Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Best Books of 2004, Part II

And now, without any further adieu, the best of the rest from 2004:

5. Othello, William Shakespeare.

A biracial marriage between the black Othello and the white Desdemona--still in its honeymoon phase--sours quickly when Othello's lieutentat, Othello, insinuates that Desdemona has been unfaithful. There's a rather explosive ending, but I won't spoil it, on the off chance that someone doesn't know what happens here.

I feel like something of a heathen, since what I consider to be the Bard's best play doesn't make it higher than this--but then I remember that Othello is, after all, a play, not a book. There's something about the greatness of any play that is lost as soon as you remove it from the stage. Sure, you could read this classic tale of jealousy aloud (much better than Anna Karenina, which would probably be my second pick for books on "jealousy"), but you can never capture in mere words the sort of tension that mounts in a live production as you watch Iago pry Othello and Desdemona apart, lie by damning lie. It's gripping, every time. I only wish that
the Patrick Stewart production that reversed the races (Patrick Stewart was the only white actor in the play; it was set in an imaginary modern South Africa, instead of Renaissance Italy) was on film--I'd love to see that!

4. The Evolution of Cooperation, Robert Axelrod

This is the sort of book that gets me excited about writing a "best of 2004" post, because it's a book that most of you have never heard of, but one whose premise I can almost guarantee you will be interested in. In Evolution, Axelrod demonstrates that the best solution to the prisoner's dilemma is to cooperate. Now, you might ask, what is the prisoner's dilemma? So glad you asked.

Let's imagine that you and I are prisoners incarcerated for our partnership in some heinous crime and facing the prospect of 3 years in prison. The DA comes to each of us--separately--and offers to reduce our sentence to 1 year if we rat out the other partner (who would then get 7 years in prison. The prisoner's dilemma is this: Is it in your best interest to rat out your partner or stay silent? There are three possible outcomes in this scenario: 1) Both prisoners stay silent and get 3 years. 2) One prisoner talks and gets 1 year while the other gets 7 years. 3) Both prisoners talk, and both get 7 years. You cannot know what your partner in crime will decide to do--so how do you decide whether it is in your best interest to talk or stay silent?

You might wonder why I am so excited about a book solving the prisoner's dilemma when I have no immediate plans of being incarcerated--but the prisoner's dilemma is a model that applies to decisions in everyday life. Let's say you're a general contractor who has hired a subcontractor to put the plumbing in a set of houses. You can 1) share profits evenly with your subs or 2) try to screw them out of as many dollars as they will let you. The subcontractor has a similar set of choices. He can 1) do the best work possible for the general contractor, which will make the GC's customer's happy or 2) rush through the job, take his money and run. Though this scenario might not seem like the prisoner's dilemma, there are, once again, three possible outcomes that roughly parallel the outcomes above: 1) The GC and SC cooperate, sharing profits and doing quality work. 2) One of the parties acts honorably (sharing profits or doing good work) and the other acts dishonorably, shafting the honorably party (squeezing profits or doing shoddy work). 3) Both parties act dishonorably.

Do you see the ways in which the prisoner's dilemma is a simplified version of life? The prisoner's dilemma asks us to decide whether we will be nice to and cooperate with others or shaft everyone in order to maximize our own benefits. Now, I've personally made the decision to be nice and cooperative--which makes Axelrod's book that much more exciting to me. In it, he proves empirically that being nice is the best choice--that nice guys finish first. Just as importantly, he does so in an engaging, fun-to-read way. Evolution is insightful and entertaining, which is about all that I could ask for from a book. Read it.

3. Don Quixote, Cervantes.

Readers of this blog (if there are any) will note that the top three entries for 2004 receive less attention than the fourth entry--The Evolution of Cooperation. This is not because I think Axelrod's book is better; obviously, I would have ranked it higher, otherwise. Rather, it is because I think the book needed more explanation to be appreciated than the narratives that make up my top three.

Don Quixote is a book that I could re-read every year without enjoying it any less. Four centuries later, Cervantes still delivers plenty of laugh-out-loud moments with the exploits of his knight errant (emphasis on the err portion of errant) and helpful (sort of) squire Sancho Panza. This is--arguably--the first modern novel and a must-read before you leave the world.

2. Between the Testaments: From Malachi to Matthew, Holzapfel and Brown.

The Bible isn't real clear on the events that transpire between the Old and New Testaments--neither is the Apocrypha, though it purports to give a history of the time period. I much prefer the account of Holzapfel and Brown, which is clear and provides contextual information that makes the transition from New Testament as seamless as four hundred years can be.

1. Paradise Lost, John Milton.

Probably my pick for the best book ever written. Need I say more?

Coming Attractions: The only surviving picture of Aaron's fu manchu...


Ben Hutchins said...

Zach - why do I get headaches when I go to read these posts :) Seriously - you are a student of the writtne word... sometimes I just don't want to think so hard!

Jenny said...

I'm waiting for the summer list that includes the Biography of Neil Diamond: Forever in Blue Jeans.

Jenny said...

OH, how could I have missed your birthday?? Happy Birthday, book man. Love you tons!