Tuesday, March 01, 2011

My TED list of favorites

I was happy when the TED folks invited me to be one of 20 curators of book picks for the bookstore at this year's conference in Long Beach. One of life's simple pleasures as far as I'm concerned is organizing information into a list and annotating it! So the same thing I sent to TED, which is now on display at the bookstore (though this is the full list; they didn't stock all of these). Just for kicks I threw in a few forever-favorite movies too.

They asked for a short profile and rationale for what I chose:

I’m a reader, writer, art collector and Internet lover. I’ve lived in San Francisco for 25 years, and work for Google, where I search and find every day.

If I had to pick among my rooms full of books to a single batch, what would I keep? I picked titles that speak to some of my passions: art, words, technology, and real life. This mix gives me heart, makes me laugh, helps me understand, lets me dream of what has been, is, and could be.  (Ditto for the movies.)

When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present. Gail Collins, Back Bay Books/Little, Brown, 2009.
In her unmistakable “just between us” style, Collins wryly documents the astonishingly fast and deep changes that American women (and therefore men) have experienced in a generation. Her story is a compelling reminder that things that are “givens” really don’t have to be.

The Uncommon Reader: A Novella. Alan Bennett, Picador, 2008. There are numerous collections of Bennett’s inimitable personal stories and characters, and every one is wonderful. This imagined tale is not so different in that we share the point of view of certain quirky, practical, droll people who lead rich interior lives - in this case, the Queen and her household. Also recommended: any of Bennett’s audio readings and the performances with the world-class actors who play his characters. Every one gives you the tangy sweet and sour only he can do.

52 McGs: The Best Obituaries from Legendary New York Times Writer Robert McG. Thomas Jr. Scribner, 2001.
Reading good obits is like discovering a hidden stained glass window: You get a designed view into a life and a world you couldn’t have imagined. McG was a master at “raising the dead”, especially for unsung eccentrics who make the world so wonderful.

Death Sentences: How Cliches, Weasel Words and Management Speak are Strangling Public Language. Don Watson, Gotham Books/Penguin, 2005.
“Even as English spreads, the language is shrinking.” In this slim book Watson examines the dangers of obfuscation and bullshit language in the realms of politics and business like nobody else. I send this book to wordsmith friends for ammo.

Most of The Most of S. J. Perelman. Modern Library, 2000. S.J. is my go-to for heady and richly layered humor writing. There is no one else who takes you down the garden path, beneath the house and to the moon in a few short, sharp pages. As he says, “before they made S.J. Perelman, they broke the mold.” This is a full serving of gems from 1930-58, and my favorite of his many collections.

Everything is Miscellaneous, David Weinberger. Times Books, 2007.
One of the Clue Train gang, Weinberger is terrific at characterizing the digital world (“small pieces loosely joined,” he might say). Consider this book a great explainer of how we’ve learned to absorb digital conventions in order to operate in a world of UX, UI, and virtual world taxonomies IRL.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic - Alison Bechdel. Mariner Books, 2007. An amazing memoir told with tenderness, ruefulness and wisdom. Bechel is a wonderful visual storyteller. This book makes me appreciate the nuances and forgotten details of a life, and always sparks a flood of my own memories.

Stitches: A Memoir. David Small. Norton, 2009.
You don’t know dark till you page through this harrowing story of a six year old’s grim experiences. The great thing about graphical memoirs is that you can see the creator’s hard-won wisdom and healing through the telling (and showing), in this case a horrifying tale told through beautiful ink-wash images worthy of Bergman.

Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. Scott McCloud, Harper Books, 1994.
Though it predates the flood of graphic novels and memoirs by many years, McCloud articulates the social and aesthetic meaning and value of visual storytelling. Thanks to MAD Magazine I’ve loved comics for a long time. This book explains why.

You Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Transformation. Katharine Harmon, Princeton Architectural Press, 2004.
I have always loved maps, and in recent years savored the new wave of social / psychological / art map books. This is one of my favorites, with gorgeous map illustrations of everything: the mind, Heaven, life, a walk, a day, the body, love -- we should all draw our many maps.

News of the Universe: Poems of Twofold Consciousness. Robert Bly, editor. Sierra Club Books, 1995.
Bly collects poetry from around the world that reflects the intertwined consciousness of humans, animals and nature, from Rumi and Kabir to Mary Oliver and Charles Simic. If I could have just one book on a desert island, it’s this one.

Nobody’s Perfect: Writings From the New Yorker. Anthony Lane, Vintage, 2003.
His movie reviews are reliably incisive, clever and complete, and the longer pieces here, on books, people and events (like the Sound of Music Sing-a-long, or the joy of Legos) are good stellar fun. I always feel like I’ve had a great meal after finishing a piece, but I bet you can’t read just one.

Night of the Gun. A Reporter Investigates the Darkest Story of His Life - His Own. David Carr, Simon & Schuster, 2008.
A very dark memoir that NY Times writer Carr undertook as an investigative project, since he doesn’t actually remember much of what happened or who he was in the bad old days. His saga is redemptive, but never sweet. Carr’s writing is knowing, sly and resonates like hell.

What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry. John Markoff, Viking, 2005.
Markoff illuminates the very tangible and critical role that hippies, peaceniks and drugs du jour played in creating the technology culture we now can’t seem to live without. A vivid history that explains so much about the underpinnings of business, technology and culture we take for granted.

Hackers. Steven Levy, O’Reilly, 2010 (25th anniv. edition).
Levy’s iconic book has been a computer geek’s bible for 25 years. If you want to understand the origins of the software developer ethic that rule today (seen “The Social Network”? own an Apple product? use Google?), read this great tale.

Pursuit of Happiness. Maira Kalman, Penguin Press, 2010.
A portrait of America filled with lessons from the past and hope for the future - it’s the best kind of history book from Kalman, whose quirky and sweet paintings and stories illuminate the best and most challenging aspects of our complicated country.

Posters for the People: Art of the WPA. Ennis Carter, Quirk Books, 2008.
It seems impossible now, but there in the 1930s the US Federal Government paid artists, writers, performers to create and produce work on government wages. This wonderful book captures the political excitement, creative spirit, and instantly recognizable design sensibility from that heady period.

Laura - Directed by Otto Preminger.
Literate, sharp noir dialogue and a fabulous cast of character actors (Clifton Webb, Judith Anderson, Vincent Price, Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney) make this a real 40s whodunit. I watch it at least once a year.

Notorious - Directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
Ingrid Bergman was never more intriguing, and Cary Grant never more tormented, in this postwar spy thriller. Bonus points for chills and laughs: Claude Rains as the Nazi has-been and his domineering German mutter.

Some Like It Hot - Directed by Billy Wilder.
A classic for so many reasons - I know it by heart. So much that is great about the gender-bending farce starts with the screenplay by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, whose muscular and irreverent American lingo makes the whole thing sing.  

Topsy Turvy - Directed by Mike Leigh.
A visual and musical confection with acid undertones for fans of Gilbert & Sullivan - and those who think they could care less. This elaborate production surfaces the creators, and the troupe’s, very different personalities and aspirations, the challenges of show biz, and considerable drama behind the scenes. Every time I watch it I root for them all.

Auntie Mame - Directed by Morton DaCosta.
Before Liza was Sally Bowles, Roz Russell was Mame. Her inimitable rat-a-tat delivery, the great character cast, and the indelibly witty screenplay by Comden and Green - really, it is perfection.

No comments: