Sunday, July 17, 2005

Reading list

I have not read the new Harry Potter book. Even if I had, I doubt I'd have much to say about it. Good book reviews either alert the reader to a book he may not otherwise have noticed or chosen to read, or they put the book under review into a wider perspective, or they become a sort of essay draped on the structure of the contents of a book. For a book so heralded as Rowling's installment, there is no chance I would be alerting you to something you might not have known about; and given the recent state of things here, any more detailed essay I would write would be either terse or polemical.

That said, here are some books that I've either recently finished, recently acquired, or recently re-examined:

  • Providence of a Sparrow, Chris Chester.

    My brother Scott gave me this book as a Christmas gift. I read the first couple chapters, but got distracted well before I finished. The book was buried in my shelves, and so it was a pleasant surprise to find it again recently, just before I traveled. Chester's memoir revolves around B, an orphaned house sparrow that he adopted, but it contains much more. Like Sterling North's Rascal, Providence of a Sparrow is about the details of an everyday life in which a not-so-everyday animal plays an important role. The incidents Chester describes are entertaining, and the writing is full of bits of humor and lyric. I recommend this one.

  • It Must Be Beautiful, ed. Graham Famelo.

    I already reviewed this one. Together with Providence of a Sparrow, it was my airplane reading for the most recent trip.

  • University, Inc: The Corporate Corruption of American Higher Education, Jennifer Washburn.

    I heard a description of this book on an NPR program -- was it an interview on Fresh Air? -- and was sufficiently intrigued that I picked it up. I have not read it yet, but it's in the short queue.

  • The Meaning of It All, Richard Feynman.

    Based on a three-lecture series Feynmann gave in 1963, this book is characteristically Feynman: enthusiastic, entertaining, interesting, and sharp. Let me quote two paragraphs that seem particularly relevant:

    Admitting that we do not know, and maintaining perpetually the attitude that we do not know the direction necessarily to go, permit a possibility of alteration of thinking, of new contributions and new discoveries for the problem of developing a way to do what we want ultimately, even when we do not know what we want.

    Looking back at the worst times, it always seems that they were times in which there were people who believed with absolute faith and absolute dogmatism in something. And they were so serious in this matter that they insisted that the rest of the world agree with them. and then they would do things that were directly inconsistent with their own beliefs in order to maintain that what they said was true.

  • The Best Software Writing I. ed. Joel Spolsky.

    The introduction to the book makes the point perfectly:

    The software development world desperately needs better writing. If I have to read another 2000 page book about some class library written by 16 separate people in broken ESL, I’m going to flip out. If I see another hardback book about object oriented models written with dense faux-academic pretentiousness, I’m not going to shelve it any more in the Fog Creek library: it’s going right in the recycle bin. If I have to read another spirited attack on Microsoft’s buggy code by an enthusiastic nine year old Trekkie on Slashdot, I might just poke my eyes out with a sharpened pencil. Stop it, stop it, stop it!

    Damn straight.

    This book, like many other well-written engineering books, is accessible to a broader audience than just professionals. Based on what I've read so far, I'd recommend this book to most of my friends, at least at the level of you should stand in the aisle at the local book store and flip through this book. The same holds for Spolsky's earlier book, Joel on Software.

  • ANSI Common Lisp, Paul Graham.

    I've had this book since I took artificial intelligence as an undergrad (eight years?). I'm re-reading it now in order to re-load my Lisp programming skills into my brain, since this is the implemntation language for the compilers course for which I'm the TA in the fall. I'm impressed all over again. It's good.

  • Spectral/hp Element Methods for CFD, Karniadakis and Sherwin.

    I picked up the latest edition at the SIAM meeting. Now I can return the library's copy, which I've had out on loan for a year or so. Obviously, this is a specialist book; however, if you're interested in spectral elements, by all means grab a copy (if only from your library). There's a lot of good solid technical information there, and much of it is hard to find in other texts (Trefethen's excellent Spectral Methods in MATLAB and Boyd's thorough and entertaining Chebyshev and Fourier Spectral Methods both focus on pure spectral methods, and give relatively emphasis to the hybrid spectral element methods which are necessary to effectively apply spectral ideas to the complicated geometries found in typical engineering applications).

  • Spectra and Pseudospectra: The Behavior of Non-Normal Matrices and Operators, Trefethen and Embree.

    It's out! It's out! I don't have my copy yet, but I made the order at the SIAM meeting (conference discounts are a Good Thing). I've been looking forward to this book for some time now.