Retroactive favorites: 2009 books

Starting with 2010, I’m going back and retroactively picking my favorite books of the year. This is necessarily colored by time. I can hardly remember many of the books I read so if a book has stuck with me after a decade, it might make it onto one of my retroactive favorites lists.

Here’s my picks from 2009, which was an eventful year for me. A little side project I was involved in got accepted to Y Combinator and I moved out to Mountain View for the summer. In the end, it didn’t work out at the cost of a lot of mental energy, but it was a formative experience.

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JavaScript: The Good Parts, Douglas Crockford

In 2018, JavaScript is one of the most popular programming languages. It runs in every browser, Node.js has made it a popular choice for server-side programming, many powerful new features have been added, and it is a host for many other languages. When Douglas Crockford wrote JavaScript: The Good Parts back in 2008, JavaScript was already one of the most popular programming languages (it powered every interactive web experience) but it was a bit of a joke, and writing it was error-prone. By showing how to write good JavaScript, this slim volume helped set the stage for the JavaScript renaissance. Personally, this book was helpful to improve my client side coding style and build better web applications.

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Years in the Making: The Time Travel Stories of L. Sprague de Camp, L. Sprague de Camp

This collection includes one of my favorite alternative history stories, Lest Darkness Fall. A early twenteth century man is transported back to 535 AD Italy. Knowing that Justinian’s Gothic War, which will devistate Italy, is about to begin, he sets out to defeat the invasion. His first step is producing brandy and introducing double entry accounting. The setup is fun and the alternative view of the “civilized” Eastern Roman Empire as a force for kicking off the Dark Ages resonated with me. A few years later I read The Ruin of the Roman Empire which makes the same argument: the real fall of Rome was due to Justinian.

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Enterprise Rails, Dan Chak

Service oriented architecture? Separation of concerns? PostgreSQL? Splitting your database to scale? This book had it all, back in 2008. I think this book was way ahead of its time, and the Rails world was not ready for it.

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The Economic Naturalist: In Search of Explanations for Everyday Enigmas, Robert H. Frank

Cornell economist Robert H. Frank has his students attempt to explain puzzles like “why do some cars have fuel tanks on the right and some on the left?” and “why are buttons for men’s clothing on the right and women’s clothing on the left?” in order to get them to apply the tools econmics (more examples can be found on his website and in this New York Times review). He notes in the book that these explanatins might not be right, but they are plausible. I still think about the puzzles in this book frequently, but unlike many other pop econ books, the point of this one is to teach you how to apply economic thinking to every day life.

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The Penguin Book of Gaslight Crime: Con Artists, Burglars, Rogues, and Scoundrels from the Time of Sherlock Holmes, Michael Sims (ed.)

This is a little collection of crime stories from the late 19th and early 20th century. Unlike Sherlock Homles, it mostly focuses on the criminals as protagonists, but like Homles they rely on their wits. It introduced me to Captain Gault and Arsène Lupin, which I enjoyed reading more of.

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The Family Trade, Charles Stross

This is the first novel in Stross’s Merchant Princes series. I thought the series got bogged down as it went on, but the first novel crackles. I can’t remember if it was Paul Krugman who introduced me to the novel, but I love his take on the novel. Development economics and comparative advantage are the ideas explored, except instead of countries at different levels of industrialization, it’s alternative universes. A select few people have the ability to world walk, and in a parallel universe where Christianity never arose and Vikings settled North America, these world walkers live like Gulf State princes, their wealth generated from drug trafficing in our universe.