Category Archives: Nonfiction

“Replay: The History of Video Games”

Tristan Donovan

“Replay” does for video games (which included arcade, console, and computer games) what “Playing at the World did for wargaming and role playing. It’s a serious book covers the well-selected set of landmark games in depth. I only wish there was an updated edition: a lot has happened in the world of games since this book came out in 2010.

“The Future Was Here”

Jimmy Maher

This book, part of the MIT “Platform Studies” series, is an in-depth look at the design of the Amiga computer, the factors that went into that design, and how the design determined what programmers could do with it. I enjoyed it even though I never owned an Amiga.

(Jimmy Maher is the author of the excellent “Digital Antiquarian” blog.)

“All Kinds of Magic: A Quest for Meaning in a Material World”

Piers Moore Ede

I might not have discovered this had I not read Ede’s “Kaleidoscope City“, but I’m glad I did. It’s the story of Englishman Ede’s search for “something”. He went — and takes reader — to India, Turkey and to an ayahuasca ceremony. I enjoyed the book, but as I read it I kept wanting to yell at him, “why are you ignoring the spiritual traditions of your own culture!?”.

“Gray Day: My Undercover Mission to Expose America’s First Cyber Spy”

Eric O’Neill

The FBI knew that Robert Hanssen, an FBI agent near retirement, was working for the Russians. However, to prove it in court they needed to use evidence not gathered from covert sources they wanted to protect. They assigned Eric O’Neill, who had been working with the FBI group tasked with following people, to Hanssen and put them both in a unit whose real and only reason for being was to give O’Neill the chance to spy on his boss.

“Gray Day” is a tense book that, to use a cliche, “reads like a novel”. Given O’Neill’s low, albeit critical, role, it isn’t the full story of Hanssen’s betrayal, but it is a very good read.

“Rediscovering Travel: A Guide for the Globally Curious”

Seth Kugel

This is an interesting travel book that suggests that the traveller might have a better time by paying less attention to the Internet and its endless ratings when choosing destinations, lodging, and restaurants.

I enjoyed the book not least because Kugel frames his argument as friendly advice rather than hard-and-fast rules. One thing I will try to remember in my travels: when asking “a local” (a vaguely condescending term that I don’t care for) what to see or where to eat, Kugel suggests not asking him or her not where they think you should go, but where they and their family go.

“The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777”

Rick Atkinson

I enjoyed Atkinson’s “Liberation Trilogy” World War II histories so much that I was eager to get this, the first of a trilogy devoted to the American Revolution. I wasn’t disappointed. This is detailed but readable, full of telling character detail, and an all-around great narrative history.

I was especially struck by the attention the author pays to logistics. For instance, a number of British actions — and their timings — were dictated by the difficulties of supplying armies across an ocean in the age of sail. This is just one example of Atkinson’s ability to explain decisions in terms of the factors that influenced the decision-makers.

I hope the next two volumes in this series aren’t too far off.

“What Are You Looking At?: 150 Years of Modern Art in the Blink of an Eye”

Will Gompertz

I love going to art museums. I tend to be most attracted to Medieval and Renaissance art, but over time I’ve become more and more interested in modern art (as opposed to “contemporary” art, which I don’t think I’ll ever care for). This book is an excellent brief overview of modern art and has even opened my eyes a little to abstract art. I learned a lot from it.

“Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction”

Alec Nevela-Lee

Welcome to the golden age of ridiculously long subtitles.

If one enjoys, or, more likely, grew up enjoying classic science fiction, this is worth reading. Nevela-Lee shows how editor Campbell seeded the writers in his pulp stable with story ideas. He also goes into a lot of detail about Hubbard and the murky origins of Scientology. Be warned, though, that if you admire these men your admiration might not survive reading about their relationships and attitudes towards women.

“Heartland: the Plains and the Prairie”

David Plowden

Around 1970 I bought a remaindered copy of Plowden’s “Farewell to Steam”. It was one of the things that influenced me to become a photographer (which I didn’t manage to do). I’ve loved his work, which has always reminded me of Walker Evans’, ever since.

“Heartland” is a beautiful book and the text is almost as good as the photos. His appreciation for place jumps out of every picture. Plowden is a great artist whose work should be more widely known.