Country at the same time, and it really felt like Gibson has passed the torch to Doctorow. Spook Country built to a satisfying conclusion, but deliberately embraced the technology of the past few years. In Little Brother, Doctorow skips forward into a paranoid future just a little bit, and the result feels ripped from next year’s headlines.
So: I think you’ll like Little Brother and I think you’ll learn at least a couple neat ideas from it as well. Little Brother is not just an enjoyable book; it’s an important book.
3. How to Rig an Election. This is a book by Allen Raymond tells a political operative’s experience with trying various tricks to affect elections. At one point, he veers into the blackhat arena by effectively mounting a denial-of-service attack against the competing campaign’s phone bank on Election Day. The blackhat experiment ends very badly (along with the competing campaign, the phone lines also belonged to some firefighters) and the author spent time in jail.
How to Rig an Election is compelling to me for a couple reasons. First, it will appeal to anyone who is interested in security or how to make a process (whether it be search or elections) robust against cheating. Second, this book has an amazingly raw and honest voice. From the tone of this book, you can tell the author has burned all his bridges and contacts to the ground and never expects to work in politics again. How to Rig an Election is a breath of fresh air, even as it makes you think about what things might be going on during other elections.
What books have you enjoyed so far in 2008?
I’d be curious to hear what you liked or disliked.