Thoughts on branding, design, writing and life by Kevin Potts. Established 2003.

2011 Reading Recap

Another year, another batch of great reading. Web nerdery was dominated by ALA books; next year, it won’t be. Far more success was found in fiction: I read four awesome books that I’d recommend to anyone.

Web Design/Development

  1. Adaptive Web Design (Aaron Gustafson)
    This is a book about principals and philosophy, not code — think kitchen design versus recipes. To that end, it’s very good. The writing is crisp and paced, and the message is correct. But there’s nothing new here: Aaron waxes on about fluid layouts, progressive enhancement, responsiveness, adaptability — stuff we’ve read in a 100 blog posts.
  2. Responsive Web Design (Ethan Marcotte)
    This book is exactly what you expect: an expanded treatise on the original ALA article. The material is good, but there is not enough. Ethan walks through the development of a basic layout, but there’s nothing about complex grid systems, data tables, or tactics for approaching info-dense layouts like shopping carts. Some might argue “this is beyond the scope of an ALA book”; I argue that this deeper dive is exactly what we needed.
  3. The Elements of Content Strategy (Erin Kissane)
    I wanted so bad to love this book. Erin is an amazing writer, and her articles are to be savored. But this book, even though the writing is far and away the best of the ABA series, is another “philosophy” book: the why is richly explained, but the how is anemic. Content strategy means 100 things to 50 people, and in the end, that’s the problem: a topic so murky needs powerful voices and bright maps to guide us. And perhaps more than a few dozen pages.
  4. Mobile First (Luke Wroblewski)
    Once you get past the obligatory “what does it all mean?” chapters, Luke lays a foundation for approaching web development from the bottom up: building modules first, independent of layout, and then layering in structural rules once complete. He gives a few tidbits on designing for mobile interfaces (positioning of navigation, for instance), and there are actual code examples to reinforce the message. Overall: the best of the ABA batch this year.

Other Nonfiction

  1. Resonate (Nancy Duerte)
    A beautiful illustrated guide of visual storytelling via presentations. It covers pacing, tone, infographics, illustrations and more, all with fantastic examples. Stupid people would call this “a PowerPoint book”, but it’s so much more than that.


  1. Brave New World (Aldous Huxley)
    This is a story about the future written two generations ago. Huxley paints a picture of a “Utopian” society full of rigid bio-engineering, flying cars and frequent emotionless sex, and what happens when it crashes headlong into a “primitive” society with actual morals. The truly unsettling part is how close something written in 1932 — something that was considered “ridiculous” at the time — comes to life in 2012. (As a side note, I judged this book entirely by the cover: kudos to Harper Perennial for awesome art direction.)
  2. A Confederacy of Dunces (John Kennedy Toole)
    If this is classic literature, shoot me in the head.
  3. Heart of Darkness
    Joseph Conrad, in only 200 or so pages, paints a bleak and soul-shivering landscape of the African ivory trade 100 years ago. At one point, he describes he is most afraid of the natives because they are not inhuman, that he recognizes something primal within himself through their wild looks and ceremonies. The withering, unapologetic racism is tough to swallow: Heart of Darkness is aptly named.
  4. The Meaning of Night: A Confession (Michael Cox)
    Michael Cox’s opus, this is Victorian England at its darkest: murder, intrigue, opium dens, class division. The story itself is sprawling, full of character and characters; the backdrop however — the sheer detail of the city and how life was conducted day by day — is what makes this book sing. The writing falls somewhere between dark Dickens and accessible Poe: in other words, pitch-perfect. (The opening line is one of the best ever: “After killing the red-haired man, I took myself off to Quinn’s for an oyster supper.”) Highly recommended to anyone who wants to immerse themselves in story.
  5. Moby Dick (Herman Melville)
    Having never read this before, I was surprised at the density of non-fiction caking up the thin story. Chapters dawdle on and on about the whaling industry, the mechanics of killing a whale, the economics of it all, and then whale biology, and then sermons about the glory of whaling, and then more long-winded defenses to whaling. It takes over 100 pages for them just to get on the boat, and that’s where the book slows down! I tried for weeks, but even being 75% through, I just couldn’t finish it.
  6. The Terror (Dan Simmons)
    My second Simmons book (after Drood). The plot revolves around the failed Franklin 1845 expedition of the northwest passage. Unlikable heroes and unlikely villains are trapped in Simmons’ hyper-detailed account of the misery of being locked in ice and hunted by the supernatural. This is a horror story, on every level, from the brutality of the ship members to the thing stalking them on the ice. Highly recommended.

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commentary + criticism

Danny Walker

wrote the following on Monday January 9, 2012

Thank you for this excellent list. I think 2012 is the year where I get into more literature as well as delving into the principles and philosophy of web design. As a new web designer, I think the books listed in this post will be a good place to start my 2012 reading list.