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Books I Can’t Shut Up About

An Annotated Bibliography of the Inside of My Head

Originally published December 12, 2019
Last updated December 12, 2019
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I’m running a little blog carnival titled, “An Annotated Bibliography of the Inside of My Head,” and the following is my contribution: the books I can’t stop thinking about, won’t shut up about, and keep pressing on my friends to get them to read.

If you’d like to join the blog carnival, you can post any time up until December 15th, 2019. Instructions are at the link above. And if you’ve made your own bibliography post, please don’t forget to comment there so you’ll be included in the roundup!


Christopher Alexander et al, “The Timeless Way of Building” and “A Pattern Language”

Two of a three volume set (the third is about the design of a particular project), these two books together talk about vernacular architecture – the traditional housing styles built by ordinary people around the world – and what makes those homes comfortable. The first book is descriptive, the second prescriptive. “A Pattern Language” lays out a couple of hundred patterns like “159. Light on Two Sides of Every Room,” describing how to design a comfortable living space. The book is arranged from wide scale (towns) to small scale (details sa as seating, plants, and ornament), with each numbered pattern referring to other patterns that it fits within, or that fit within it.

Once you’ve read the patterns, you’ll see them everywhere, or see where they don’t exist and how uncomfortable the lack of them can be, and you’ll start mentioning them the way I do. Also, you will start designing a thousand dream homes in your head.

And yes, the term “patterns” here are where the idea of software design patterns come from; in fact, it was an undergrad software development course that turned me on to Alexander.

The Timeless Way of Building: Borrow, Buy
A Pattern Language: Borrow, Buy

Meg-John Barker & Julia Scheele, “Queer: A Graphic History”

This comic-style guide to Queer Theory is the intro I’ve needed since I was a computing undergrad at parties feeling a sense of inferiority when arts undergrads talked about Foucault. An easy, accessible read (I kept it in the bathroom for a while), it covers everything from the meaning of the word “queer” as an adjective and a verb, the development of queer theory from early sexologists like Krafft-Ebing to the modern day, via a veritable who’s who of the field, and taking in black feminisms, intersectionality, critical race theory, and the ideas of queerness beyond sexuality.

Every time I open this book I make a few more connections with stuff I’ve seen people talking about online, and find myself thinking in more nuanced ways. If you don’t have time to formally study Queer Theory, or if you can feel your brain leaking out your ears at the very thought of trying to make sense of it, try this book.

Borrow, Buy

Jan Chozen Bays, “Mindful Eating”

It took me a long time to be ready to read this book from cover to cover, but now I’ve done it it’s really changed my relationship with food. Bays is a pediatrician and also a Zen abbot at a monastery in California. Her book is a careful balance of scientific fact and Zen wisdom. A great deal of the book has to do with listening to our “nine hungers” – from the mouth-hunger that anticipates the crisp crunch of an apple, to the mind-hunger that tells you you should have lunch early before your meeting or the heart-hunger that longs for our grandparents’ holiday cooking – to identify why you want to eat, and what you should eat (or what else you should do instead of eating) to fulfil that hunger. There’s also a great deal of advice on how mindfulness can help you get the most out of each mouthful, so that your hunger truly is sated. I sometimes find mindfulness books difficult to read, due to dense or just flat language, but this one was absorbing and accessible.

Borrow, Buy

Katy Bowman, “Movement Matters”

I’m always recommending Katy Bowman’s website Nutritious Movement to people who have plantar fasciitis, because she has some great exercises and stretches for foot pain, but her book “Movement Matters” goes deeper and is a good read for anyone who cares about how we move in the world.

Bowman talks about “vitamin M” (movement) and “vitamin T” (texture, as of grass underfoot) and also talks about community and nature as things we need like we need nutrients. In this book she ties movement to Permaculture (another subject I’m interested in), and gives examples of how movement can be used to fulfil Permaculture values and design practices, such as when walking with your kids to forage apples from a tree in a public place.

She also makes the insightful comment, which has stuck with me for years, that every time we don’t move – driving instead of biking, buying a prepared smoothie instead of chewing a piece of fruit – we are outsourcing that movement either to someone else (often low paid or in slave conditions), and/or to energy that most likely derives from fossil fuel. Bowman’s book makes me more mindful of how I move, and how my choices to move (or not) affect not only my own health, but the health of the community and the planet.

Borrow, Buy

David Fleming, “Lean Logic”

For people with experience in Permaculture or Transition Towns, my recommendation for this is: Fleming was a great thinker, and spent decades going to events in the UK carrying a sheaf of manuscript which he’d show people, which heavily influenced the Transition movement even before this book was published, posthumously, in 2016. For people not from that background, think of this as a guide to surviving and thriving in post-apocalyptic wasteland we’re hurtling toward. Also, its illustrations are gorgeous woodcuts.

Organised like an encyclopedia, “Lean Logic” is definitely not meant to be read from A to Z but dipped in and out of. Its subject matter is broad, from economics to community to spirituality to food and waste. I just flipped it open and found myself on the topics of “Freedom”, “Systems thinking,” “Play,” “Dual economy” (defined as “the principle by which transition to the Lean Economy moves ahead while the market economy alongside it is still capable of delivering social order, energy and incomes) and an excerpt from an 1821 treatise about “How Beer Protects Virtue: The case for home-brewing.”

There’s a shorter, paperback edition of this book called “Surviving the Future” in which some of the key entries have been curated in a readable order. If you’d like a taste, I suggest you start there first.

Borrow, Buy

Marc Girouard, “Life in the English Country House: A Social and Architectural History”

I no longer own a copy of this book – folks, learn from my lesson, and never purge your bookshelves when in mental health crisis – but I found myself recommending it again the other day, and I’ve recommended it so many times over the last almost 20 years that it definitely deserves a place here. Girouard is a social historian of architecture and urban environments, and everything he’s written is great, from the book about French chateaux whose appartements clearly demonstrate Christopher Alexander’s “Intimacy Gradient” pattern, to his book about English market towns that acts as a spotter’s guide to all the moving parts of the medieval-town-as-machine.

However, “Life in the English Country House” is probably the easiest place to start, especially for anyone who’s into Downton Abbey or has otherwise wondered how houses like that work. Most of the book follows a historical timeline, from the late medieval era to early 20th century, but there are a couple of “vertical” chapters dealing with such topics as private museums and lavatories. Long out of print, this is one to get through inter-library loan or secondhand.

Borrow, Buy

Sandor Katz, “The Art of Fermentation” and David Asher, “The Art of Natural Cheesemaking”

I list these two books together because I think about them constantly in similar ways. Both books talk about naturally fermented foods. Both books help you understand the principles of traditional fermentation and the science behind it. Both books are relatively light on recipes, vs lengthy descriptions so you understand the process and can do it without a recipe. And both books contain context, in their introductions, afterwords, and scattered through the text, that situates home fermentation within the scope of anti-capitalism. Read these not just to learn how to make sourdough bread, fruit wine, or hand-pulled mozzarella, but also to learn how doing so is a form of resistance.

The Art of Fermentation: Borrow, Buy
The Art of Natural Cheesemaking: Borrow, Buy

Rictor Norton, “The Myth of the Modern Homosexual”

Working in colonial era (pre-1901) Australian queer history, I often come across people parroting the “fact” that homosexual identity didn’t exist before the sexologists named it in the late 19th century, and the term became popularly known in the early 20th. This comes from what Norton calls “social constructionist dogma” put forward by theorists such as Michel Foucault, David Halperin, Jeffrey Weeks, etc, and which he demonstrates is not supported by history.

“The Myth of the Modern Homosexual” documents queer identities and communities throughout history, from the classical era to early modern Europe, and in non-Western cultures. It’s a pity that the theory doesn’t match up with the demonstrable facts. That’s not to say the theory isn’t a useful way of looking at things, but I wish those who repeat it in its simple form were aware of the many, many historical counter-examples.

Borrow, Buy

Patrick O’Brian, “Master and Commander”

The one token fiction entry in this list. O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series – 20 books in all, plus a half-finished one published posthumously – are the one fandom for which I actually have a tattoo. The story of Jack Aubrey, bluff sea-captain, and his partner Stephen Maturin, dark and introverted naturalist/surgeon/spy, are my all-time favourites. Over the course of the series they travel around the world getting into battles, picking up flora and fauna, and taking various drugs. Along the way they fight, make up, play string duets together, and repeat each other’s dad jokes. Lots of naval adventure novels are just that, but O’Brian’s are also character studies, comedies of errors, and amazing feats of erudition and historical nerdery.

The advice I always give with the first book is, “Don’t read the scene with the rigging descriptions as being about rigging descriptions. You’re not expected to understand. It’s a scene about character, not about sails.” Which is to say, it’s about sails as much as “Pride and Prejudice” is about the British system of entail.

Borrow, Buy

Bruce Pascoe, “Dark Emu”

This is a bit of an obvious one to anyone living in Australia. It’s the book Australia can’t shut up about right now. I want to say “I read it before it was cool” but that’s not the point. If you’re reading this from outside this country, I encourage you to get a copy of this book to learn about our indigenous pre-history, and its wilful covering-up by white settlers. This book especially talks about evidence of indigenous agriculture from early white explorers’ and settlers’ journals, countering the claim that the first Australians were purely hunter-gatherers. The doctrine of Terra nullius on which Australia’s colonisation by the British stands, and the lack of a treaty (still!) with our First Nations are based on this lie.

Borrow, Buy


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Alex Bayley is a tech industry refugee, independent researcher, writer, educator and community builder. They live in Ballarat, west of Melbourne, Australia.

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Responses

3 Comments

  1. Yatima on December 12, 2019 at 3:47 pm

    This was a really worthwhile exercise; thank you for kicking it off. Here’s mine.

  2. Carla on December 16, 2019 at 8:20 pm

    Thanks for all those amazing book recommendations and reviews Alex. You’ve totally whet my appetite for some school holiday reads!!

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