19.51, Saturday 1 Jan 2011

I didn't keep a comprehensive list of books I read in 2010 (as I did in 2007 and 2008), and I didn't make much time for reading. But here are the ones I can remember, in roughly chronological order.

There's a bunch of Hemingway in there. At the beginning of 2009, I read a couple of books about how to write: On Writing (Stephen King), and Steering the Craft (Ursula K. Le Guin). Le Guin includes passages that she encourages you to read out loud, so I'd take a hot bath and listen to myself speaking. Reading out loud is surprisingly tough. One or two of the passages were Hemmingway, and the beauty and many overlapping rhythms of his straightforward prose amazed me. So I read Fiesta (aka The Sun Also Rises) which blew me away, and then The Old Man and the Sea, which didn't so much. Then I rationed out several of his other novels and stories over 2010.

Men Without Women is rare: stories about men as men, not exploring the human condition, but the male condition: pride, legacy, obligation, competition, camaraderie, the inability to connect. Deep masculine preoccupations.

Anyway, Across the River and into the Trees and For Whom the Bell Tolls are two of the best books I've read, ever ever ever. So very real, deeply touching, frank. I don't know how to say this, but I don't want to read each word but eat it, savour it and consume it and never let it out. Across the River is heartstoppingly, achingly beautiful and mournful, every letter and every dot of it, and I swear on my life that I truly have to stop breathing after every chapter for a week until I'm able to digest it and hold it inside me.

I read a bunch of business books too. Business occupies a lot of mind right now because I'd like for the studio to achieve our lofty ambitions profitably and happily. So I think about how to do that, and read about it too, and it's good to see how other people approach marketing, or appraisals, or pitch presentations. I'd recommend pretty much all of the ones in the list (and one from 2009 too: The Pixar Touch: the Making of a Company, David Price). Getting to Yes is the best. I'm terrible at negotiation, even the first few pages of the book made me feel sick through nervous tension by association. But the book takes the sting out of it with a common-sense approach, so that's cool.

There's a lot of sci-fi. I use it to wind down, and to think. Anathem is a delight, so convincing, the weaving into reality of a whole world and a whole new physics (just as Illuminatus is I suppose). And you should check out Golem XIV, the novella at the end of Lem's Imaginary Magnitude. It's about two massive artificial intelligences, straddling the singularity, and how their concerns are not human concerns. Lem, as he showed in his collection The Cyberiad, is the Jean-Baptiste Lamarck of revealing and taxonomising and understanding this brand new kingdom of life, the non-human artificial intelligences.


The highlight of 2010 was Experiences in Groups (W. R. Bion). I made a piece of software called Glancing back in 2003 (read the conference presentation and more notes). It was simple desktop software with a glanceable interface, allowing non-verbal communication for small groups of close friends. Since then I've been convinced that a better understanding of small groups is key to good design of technology and services (for instance, and again), but research is hard to come by. Group Dynamics (Donselson Forsyth) is decent, but a little structural for my taste. Bion, on the other hand, is hot, spilly and wet.

Bion's approach to groups is psychiatric in origin, and he develops a theory of the various modes of behaviour groups adopt, and how they interplay. Personally I cross-breed Bion with what little I've picked up from Latour - that you should ascribe agency to non-human actors too - and so I regard products as part of a social group just as much as people, and that throws up interesting questions: when we design products, what modes are they introducing into the group mentality? Will they tip the balance towards a dependency mode, rather than promoting sophisticated creativity?

Like all good books, I've found Bion useful in my work, and insightful in my personal and professional lives. I won't say any more right now because I'm sure I'll come back to it.

Also you should read the Red Men, because it's about mirror worlds (whoa) and artificial intelligence and robots, and that's what 2011 is going to be all about.

Follow-up posts: