Geek-lore

Posted on October 22, 2011

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Wired recently blogged about the ‘9 essential geek books’. I think their definition of geek is biased towards maths and technology but this isn’t surprising, or something that they should be critised for.

Mia Ridge posed this question:

‘what book would you give someone to read to understand your geek mind?’ is an interesting question /cc @benosteen  — http://twitter.com/mia_out/status/127683665693122560

And later, she qualified the question to: “… books that give an insight into our odd geek world view”

To me, that suggests the idea of ‘Geeklore‘ – “cultural material and traditions transmitted from one geek to another.” (An abuse of the definition for ‘Oral Lore‘ and ‘Folklore’.)

So, what books transmit the geeklore – the ideas, concepts and metaphors – that would help someone understand our ‘weird’ worldview? (inb4 Seth Godin)

I can’t answer that, but I will glance round my bookshelves and pick out some of the titles not yet listed in the Wired list:

My Geeklore:

Fiction Geekery:
The list of fiction which I borrow metaphors and base concepts on is almost unlistable – it’s a hard thing to know when something alters your perspective indirectly. I’m just going to list a few books that deal with technology and scientific choices of the near future – ethics and morality? what if…? and so on. Consider it a list of titles which jump out at me, off my bookshelves, as I scan the room.
  • Doctorow’s “Makers” (download) – what would it mean if we all had access to quick and simple fabrication technology? To copy and paste real world objects?
  • Atwood’s “Oryx and Crake” – genetic engineering, ethics, corporate interests and the (very) near future
  • Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle” – How believably stupid humans could be with regards to science.
  • Richard Morgan’s “Altered Carbon” – what if we had the technology to store and backup our brains constantly – a cranial ‘Time Machine’? where we could pour our consciousness into new vat-grown bodies instead of ageing and if we had the money? Computer-to-human viruses? True death?
  • Arthur C. Clarke + Stephen Baxter “The Light of Other Days” – what if we could push photons through wormholes? Instantaneous communication or can we do more with it?
  • Neal Stephenson “The Diamond Age” and Rudy Rucker’s “Postsingular” – Aside from being fantastic reads, they both portray worlds where nanotechnology and its consequences are explored. Rucker’s novel also explores what human life might be like, as the title suggests, if the singularity has already occurred. What would it mean for humanity when the most intelligent thing on the planet is a giant neon construct sitting idly in cyberspace?
  • William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” – it’s a classic for a reason.
Graphic Novels:
I’m not good at keeping up with what is good and what isn’t. What I can do though is list a few artists and writers who rarely (if ever) misstep – pretty much any work that the following participate in is worth reading:
Other miscellaneous books that caught my eye:
  • Charles Bukowski “The Pleasures of the Damned” – gritty, grimy and full of character. Read some. Then read Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’. Or hear him read it. Go on. I’ll wait here.
  • Miller’s “Canticle for Leibowitz”  and Will Self’s “Book of Dave” both dealing with the birth of religions and unquestionable traditions in their own ways.
  • Cherie Priest’s Eden Moore series – strong female protagonist, voodoo in the deep South.
  • Matt O’Brian’s “Beneath the Neon: Life and Death in the Tunnels of Las Vegas” – a journalist documents the homeless living in the storm drains below Las Vegas. The irritating prose hides some truly compelling, painful, and human tales from the homeless themselves. Get past the author’s style and you will find it deeply affecting.
  • Jonathan Spence “God’s Chinese Son” – fascinating historical account of the Taiping rebellion in China (1845-64) but most interestingly, charts the interaction, adoption and reinterpretation of Christianity in China during this time.
  • Dee Brown’s “Bury my heart at Wounded Knee” – a history of Native Americans in the American West in the late nineteenth century. Moving and powerful. Just go read it.
  • Brooks ‘The Mythical Man Month‘ – often quoted, but seemingly, little read. Do so.
Bootstraping geekery: (introductory books within grabbing distance, or visible from where I am sitting)
  • Philosophy -> Nigel Warburton’s “Philosophy: The Classics
  • Art History -> E.H. Gombrich “The Story of Art
  • Buddhism -> Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Heart Of Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy and Liberation (Not what I read to begin with, but a good one for the uninitiated. I’m atheist, but I find it abhorrent to not try to understand the beliefs I do not share. The framework of morality, 8-fold path and so on, is actually quite a sensible way to live a life and chimes with my own humanist views. For other fun and japes, read the Qu’ran and the Old testament at the same time, book by book.)
  • Poetry -> Stephen Fry’s “The Ode less Travelled” – if your experiences at school destroyed any desire to explore poetry, please read this book. You may discover a type of poetry you get great enjoyment from, and encounter ideas and words that have a powerful and long-lasting effect on you and your thought processes. If not, you’ve wasted a few hours of your time. Your choice.
  • Figure Drawing -> Andrew Loomis’s out of print books are fantastic. They have just begun to reprint them however, so paper copies should be easier to get hold of soon.
  • Creativity -> Don’t think you can be creative? Blank page giving you a mental block? Buy some of Keri Smith’s books, like ‘Wreck This Journal‘. (I found the books helped me quieten the inner critic a little. YMMV but worthwhile trying.)

Maths Geekery:

Science Geekery:
  • Feynman – “The Feynman lectures on Physics
  • Aforementioned “Road to Reality”
  • Hawking’s Brief History of Time (oblig)
  • This one is personal to me: R.A. Brown (editor of)”Science for All” (five volumes, 1877–82 – Yes I know how utterly ridiculous it is for Google not to make the scans available due to copyright) I found the first four of the five volumes at a boot-sale when I was quite young. They are some of the few books I’ve managed to keep with me throughout my life. They showed me that science was movable, changing based on new ideas not because they were new, but because of the evidence for them. You only have to take a look at some of its articles concerning the nature of the solar system, fossils, and electricity to understand this. It was also ‘personal’ – each article was written by someone and they put forth their argument. It was also immaculately illustrated with many images and diagrams and some of the geological and natural history scenes were filled with details. The textbooks for children I had at school seem to wave their hands saying “oh, you don’t need to know why just yet, just learn this as if it were true” but finding out that science was based on hundreds of years of arguments, evidence and progress was a real solace.
  • Moving Things for Lively Youngsters” (WorldCat) and “Vital Things for Lively Youngsters” (WorldCat) – Cassel & Co 1940s IIRC – lovely, stick-figure drawings, inviting, simple and informative.
  • Johnny Ball’s Think Box – series of puzzles and curious things included here more because of the impact that Johnny Ball’s science programs had, than this book in particular.
  • “The Complete Self Educator” (Worldcat) Odhams Press Ltd. (Version I have is a  1946 reprint) A list of contributors, including William Freeman, J.G. Crowther and “Daedalus”, the book covered many subjects and presented them with self-test questions and answers – another life-line as I was growing up. English, French, Arithmetic, Biology, Physics, Chemistry, ‘Modern’ Geography, English History (til 1939), World History, Economics, and Intelligence tests and problems.
  • Robert Brent “Secrets of Chemistry” 60s? ‘How to set up a Home Laboratory – over 200 simple experiments! A book showing Chemistry with teeth – ‘home lab’ chemistry has been chipped away at by Health and Safety fears, generally fuelled by ignorance and a desire for a totally risk-free life. If you or your child follows the experiments in this book, you may be using a naked flame (gasp!), and chemicals such as coal(oooh!), ammonia(eek!) and hydrochloric acid(*faints*). Frankly, the risk in using these lies in ignorance and a lack of respect for them. The best way to overcome both of these is to use them with a guide, such as this book. (Note though, that for the experiments involving Chlorine, when it says ‘well-ventilated’ they really mean it.)
NB I have lost more Victorian-era populist science books than I care to mention while growing up.
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