The Best Books I Read in 2012

by eric

Following the 2011 version, here are the best books I read this year.

Moonwalking with Einstein
Joshua Foer
Can a normal person become a memory champion?  Joshua Foer covers a lot of ground in this well-written book, including extensive historical background as well as considerations of neuroscience, deliberate practice and expertise, savantism, and immersive journalism.

How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming
Mike Brown
A funny and very humanizing picture of a scientist at work: A great account of the quest to discover planets beyond Pluto, and of the upheaval that followed.

The Perfect Machine
Ronald Florence
The epic story of the building of the 200-inch Palomar telescope, for nearly half a century the largest in the world. It was made into a PBS special which is available online.

Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative
Austin Kleon
Previously recommended: A pithy but rich collection of tips for nurturing creative projects.

The Management Myth
Matthew Stewart
A critical history of management theory and education from Taylor to present MBAs, with humorous stories from the author’s consulting career interspersed.  Stewart’s main contention is that there is no “science” of management, and attempts to create one are actively harmful.

Lightning Rods
Helen DeWitt
The plot synopsis for this novel is so ribald that it’s risky (and risqué) to recommend, but the careful reader will find here a subtle but oh-so-sharp satire of business self-help and evolutionary essentialism. Funny, too.

The Sense of an Ending
Julian Barnes
This novella, winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize, is an extended meditation on memory and responsibility.  Its hidden depths had me repeatedly rereading key passages looking for clues.

The Cult of Personality Testing
Annie Murphy Paul
Describes the origins, motivations, and limitations of widely-used personality tests, pointing out that the popular attempts to label people into “types” or discern features of their personality are generally unscientific and overapplied.  The Rorshach, Myers-Briggs, MMPI, TAT, and others have colorful histories, but their accuracy and utility are far less than assumed.

Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places
John Stilgoe
Stilgoe, a Harvard professor of Landscape History, shows the pleasures and insights gained by exploring seemingly ordinary places (residential subdivisions, small-town Main Streets, highway interchanges) on foot or bicycle with an eye for detail.  He unearths historical clues and patterns from eras past in the built environment: why Main Street has a unified architectural style of brick, why hobby shops and antique stores flourish on in old downtowns, how rail right of ways determined the layout of towns and cities.