My favorite books of 2008 (so far)

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.

62 Responses to My favorite books of 2008 (so far) (Leave a comment)

  1. I just recently started The Domain Game – looks very interesting so far… I usually stick with IT related books, though.

  2. “All Marketers are Liars” by Seth Godin. His Google Author series is great as well.

    “iWoz” by Steve Wozniak. I finally picked this up and while Steve sometimes gets off track talking about his personal adventures, it’s a really great story.

  3. My Forty Years with Ford by Charles Sorensen. Though now out of print, this book is Sorensen’s first-hand account of being Henry Ford’s right-hand man from nearly the very beginning. Ford was the Google during the first few decades of the last century. It was Sorensen, Ford, and others that created the mass assembly manufacturing process and $5 work days that put the world on wheels and helped foster America’s middle-class. There are interesting stories such as how their massive Highland Park Model-T plan was designed without a parking lots — because they hadn’t realized the workers would eventually own their own cars. It’s an interesting book from an engineer’s viewpoint and well worth seeking out.

  4. “The Echo Maker” by Richard Powers. Powers is the best fiction writer around today and it’s unfortunate he isn’t more popular.

  5. “Middlesex” by Jeffrey Eugenides…and Dog the Bounty Hunter’s autobiography, of course.

  6. Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen

  7. The Revolution: A Manifesto by Ron Paul

  8. Thanks for the recommendations! Always looking for good fiction that educates as well. I know this will sound cliche, but I liked the Kite Runner, mostly because of how much I learned about life in Afghanistan before and after the Taliban took over. Also read Bob Dylan’s autobiography and Hell’s Angels by Hunter Thompson – both excellent.

  9. The Harry Dresden series by Jim Butcher: Wasn’t sure about this after the ho-hum Sci-Fi channel series that got cancelled after one season, but of course, the guys who adapted it for TV got it all wrong and the books get it all right.

    “Florence of Arabia” by Christopher Buckley: Written by the author of “Thank You For Smoking,” it’s the tale of a disaffected State Department analyst with a plan to bring about regime change in the Middle East through television programming that empowers women. Funny and insightful and a big tweak on the nose for the Saudis.

  10. Team of Rivals – About Lincoln and his Cabinet, absolutely amazing that he chose the people that ran against him for the presidency. A modern day analogy would be if Obama or McCain won, choosing the other one to be his Secretary of State.

  11. “The Snow Leopard” by Peter Matthiessen, “We the Living” by Ayn Rand and Churchill’s “The Second World War”.

  12. “Shock Doctrine” by Naomi Kleine. Absolutely riveting book on how Friedman style ecomonics flourishes in war zones, dictatorships and general natural disaster areas – surviving and thriving on the chaos. The real eye opener is the way in which political power and economic power are seprated… but with the economic giants frankly destroying all the wealth… or transferring it from tax… to state… to private companies, with little regard (in fact no regard) for the ethics of the whole process.

    Absolutely brilliant. I defy you not to want lock up several well known people when the dust settles.

  13. Don’t miss “Final Theory” by Mark Alpert. Brad Feld, on his blog, described it like this: “Loved it. A+ mental floss. I can’t remember who recommended it to me, but thank you. Physics, murder, sexy smart women, a professor hero, explosions, fast cards, evil mad scientists disguised as pacifists, evil people, complex scientific theories that actually almost work, gratuitous almost sex, a really scary mean bad guy, and some hillbillies. What more could you want?”

    (Full disclosure — Mark Alpert is a college classmate).

  14. If you like “Little Brother” for its near-future paranoia, you will like “Halting State” by Charles Stross. His other books don’t do it for me but this one is absolutely first rate. The premise is a world where ubiquitous wi-fi access gives everyone a real-time digital overlay on the real world, and that overlay works like a MMORPG. Un-put-down-able!

  15. I just read, and recommend Traffic (0307264785 and on Kindle) and Yes! (1416570969)

  16. I just read The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff (I have a Kindle by the way…great way to get great books for half the cost) Both historical as well as non-fiction murder mystery. Could not put it down.

    Ebershoff weaves together various narratives from different centuries to explore the demoralizing effects of polygamy on human lives. Ebershoff develops two alternating stories, one of them based on historical fact of B. Young and plural marriage. Ebershoff’s second narrative is a modern murder mystery. Jordon Scott, a 20-year-old former member of the Firsts, has returned to his home turf to visit his mother, BeckyLyn, who has been charged with the murder of Jordon’s father.

    The combination of historical facts and a modern day murder mystery is seamless and excellent!

  17. I really enjoy books that educate as well. One of my favorites, which was actually published in 2005, does a great job at twisting together suspenseful plot with fascinating details of the past. Definitely more interesting than your high school World History class. The story is actually based on Vlad the Impaler- Dracula. The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. Very great read, and 3 years later, still my favorite.

  18. Accelerando –

    Details a family through it’s generations and through singularity (

    I love books like this – books that kick start your brain into a whole new way of thinking about the world and future.

  19. Some interesting recent books I read were 1984 (Orwell), What We Say Goes (Chomsky) and World Brain (Wells). American Shaolin sounds very interesting. Just saw on Amazon there’s a movie from 2008 with the same name…

  20. “The Art Of Unix Programming”. There is little practical programming information in it and a lot of philosophy and design principles. It changed my view about software engineering.

  21. I enjoyed reading a great Danish book; Mindfulness – by Charlotte Mandrup.

    Interested to know more about Mindfulness ?

  22. Are you on LibraryThing or somewhere?

    The best thing I’ve read this year so far was Wolf of the Plains by Conn Iggulden – a fictionalized account Ghengis Kahn’s early years. Highly recommended.

    Slightly outside your requirements (I read it late last year) is Vinge’s Rainbows End. If you liked Little Brother I think you’d really enjoy that…


    Along the lines of American Shaolin, I just read “Angry White Pyjamas: A Scrawny Oxford Poet Takes Lessons From The Tokyo Riot Police” and enjoyed it immensely.

  24. 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

    He probably would have never been allowed to work in politics even without the book

    If someone did take a chance and hired him, imagine the uproar if it was leaked.

    He may have a very hard time getting future employment – hence the book. It probaly isn’t a result of some moral revelation, just survival after prison

  25. “Letting Go Of The Words: Writing Web Content that Works” by Ginny Redish is an interesting read with practical guidelines of how to make your Web copy pop. Effective before and after examples inspired me to improve my sites.

  26. “The Social Life of Information” is an interesting book about how organizations learn, how knowledge flows through them. It has some fun “war stories” from Xerox PARC.

  27. Matt,

    I set out to read the Scott’s Waverly novels this year, I’m on volume 37, and the only one I skipped was Ivanhoe, which I remember too well to reread yet. It’s getting to the point that I’ve convinced myself I ken Scottish.

    Down with modern fiction!


  28. Thanks for the link to Schneier’s security mindset article – I loved it, and the comments are just as interesting to read.

  29. Matt, great list of books. With your permission, I’d love to add them to my site — it’s called Flashlight Worthy and it’s full of lists of books that so good, they’ll keep you up past your bedtime. 😉

    (Actually, 3 books is kind of a short list — care to say what your favorites of 2007 were?)

    I also invite your readers to submit lists of their favorite books — or any themed list. We’re not set up for automatic submission yet, but you’ll all see the “Contribute Your List” link on every page.

    And in answer to your question, some books I’ve enjoyed this year?

    Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan — A short and accessible book that teaches a tremendous amount about how to eat healthily.

    Love is a Mix Tape — A fantastic little memoir of a music writer and his relationship with his wife.

    The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger — Ok, I know this sounds insanely boring. But it’s actually incredibly interesting.

    Books so good, they’ll keep you up past your bedtime.

  30. An oldie but a goody. General Mannstein, “Lost Victories” , He was an excellent general who stood up to the Fuhrer and he really knew how to deploy the panzer forces.

  31. How to rig an election sounds interesting US polaticians get a way with stuff that would land you in jail in the uk.

    I do like to find a book that uses a word that i dont know what it meas though this is very rare the last was the use of “otiose” by tolkien.

    ime waiting for the new Neal Stephensons Anathem

  32. If you want a book of adventures and very entertaining, I recommend you this

    Trust me, but I don’t know if this book is in english.

  33. Found some really good ones, but the one I really enjoyed is “The girl with the dragon tattoo” by Stieg Larsson


  34. The Time Travellers Wife – Audrey Niffenegger’s

    It looks like chick lit – but it’s not. It’s an insight into how soul’s can be wholly and completely entwined throughout not only one life but through many lived by two people. He can travel through time and disappears in and out of hers whenever he can, almost disturbingly from when she was a child (and he has naughty memories of her from when she was older). It’s deeply meaningful but also smirkingly funny and dry.

  35. I realize this post may have been an attempt to move away from google / web talk but for those interested in conversion factors and testing:
    1. Landing Page Optimization: The Definitive Guide to Testing and Tuning for Conversions – Tim Ash
    2. Always be Testing – Bryan Eisenberg, John Quarto-vonTivadar, and Lisa T. Davis

  36. Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone, Provides a stunning and sometimes disgusting analysis of why things went wrong in the year directly following the invasion. Through the spectrum of the green zone, which was equitable to a neo-conservative college fraternity party, we see why the wrong people were given the wrong responsibilities, why the funding was never properly allocated, and why our perception of victory in Iraq was so terribly unfounded.

  37. Matt’s Blog Posts
    Posted: Tue, 26 AUg 2008 9:58 pm
    Posted: Wed, 27 Aug 2008 8:26 am

    Matt’s Twitter Posts
    Posted: Wed, 28 Aug 2008 1:02 am
    Posted: Wed, 28 Aug 2008 2:19 am

    Hum…do you ever sleep Matt? lol OK back to our subject…my favorite book in 2008…well more of a magazine but oh well…let’s say the “Ultimate Fantasy Pool Guide 2008-09”! Let’s drop the puck! 🙂

  38. “Don’t start the revolution without me”… by Jesse Ventura… regardless of what you think of him, he has new ideas and doesn’t care what people think of him. He honestly does what he thinks is right. For an ‘out of the box’ approach to politics, it’s a good read.

  39. here are my 3 books of 2008:

    The brothers Karamazov – Dostoievsky
    The Idiot – Dostoievsky
    Anna Karenina – Lev Tolstoi

  40. “Coyote” by Allen Steele has got to be one of my favorites this year (so far), but there is quite a way to go any many books to read before the year is out…

  41. Frank Levert

    “Hum…do you ever sleep Matt?”

    When Matt doesn’t sleep, thats usually a sign that Mrs. Cutts is out of town 🙂

  42. Not that much time to read unfortunately, but I did read the book about the Google story and also the book about Apple.

    Very different! 🙂

    Besides that nothing. I should try to read a book in português for a change to improve my português.

    By the way Matt, 2 of my employees that manage adwords campaigns saw a lecture of a Google employee and were impressed by the fact that half the lecture was about the greatness of Google… Only the elite works for Google, people trying to look inside the building through the windows just to get a glimps of what it’s like in there,… I hope it’s not becoming the standard,.. 😉

  43. hey Matt– I liked Little Brother, too… though I thought Down + Out was pretty terrific, but that’s mostly because I’m nuts about the Disney theme parks, so it’s hard to write *anything* about them and have me *not* like them 🙂 I’ll have to check out How To Rig An Election.

    btw I just finished reading The Prestige– it’s a bit different from the film version and, IMHO, superior (in that way that novels are usually better than their film adaptations). I highly recommend it, ESPECIALLY if you have NOT seen the film version.

  44. Well, I haven’t gotten around to making a best (so far) of 2008 but here’s my best books of 2007 list.

    I guess it also depends on what you like to read. I’m very heavy on literary fiction and science fiction. Even better when they come together like they did in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.

    Or take a spin around some modern classics, something I’m putting together but haven’t posted yet … but here’s a preview:

    On The Road – Jack Kerouac
    V – Thomas Pynchon
    Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert Heinlein
    Player Piano – Kurt Vonnegut
    Underworld – Don DeLillo
    Rabbit Run – John Updike
    Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell (Yeah, it’s that good IMO)
    Portnoy’s Complaint – Philip Roth
    Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World – Haruki Murakami
    Ubik – Philip K. Dick

    I just don’t think you can go wrong with any of the above. Thrilled to know your a reader!

  45. A recent read was “Go Kiss the World” by Subrato Bagchi.
    Enjoyed it thoroughly.
    Subrato started his life from a village in Orissa, India, and has had a fantastic journey that has now put him as Co-Founder at Mindtree Consulting Ltd. The learnings from his very interesting life, shared in his inimitable way, made for captivating reading.

    His earlier book also remains on my list of favorites, viz. The High Performance Entrepreneur.

  46. It’s not brand new, but I am reading (or swimming through) Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle right now. Highly recommended for anyone who wants book that is both interesting and also builds strong axons and dendrites.

    And thanks for the invite to the Google Dance for the SES folks. Loved it.

  47. Currently Reading John Adams by David McCollough – very very good – as I dont have HBO I missed the miniseries, but am tempted to netflix it when i’m done with the book.

    I too have read The Historian by Kostova – very compelling if LONG read 🙂

    Non Fiction wise I just finished “Made to Stick” which we got free in our SES San Jose Bags – amazing, fun, interesting and educational all rolled into one. I like historical non-fiction, but usually dont get into “marketing, self-help, etc.” type books. This one was a good read.

    I just ordered American Shaolin based on your recommendation, Matt – Thanks!

  48. I just ordered American Shaolin based on your recommendation,too, Matt – Thanks!

  49. American Shaolin is one of my favorite book…

  50. I read E. Tolle’s ‘A New Earth@ – mind blowing and insightful at the sme time, and I’m glad to see that the worls is becoming amore enlightened place.

  51. Cool, let me know how you like it, Ellishao. 🙂

  52. Hi Matt.
    The two latest books that I have read are “The Last Lecture” by Randy Pausch and “The Obama Nation” by Jerome R Corsi, Ph.D. “The Last Lecture” is actually way better than his famous speech at Carnegie Melon. I also found “The Obama Nation” to be very insightful, and I think it has set up major points of attack that the McCain camp is sure to use shortly. I was just recommended “The 4-Hour Workweek” which I have just started, but to be honest, it seems a little like a self-help book, which I tend to not enjoy.
    Thanks a million for this list, I am going to buy American Shaolin tomorrow.

  53. Matt
    Great to listen you that you enjoyed many books.
    I just finished My Name is Red by Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk –
    Amazing story line – great feelings time of reading – it’s a mixture of story-art-murder-beauty-suspense………..many more


  54. I really recommend you to read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao [link], is a great book writen by Junot Díaz [Pulitzer Winner 2008].

    Best Regards

  55. Thanks for the recommendation about the Shoalin book – just read it and it was quite entertaining to following this guys journey.

    I also recommended the book about the political “maneuvering” to a friend of mine who is seriously considering getting into the political arena in that area. Thought it would be a good read, and an eye opener!

    Kevin Hill
    IT & E-Commerce Developer

  56. I just finished Anathem by Neal Stephenson, which was quite good. Doubly recommended if you enjoy educational digressions or smart arguments.

    I re-read The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches by Gaetan Soucy, and it still feels like a kick in the stomach. It’s haunting.

    Oh, oh, and Javier Marias. Either “A Heart So White” or “Tomorrow in The Battle Think On Me”. He is relatively unknown outside of Spain, where he’s a literary giant, but that shouldn’t (and, I say, won’t) last long.

    And Calvino’s “If On Winter’s Night A Traveler”, which is really a bibliophile’s book. I guess I might have read this last year, but I was re-reading it recently, so, it counts.

  57. Hi Matt.
    I wanted to thank you for the recommendation of “American Shaolin”. I thoroughly enjoyed the book!! Read the whole thing over the weekend.

  58. Groundswell – great book on social technologies. I loved it!

  59. Blue Ocean Strategy is a very interesting read. If you apply it to your own business model, there are some striking advantages.

  60. not to be too partisan about it, because i’m a swinging voter…

    but even “white hat” election strategies republicans have mounted in the last 8 years (attack ads and the like) can be dangerous as they take the focus off a balanced, reasoned debate about the issues.

    there should be more discussion about how truth and transparency in election ads are required for the proper functioning of democracy

  61. I read American Shaolin, got book from my wife. I read somewhere they will make a movie after this book.I hope it will be worth watch it.

  62. “Black Water” book is pretty interesting to get an idea how today war is fought and financial aspects involved