17 Must-Read Books for the New Year
An unlikely debut, a posthumous masterpiece, and more titles to pick up now.
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The story of human progress is typically told as a sobering series of battles, colonizations, political maneuverings and other seriously adult undertakings, but what if that narrative has overlooked civilization’s most transformative, transcendent moments: people playing? Wonderland, by best-selling author and digital pioneer Steven Johnson, retells the tale of our path forward through the gamemakers, showmen and other usually ancillary characters whose pursuit of delight helped create our modern age. And what characters they are! Meet Girolamo Cardano, a womanizing 16th-century mathematician and gambler who, in trying to improve his odds of winning at dice, accidentally spearheaded probability theory. Then there’s Johann Georg Schröpfer, an occultist whose ghostly lantern projections influenced both Marxism and the advent of cinema (but who bought into his own illusions to such a degree that he committed suicide, assuming he could return from the dead). And let’s not forget the pub owners whose watering holes gestated the American Revolution; the congenial inventor of the roller skate who’s believed to have sparked the idea of the first programmable computer; the wealthy Phoenicians whose fascination with purple dye (and the snails that made it) pushed sailors into the uncharted waters of the Atlantic; and the legions of amateur explorers, basement tinkerers, bored musicians, sideshow freaks, and video game obsessives who collectively helped usher in our brave new technological world. Ultimately, the parade of humanity Johnson presents in this lively (and generously illustrated) work leads us to the reassuring conclusion that history is often made not by nerds in lab coats, but by ingenious humans hankering for more intriguing ways to pass the time.
— Natalie Beach