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My top five books for 2013

Top five books for 2013

Two thousand thirteen is my banner year for not reading.

Not only have I failed to finish eight books that I set out to read, I think I also forgot to list down all the books I read on that year, a hangover from 2012 when I was unable to assess my year in reading at all. [See: Unfinished Business]

As a result, I have only listed 15 books I’ve read for 2013—less than half of the 33 books (including a magazine and some comic books) I read in 2008.

The plunge in the number of books I’ve read this year isn’t necessarily bad.

After all, it can mean that some of the time I previously spent reading have been used up by something else.

Biking for one thing or working for another.

Whatever the reason for the plunge in my book numbers, 2013 remained a good year as far as reading is concerned.

Besides encountering good stuff, I was able to pore through thick volumes—books one and a half inches thick with font sizes smaller than interest rates on savings accounts.

Not that I’m complaining.

After all, the thickest book I read this year is more than 600 pages, enough to occupy me for a month without doing anything else and that includes biking.

That book turned out to be the best book I read this year which is entitled (Maestro, music please)

1) Homicide: A Year On The Killing Streets by David Simon. 

“Summertime and the living is easy, says Gershwin. But he never had to work murders in Baltimore, where summer steams and swelters and splits open wide like a mile of the devil’s sidewalk. From Milton to Poplar Grove, visible heat wriggles up from the asphalt in waves, and by noon, the brick and the Formstone is hot to the touch. No lawn chairs, no sprinklers, no piña coladas in a ten-speed Waring; summer in the city is sweat and stink and $29 box fans slapping bad air from the second-floor windows of every other rowhouse. Baltimore is a swamp of a city, too, built on a Chesapeake Bay backwater by God-fearing Catholic refugees who should have thought twice after the first Patapsco River mosquito began chewing on the first pale patch of European skin. Summer in Baltimore is its own unyielding argument, its own critical mass.”

— From the introductory paragraph of Chapter Seven

Homicide

Reading Homicide requires physical stamina because it is more than 600 pages, about thrice the length of whatever is the youngsters are reading these days.

But the effort is its own reward.

Even Martin Amis—a writer known for his literary flourish—is impressed. In a blurb, he says:

“A masterpiece…[Simon] has exceptional literary gifts of eye and ear. Few novelists have written so well about the corrosiveness of the modern American city.”

Despite its length, there are always lines that prod you on to read some more.

Sometimes, it’s about the tedious process of delivering bad news.

“In the dry heat of the crowded room, Garvey watches McAllister launch into his standard exposition on what the grieving family should and shouldn’t do in this, Their Time of Loss. Garvey never stops marvelling at Mac’s artistry with the families: Head titled slightly, hands folded together at the waist, he’s a parish priest, expressing his most heartfelt sorrow in slow, measured tones. Mac’s even got a slight, endearing stutter that kicks in during moments of stress and adds a hint of vulnerability. At the scene an hour earlier, standing over the dead man, McAllister was quick with a joke as any of them. Now, with the dead man’s mother, he’s Mr. Sharing and Caring. Phil fucking Donahue in a trenchcoat.”

Homicide also shows scenes of what would later become part of a great television series, The Wire.

““So we’re interviewing the witnesses down at the office and they’re saying how Snot Boggie would always join the crap game, then run away with the pot, and that they’d finally gotten sick of it…

Dave Brown drives in silence, barely tracking this historical digression.

“And I asked one of them, you know, I asked them why they even let Snot Boggie into the game if he always tried to run away with the money.”

McLarney pauses for effect.

“And?” asks Brown.

“He just looked at me real bizarre,” says McLarney. “And then he says, ‘You gotta let him play…this is America.’”

Brown laughs loudly.

“I love that,” says McLarney.

“Great story. Did it really happen?”

“Fuck yes.”

2) Supremo: The Story of Andres Bonifacio by Sylvia Mendez-Ventura.*

Supremo

“Andres Bonifacio—the Great Plebeian, the Hero of Manila, the Supremo—is recognized as the first successful Asian revolutionary leader. He, who had no children of his own has been called the Father of the Katipunan, the Father of the Revolution, the Father of Filipino Democracy.”

—From the Epilogue

 Supremo was written for kids but there is very little reason why older readers should ignore it.

Thanks to its brevity and simplicity, the book can be read overnight.

It gave accounts of how the Katipunan managed to get guns, which were stolen, disassembled, dropped off and picked up at trash sites, and later stored in a printer’s shop. The book also narrated how Katipunan members forged documents (which they later leaked to the Spanish authorities) to show that they were supported by members of the elite to force the very same people to provide them with financial support.

To some extent, both strategies failed—two Katipunan members working at the print shop had a dispute over wages that led to a raid that uncovered the hidden arms cache and Francisco Roxas, considered as one of the Philippines’ wealthiest men at that time, was executed even though he opposed the revolution.

Supreme also offers several versions of events in Bonifacio’s life, making it the summarized version of his biography.

3) Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure by Tim Harford.

Adapt by Tim Harford

“[Peter] Palchinsky principles: first, seek out new ideas and try new things; second, when trying something new, do it on a scale where failure is survivable; third, seek out feedback and learn from your mistakes as you go along.”

—From the first chapter entitled Adapting

Love means never having to say you’re sorry.

Or so according to the famous line from the movie, Love Story.

Success—despite its manifold and contradictory definitions for all of us—is just like that.

To become The Big Man, The Big Kahuna, The Boss, The Cappo di Tutti Cappi, to get everything—money, sex, love, fame, glory—you just have to commit a lot of mistakes—a piece of advice that’s not that good to hear, even if it comes from someone who’s as famous as the Undercover Economist.

But it’s advice that Nassim Nicholas Taleb has repeated in at least two of his three bestselling books, the Black Swan and Antifragility. It’s alright to make mistakes, Taleb says, as long as you don’t go to jail. [See: Taleb on Frauds]

Besides learning from your mistakes, they are also steps on the road to success, as shown by the many examples he cites in this highly-readable 300-page book.

“Whatever its source, we need that willingness to risk failure,” Harford says. “Without it, we will never truly succeed.”

4) Dance with Chance: Making Luck Work for You by Spyros Makridakis, Robin Hogarth, and Anil Gaba. 

 Dance with Chance

“…we should shift resources from being focused on prediction to being prepared for the unexpected, building resilience to live through negative events, and at the same time being nimble enough to leverage unexpected good luck.”

—From the Postscript

This book belongs to the set of six books that I’ve read that dealt with uncertainty so far.**

Praised in a blurb by Nassim Nicholas Taleb—one of the world’s leading thinkers living today—Dance with Chance offers down-to-earth practical advice to attain good health, financial well-being, and happiness. [See: Taleb on riding a bike, Taleb on the Fragilista]

What are those tips?

First: If you feel healthy, steer clear of hospitals if you can.

Why?

Chances for an incorrect diagnosis and/or wrong treatment is higher than average, the authors say, citing several studies. And let’s not get into the fact that you risk incurring more diseases when confined in a hospital.

“In general, for those who feel healthy (and aren’t pregnant), our first piece of advice, based on the overwhelming empirical evidence, is to stay away from doctors. Second, when people really have to turn themselves into patients, they should recognize the inherent uncertainty of medical science.”

Second: Invest in stocks. Period.***

You can try trusting your financial judgment even if you know nothing about investments. To a lesser and greater degree, stocks is all about luck. Financial experts may correctly see trends and predict prices of a certain stock but most of them remain fallible. After all, if they’re so good at what they’re doing, how come very few of them were able to predict the subprime crisis of 2008? [See: Meaning of Collateralized Debt Obligations]

“In conclusion, short-term investments in the stock exchange are risky, but the longer the term, the better and less risky the bet.”

Third: Practice, practice, practice.

Not everyone can be artists and rock stars.

But then again, that doesn’t mean that you can’t be one.

You can—just make sure you’ve got lots of practice and lots of luck.

“…decide whether you have the courage, motivation, and personality to venture on to the long and arduous road that might lead to greatness. In addition, remember that, no matter how smart and motivated you are, there will always be others who are at least as intelligent and hardworking as you. That is, for every great chess grandmaster, Olympic athlete, Noble Prize winning scientist, or entrepreneur-turned-billionaire, there are probably several hundred who are equally good but don’t achieve greatness. Each year, there are only one and two Nobel Prize winners in each category, yet the selection committee considers many hundreds. The same is true for the Oscars and the Pulitzer Prize. Just behind the winners, there are many other hugely talented contenders, who we never hear about.

In other words, to return to our central theme, greatness is partly a game of luck. The attempt to reach the pinnacle of success is like participating in a lottery with very expensive tickets. As with any lottery, the probability of winning is very small, but the price of entry, in the form of ten long years of practice, is phenomenally high. To win a Nobel or an Oscar—or equivalent—therefore requires the luck of the draw as well as intricately crafted skills acquired through at least ten years of deliberate practice.”

5) The Thought Gang: I Rob, Therefore I Am by Tibor Fischer. 

The Thought Gang

“…a horizontal position makes you more streamlined for life. Nearly all the trouble in life comes from standing up.”

—From Page 31

Tibor Fischer is a writer I discovered by reading Granta 81: Best of British Novelists 2003, which is dedicated to novelists 40 years old and below.

Just like Martin Amis before him, Fischer dazzles with his use of the English language—alliteration with enough laugh-out loud humor—as shown by the novel.

My only problem with Amis and Fischer is that I should have read them sooner, leaving me somewhat disappointed, a condition that can sometimes be alleviated by alcohol, which The Thought Gang’s narrator—like Martin Amis’ in Money—also talks about. [See: The Cure for Flu, Taleb on drinking]

Why do you drink? I have been asked. Because (a) I like to and (b) it’s hard to stop. When you’ve got the hole, you can’t go to the corner shop and aske for a couple of pounds of meaning, a packet of panacea, a can of resolution. A solution for one’s plight is hard to find, but solutions aren’t. You can’t go a hundred yards without a pick-up point for zymurgic solutions: off-licences, pubs, supermarkets, restaurants. Civilisation is a careful construction for the production and distribution of alcohol.

*FROM THE SYNCHRONICITY DEPT. Illustrations found in Supremo were drawn by Egai Fernandez, a multi-awarded artist who also happened to have sold me my first bike, The Fellow Traveler. The Bridgestone-branded single-speed bike has been sold to InterAksyon.com photographer Bernard Testa, who uses it during weekends. His threat to bring the bike to his office in Mandaluyong has so far been unacted upon.

**FROM THE SOME GUYS HAVE ALL THE LUCK DEPT. These six books are Fooled by Randomness, The Black Swan, and Antifragility, all by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Obliquity by John Kay, The Perfect Mess by David A. Freedman and Eric Abrahamson and Dance With Chance.

***FROM THE FINE PRINT DEPT. Past performance is not a guarantee of future returns. And I didn’t just say that. Those nine important words are contained in the fine print of documents you are required to sign should you choose to invest in mutual funds. They may very well apply to stocks too. Good luck. Having said that, my stock portfolio—which I myself picked—remains in the green, growing slowly by single-digit rates.

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