The best books for nerds from 2014
Some 600,000 volumes were published in English last year. Here's a few of the best.
I’m only one man. I can only read so many books in 365 days. And I’m a slow reader.
Worse than that, last I heard, some 600,000 new titles are published annually in this country alone. How can anyone keep up? We can’t. I often feel overwhelmed with books I should read, books I want to read, books I’ve abandoned only half-read.
Nonetheless, we geeks must fight the good fight. And we make our lists. Here’s my stab at 15 books, from fiction to nonfiction, kids to coffee table, that spoke to my inner nerd in 2014. Please remember, I’m only one opinionated nerd. But of course, feel free to disagree.
What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions
By Randall Munroe
• Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
We know and love Munroe’s webcomic xkcd, and his funny column on that same website, “What If?” That’s his feature where random people ask absurd but potentially mathematically-verifiable questions, and provides his best shot at a real answers. Sample recent questions: “Stopping rain from falling on something with an umbrella or a tent is boring. What if you tried to stop rain with a laser that targeted and vaporized each incoming droplet before it could come within ten feet of the ground?” Or: “How many fairies would fly around, if each fairy is born from the first laugh of a child and fairies were immortal?” What we didn’t expect was that this collection of Q&As, illustrated with Munroe's minimalist stick-figure cartoons, became an instant boffo hit. Fourteen weeks after its release in September, it’s still in the top 10 ten on the New York Times bestseller list. This shit is mainstream, and it’s insightful and loads of fun.
Wolf in White Van
By John Darnielle
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
This novel by the frontman of the band The Mountain Goats was the surprise hit of the nerd-verse, snagging a “long list” nomination for the National Book Award (but sadly not making to the next round of finalists). The story should appeal to any gamer: Sean is an introverted brain who shies away from the world for good reason: his face is disfigured following a terrible accident. “People underestimate just how starved everybody is for some magic pathway back into childhood,” Sean tells us. To deal with his pain, he creates a play-by-mail role-playing game, called Trace Italian, set in an apocalyptic future. The game becomes his savior as well his shield. “The unnamed every-player who lies in the weeds at the moment of Trace Italian’s opening move — that’s me.” Wolf in White Van is a smart and haunting novel that’s not only a portrait of a damaged psyche and its surprising resilience, it’s also gorgeously-written.
The Day the Crayons Quit
By Drew Daywalt, Illustrated by Oliver Jeffers
A boy named Duncan’s set of crayons revolts. Orange Crayon, his pal “and the true color of the sun” won’t speak to Yellow Crayon (“the BIG WHINER”) since Duncan can’t decide whether to color the sun yellow or orange. Black is bored with just being used to just outline things: “How about a BLACK Beach ball sometime? Is that too much to ask?” Purple, Duncan’s “favorite crayon for grapes, dragons, and wizard’s hats” is “crazy that so much of my gorgeous color goes outside the lines.” Beige is “tired of being second place to Mr. Brown Crayon.” And Gray – “GRAY Crayon here. You’re KILLING ME! I know you love Elephants And I know that elephants are gray... but that’s a LOT of space to color in all by myself.” A charming kid’s picture book, with equally charming drawings, that’s also an instant time machine back to your days as a Crayola crayon scribbler, whether you colored inside or outside the lines.
American Cornball: A Laffopedic Guide to the Formerly Funny
By Christopher Miller
When was the last time you saw a hobo steal a pie off of a window sill? Or noticed a doomsday prophet carrying a sign reading “The end of the world is nigh”? Or heard some man asking a gal upstairs to see his etchings? Whether its humor about Beatniks, women drivers, or castor oil, references like these went over my little head as I sat there, as a kid, anesthetized by Saturday morning cartoons like Bugs Bunny, Tom and Jerry, Popeye; old-time comedy films like Three Stooges; and comic strips like “Little Orphan Annie” and “L’il Abner.” Much of the humor made no sense. Here to explain all those lost references is American Cornball, whose author, Christopher Miller, embarked on a search of the “things that used to make us laugh,” becoming an “archeologist digging into the enormous trash heap of pop culture down to artifacts that, though still easy to unearth, have been buried long enough to be worth another look.” Miller’s thick tome, organized encyclopedically, is discursive, illuminating, and erudite.
Only the Longest Threads
By Tasneem Zehra Husain
• Paul Dry Books
Part fiction, part overview of “Aha!” moments in the forward march of physics, Only the Longest Threads takes readers dramatically through scientific fields such as quantum field theory, electromagnetism, relativity, quantum mechanics, and string theory. Each idea or concept is explored in an inventive chapter, each told from a different first-person narrator; the faux emails, letters, and diary entries take place from 1728 to the present day. It all feels like a series of interlinked short stories. If Tasneem Zehra Husain, a writer, educator and Pakistan's first female string theorist, had been my science teacher back in high school, maybe I would have taken physics after all, instead of that creative writing elective.
Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll
By Peter Bebergal
I’ve never been a religious person. But listening to music has helped me tap into the spiritual, the larger than life, the cosmic. Indeed, rock has always toyed with spectacle and ritual, so much so that This Is Spinal Tap lampooned its stereotyped connection to the occult. Now comes a book, Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll, to explain how rock’s gift was not just to challenge our ideas about sex and drugs and middle class complacency; it also forged a serious and lasting spiritual rebellion against the status quo. Memoirist, cultural critic and religious scholar Peter Bebergal takes us on a brief tour, from Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin to David Bowie and The Beatles, weaving in references D&D, comic books, movies and TV along the way. Season of the Witch is in search of “the grammar of this new musical language” he remembered glimpsing as a teen exploring his brother’s record collection “just before the dawn of puberty,” as he brilliantly writes in his opening chapter. “Here was a seductive and impenetrable catalogue of arcane and occult symbols, of magic and mystical pursuits, of strange rituals involving sex, spaceships, and faeries. I went into his room looking to hear some real rock and roll. I came out spellbound and hypnotized by the spectacle.” Caveat: Bebergal is a pal of mine, but that shouldn’t matter. His book is a must read for music and pop culture fans.
How About Never—Is Never Good for You: My Life in Cartoons
By Bob Mankoff
• Henry Holt
By Tuesday of most weeks, Bob Mankoff, cartoon editor for The New Yorker has been send some 1,000 cartoons from hopeful cartoonists. From that 1,000 cartoon mountain, Mankoff extracts 50 keepers. These he brings to his weekly meeting with head honcho David Remnick. From that stack, he and Remnick select the 17 or 18 that will appear in any single issue of the magazine. How to decide? Some of these secrets are revealed in Mankoff’s clever, profusely illustrated memoir/peek behind the cartoon curtain, laboriously entitled How About Never—Is Never Good for You: My Life in Cartoons. (Its title comes from an iconic Mankoff cartoon that shows an office worker looking at his datebook and saying into the telephone, “‘No, Thursday’s out. How about never — is never good for you?’”)
The jovial, informal chronicle is as much about Mankoff’s life and career as it an insight into how he selects cartoons, an explanation of both his and the magazine’s comedic aesthetic, and a brief history of gag cartooning in America. Essential for any cartoonist.
Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary
By J.R.R. Tolkien, Edited by Christopher Tolkien
• Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Every few years, Tolkien’s son and literary executor, Christopher Tolkien, unearths and edits another lost chestnut from his father’s unfinished works. 2014 brought us J.R.R.’s long forgotten prose (not verse) translation of “Beowulf,” which has been sitting on a shelf for about 80 years. Now, the poem has been gussied up, accompanied by extensive notes about his translation choices and dilemmas, and published with a previously unseen short story/fairy tale, “Sellic Spell.” Written in the 1940s, Tolkien nerds will especially enjoy this fable, as it attempts to (in Tolkien’s words) “reconstruct the Anglo-Saxon tale that lies behind the folk-tale element in ‘Beowulf.’ ” Will this new/old “Beowulf” unseat Seamus Heaney’s famous modern version Beowulf: A New Verse Translation? Probably not. But Tolkien’s take is fascinating nonetheless.
Dear Luke, We Need to Talk. Darth and Other Pop Culture Correspondences
By John Moe
• Three Rivers
On Gilligan’s Island, how could an “uncharted desert isle” exist just three hours from Honolulu? Why, on Star Trek did all the aliens speak English and live on planets with breathable atmospheres? If these conundrums confused you, or if you found in them the wellspring of endless of comedy, then you’ll enjoy Dear Luke, We Need to Talk. Darth and Other Pop Culture Correspondences. Adapted and expanded from John Moe’s McSweeney’s “Pop Song Correspondences” columns, the book is a collection of faux memos, diary entries, interview transcripts, emails, text messages and other fictitious documents that explain, explore, and poke fun at some of our most beloved mass media memories. “Interviews with Disney personnel about the Goofy-Pluto conundrum” and “An oral History of the Pac-Man Ghosts” are especially brilliant. “I felt like a monster,” says Bluto in “The Cast of the Popeye Cartoons Remembers.” “Big scary beard, impossibly muscular torso, so when I was treated like a monster, it made a sort of sad sense. That’s what I had for happiness.”
You Are Not Special: ... And Other Encouragements
By David McCullough, Jr.
The graduation speech of teacher David McCullough, Jr. became a viral video hit. McCullough has taken the core of that 12 minute, 46 second commencement address – essentially, his bubble-bursting advice that “You see, if everyone is special, then no one is. If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless” --- and expanded it onto “You Are Not Special: ... And Other Encouragements,” a book-length treatise that’s one part wise diatribe, one part scolding session. He touched on parenting, teaching, the rewards of hard work and responsibility, and the “tribal territory” of high school. He gets into the awkward psychic workings of a teen: “Standing out while fitting in is no easy trick.” He takes on grade inflation, the “soccer/industrial complex,” and well-meaning but jerky parents who live vicariously through their offspring’s performances. In conclusion, graduates, McCullough’s cranky, occasionally annoying, carefully-written and gauntlet-throwing tome is a success of wisdom, pop philosophy, and a smidgen of self-help inspiration.
Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality
By Max Tegmark
To my mind – my non-mathematical mind that barely passed high school chemistry and avoided physic entirely – what makes Tegmark’s book wildly successful is how he filters his theories through this friendly, approachable, “I could have a beer with that guy” voice, weaving in snippets of narrative strewn with plenty of layman’s analogies and anecdotes. There’s also a surprising amount of first-person narration for such nerdy topic, which makes this exploration of the cutting edge of cosmology and quantum theory infinitely accessible; that personal pronoun “I” becomes the bright and friendly torch leading idiots like me through the dark scary woods of physics, astronomy and math. Tegmark invokes Snow White and Shakespeare, and asks questions such as “Why aren’t you an ant?” and explains how galaxies recede from each other like chocolate chips in a rising muffin baking in the oven. “Hold on!!!” “Did I just go bananas?” he exclaims at one point. “Things started going kind of crazy in the chapter.” That voice also shares stories from Tegmark’s own life in science, and stories about his father or grandmother, and scenes from scientific conference and the classroom. All this brings shape to his quest and makes his investigation personal, and sometimes hilariously so.
Star Wars Storyboards: The Original Trilogy
Edited by J.W. Rinzler
The secrets behind the Black Gates of Lucasfilm are tightly guarded. But sometimes rumors and legends sneak out. A few years back, J.W. Rinzler released the gigantic doorstopper of a book, The Making of Star Wars: The Definitive Story Behind the Original Film, loaded with behind-the-scenes insights into the production of Episode IV. Star Wars Storyboards: The Original Trilogy offers another view, via the fascinating storyboards for all three original films of the Star Wars trilogy. Artists include Joe Johnston (an effects artist who went on to direct Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, The Rocketeer, and Jurassic Park III) as well as Alex Tavoularis, Ivor Beddoes, Roy Carnon, and Ralph McQuarrie. Each storyboarder adds in his own words of commentary to accompany his drawings. There’s also conceptual art and storyboards for scenes that ended up on the cutting room floor. A beautiful and inspiring book that captures the phase when Star Wars was still a series of sketches and dreams in the mind of George Lucas.
Dungeon Master’s Guide, Monster Manual, Player’s Handbook
By Mike Mearls and Jeremy Crawford (D&D lead designers)
• Wizards of the Coast
• $49.95 (each)
When the new Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook rolled out last September, it quickly began the top selling book on Amazon. It went on to hit #1 on both the Publisher’s Weekly and the Wall Street Journal’s Hardcover Nonfiction bestseller lists. When a fantasy role-playing game rulebook is classified as Nonfiction, and can complete against other “normal” books, you know Wizards of the Coast had a hit on its hands. All three tomes of this trifecta --- The Player’s Handbook, the Dungeon Master’s Guide and the Monster Manual --- became last year’s gaming one-two-three combo punch. This edition of D&D is fresh take on the beloved game, while also echoing back to classic older versions, rightly putting the emphasis back on story, role-playing, and world-building. The reboot should have the effect of both luring back jaded former players and attracting hordes of newbies. The books are smartly designed, too, with just enough artwork to inspire your next adventure. And they call it a game... A game!
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