My Best of 2004 continues today with a list of the best books I read all year long. Some are new, others were published prior to this year, but all of them are great.
1. The Baroque Cycle (Quicksilver, The Confusion, The System of the World) by Neal Stephenson
The Baroque Cycle is nothing short of a masterpiece. Stephenson places the ancestors of the main characters from his seminal novel Cryptonomicon in late 17th and early 18th century Europe. They participate n a myriad of landmark historical events including the writing of Newton's Principia Mathematica, the formulation of Leibniz's Calculus, The Popish Plot, The Glorious Revolution, The War of Spanish Succession, the invention of Newcomen's steam engine and the foundation of modern science and currency.
The historical detail elucidated in these 2,700 pages is mind-boggling. Stephenson goes into hyper-detailed, geekish depictions of such diverse subjects as piracy, alchemy, enlightenment-era scientific exploration, the structure of 18th century London's prison system, Protestant political dissent, the social behaviors of the court at Versailles under Louis XIV, and the invention of currency, trade and free market systems. In his acknowledgements at the end of The System of the World Stephenson notes his indebtedness to Ferdinand Braudel's Capitalism and Civilization, which really comes through in these depictions. This may be the first historical novel to ever utilize Braudel's "bottom up" approach in narrative form. These books are not only the best that I read this year, they are quite possibly my favorites of all time.
2. Getting Things Done by David Allen
Getting things done launched a movement this year. Geeks everywhere are figuring out that the systems laid out in this book are applicable to their everyday lives. I've been using the GTD system for a few months and my work productivity has shot through the roof.
3. Designing with Web Standards by Jeffrey Zeldman
2004 was the year that I finally got the importance of web standards and it came to me right when I finally started to get it about content. Those two elements, standards & content, are the cornerstones of the web's present and future. This book makes the absolute importance of web standards even more clear and also lays down some really awesome strategies for designing sites with CSS/XHTML. Now if I can only make 2005 the year that I implement standards into all of my projects...
4. Whitney Biennial 2004
This two-volume catalogue to the 2004 Whitney Biennial almost makes up for missing it. The first volume is a grey velvet covered book consisting of critical writing and works from the show. The second volume is a box with a multiple (either a print, a sticker, a mini-zine or a transparency) from each of the 108 artists represented.
5. Connected, or What It Means to Live in the Network Society by Steven Shaviro
Steven Shaviro examines the connections between Science Fiction and critical theory.
6. Eastern Standard Tribe & 7. A Place So Foreign And 8 Others by Cory Doctorow
Cory Doctorow's latest novel and his fantastic first short story collection represent the best of the new SF that is emerging right now. He takes the language and culture of hip geeks and converts them into deeply interesting stories set in imaginative future worlds inhabited by characters including experience designers who belong to tribes based on time zones who war with each other through the development of Intellectual Property, a man possessed by Nikola Tesla, a time traveling Utah farm boy, a family of Golems, an alien named Craphound and a master race of space aliens called “Bugouts” who sail to Earth aboard the “Mothaship”.
8. Schismatrix Plus by Bruce Sterling
Bruce Sterling's deep-future space opera, which takes place inside of his brilliatly imagined Shaper/Mechanist universe, is one of the best SF novels I've ever read. Someone needs to turn this into a full length anime.
9. Les Halles Cookbook by Anthony Bourdain
Tony Bourdain's beautifully designed cookbook turns French Bistro cooking on its ear. Reading these recipes will help any home cook tackle some of the most complex Bistro dishes and it looks super cool to boot.
10. John Adams by David McCullough
When my Aunt Meralee loaned me this book I thought it would be a just another good quick read about one of the founding fathers. It actually turned out to be great therapy for my post-election depression. Adams was the best kind of American, brilliant, considerate, resourceful and ingenious. Reading about his life and accomplishments made me realize how badly we are in need of political leaders like him today.