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Book Notes: ‘The Master Switch,’ by Tim Wu

From time to time I share notes about the books I’ve been reading, or have revisited recently after many years.

These posts are meant to help me remember what I’ve learned, and to point out titles I think are worth consulting. They’re neither formal book reviews nor comprehensive book summaries, but simply my notes from reading these titles.

For previous postings, see my Book Notes category.

The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires

Published: 2010
ISBN-13: 978-0307269935
Amazon link

Brief Summary

All new communications media are at first open, but come to be dominated — closed — by corporations. “The cycle” is happening again with the internet.

My Notes

In this meticulously researched and prescient* 2010 book, Columbia University Law Professor Tim Wu, who famously coined the term “network neutrality,” shows how radio, film, television and cable all began as wide-open playgrounds for hobbyists. Then large corporations took over, exercised monopoly control, and have stifled innovation.

Wu says this represents “the cycle.” As he writes, “information empires” eternally “return to consolidated order however great the disruptive forces of creative destruction.”

What is “the master switch“? Wu takes the phrase from CBS executive Fred Friendly, who:

…thought that the shortage of TV stations had given exclusive custody of a ‘master switch’ over speech, creating ‘an autocracy’ where a very few citizens are more equal than all the others.’

  • It’s important to note that the book was published in 2010, the same year that the Arab Spring began. Eight years ago there was, in my mind, a much more utopian view of what the web could become: a place for free speech to blossom, where everyone can have a voice and speak truth to power.

That was, of course, long before the rising skepticism of how platforms like Facebook and Twitter wield their power, and long before “fake news” and Russian trolls. And it was, of course, before Obama’s 2015 net neutrality rules — and before FCC Chairman Ajit Pai rolled them back last year.

My notes on other tidbits from history that I enjoyed reading about:

  • RCA dominated radio, then suppressed the release of TV until they could control the medium, Wu writes.
  • In the 1940s AT&T killed through a series of lawsuits an inventor’s simple, useful contraption called the Hush-a-Phone; it was, Wu writes, an example of a corporation stifling innovation.
  • The breakup of the Hollywood monopolies, in which studios owned theaters and produced fairly bland content, gave rise to the “new Hollywood” and classic films of the 1970s, such as “The Godfather” and “Bonnie and Clyde.”
  • At Apple, Steve Wozniak wanted openness (i.e. Apple II, which could be tinkered with); Steve Jobs wanted things closed (i.e. the Mac, which was sealed). Wu says Wozniak told him “That was Steve. He wanted it that way. The Apple II was my machine, and the Mac was his.”
  • Google wants the web to remain open, even though it has enormous power. Wu writes:

    In fairness, it must be allowed that Google has remained more committed to openness than any information empire before it. What now seems possible, if unprecedented, is a well-defended Internet monopolist running a mostly open system.

  • Wu recounts an interesting Google anecdote:

    In the fall of 2010, I was on Google’s campus speaking of cycles, of open and closed, centralization and decentralization. A senior employee raised his hand. “You have a good point,” he said. “When you’re a new company, getting started, openness seems really great, because it offers a way in. But I have to admit, the bigger you get, the more appealing closed systems starts (sic) to look.”

  • Finally, Wu says the stakes are much higher when it comes to the web, compared to other media. That’s because “our future…is almost certain to become an intensification of our current reality: greater and greater information dependence in every matter of life and work, and all that needed information increasingly traveling a single network we call the internet…already there are signs that the good old days of a completely open network are ending.”

Book Notes: ‘The Other One Percent: Indians in America,’ by Sanjoy Chakravorty, Devesh Kapur and Nirvikar Singh

the other one percent

From time to time I share notes about the books I’ve been reading, or have revisited recently after many years.

These posts are meant to help me remember what I’ve learned, and to point out titles I think are worth consulting. They’re neither formal book reviews nor comprehensive book summaries, but simply my notes from reading these titles.

For previous postings, see my Book Notes category.

The Other One Percent: Indians in America

By Sanjoy Chakravorty, Devesh Kapur, Nirvikar Singh
Published in 2017
Oxford University Press
ISBN–10: 0190648740
Amazon link

Brief Summary

An illuminating look at how Indians in America – a tiny percentage of the overall population – have come to enjoy such outsized success.

My Notes

The jacket copy sums up nicely the miracle that is Indian immigration to America:

One of the most remarkable stories of immigration in the last half century is that of Indians to the United States. People of Indian origin make up a little over one percent of the American population now, up from barely half a percent at the turn of the millennium. Not only has its recent growth been extraordinary, but this population from a developing nation with low human capital is now the most-educated and highest-income group in the world’s most advanced nation.

You read that passage, and the title of the book, right: There are only about 3 million people of Indian origin in the U.S.

That’s an astoundingly low number when you consider their prominence in tech, medicine, finance and more. As a group, they have much higher levels of education and income than other citizens.

How’d that happen?

The short story: A U.S. immigration act in 1917 virtually terminated immigration from Asia. But changes to the law in 1965 opened things up, and thus began an influx of Indians.

But not just any Indians.

The authors – academics at Temple University (Chakravorty), the University of Pennsylvania (Kapur) and the University of California, Santa Cruz (Singh) – argue that Indian immigrants were “triple selected”:

  1. They came from dominant castes and had access to higher education
  2. They were selected to take exams in tech fields
  3. They benefitted from U.S. immigration law, which favored immigrants with tech skills

The book is absolutely brimming with data, and makes for a fantastic resource. (One reason I read substantive books in paper rather than on a Kindle is so I can underline passages, take photos for blog posts like this one, and then put them back on my shelf for future use!)

“The Other One Percent” contains some excellent graphs and charts, like this one, illustrating just how exceptional this population is:

IMG 0645

There were three phases of Indians coming to America:

  1. The early movers, in the 1960s and 1970s
  2. The families (1980s through early 1990s)
  3. The IT generation (after the early 1990s)

IMG 0648

Here’s a map of where Indian-Americans tend to be clustered in the U.S., based on community organizations:

indians in america by geography

And here’s data on the boom in H–1B visas (a topic on which I’ve reported before) issued to highly skilled workers – and Indians’ huge proportion of those.

indian visas and america

Finally, while the book argues that “the success of Indian Americans is at its core a selection story,” the authors do touch on other potential factors. These include:

  • “thrift and pooling of savings”
  • English language skills
  • strong social networks
  • “cohesive families”
  • an experience with social heterogeneity in India that has made them more “adaptable”

I highly recommend “The Other One Percent” for those interested in immigration and immigration policy, the Indian diaspora, and American society broadly.

Book Notes: ‘Sapiens,’ by Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens

From time to time I share notes about the books I’ve been reading, or have revisited recently after many years.

These posts are meant to help me remember what I’ve learned, and to point out titles I think are worth consulting.

For previous postings, see my Book Notes category.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Published (in English): 2014
ISBN–10: 0062316095
Amazon link

Brief Summary

A deeply thought-provoking book about how homo sapiens came to dominate the world – and how our advancements have come at a significant cost.

My notes

I love big, sprawling books that tackle huge subjects and challenge you to change the way you conceive of the world.

This global bestseller, which has been all the rage among Silicon Valley technologists in recent years, in particular, is one of the best of that sort of title I’ve read.

It’s a kind of even-bigger-picture “Guns, Germs and Steel,” the hit 1997 book (which I also loved) in which Jared Diamond famously demonstrated the role the environment has played in shaping civilization and material development.

I think anyone who reads this fun, fast-paced, surprisingly easy-to-read book will be hard pressed not to come away with the sense that:

Human life is insignificant in the grand scheme of things;
– Our advancements as a species have been mind-bogglingly rapid, with humans and the planet paying a huge price;
– The way we have been living for the last 200 years is radically at odds with how humans have existed over the long term;
– The jury is out, according to Harari, as to whether humans will survive in the long term. He is not optimistic.

(Okay, all that may sound depressing, I know realize, but still…)

  • Harari, a historian, shows how homo sapiens evolved in East Africa 200,000 years ago, then 70,000 years ago spread out of Africa as the cognitive revolution took over, in which language emerge and allowed sapiens to either kill off or out-flourish other humans, like Neanderthals.
  • We all know that sapiens wiped out the world’s biggest animals, but Harari reinforces this point, recounting how we killed off megafauna from Australia to the Americas over time. Sapiens has historically destroyed everything in its path, and now that we have nuclear weapons, Harari is not bullish on our long term survival. But, of course, the universe doesn’t care about people. Cockroaches and rats are thriving today despite our having driven other creatures to extinction, and could in millions of years evolve into sophisticated creatures, thanking us for demolishing the planet and setting the stage for their rise.

  • The agricultural revolution, which happened about 12,000 years ago, was “history’s biggest fraud,” Harari writes, because it lead to widespread suffering for farmers and laborers producing food for elites, while life as hunter-gatherers may have largely been more conducive to human happiness despite shorter lives and higher rates of violence.

  • 2,500 hundred years ago coinage came into use. Money equals trust. Harari is big on “imagined orders” and the power of ideas to bind or separate us, such as democracy, capitalism, racism and the caste system.

  • The scientific revolution, about 500 years ago, lead to the industrial revolution some three hundred years later, and ultimately imperialism, with all its devastation for those subjugated.

    “The feedback loop between science, empire and capital has arguably been history’s chief engine for the past 500 years,” he writes. Capitalism + scientific inquiry = imperialism.

  • The industrial revolution – while providing us with undeniable material and medical benefits – has meant “family and community” have been replaced by “state and market.”

    “Millions of years of evolution have designed us to live and think as community members,” he writes. “Within a mere two centuries we have become alienated individuals.

  • Industrialized animal husbandry feeds the world, but “If we accept a mere tenth of what animal-rights activists are claiming, then modern industrial agriculture might well be the greatest crime in history.

  • I found the penultimate chapter, on human happiness, to be particularly thought-provoking.

    Money doesn’t ultimately bring lasting happiness due the luxury trap: there are diminishing returns to having fancy things, and someone always has even nicer stuff. That’s the case even for most billionaires.

    Community, family, positive marriages, and living according to one’s values – and with a sense of purpose – matter more. It could be that happiness most flourishes when we buy into belief systems or religious delusions, even if scientifically life has no meaning.

  • Harari seems to promote Buddhist philosophy and meditation as an antidote to alienation. “People are liberated from suffering not when they experience this or that fleeting pleasure, but rather when they understand the impermanent nature of all their feelings, and stop craving them,” he writes.

  • Ultimately, for all our advancements, human suffering is still rife in the world – whether it’s due to consumerism, ongoing oppression, or other factors. That puts all of our economic and scientific progress into perspective. Are humans actually happier today than tens of thousands of years ago? We are undoubtedly healthier and safer, but we may not be any happier.

Book Notes: ‘Waking Up,’ by Sam Harris

From time to time I share notes about the books I’ve been reading, or have revisited recently after many years.

These posts are meant to help me remember what I’ve learned, and to point out titles I think are worth consulting.

For more, see my Book Notes category.

waking_up_sam_harris

Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion

Published: 2014
ISBN-13: 978-1451636017
Amazon link

Brief Summary

An insightful book about the nature of consciousness and why we don’t need religion to better understand ourselves and the world. What we really need is to understand how our brain works.

My Notes

  • Everything in this world shaped by our minds. I like this passage from the very beginning of the book, which sums up quite neatly what Harris, a neuroscientist, wants us to know about consciousness:

Our minds are all we have. They are all we have ever had. And they are all we can offer others…Every experience you have ever had has been shaped by your mind. Every relationship is as good or as bad as it is because of the minds involved.

  • “I,” the ego, doesn’t exist. Meditation stops discursive thought and helps us understand how our brain works and how it mediates the world around us.
  • Buddhism is different than Abrahamic religions, Harris writes, because it aims to foster an understanding of reality and achieve selflessness. He writes:

Buddhism has been of special interest to Western scientists for reasons already hinted at. It isn’t primarily a faith-based religion, and its central teachings are entirely empirical. Despite the superstitions that many Buddhists cherish, the doctrine has a practical and logical core that does not require any unwarranted assumptions.

And:

Although many Buddhists have a superstitious and cultic attachment to the historical Buddha, the teachings of Buddhism present him as an ordinary human being who succeeded in understanding the nature of his own mind. Buddha means “awakened one,” and  Siddhartha Gautama was merely a man who woke up from the dream of being a separate self.

  • Meditation, like Vipassana practice, is useful in gaining insight into how our minds work.
  • Psychedelic drugs like LSD — the book contains a memorable passage about Harris’s experiences with the drug — are powerful tools, but their use can be perilous.

Book Notes: ‘The Innovators,’ by Walter Isaacson

From time to time I share notes about the books I’ve been reading, or have revisited recently after many years.

These posts are meant to help me remember what I’ve learned, and to point out titles I think are worth consulting.

For more, see my Book Notes category

the_innovators_walter_isaacson

The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution

Published: 2014
ISBN: 978-1476708690
Amazon link

Brief Summary

An exhaustive, compulsively readable account of how the computer and the internet came to be.

My Notes

  • If you’re looking for a comprehensive account of how some of the 21st century’s most important technical inventions came to be, this is it. It is long, at just under 500 pages, but is well paced and fascinating throghout.
  • Isaacson, who’s written acclaimed biographies of Steve Jobs, Ben Franklin and more, does an excellent job synthesizing what is fairly complex engineering material into a wide-ranging look at how innovations occured and — most important — what drove the men and women behind them.
  • An over-arching theme is that innovation is a group effort. Forget the idea of solo inventors toiling away in labs. Big breakthroughs happen via team efforts, often when engineers are paired with visionaries. In workspaces, physical proximity is important so that workers can share ideas.
  • The transistor was to the digital age what the steam engine was to the industrial age.
  • Vacuum tubes led to transistsors, which led to semiconductors and then microchips.
  • A group of men from a more traditional semiconductor company on the east coast headed west what is now known, yes, as Silicon Valley, to start their own operations (or startup). Their style was much more laid back, with unconventional work practices, a culture that prevails today.
  • Venture capital began as rich East coast families began backing west coast startups.
  • As most people know, government spending has always propelled the U.S. tech industry. A government project that started as a way for universities to share computing power, orginally begun as a government funded initiative to provide a secure means of communication in the event of a nuclear attack, became the internet.
  • In 1969 alone, that project began, NASA put a man on the moon, and microprocessors emerged.
  • The internet expanded in the 1970s and 1980s, but it didn’t hit a critical mass commercially until Sept. 1993.
  • Bill Gates and Paul Allen created the software industry.

Book Notes: ‘The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century,’ by George Friedman

From time to time I share notes about the books I’ve been reading, or have revisited recently after many years.

These posts are meant to help me remember what I’ve learned, and to point out titles I think are worth consulting.

For more, see my Book Notes category

Next 100 years

The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century

Published: 2009
ISBN: 9780767923057
Amazon link

Brief Summary

Can anyone really predict what will happen over the next century? Friedman, the founder of geopolitical research firm Stratfor, which analyzes global events for private clients, gives it a shot.

In this 2009 book, he argues that American influence began after the U.S. won the cold war, and will only continue though the 21st century. But it will be tested by factors like an increasingly aggressive Russia and other states like Japan and Mexico.

My notes:

  • Don’t worry about U.S. economic troubles — the book was published in the midst of the Great Recession — the author says, because history shows the U.S. government tends to intervene to prevent total collapse. So the economy will online continue growing
  • Three crucial factors affecting the world order during the 20th century were:
    • The end of the European imperial system
    • The world population quadrupling
    • A revolution in transportation and communications
  • Three important factors during the 21st century will be:
    • The continuation of American power
    • The end of the population boom
    • Technologies to deal with declining populations
  • The main threats to U.S. power will be Middle Eastern states, Russia, Japan and Mexico.

    Russia will continue to expand its territory to recoup its losses after the fall of the Soviet Union. Japan‘s desire for empire will rekindle. Mexico will spell trouble for the U.S. due to demographic issues, with so many people of Mexican descent living in America.

  • Friedman says the U.S. shouldn’t be overly concerned about China, because its history shows ongoing conflict between the poor interior region and the richer coastal areas. Rather than aspiring to expand its territory, Chinese leaders will focus more on tamping down social unrest at home.
  • The U.S. economy is a global power, and will continue to be one, in part because of its military might. The U.S. Navy controls the world’s shipping lanes, crucial for international trade.
  • Cultures move over time from being barbaric to civilized to decadent. The U.S., as a relatively young country, is still in its barbaric stage and is thus willing to wage war in its national interest.
  • Ultimately, military conflicts will move into space, where the U.S. will continue to have the upper hand against rivals.

Book Notes: The Innovator’s Dilemma, by Clayton Christensen

Note: From time to time I share notes about the books I’ve been reading, or have revisited recently after many years.

These posts are meant to help me remember what I’ve learned from books I’ve found especially useful, and to point out to readers titles I think are worth consulting.

For more, see my Book Notes category

Innovatorsdilemma

The Innovator’s Dilemma, by Clayton Christensen

Published: 1997
ISBN: 1633691780
Amazon link

Brief Summary

In this 1997 business classic, Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen pioneered the theory of “disruptive innovation,” the phenomenon in which upstart firms displace established ones by taking advantage of emerging technologies.

To really understand what “disruption” means, avoid 95% of the tech commentary you’ll read on the subject, and go right to the source: this book.

My notes:

  • It’s impossible to avoid the word “disruption” these days. Company X is disrupting company Y, a pundit might say. Or someone at a startup you’ve never heard of will proclaim that their company is “disrupting the [fill in the blank] space.” That sort of thing.

    But people often use the term incorrectly, as a trendy way to say “competing with” or “shaking up” a sector. You should read this book to understand what “disruption” really means.

  • Technological “disruption,” as Christensen illustrates through historical examples, is what happens when upstart companies dislodge dominant firms with their often less expensive products that are at first deemed to be insufficient to meet large customers’ needs. But then things shift and the previously inferior offerings displace the mainstream ones.
  • For example, 3.-5-inch disk drives came along that larger manufacturers eschewed because most of their customers needed bigger ones. But then desktop PCs rose to prominence, and they required smaller drives, and it was too late for older manufactures, who hadn’t introduced newer products, to catch up with their faster-moving rivals.

    Another example: Small Honda motorbikes didn’t take off at first in the U.S., but then people realized they were great for dirt biking, and even getting around town, and they eventually disrupted companies making larger motorbikes.

    And so called “mini mills” at first offered lower-quality products than larger steel mills, but then their technology improved rapidly, and they disrupted traditional integrated mills.

  • Crucially, some forget that the “dilemma” in the title refers to the fact that many well-run, highly profitable firms are often disrupted despite that the fact they seem to be doing all the right things.

    That is, they are making money, satisfying their customers, and delivering value to shareholders. The dilemma is that precisely by doing those things, however, they become vulnerable to new, disruptive technologies.

    They are giving customers what they want, so why should managers change course? A major problem: Customers often don’t know what they’re going to want a few years down the line, and when market demand shifts, an upstart firm may have come along and already started offering it.

Book Notes: The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon

Note: From time to time I share notes about the books I’ve been reading, or have revisited after many years. For more such posts, see the Book Notes category

everything_store

The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, by Brad Stone

Published: 2013
ISBN: 0316219282
Amazon link

Brief Summary

The fascinating story of the rise of Amazon, which is the story of Jeff Bezos himself. He is brilliant, analytical, highly competitive, and driven. Bezos built Amazon not only to create the best contemporary company of its kind, vanquishing all rivals, but engineered systems to innovate and continue to succeed well into the future.

My notes:

  • I read this book as part of the research for my Wall Street Journal story, published in November, about Amazon’s rapid progress here in India. I wanted to learn as much as I could about Amazon. I couldn’t have picked a better book.
  • Author Brad Stone, who covered Amazon for years for the likes of The New York Times and Newsweek, provides the fascinating story of Bezos’s personal background, his early academic success, and his bold decision to leave a high-paying Wall Street job to move out west and found Amazon.
  • The book is not a hagiography, however. Bezos and Amazon are presented warts and all. Anecdotes show the Amazon founder to be at times ruthless in his quest for success, and other times enormously generous. And the high-pressure nature of Amazon’s corporate culture is plain to see.
  • I’m old enough to recall the dotcom bust, but “The Everything Store” serves as a good reminder to younger readers just how bleak things got for Amazon, when its stock fell and many believed one of its e-commerce competitors, eBay, would be the runaway success, not Amazon.
  • From a communications perspective, it’s interesting to note the book highlights several instances when new public announcements have been timed over the years to conincide with competitors’ quarterly results, as a way to steal their thunder. And Bezos himself is a master at messaging, honing “Jeff-isms” to express the company’s point of view in a pithy manner, often deflect various criticisms of the company along the way.
  • If you want to learn more about Bezoz, Amazon, and its culture, Stone has helpfully provided a list of “a dozen books widely read by executives and employees that are integral to understanding the company. Some of the titles include the novel “The Remains of the Day,” books by Sam Walton and Alan Greenberg, and modern-day business classics like “The Innovator’s Dilemma” and “The Black Swan.”

Book Notes — Fooled by Randomness, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Note: From time to time I share notes about the books I’ve been reading, or have revisited after many years. For more such posts, see the Book Notes category

Fooled by randomness

Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Published: 2001
ISBN: 1400067936
Amazon link
My rating: 7/10

The book in three sentences:

The world is mostly random and non-linear, but we are hard-wired to construct narratives that make sense of it all. What we attribute to individuals’ and organizations’ skill is often mostly due to luck. We trick ourselves into thinking that what seems unlikely to happen — like the appearance of a black swan — will never actually take place.

My notes:

  • This is Taleb’s first book, published in 2004, before his more well-known “The Black Swan” came out three years later. Here, he lays out his thinking on why we are “fooled by randomness,” or built to make sense of a world that often is nonsensical.
  • Taleb relates his experience as a trader, taking an unconventional approach to investing, to illustrate how his grasp of how the world has brought him success. Unlike those around him, for example, he eschews news because its signal-to-noise ration is too high. A proud iconoclast, he assails journalists, economists, academics, MBAs (of which he is one) and other investors for being blindly taken in by randomness.
  • A passage from the prologue sums up Taleb’s thinking:

    We are still very close to our ancestors who roamed the savannah. The formation of our beliefs is fraught with superstitions — even today (I might say, especially today). Just as one day some primitive tribesman scratched his nose, saw rain falling, and developed an elaborate method of scratching his note to bring on the much-needed rain, we link economic prosperity to some rate cut by the Federal Reserve Board, or the success of a company with appointment of the new president “at the helm…”

    This confusion strikes people of different persuasions; the literature professor invests a deep meaning into a mere coincidental occurrence of word patterns, while the economist proudly detects “regularities” and “anomalies” in data that are plain random.

    At the cost of appearing biased, I have to say that the literary mind can be intentionally prone to the confusion between noise and meaning, that is, between a randomly constructed arrangement and a precisely intended message.

  • Perhaps because Nassim’s work is so influential — people often refer to “black swan” events, especially in the tech world — I feel as if rather than introduce me to a radical new way of thinking, this book reinforced many of Taleb’s arguments, which I had already internalized. Some of the best parts of the book, in my mind, are his anecdotes about colorful characters from the Wall Street world.
  • I must say I found what seemed to be his focus on proving his intellectual superiority to those around him to be mildly off-putting. Still, I found it quite entertaining and enriching. If you set out to read this book not as a nonfiction guide to his way of thinking but as a personal essay, which is how it structured, I think you’ll find it enjoyable and enlightening.
  • Book Notes — The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller

    Note: For some time I have kept, on index cards, written notes about the books I’ve read. I decided to share some of these thoughts here, and will be posting them, one by one on individual books, in no particular order. I’ll group them all together on a central page later. For now I’m assigning them all to my Book Notes category. Thanks to Derek Sivers for the inspiration.

    The dog stars

    The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller
    Published: 2013
    ISBN: 1611736137
    Amazon link
    Rating: 8/10

    Brief recap: A beautifully written, hope-infused post-apocalyptic novel. Yes, you read that right.

    My notes:

    • I am not ashamed to admit I an enamored of post-apocalyptic fiction. Like another well-known book about a disaster-struck world, Cormack McCarthy’s “The Road,” this novel tells the story of handful of people left behind after most of the world’s population has been wiped out. But unlike “The Road,” as some reviewers have noted, this book — while it does contains some very real nastiness — is dominated by the protagonist’s love for his deceased wife, his bond with his beloved dog, and his hope that the future may bring salvation of some sort. In other words, it is strangely optimistic. And very moving.

    • Narratively speaking, Heller does an excellent job recounting, in bits and pieces via flashbacks, the sickness that befell humanity. But rather than get into highly specific medical or scientific details, he hints at symptoms and theories, leaving the reader to ponder precisely what happened. Similarly, the reader gleans just enough details about the how chaos unfolds to still leave some questions unanswered. This is not, in other words, “World War Z,” replete with gory details (and zombie attacks), viewed from some future standpoint.

    • The novel is set in Colorado, and there are some really gorgeous passages here about nature: mountainous vistas, deer, trout. Striking stuff.

    • This is a book aviation buffs will enjoy, as the narrator, Hig, lives with his partner at an abandoned airport. Hig frequently takes his Cessna out to patrol surrounding areas and visit other survivors, and the book has some detailed passages about the experience of flying.

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