Best of 2011: Books

Notable books that I read in 2011, not which were released in 2011.

2011 was probably my most productive book-reading year ever.

Including a handful of comics, I read some 35 titles.  A pittance for some, but an assload for me.

This feels like an achievement, but it shouldn’t.  The increase is mostly a byproduct of my new commute.  Instead of a quick, two train journey to work, I now take a direct trip, which gives me about an hour of reading time per day without fear of missing my stop.  I also took more frequent solo visits to the pub this year, armed with a book and enough money for a couple of pints.

Onto the books. Maus was a horrifying story of the Holocaust, told in an initially disarming way: as a comic strip about mice and cats.  Art Spiegelman personalises the tragedy by portraying his dad’s experience, and one horrific moment is soon eclipsed by another.  A powerful work.

Slaughterhouse-Five was my favourite fictional book of the year.  It’s funny, serious, and crazy, a combo which only works when the writer is as talented as Kurt Vonnegut.  One of my goals for 2012 was to read more of Vonnegut’s work.  Handily, his book Breakfast of Champions arrived on Christmas Day.

Black Swan was my second favourite book of the year.  Author Nassim Nicholas Taleb warns of ‘black swan events’, rare and unexpected occurrences that have an enormous impact.  The book mainly relates to how these events affect the stock market, but also how they can more generally affect life.

Black Swan is a tour de force.  There’s an extreme confidence-cum-arrogance to his work which makes the reading even more enjoyable.  He repeatedly criticises traders and Nobel Prize winners.  He also introduced me to the concept of the narrative fallacy.  People often apply story to a series of events that have none.  For some reason, we need story elements: a causal relationship between factors.  We need to attribute reason to action, to apply a rationality and method to even the most random of acts.

My personal example of this, vastly removed from the world of Taleb’s book, is the failure of Lebron James in the 2010 and 2011 NBA playoffs.  James is the best player in the league.  But in pressure moments, against Dallas in 2011 and Boston the year before, he disappeared.  He became ineffective and it cost his team the chance of a championship.  Sportswriters clambered to find reasons for this (they had word counts to reach after all).  In 2010, he was injured, tired, the pressure had gotten to him.  In one bizarre tale, he lost concentration after finding out his mum was having sex with one of his teammates.  Journalists struggled for another explanation in 2011 when Lebron became timid in the Finals.  He would catch the ball, hesitate, then pass to an inferior player.  Some writers settled on ‘Dallas has found a way to stop James’.  Maybe they had, but they weren’t getting the chance to show it.  If Lebron had tried to create something, a step-back jumper, a drive to the hoop, then maybe the Mavericks could’ve shown their defensive prowess.  But he did nothing.  I assume that the pressure simply got to him.  But that would be me looking for narrative.

The joy of Black Swan is in Taleb’s confidence to wander off topic.  He writes of roaming the streets of New York, tells random tales of traders, and even discusses the benefits of anaerobic exercise.  Whenever I struggled with some of the maths involved, he’d veer off onto something else, bringing me right back into the book.  As well as the narrative fallacy, Black Swan also covers many other cognitive biases.  These give an interesting insight into how the mind works, and a real-world application to the book.

My favourite book of 2011 has far less application to the real world, and that’s part of the reason I love it.  The official RaymondTheWilliams Book of The Year is…

Extra Lives, by Tom Bissell.

A book about computer games was my favourite of 2011.

Reading Extra Lives was an afterthought.  I had to order my own birthday presents this year.  I opted for Shock Value by Jason Zinoman, and looked for one more book to add to the order.  Earlier in the year I had stumbled across Bissell’s article on Grand Theft Auto and cocaine.  I added the book to my basket but didn’t think it could be as engaging as that post.  But much like Bissell on cocaine, I was quickly hooked.  I read through it in a few days, no small feat for a slow reader.  Extra Lives is one of the few books that I’ve read, then returned to months later.  It’s the only book that, after a second read-through, I immediately began a third (admittedly, I didn’t read it all that time).

I got so obsessed with Extra Lives that I began to regularly scour the web for anything on Bissell.  I may have yelped with glee when I discovered he was writing for a site I already read, Grantland.com.  I followed all the links from his Wiki page, bookmarked his articles on Byliner.com.  I hunted for a copy of a book he’d written on Gears of War, which was only available as part of a special edition of the most recent iteration of the game (which was too expensive to buy).  Most embarrassingly, I even emailed the man himself to see if he could get me a copy.  He didn’t reply, which is perfectly understandable.

Extra Lives isn’t a number of things.  It’s not a history of games.  Bissell only writes about the games that interest him most.  It’s not a book on the process of creating games, Tom himself admits that he has little knowledge of the area.  Quite simply, Bissell plays a lot of games, and was intrigued enough by their attempts at narrative of them to take notes.  Notes which flowered into this book.

Until I read Extra Lives I didn’t think much interesting writing about gaming existed.  I’d give the IGN and Joystiq sites a quick read-through, finishing their reviews with a vague sense of dissatisfaction, like Neo in the Matrix.  Upon reading this book I realised that it was criticism of gaming I’d been looking for, not simply ‘should I buy this or not?’ summarised in 600 words.

Bissell delves into why playing good games is so enjoyable, and why playing bad ones can become so time consuming.  He examines why story in so many games falls flat.  He’s that wonderful combination of diagnostician, who can spot exactly why something went wrong; with the great writer, who can clearly explain why.

Bissell inspired me to take a critical look at games, and I’ve since written more about games than I ever thought I would.  Extra Lives made a few things okay:

  • It’s okay to write about yourself.  Whether this is New Games Journalism or not, I do know is that a lot of professional games writing misses an important point: games are interactive, so the player’s input is more important to the experience than, say, film.  A good film review can’t help but be coloured by the reviewer’s personality, and that’s a medium where the every viewer sees the same thing (even if they take different things from it).  This subjectivity should be magnified in game writing, as every player’s experience is different.  A person’s aggressiveness, patience, sense of teamwork, these things shape the gaming experience.  So details of the writer’s state of mind, his literal place, help to round out the tale.  Within certain limits of course.  As gaming site Bitmob’s community posts often show, too much self-focus can become tedious
  • It’s okay to think deeply about games.  There’s a feeling of dread when someone analyses a game you’ve spent significant time on, as if looking too closely will expose the pursuit as truly that of kids and idiots.  Bissell wades in, admitting that he may not like what he sees.  Game narratives are shown as the perfunctory element they often are, utilised to give a brief respite between battles, allow levels time to load, and to maintain the illusion that games are more than just a series of rules and repetitive movements.  Games can do story in a way no other medium can, but so many games simply make a tired attempt at Hollywood spectacle and leave it at that.  Extra Lives also highlights just how much effort goes into making a good game.  When a game is enjoyable, design aspects like sound and level design can be forgotten just because they integrate so well into the whole package.  The book also shows that bad games aren’t necessarily so because of a lack of effort or vision, just that so many things can go wrong during development.

I love Extra Lives because I see myself in it.  Tom Bissell spends far more time playing games than he wishes to.  One hour of play becomes five.  Games that aren’t fun still get played.  Another level loads while a clock ticks in your subconscious, reminding you how productive you could be if you could just put down the controller.  Your mind retreats at the childlike vulgarity of a game’s narrative, is later lured into ennui as you mow down another player’s avatar with machine gun fire in a Call of Duty multiplayer session.  I’ve experienced all this.  The difference between Bissell and me is that he can identify what appeals to him about these games, and then write brilliantly about it.

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