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jan's favourite books.

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The booklist

We (we being the folks at the ILRT) recently were asked to produce a list of our "top ten" favourite books. I've finally got around to doing so. My definition of "favourite" isn't "I think everyone should read this" - it's a much more personal opinion. These are books that I distinctly remember enjoying reading.

My memory not being what I think it once was, the following should not be taken as recommendations. I don't own a lot of these books and haven't read many of them for some years (decades in some cases) so my memories are obviously going to be a little rose-tinged.

In no particular order, then:

A Winter's Tale

by Mark Helprin. Fiction, a truly delightful book.

The story is strange and beautiful - but what makes this book particularly enjoyable are the odd and highly eccentric characters that appear throughout the book in individual and entertaining adventures. The little escapade of crossing the river, in particular, is really funny.

In an amazing moment of synchronicity, I actually recommended this book to Ruth years ago only to find that she was the only other person I'd ever met who'd even heard of it, let alone read it.

Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid

by Douglas Hofstader.

Another book to which I'd attach the adjective "delightful" - in that it captures and conveys a sense of delight and wonder. Hofstader loves his subject - which, in this case, is "everything to do with being a thinking person" - and deals in an accessible fashion with complexity and self-reference. Never let it be said that reductionists don't have a soul. His thesis: that intelligence and sentience are mechanisable. However, don't be put off - this book has drawn comparisons to the works of Lewis Carroll, with good reason.

This book is in stark contrast with the Emperor's New Mind by Roger Penrose, which starts from essentially the same set of hypotheses and draws exactly the opposite conclusion. The latter book is a sobering reminder that it doesn't matter how smart you are: you are not immune to being totally and utterly wrong. Without really realising it, Penrose has written a joke on himself: ironically, he doesn't get it. Worth a read, but don't buy it.

The Three Musketeers

by Alexandre Dumas. "A cracking good read!"

If your French isn't up to it then you need a translation that captures Dumas' sense of adventure. This is pure escapist fun. The musketeers are slackers, scroungers, and wasters. But you can live a lot of your life by the advice that Dumas dishes out. Examples: pick fights with everyone; when you come into money, buy all your friends lunch (what goes around, comes around); and most importantly, if you've cash left over, then procure yourself some decent clothes, a servant and a mistress.

If you want to come down again after such a high, there's always Twenty Years After in which we discover that the friends' careers haven't really gone anywhere, the country's going to pot and the new Cardinal's shacked up with the Queen. For even more Francophile gloom, Victor Hugo's the Hunchback of Notre Dame just missed the top ten. Pure misery.

The Practice of System and Network Administration

by Tom Limoncelli and Christine Hogan. The only really work-related book here.

Just to give the lie to the idea that I've only shortlisted stuff I haven't read for at least ten years, here's a really fun book that came out relatively recently.

The premise of this book is that the reader already has the technical capability to run a network or a large installation. What this book gives you are the whys and wherefores: backed up with witty supporting anecdotal fables.

I particularly like the description of the raised-floor tile game! The book has a chatty and friendly style that I like to think is common amongst senior SAs, while giving robust advice that won't date as quickly as pure technical detail.

The Odyssey

by Homer. Or possibly by a guy who wasn't called "Shakespeare" after all.

Who cares who wrote it down? Much better than the Iliad, because that relies on members of the intended audience being able to trace their ancestry back to someone in it.

This has been called "the world's first novel," and it's a rip-roaring boy's own adventure at that. Witches, cyclopses, other Harryhausen-animated baddies feature in the tale of one man desparately trying to get home to his wife.

Part of the trick of enjoying this story is getting a good translation; mine's an old "Penguin Classics" version that's particularly good.

On Numbers and Games

by John Conway. This book changed my life.

This isn't the only book which changed the way I think, but it's first and foremost amongst them. I can't recommend it highly enough.

Basically, this book is an enjoyable investigation of a nonstandard model of number; and the application of the same to game theory. Values of "enjoyable" may vary considerably amongst readers. John Conway is a very entertaining mathematician who presents his subject very well.

On a personal note, this book gave me a word for a very clever idea that I was surprised to find someone had thought of first (induction). My mathematical sophistication was typically unstructured when I read this - it was a revelation at age eleven to realise that you didn't need squared paper to to mathematics. In fact, at the time (I was about eight) I wouldn't have attached the label "mathematics" to this book. There's probably a moral in there somewhere.

The Name of the Rose

by Umberto Eco. His most accessible novel.

I'm a big Eco fan. A well as being the father of modern semiology and all-round polymath, Eco writes a damn good book - which is very rare. There's no "pseudo" in this guy's "intellectual".

This is probably the most readily-accessible of his novels - but it doesn't bear much resemblance to the film! Short, episodic chapters mean that you can take this a little at a time. Like most great stories, this works on several levels. The reader can simply enjoy the detective story that takes place at the dawn of modern rational thought (Cadfael is not fit to shine Brother William's sandals); or you can take the lightning tour of the philosophical conundrums that faced the great minds of the time struggling to reconcile scientific thought with a predetermined universe that moved at the whim of the Creator.

As a meta-aside, I note that three of my favourite thinkers (Hofstader, Eco and Chomsky - who didn't make the cut) are (with apologies for attaching a label to them (although that is what language is about)) linguists. Whether language is thought is left as an exercise for the reader.

Compilers: Principles, Techniques and Tools

by Aho, Sethi and Ullman. The "Dragon Book".

Another book that I was lucky enough to read at exactly the right time. Again, this probably won't appeal to everyone (or anyone!) but it's a very good tour of classical compiler theory. It's still worth dipping into for solid explanations of compiler principles.

One of the things that shines out about this book is the way it manages to be a computer science textbook while retaining some measure of rigour in the proofs it presents. It appeals to the formalist in me, which is why it makes the top ten.


by Neal Stephenson. You should never tell an author that you liked his first book best.

This book gets onto my top ten list because I like the protagonist so much. In a nutshell, the guy is a professional arsehole. That is, not a rent boy, but someone whose job it is to make the lives of evil polluting corporations difficult.

The pseudoscience that makes up the plot is (fortunately) not too invasive; again, I find this book enjoyable for the episodic "other stuff" that goes on in the course of the story. That's not to say that the main plot isn't a cracking thriller - it's just that the excellent description of duck-squeezer sex knocks it into a cocked hat.

Last but not least

It's hard to find exactly ten books that fit into the "favourite" category. So I'd have to make this a double-choice:

The Practice Effect by David Brin

A shorter novel, possibly Brin's first, and certainly (as remember it) good fun. I've deliberately not sought out this book to re-read it because it'll probably turn out to be a big disappointment.

The hero is a young physicist stranded on a planet where things get better at whatever you use them for by practice. The effects on a society where nobody ever needs to invent anything are explored in a lighthearted fashion.

This is one of several novels by physicists that got on the shortlist. Amongst others is Contact - not for the main story, but for the epilogue, which expresses a profound idea in a beautiful way. Read it and see for yourself.

The Tarot of the Bohemians by Papus

A precice and rigorous investigation into the numerological principles hidden in the Tarot. No, I kid you not. Readers of the fairer sex may find this a little heavy-going; fortunately, there is an appendix detailing the use of the cards for the telling of fortunes, which is a much more appropriate drawing-room activity to satisfy their pretty little heads.

This book falls into the same category as the Emperor's New Mind.