The Year in Reading – 2021

It’s that time of the year again where I reflect on my reading over the course of the year. My previous attempts are linked here.


I have a litany of reasons to give for the paltry return of fourteen books completed this year, as big a drop as could be from the twenty-three I put way with consummate ease last year, chief of which was the welcome disruption L brought to our lives this year and all that came with it. The chief effect of that was a a significant number of unread books, all the free time I had in the latter part of the year being eighty minutes each day on the bus to and from work on work days. The vast majority were thus audiobooks, the experience of which I tried to improve by taking copious notes in Notion. Of the lot, a few stood out for various reasons. I plan on re-reading a few in hard copy in the near future, real life permitting. So here goes:

  • A Thousand Small Sanities – Adam Gopnik: An exercise in exploring so-called Big Liberalism, this was one that I started reading o the cusp of the new year. At times it tried to paint an overly idealistic picture but then I suppose a book defending an idea would look at how it should be not how it actually works in practice. Certainly one I need to re-read in hard copy with time and engage the ideas.
  • The Status Game – Will Storr: Sometimes you read a book whose ideas are so foundational that you come away wondering how you never saw that before. This was one of such for me, the central thesis being that all human systems trade/play in status – whether our currency is virtue, dominance or something else.
  • The Bomber Mafia – Malcolm Gladwell: Another one which prompted much thinking for me , almost akin to an existential crisis of sorts, being the solidly mid-career professional I am who sometimes wonders what direction by future should take.

Between Theorists and Empiricists

Image Source: Caleb Jones on Unsplash 


It seems to me that the central distinction in Malcolm Gladwell’s latest offering – Bomber Mafia – is that between theorists and empiricists. To boil it down to a binary choice is of course an oversimplification, but it is one that helps frame the difference between Hansell and Le May, the two figures from either camp who loom large in the book. At stake here, as it turns out, were the lives of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians who met a fiery fate in the aftermath of extensive fire bombings, topped off by the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In Hansell, we have the theorist who believed against the evidence – or bad luck – that precision bombing was the way to execute a war that limited deaths. Le May on the other hand comes across as an empiricist who allowed the evidence lead him down the paths it did, albeit with disastrous outcomes for those concerned.

Outcomes and motivations differ for the theorist and the empiricist. The theorist is wholly concerned with what might be  possible – subject to the constraints of his/her field (eg  Theoretical Physicists who come up with all sorts of currently unfalsifiable claims ) – as opposed to the empiricist or experimentalist who is concerned with finding evidence to prove or disprove the grand, elegant notions of the theorist.

If one accepts that the empiricist follows the evidence down a path that leads to a real world impact and desirable outcomes, there looms the question of what constitutes a good outcome. Is the loss of thousands of lives a good outcome if they are the lives of the enemy/ the other rather than ours? Is a good outcome measured in monetary terms, or is there a way to value non-physical outcomes? These are questions I do not think the theorist worries about too much, existing – at least to me – in that rarefied space of thought.

As I plod along, firmly ensconced in mid-career engineering, these distinctions are ones that weigh heavy on my mind, as they have the potential to inform what steps I take next. I am truly at a cross roads of sort  – the question being whether I follow the head into theory or the heart into real world applications.