Finished reading the Three Body Problem Trilogy

black hole galaxy illustration

Officially, it’s called the “Remembrance of Earth’s Past” trilogy, but everyone knows Cixin Liu’s series as the “The Three Body Problem” books.

I finished reading the last book – Death’s End – last night and it was an exceptional and fitting end to one of the most beautiful sagas I’ve ever read. This series is not just a science fiction story, but one of humanity in its rawest form. Truly, Cixin Liu is a master of the art of the written word.

I highly recommend it, specially because much of the first book is simply a history of the Cultural Revolution in China. The entire series is focused on China and the Chinese point of view of the past, present, and future, which is very refreshing.

Good luck competing with Goodreads

Every once in a while, I come across a book management and listing tool. This is a broad category – it covers lists of the books you’ve read/want to read, your book notes, a social network inbuilt, and perhaps even the ability to buy books through them. Sometimes this is in the format of an app, and sometimes it’s a web service. Never mind that I actively seek these out (hey, everyone should have a past time), I always come out exasperated.

Why? Well, do you really want to build your entire book library all over again? I’m on the low-end of a prolific reader spectrum, and I’ve got about 260 books in my lists; that’s over a hundred books I’ve marked as read, and over one fifty that I want to. Most people have a lot more books than that in their lists, and almost all of them just hope in the back of their heads that Amazon doesn’t ever decide to kill Goodreads. Amazon has already been cozying up Kindle and Goodreads – you can post your Kindle reads, reviews, and notes directly to Goodreads through the Kindle apps. What’s to say that in a few years time they don’t decide that they’re done collecting our data through Goodreads and can shut the service down?

Oh, but don’t worry, you can export all your Goodreads data!

Really? Thanks! What do I do with it once I’ve exported it?

Uhhhhh…

See, this is the problem. This is why I keep looking for alternatives. But every time I come across one, I immediately realize the blind spot they aren’t addressing. If you’re an app/service, what you need to jump-start your platform is data. The ‘elegant’ way of doing this is to ‘ask’ the user for it. I put that in quotes because it’s more mandatory than just a small ‘ask’. If I come to a service, spend some time poking around, and realize I need to input all of my books all over again, that’s an immediate turn off. Services like Goodreads aren’t like conferences, where you can slap on a name tag and wander around till you find someone interesting to talk to. They’re more like parties, where if you don’t know anyone, you’ll just end up bored and.

So, this is what I ask of you if you’re making a service to compete with Goodreads – ask the user to export their data in an ugly .csv format and import the entire file to your service. Then you’ve got the entire library the user has curated on your rival service since the dawn of time without lifting a finger. You don’t even have to have this as the front and center of your UX. Get your user onboarded, get them talking, and then somewhere along the way, gently tell them you’ve got this amazing import feature that’ll help them quickly ramp up. If they care about books, they’ll do it. Those are the serious users of your platform anyways.

But nowhere have I seen this happen. I’ve recently come across a few apps – Litsy (by LibraryThing), Reading List (which seems to allow CSV imports, but needs them to be in its own format, instead of the Goodreads format; you’re this close folks!), BookBuddy (again, imports only its own data, god knows why) and some web services which I’ve already forgotten about, none of which seem to understand this basic concept of stealing from the enemy.

But what am I saying? I wrote all the way back in 2012 about how useless exporting data from Internet behemoths is. Nothing has changed in the last seven years. Till today, companies and apps come and go, without realizing that using prior data is a jump-start, not poisoned fruit.

Indie services actually get this. If you install the Goodreads plugin on Calibre, it lets you quickly import your data so your library is complete. Similarly, if you use the WordPress Book List plugin, there’s a way to import your Goodreads data. Because people who care about data, understand reuse of data. That tells me that if you’re not reusing my data, you’re not building a platform for me.

So good luck competing with Goodreads. Unless you can get my data from them and reuse it, you’re just shooting yourself in the foot.

2018 and 2019 in books

2018 has come and gone. I had a goal of reading 15 books in it, and I fell short – I read only 12. Though, considering that one of them was War and Peace, I’d say I’ve read enough books.

Very quickly, the highlights are as below. If you want the full list, it’s on Goodreads (no login required afaict).

I thoroughly enjoyed the Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu. It’s part 1 of a 3 book series and I hope to read the rest of it soon.

All Our Wrong Todays was a gut-wrenching time travel story. I reviewed it here. I also reviewed The Devourers here. It’s an epic tale that takes the history of India and weaves an excellent story into it. I believe I’m a fan of historical fiction now. From War and Peace and Poland (which are more fact) to Devourers and Three-Body Problem (which are more liberal with their facts), I love this form of writing that melds truth and fiction together.

My favorite non-prose was Woman World by Aminder Dhaliwal. It’s a beautiful look at a pseudo-post apocalyptic world that doesn’t have any men in it. Though, I must say – since there are no men in the world, it’s not really an apocalypse. It’s quite pleasant, in fact.

I also read a book I’ve long held on to – Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer. It’s pure YA, and perhaps aimed at an even younger audience. But it’s full of surprises and a very interesting take on fairies. It was a fun read!

Moving on, I hope to read a lot more in 2019. I’ve set myself up for even bigger failure – my new goal is 19 books for the year! (It’ll only increase with each passing year, maybe I’ll catch up with the goal one of these years)

I’ve already got a few books that I want to read lined up –

  1. Today Will be Different by Maria Semple – I’ve read and loved “Where’d you go Bernadette?” and I have this one sitting in paperback at home. I’ve heard good things!
  2. The Symposium by Plato – why the heck not? It’s a good story till now (I already started reading it in 2018). Loads to learn!
  3. A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K Le Giun – I wanted to read at least one Le Guin book this year and this one seems just as good as any to start off the author’s works. Is there any other you’d recommend instead?
  4. V, Gravity’s Rainbow, and The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon – I want to read a lot of Pynchon this year. Let’s see how it goes. I read somewhere that I should read V before Gravity, because of something something. I have Lot 49 sitting in paperback at home. Maybe I’ll tackle that first.
  5. The Dark Forest, and The Wandering Earth by Cixin Liu – these are the other books in the series I talk about above. The first book was really, really, really good!
  6. Dubliners, and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce – I’ve wanted to read Joyce for some time now. I am going to read these in preparation for –
  7. Ulysses by James Joyce – I’ll probably read this in eBook form, considering its supposed sheer size. War and Peace was conquered in a similar fashion!
  8. Murder by Misrule by Anna Castle – I have the eBook burning a hole in my Kindle app. Will read it and mark it as done!
  9. Young India by Lala Lajpat Rai – I’ve noticed this book around. It too is burning a hole in my Kindle app. But more importantly, it should be an interesting historical document.
  10. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf – I read A Room of One’s Own in 2016 and it had a profound impact on my thinking about creativity and ‘own space’. I think I should read one Woolf book a year.
  11. Bonus points – Walden by Thoreau and Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson – Will I be able to reach these? Let’s see!

That’s 16 books listed! Four more than I read in 2018. By simple math, I have to read approximately 2 books a month to accomplish my goal. That’s one book every 15 days! I shudder at the thought of that pace.

Wish me luck! Also, if you’ve got some suggestions or recommendations, or think I should read some book before reading one of the ones on the list here, do tell!

Relishing Failure

Last year, I read exactly one book. It took me three months to finish and I knew by the end of the year that this was a problem. So, I decided to give myself a goal for 2017 – read twenty books.

Of course, I failed. I read 13 books and 4 comics. Adding those comics brought my total to 17, bringing me closer to my goal, but that was such a shameful act that I didn’t add any other comics I read to my list. The goal, after all, was to read full-length books.

But it felt good. Not being able to beat the goal felt good for the first time, because it meant that I aspired to something, that I achieved something over what I had done last year. It took me about one month to read each book. I am a slow reader (basically because I’m a recovering one) and life, and other things often came in the way. ?

Somewhere on my blog is a draft of a list of all the books I’ve ever read. I keep it as a draft because it feels like something that should not be set in stone. It should be kept open, waiting to receive new names to grow the list. But for this post, I’d like to take the books I read and describe the books, or my thoughts around those books, in a few sentences. Bear with me…

  1. Slaughterhouse-Five – This is what I spent January with. It’s a sad tale of how absurd wars are and how oddly they affect people. As I was reading it, I kept remembering Catch-22 and how it too showed the absurdity of war. When SLF merged the war and it’s post-war abducted-by-aliens narrative, things went for a toss, but in a seamless way, because if you believe in war, it’s not going to take you a giant leap to believe in aliens.
  2. Where’d You Go, Bernadette – Ah, Bernadette! This was one of the most exciting novels I’ve ever read! The characters are crazy and the storyline is just brilliantly absurd. Recently, when I was in a bookshop, I told the owner, Dion, that I’d read this book and marveled at the beautiful way Seattle is portrayed in it. If you want to know Seattle from the eyes of Maria Semple, read this book. If you want to laugh at the absurd life of one Bernadette Fox, read this book!
  3. The Golden Compass – I’ve wanted to read this book since a long time, ever since I saw the movie. From what I remember, the movie was only half the book and reading this completed the story for me to a certain level. Perhaps I’ll go back some day and finish the series.
  4. A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms – This book has been sitting on my shelf since a long time and I really just wanted to read something of GRRM and this was perfect. The stories are nice and tie into the main storyline very well. There’s just so much in this world to explore!
  5. Prisoners of Geography – This is only one of two non-fiction books I’ve read all year and I’m okay with that. It’s a great book, with loads of amazing stories and insight into why countries act the way they do with their neighbors. But reading it, I also realized that I’m not a non-fiction reader. I prefer fiction, even fictionalized accounts of events such as James Michener’s Poland and the book my wife is reading right now – The Other Einstein.
  6. Marvel 1602 – I mentioned before that I won’t include 4 comics in the list. Those comics are Archies rebooted with new style of artwork and a more mature theme. Even so, they’re still my childhood Archie comics. Marvel 1602 is the brainchild of Neil Gaiman and he is one of the most fantastical authors I’ve read in a while. His ability to create strangeness out of the ordinary is almost infinite! Then, give him the Marvel universe and let his mind run wild and this is the result. It’s more story than comic (so I guess it’s a graphic novel?) and well deserving to sit here on this list, even though it got a little tiresome and predictable in some areas.
  7. We have no idea – When Jorge Cham (from the famous PhD comics) said that his new book was coming out, I knew I had to have it. It took me a while to get around to this book, but it was a delight. It gets a little tiresome towards the end simply because there are so many amazing questions that get asked in every single page that one can spend an eternity trying to answer them! In some sections, I sat with a notebook and just kept writing down ideas that poured in. If you ever want to write science fiction, read this book and let your imagination run wild on it!
  8. The Unknown Errors of our Lives – This collection of short stories is one of the saddest I’ve ever read. Right from the first one, Chitra paints this picture of life in the US that’s shiny, repugnant, restrictive, celebratory, and very, very dark. There’s sadness in almost every page. It took me a while to recover from this book. But would I recommend it? Absolutely. If you want to know the struggles of Indians in the US, or are going through those yourself and want to read some foresight, some hindsight, and something that you can relate to, read this book. Borrow it from me! I’d love to get it off my shelves for a while so it can’t haunt me!
  9. Origin – Oh yes, Dan Brown came out with a novel and I read it and it’s awesome! I love Brown for his unabashed self-promotion. It’s very clear that he’s the hero of his novels and his character has a style that will sometimes make you want to throw the book away! But once you get past the first few chapters, you stop bothering with the absurd brand references (I don’t even know these brands!) and focus on the one burning question – what the heck was the discovery?!
  10. Why you will marry the wrong person – I’m being cheeky by adding this book to this list. It’s more of an article, extended into a book. I paid good money for the article and for good reason – other than telling us all off for marrying people so blindly (“so you dated for a few years? Do you know why and how your other half is mad? Is their madness compatible with your madness?”), this book also introduces this amazing idea that we should submit to extensive and rigorous psychological testing to help us find the right person to marry. I guess Tinder doesn’t cut it for the authors of this book.
  11. Embers – Gimme a book about the Old World and I’ll enjoy it like a well aged piece of cheese. Embers is poignant and beautiful. I discovered it from a Stanford book club RSS feed and Sandor Marai’s turn-of-the-century Hungarian world is bleak and colorful at the same time. It has layers upon layers and as the story unfolds in to the night, it opens up into this wonderful life lived by these two old men and asks the one important question we will all ask in our old age – “was it worth it?”
  12. The Shape of Ideas –  Grant Snider is one of my favorite web comic authors and his book is fun and inspiring and a great way to pull oneself out of a fug! I read this book once but whenever I’m feeling down or have writer’s block, I’ll read one odd page from this book and it’ll help me get right back on track!
  13. Dandelions – Finally. This book was an excellent way to end the year, simply because it is an unfinished book. The author, Yasunari Kawabata, committed suicide before he completed this book. I really enjoyed the characters’ constant back and forth, almost a bickering, which leads them to reveal the story to us in peels of an onion, slowly, and surprisingly. One of the things I loved was that the story had no preface, but a postface, explaining some things about the book. When I was younger, my Dad once told me how he’s read every book in his studies from end to end, including all prefaces and notes from the editors, authors, etc. and he recommended that I do that. Well, Dad, I find that to be very wearisome because most of these authors just drone on about random things unrelating to the concepts or the stories I’m trying to read! When I read Plato’s Apology a few years ago, it was a forty page book with a fourteen page introduction! That was horrifying to me! Two pages in, I abandoned the droning of the translators and commentators and went straight to the text! It felt so gratifying to be reading the actual words I came to read instead of reading some random person’s boring analyses of the life and times of Plato.

There you have it. These are the books I read and these are my thoughts on them. If you want to look at my Goodreads year in review, here it is. It’s a nice feature Goodreads has. It tells me that I read a total of 3,644 pages. Those were some good pages!

If you’ve made it so far, I’d like to talk about something. Over the last two years, I’ve been reading Tolstoy’s epic tome, War and Peace. I started some time last year and this year, I’ve moved the needle from 50% 0f the book to 77%. It’s really not one book. It’s fifteen books and two epilogues, each with twenty to twenty-five chapters of ridiculous length. If I listen to my wife, I should be able to introduce these sub-books to the Goodreads listing, immediately putting me over my stated goal of twenty books, and then some. But I won’t do that. This book is more of a research project and relaxation system rolled into one. Whenever I’ve had a long day at work, I uncurl with a few pages of War and Peace and love how I’m transported to this amazing world where Napoleon has invaded Russia and hopes to conquer and get out. God only help these buffoons. If only they had “Prisoners of Geography”, they’d understand that Russia is not a simple thing to be quickly run over and forgotten. Russia is a crazy world, with one foot firmly in Asia and the other well in Europe. Russia is Old World and New. Russia is a sleeping dragon better left undisturbed. I read and laugh with the characters, cry with them, get surprised when they die or turn up alive. I am living this book out over the years and when I do finish it, which I am slated to in 2018, I’ll mark it as completed and either start on some other similarly long story, or restart this book, so I can once again live this beautiful book through.

That was my 2017 in review. I truly enjoyed failing at my reading challenge. It was a pleasure to read so many amazing books and feel this immense sense of achievement at having read so much, even if it’s a drop in the bucket of how many books get published every year!

Now, I’m off. Time to start the next book. I’m going to begin 2018 reading Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem, which I picked up from the Bellevue Amazon bookstore, after overhearing someone talk about what an interesting book it is! After that, it’s on to a few books I acquired at a charming little bookstore in an magical place called Sunriver over in Oregon. But that’s a story for another time. ?

Photo by Kilkennycat