(Apologies to Daniel Kahneman, who wrote Thinking Fast and Slow, the inspiration for the title of this blog entry. The same book is also mentioned below.)
Some books grab you by the balls and never let go unless you’re finished with them (or, for that matter, finished with you). Other books are far less dramatic, allowing you to dip into several pages on occasion, while in between meals, naps, or commutes.
This, more or less, illustrates my life as a reader in 2015.
Of the 24 books I’ve read this year—a figure lower than last year’s 26 (and a far cry from the 60 books read by some friends in a given year)—I can remember at least three that I’ve read in one sitting with very little interruption and three others that took years to finish. Most I read leisurely, the pace which I take when doing something for amusement.
Of all the books I read this year, I decided to pick out six of what I think is the best, listed here in reverse chronology based on publication date.
1) Smaller and Smaller Circles by F. H. Batacan (2015)
Felisa “Ichi” H. Batacan has helped popularize Philippine crime fiction, never mind that her award-winning novel that’s been published abroad is also part of the police procedural sub-genre that’s been mastered by the likes of Ed McBain of the 87th precinct series and David Simon, who wrote Homicide and conceptualized and produced The Wire. [See: The Wire]
Smaller and Smaller Circle’s plot is not only logical but plausible since narrative action is driven by gritty, real-life situations, involving, among others, internecine politicking among crime-fighting agencies, blind ambition, and sheer incompetence. Like most police procedurals, Smaller and Smaller Circles also manages to inject social commentary, further strengthening its realism.
FROM THE DEPARTMENT OF REDUNDANCY DEPARTMENT. I already wrote a review of Smaller and Smaller Circles for BusinessWorld, which is, one, the Philippines’ premier business newspaper; two, one of the world’s first newspapers to go online; three, supposedly Southeast Asia’s first business newspaper; and, last but not the least, is also my employer. [See: Smaller and Smaller Circles: A Review, Smaller and Smaller Circles: A podcast]
Ichi Batacan, who is currently based in Singapore, is a friend and a former co-worker. She also agreed to post one of her essays on my blog. [See: The Lucrative Business of Making Women Feel Bad About Themselves]
Also: Thanks to New York City-based SoHo Press, the publisher, which sent me two copies of the book, the first an unedited version and the second, a corrected version. Both are not in my shelves because the first has been lent out—and has yet to be returned—while the second has been given away to a fan of Ichi Batacan (share the wealth, I always say).
2) How to Fly A Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery by Kevin Ashton (2015)
Packed with research-supported anecdotes, How to Fly A Horse not only engages in serial mythbusting (the book starts off citing a fake letter from Mozart about creativity), it also allots a chapter solely for creative women, who were not credited for their scientific discoveries.
In one highly-moving chapter entitled “Where Credit Is Due,” Ashton pays his respects to Rosalind Franklin, whose work was “secretly stolen” by James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins. All three men would later win the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1962, for their work in explaining how organisms carry and replicate genetic information (using Franklin’s research without her permission).
“When Rosalind Franklin died, she did not know that the three men had stolen her work. Even after she was dead, they did not give her credit. She was not thanked in their Nobel acceptance speech, unlike several men who made lesser contributions. Wilkins referred to Franklin only once in his Nobel lecture and misrepresented her importance by saying that she made “very valuable contributions to the X-ray analysis,” rather than confessing she did all the X-ray analysis and far more besides. Watson and Crick did not mention her at all in their Nobel lectures,” Ashton said in the book.
Moreover, the book also helps demystify creativity, saying that “most of our world is made of innovations inherited from people long forgotten—not people who were rare but people who were common.”
“We are each a piece of something connected and complicated, something with such constant presence that it is invisible: the network of love and imagination that is the true fabric of humanity. This is not a fashionable view among people who claim to think. There is a false intellectual tradition of complaint that paints wonder as blunder, mistakes snorts for thoughts, and points at human beings as if they were mainly shameful. “But famine,” “but war,” “but Hitler,” “but climate change”: it is easier to look for flies in the soup than to work in the kitchen. But we are all connected, and we are creative. No one does anything alone. Even the greatest inventors build on the work of thousands. Creation is contribution.”
FROM THE GIVE CREDIT WHERE IT’S DUE DEPARTMENT. Practically the same sentiments were expressed by Paul Baran, an engineer who died in March 2011, and whose obituary was published by the New York Times and is included in its The Obits: Annual 2012, a book that is also mentioned below. Meanwhile, How to Fly A Horse—which mentions the Philippines’ Ilongot tribe on page 180—also has a Web site of its own. [See: How to Fly A Horse: The Web site]
3) Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (2011)
About two years ago, a millennial approached me in a bookstore, and, checking out the titles I had picked out, recommended this book.
“I swear,” he said. “You’ll like it.”
I ignored him—and it wasn’t just because he was a complete stranger—but because I don’t take advice, even from friends (although I do take orders from bosses, as a matter of professional duty, psychological well-being, and financial stability).
A little more than a year after that incident, I saw two co-workers whom I trust and respect (despite being millennials) reading the same book at around the same time.
That got me sold, helped along by a video I saw of Kahneman with Nassim Nicholas Taleb, one of my favorite writers and thinkers, in an event in New York. [See: Bromance, the Buddha, and the Black Swan]
Within the week, I got myself a copy of Thinking, Fast and Slow, an easily-readable but nevertheless powerful enumeration of the ways by which the mind fools itself into thinking that it is logical and, at various times, infallible.
Kahneman’s book is filled with so much information about the manifold processes of thinking, forms of biases, and kinds of fallacies that the work itself is spaced evenly; each chapter contains around 2000 to 3000 words and features pointers at the end, a strategy that will hopefully allow readers to absorb each chapter’s lessons as much as possible. [See: Biking, Fast and Slow, I see dead people and other reflections]
Just a sample: “The [law of least effort] asserts that if there are several ways of achieving the same goal, people will eventually gravitate to the least demanding course of action. In the economy of action, effort is a cost, and the acquisition of skill is driven by the balance of benefits and costs. Laziness is built deep in our nature.”
FROM THE GIVE ME A BREAK DEPARTMENT. Next time someone says you’re not working too hard, check out page 35 of the book and cite the passage above. You can’t go wrong with a Nobel prize winner.
4) The New York Times: The Obits, Annual 2012 edited by William McDonald (2011)
How do you write a short, punchy, but critical assessment of more than 200 well-written obituaries of renowned artists, writers, painters, actors, politicians, musicians, entrepreneurs, athletes, professionals, and leaders? You can’t.
Of the hundreds compiled in this volume, I have noted more than fifty samples of how a life—public or private, regular or remarkable—can also result in a lovely piece of writing.
The 575-page anthology—which I read in and out for nearly two years—also features extended pieces on Osama Bin Laden, Amy Winehouse, Peter Falk, among others.
Of newsworthy individuals who died in 2011, at least two—Paul Baran and Daniel Bell—have been involved in the development of the Internet, in one way or the other.
Paul Baran, an engineer who died in March 2011, insisted in the early 1960s on designing “a distributed communications network…with redundant routes to ensure [electronic] messages could still be delivered…even if a particular path failed or was destroyed.”
“Mr. Baran’s invention was so far ahead of its time that in the mid-1960s, when he approached AT&T with the idea to build his own proposed network, the company insisted it would not work and refused.” But in 1969, the US Defense Department’s Arpanet—the precursor of the Internet—“used Baran’s ideas and those of the others.”
His obituary continued to say that: “In recent years, the origins of the Internet have been subject to claims and counterclaims of precedence. Mr. Baran was an outspoken proponent of distributing credit widely.”
“The Internet is really the work of a thousand people,” he said in 2001. And in 1990, he said in an interview: the process of technological developments is like building a cathedral.’
“Next month another block is placed atop the previous one. Then comes along an historian who asks, ‘Well, who built the cathedral?’ Peter added some stones here, and Paul added a few more. If you are not careful, you can con yourself into believing that you did the most important part. But the reality is that each contribution has to follow onto previous work. Everything is tied to everything else.” [This view would be shared by Kevin Ashton in his book, How to Fly A Horse, published a decade or so later.]
For his part, Bell, a noted writer, sociologist, and teacher who died in January 2011, predicted the rise of the Internet in a piece he wrote in 1967, according to his obituary.
“We will probably see a national-information-computer-utility system, with tens of thousands of terminals in homes and offices ‘hooked’ into giant central computers providing library and information services, retail ordering and billing services and the like,” his obituary said.
FROM THE LITERATURE DEPARTMENT. In 1968, Italian fictionist Italo Calvino produced World Memory, a short story which forms part of his Cosmicomics series and is published in his fiction collection called Numbers in the Dark. In that short story, World Memory refers to a large facility that stores memories of all human beings, alive and dead, arguably an idea that is also about what we now call the Internet.
5) Boss Danding by Earl Parreño (2003)
Eduardo “Danding” M. Cojuangco Jr. almost became the Philippines’ president during the 1992 elections, just six years after he—together with his principal, dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos and their family members—were chased out of the presidential palace in February 1986.
That is according to Boss Danding, a book that details how Cojuangco, now 80, became Marcos’ closest—and richest—crony.
“[Fidel] Ramos won the  presidential election with 5.3 million votes,” the book said. “Danding placed third with over four million votes. Analysts say that had the Marcos loyalists’ vote not been split between him and Imelda, Danding might have clinched the presidency. Imelda got more than 2.3 million votes.”
Had Cojuangco won, this unauthorized biography—if it were to exist at all—would probably tell a different story and that Philippine history would weave a different narrative. [See: Review of Jose de Venecia’s biography: The global Filipino and the goat]
But then again, all that is useless speculation.
After all, Cojuangco, who returned to Manila only after three years in exile, remains one of the Philippines’ richest persons, with a net worth of $770 million, according to the 2015 ranking issued by Fortune Magazine. [See: Fortune Magazine’s richest Filipinos for 2015]
At the current exchange rate of P46.86 to a $1, $770 million is a little more than P36 billion, an amount that is roughly equal to the annual budget allotted by the national government to build and support the proposed Bangsamoro region in Mindanao. That same amount also exceeds fund allocations received by government agencies yearly.
Even though Cojuangco insists that he didn’t steal a single centavo of the wealth he now enjoys, he also “doesn’t deny…nor is he ashamed of, his relationship with the late dictator, but he distances himself from Marcos’ greed,” the book said.
So how did Cojuangco get so rich? [See: HBO’s The Wire and the coco levy (more the first than the second)]
“Because of Marcos,” the book said. “…or more specifically, because of the favors that the dictator bestowed on him—Danding was able to build his fortune.”
“When Cory Aquino assumed the presidency in 1986, her government sequestered 244 companies that government investigators said were owned by Danding,” the book continued to say. “…[t]he list included radio stations, brokerage firms, and holding companies.”
Citing the late Ricardo Manapat, who wrote Some Are Smarter Than Others, the book also pointed out that “during the Marcos regime, Danding controlled $1.5 billion in corporate assets, an amount estimated to equal 25 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.”
Although well-researched, this book needs to be updated since several asset valuations have been overtaken by events and other legal developments.
FROM THE TRAINS, PLANES, AND AUTOMOBILES DEPARTMENT. At the height of the Marcos dictatorship, government investigators estimated that Cojuangco had 150 cars in his collection, including “16 Mercedes Benzes, six BMWs, four Ferraris, four Porsches, four Rolls Royce cars, two Jaguars, two mobile homes, a Bentley Continental, a Daimler limousine, a Cadillac Seville, a Lincoln Continental, and a Lotus Esprit. He reportedly owned eight airplanes and four helicopters,” the book said.
6) Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe (1999)
Just like James Bond, Philip Marlowe never grows old, literally and otherwise.
And this book is the best proof of that.
More than half of the 25 stories—all written by accomplished authors, including Mexico’s Paco Ignacio Taibo II—are not only literary gems, they are tributes in the form of fan fiction to both Raymond Chandler and Philip Marlowe.
Each story—an impressive, entertaining feat of technique and a brilliant example of a polished imitation of Chandler’s writing style—“runs chronologically through the career of Marlowe,” the book’s blurb says.
As such, the famous private investigator is placed at the backdrop of the Great Depression, the beginning of World War II, the rise of McCarthyism, among others.
Despite these different historical eras, Marlowe’s hard-boiled cynicism and dark humor remain as fresh and sharp as the day Chandler introduced him in The Big Sleep in 1939.
“My eyes adjusted quickly to the light when I saw the redhead in the chaise-lounge,” Simon Brett writes in Stardust Kill, which is set in 1950. “She was a nice piece of construction work and I wasn’t the first man to think it. Most men evidently told her their thoughts on the subject, which explained the smug look on her face. Smugness aside, the face also had straight dark eyebrows, a cute nose, a pointed chin, and cherubic lips the Pope would have given up Lent for.”
FROM THE NO SHIT, SHERLOCK DEPARTMENT. In the mid-1980s, HBO and a British company produced Philip Marlowe, Private Eye, an hour-long TV series that was also aired locally on GMA 7. Every episode of the series is worth looking into, thanks to the script, the soundtrack, and the fonts featured in the credits which were designed by Maurice Binder. [See: Philip Marlowe, Private Eye, Maurice Binder]