Books I finished in March, 2016

Speed Reading for Professionals — H. Bernard Wechsler

Even if you already read fast enough for other people to notice, you might pick up some practical new tips from Speed Reading for Professionals for increasing the speed at which you not only read, but understand and retain what you've read.

(How do I know I know people notice fast readers? They offer unsolicited criticism. It's unfathomably bizarre. Why do they care how fast anyone else reads? Do they not realize it's possible to slow down when you want to make the book last? And how much time does anyone want to spend looking something up in a reference book, or learning something so they can actually start doing it? I have no answers — maybe I should apply for a research grant.)

Red Mars — Kim Stanley Robinson

After The Martian's carefully simulated realism, Red Mars felt as escapist as Tintin's moon adventure — there's even a stowaway who somehow goes undetected.

But once the colonists reach Mars, their conflicting goals become a lot more compelling, and Robinson keeps topping himself by introducing newer and bigger catastrophes with bigger and more significant consequences. (Except for a throwaway death of a major character in the last chapter.)

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success — Carol Dweck

Ever notice how some folks' attitude is "If at first you don't succeed, quit"? Carol Dweck describes this as a "fixed" mindset — the belief that either you have an inherent talent for something or you don't. In contrast, people with the "growth" mindset believer that they can improve with effort. People with a fixed mindset are discouraged by mistakes; people with a growth mindset learn from them.

Most of Mindset is anecdotes contrasting famous people with fixed and growth mindsets (anecdotes that are rather simplistic if you've read more about the events Dweck covers), but it does include some practical advice on switching to the growth mindset when it doesn't come naturally to you.

What I really wish, though, is that Dweck had written about dealing with fixed-mindset people when you have a growth mindset. When you take on challenges, you sometimes fail — or, at least, don't succeed immediately. Someone with a fixed mindset will conclude that you should just quit trying, because if you made one mistake speaking Spanish/diagnosing an IT problem/writing a computer program, you'll never be any good at it. This is obviously awful when (1) you're dealing with domains where success is typically preceded a certain amount of error (like language learning, troubleshooting, or programming) and (2) the fixed mindset person is in charge (a teacher or a manager). Maybe there'll be a sequel.

Captain Blood — Raphael Sabatini

Pirate captain Peter Blood is driven by his love for the unattainable Isabella Bishop, cries when the ship he named for her sinks, and dresses beautifully. Who says guys won't read romance?

Impro — Keith Johnstone

Johstone has a lot of thought-provoking things to say about the hidden dynamics of how people talk to each other and what people respond to in art. Oddly, his emphasis on pop Freudian psychology makes Impro feel more dated than Captain Blood.

The Gervais Principle — Venkatesh Rao

I've never seen The Office, but I was fascinated by Rao's argument that the show perfectly demonstrates the social dynamics of companies and the psychology of employees at different ranks within them. Rao has some intriguing theories of why certain types of irrational behavior are so common in the business world — and even outside it. (I wonder what he'd make of people who criticize speed readers?) And by a happy coincidence, Rao is also fond of Impro.

Written on April 4, 2016