What I’ve Been Reading
In May 2013, I decided that if one of the keys to getting smarter is to read more, I should keep track of what I’m reading. This is the result.
If you’re wondering where I find time to read, wonder no more.
* * * 2013 * * *
Continuing my exploration of philosophy, Rufus was one of the "four great Roman Stoic philosophers," the other three being Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Musonius' pupil Epictetus. "Because Stoicism was, for Musonius, not merely a philosophy but a prescription for daily living, he has been called 'the Roman Socrates.'"
Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality
What if you had to take an art class in which you were only taught how to paint a fence? What if you were never shown the paintings of van Gogh and Picasso, weren't even told they existed? Alas, this is how math is taught, and so for most of us it becomes the intellectual equivalent of watching paint dry. In Love and Math, renowned mathematician Edward Frenkel reveals a side of math we've never seen, suffused with all the beauty and elegance of a work of art.
I consider Parkinson the original Dilbert. "Parkinson's Law states that 'work expands to fill the time available'. While strenuously denied by management consultants, bureaucrats and efficiency experts, the law is borne out by disinterested observation of any organization. The book goes far beyond its famous theorem, though. The author goes on to explain how to meet the most important people at a social gathering and why, as a matter of mathematical certainty, the time spent debating an issue is inversely proportional to its objective importance. Justly famous for more than forty years, Parkinson's Law is at once a bracingly cynical primer on the reality of human organization, and an innoculation against the wilful optimism to which we as a species are prone."
The Book of Five Rings
“When the undefeated samurai Miyamoto Musashi retreated to a cave in 1643 and wrote The Book of Five Rings, a manifesto on swordsmanship, strategy, and winning for his students and generations of samurai to come, he created one of the most perceptive and incisive texts on strategic thinking ever to come from Asia.”
I can’t say I fully understood this book. However, one of the most interesting parts to me was on how learning something can make you singleminded. Once you’ve learned a certain technique and achieved mastery, it becomes incredibly hard to not use that technique (even when the situation changes). You become fixed and fit the situation to your technique. In martial arts, and in much of life, this becomes your weakness. A better approach is to learn the principle behind the technique, allowing you to adapt the technique to the circumstances. This is similar to the old adage, “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
The Power of Why
Somewhat like a poor man’s Malcolm Gladwell. The first part of the book on what happens to our curiosity as we age, was excellent. The rest didn’t really do it for me.
The Simple Man’s Burden (aka The Stoic’s Burden)
I really enjoyed this book. With that said, please keep in mind, this is not the most flattering lens to view the world. (That doesn’t mean it’s not accurate.) Once you begin to see things in a certain way, it’s hard to go back. For example, if someone shows you how your boss is an “Empty Suit,” with a very logical and well-reasoned argument, you will never see them in the same light again. In a way, the more you know the worse it gets. Hence the burden. You’ve been warned.
Choose Yourself: Be Happy, Make Millions, Live the Dream
It’s your life, you control it. No one is going to come and save you. So, basically, get off your ass and do something about it. James Altucher can be your guide as you hack your way through life.
The Moral Sayings of Publius Syrus
This is the second time I’ve read these and they never fail to strike me as remarkable. A fountain of wit and wisdom that will have you thinking for the rest of your life. Some examples:
“Want a great empire? Rule over yourself.”
“It is only the ignorant who despises education.”
“He can best avoid a snare who knows how to set one.”
Yoga Wisdom at Work
Recommended by a friend, this helped put a few things into perspective. A gentle and practical introduction to a zen mindset.
In The Climate Casino: Risk, Uncertainty, and Economics for a Warming World
We’re rolling the dice according to economist William Nordhaus. There is still time of course to back out of this deal with the devil. I’m sure there are better books out there on the subject, but I’m largely unfamiliar with it, so this was a good starting point. (more)
Friendfluence: The Surprising Ways Friends Make Us Who We Are
This book explores the impact our friends have on our personalities, habits, and health. Looks like mom was right after all, friends play a large role in improving our odds of success in life. A quick and easy read. (more)
Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect
At some level, the driver behind most of what we do is to reach out and connect with people. “We have a unique ability to read other people’s minds, to figure out their hopes, fears, and motivations, allowing us to effectively coordinate our lives with one another. And our most private sense of who we are is intimately linked to the important people and groups in our lives. This wiring often leads us to restrain our selfish impulses for the greater good.” Lieberman concludes that what appears to be irrational is really just the “result of our deep social wiring and necessary for our success as a species.” (more)
Divine Fury: A History of Genius
This is a chronicle of the evolution of the word ‘genius.’ “The concept of genius has roots in antiquity, when men of prodigious insight were thought to possess—or to be possessed by—demons and gods. Adapted in the centuries that followed and applied to a variety of religious figures, including prophets, apostles, sorcerers, and saints, abiding notions of transcendent human power were invoked at the time of the Renaissance to explain the miraculous creativity of men like Leonardo and Michelangelo.” (more)
The World According to Karl
Karl Lagerfeld “is a modern master of couture.” That explains why my t-shirt and jean wearing self had never heard of him before picking up this book, which is really a collection of his wit and wisdom in the form of quotations. Here is a taste of what you’re going to find: “When you’re young you are always a bit of an idiot. What saves us is that we realize it later.” (more)
The Essential Talmud
“A book of profound scholarship and concise pedagogy, The Essential Talmud succinctly describes the Talmud’s history, structure, and methodology. It summarizes the Talmud’s main principles, demonstrates its contemporary relevance, and captures the spirit of this unique and paradoxical sacred text as a human expression of divine law.”
The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger
If this book wasn’t recommended to me by so many smart people, I never would have read it. In fact, when I asked > 15k people to name the best book they’ve read this year, this was the second most popular book. And it’s wayyyy better than I imagined.
The Map and the Territory: Risk, Human Nature, and the Future of Forecasting
Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan’s latest. About what you’d expect. Basically, no sooner then when economic model’s start working do they behave in a manner than contradicts some core tenet — You can never step in the same river twice, right? No matter what predictive model’s will always be based on history. Greenspan’s solution is to augment models with animal spirits. More variables, however, are unlikely to produce better outcomes. The core problem here is one of magnitude not frequency. When you’re wrong, you’re really really wrong and the cost of being wrong is huge. Rather than admit we’re likely to be wrong and build some robustness into the system, we’re just going to add more variables to our models. Greenspan also seems to mistake uncertainty and variability for risk. Oh brother.
The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Mornings, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play, and Much More
“a blueprint for modern families — a new approach to family dynamics, inspired by cutting-edge techniques gathered from experts in the disciplines of science, business, sports, and the military. … (a) thought-provoking playbook for contemporary families, with more than 200 useful strategies, including: the right way to have family dinner, … and why you should always have two women present in difficult conversations.”
100 Diagrams That Changed The World
“A fascinating collection of the most significant plans, sketches, drawings, and illustrations that have influenced and shaped the way we think about the world.”
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos And The Age of Amazon
An inside look at how Amazon came to be the company we know it as today. One important take away is how business, facing new competition, often struggle to cannibalize existing profit areas. Banes and Noble, for example, didn’t jump fully into the online book market until the game was already over because, in part, they worried about reducing the great profits they made in the physical stores. This is a lesson Bezos seems to have learned from The Innovator’s Dilemma, because when ebooks came around he didn’t try to protect the traditional book business. In fact, he told the person in charge to put Amazon’s traditional book business out of business.
The Best American Infographics 2013
A brilliant book with more variety and than I would have thought.
This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral-Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking!-in America’s Gilded Capital
A book detailing the insidious culture of Washington where everyone is a Facebook friend. (You know the saying, I have a lot of Facebook friends and also some real ones.) One of the interesting parallels in reading this book is how Washington culture reflects organization culture; people are “trained to view human interactions through the prism of how can this person be helpful to me.” Layer on an understanding of Gresham’s Law and you understand how hard this self-intoxicating culture is to change.
David and Goliath
This is Gladwell’s best book. Gladwell’s writing is getting better, something I didn’t think possible. Yes, I’ve read Chris Chabris’ scathing review in the Wall Street Journal as well as other criticisms against the book. I think, like Tyler Cowen, that people are missing the central point of the book which is to think more deeply about what you are seeing. Two counterpoints: Perhaps more interesting than what Gladwell says is what he leaves out. And no, he’s not a mathematician. However, if you’re on the fence, I’d encourage you to order it.
How to Run a Country: An Ancient Guide for Modern Leaders
I very much enjoyed How To Win An Election so it was only natural that I’d read the follow-up. Freeman does a good job at selecting relevant excerpts from Cicero’s work pertaining to governance. The topics Cicero speaks of — tribalism, ideology, greed, and power — have changed little over the years.
Napoleon: A Life
I’ve never read a book about Napoleon before. In the end—and this is a lesson for organizations—he didn’t like to delegate any thinking. He promoted people not for their brain but rather for their ability to carry out orders with precision. When things changed, as they tend to, these men were left waiting for instructions, having long ago forgotten how to think for themselves.
Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life
Behavioral science writer Winifred Gallagher persuasively argues that if you want to change your life consciously choose what you pay attention to.
Maximize Your Potential: Grow Your Expertise, Take Bold Risks & Build an Incredible Career
A follow up to their first book, Manage Your Day-to-Day, this one revolves around tapping into your true potential. If you’re feeling stuck at work, this should inspire you to you get unstuck.
Decoded: The Science Behind Why We Buy
Phil Barden reveals what decision science explains about people’s purchase behaviour. If you’re selling things to people and need a good primer on the latest research behind consumer motivations, this is a good read.
Made in the USA: The Rise and Retreat of American Manufacturing
Bill Gates says it better than I would, Smil “brings remarkable insight to every topic he examines, combining his vast knowledge of science and energy, history and business to address some of the most pressing issues we face today.”
Every so often I read a book and think, why the heck haven’t I read that before. This is that book. If you haven’t read it stop what you’re doing and order a copy now.
The Paleo Manifesto: Ancient Wisdom for Lifelong Health
This was the best book I’ve read in a long time. This is not another paleo diet book but rather a fascinating exploration of our human species. I especially appreciated the parts on fasting as a means to protect against infections (some excerpts.)
Webs of Influence: The Psychology of Online Persuasion
Nathalie Nahai draws from the worlds of psychology, neuroscience and behavioural economics to better influence. She not only covers the theory but also shows you how to put it into practice online.
Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration
How do groups come to ideas? Keith Sawyer spent some time discovering the structural rules embedded within group creativity.
The Bed of Procrustes by Nassim Taleb
I finally got around to reading this. “Playful and irreverent, these aphorisms will surprise you by exposing self-delusions you have been living with but never recognized.”
The Manual Of Ideas by John Mihaljevic
This book offers a lot of investment strategies to navigate the world of investing and stands out as more signal than noise in a field dominated by noise.
Someone: A Novel by Alice McDermott
A book recommended by critic Kathern Schulz. “The book is about a particular someone—Marie Commeford,” Schulz writes, “whose terrible eyesight shapes her literal and figurative vision of the world.” (The last book Schulz recommended, Submergence, was a great read.)
How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer
In this clever biography, Sarah Bakewell brings Montaigne to life while addressing fundamental question of how to live. If you’re too intimidated by The Complete Essays, this is a good warm up.
The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way
In this eye opening book, investigative journalist Amanda Ripley explores various countries and why they are successful at educating their youth. In Korea kids seemingly spend 18 hours a day studying. But that’s not the key to success because Finland and Poland are equally impressive without the long days. Money isn’t a big factor either.
Hunger: A Novel
This book, which has been called, “one of the most disturbing novels in existence,” is a chilling first-person narrative about the conflict between self-preservation and death. The narrator is starving. He wants to write to earn some money so that he can eat. Lacking food, however, he cannot write because he is starving.
Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights
“Both scientifically sophisticated and fun to read, Seeing What Others Don’t shows that insight is not just a “eureka!” moment but a whole new way of understanding.” Klein is also the author of Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions.
Conversations with David Foster Wallace
DFW’s insights into culture and the role of fiction fascinate me. If you don’t buy this book and read the compilation of interviews, at least watch his 2005 commencement speech, This is Water. If the goal of an artist is to forever change someone, DFW has accomplished that with me. (If you’re interested in learning more about his life, check out Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace).
A Technique for Producing Ideas
First presented to students in 1939, published in 1965, and now reissued for a new generation looking to jump-start their creative juices, this short guide details a five-step process for gathering information, stimulating imagination, and recombining old elements into dramatic new ideas.
Pandolfini’s Ultimate Guide to Chess
Bruce Pandolfini, America’s foremost chess teacher, offers a comprehensive course covering all aspects of the game, to improve your technique whether you are a newcomer or a longtime fan. What attracted me to Bruce’s book wasn’t learning about chess, but rather that he teaches thinking, not chess.
Leadership and Self-Deception
Through a story everyone can relate to about a man facing challenges on the job and in his family, the authors expose the fascinating ways that we can blind ourselves to our true motivations and unwittingly sabotage the effectiveness of our own efforts to achieve success and increase happiness.
A Few Lessons From Sherlock Holmes
Peter is easily one of my favorite authors. This book comes out next month but I was lucky enough to snag a pre-release copy. Peter’s books tend to be hard to find after they come out, so you’ll want to pre-order. One of his other books, Seeking Wisdom: From Darwin to Munger, is the best book you’ve never read. He also wrote: A Few Lessons for Investors and Managers From Warren Buffett.
Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman
Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard expands on the history of the company as well as how his business philosophy has changed over time. I had no idea they almost went bankrupt a few times. (He summarizes the book pretty well in this hour long talk.)
The Art of Thinking Clearly
Author Rolf Dobelli is an eye-opening look at human psychology and reasoning — essential reading for anyone who wants to avoid “cognitive errors” and make better choices in all aspects of their lives.
Personal Development for Smart People
Despite promises of ‘fast and easy’ results from slick marketers, real personal growth is neither fast ‘nor’ easy. The truth is that hard work, courage, and self-discipline are required to achieve meaningful results – results that are not attained by those who cling to the fantasy of achievement without effort. (Kindle edition is only $1.99)
Happiness Habits: Instant Happiness In 15 Minutes Or Less!
Not something I’d normally read but a friend recommended it. Despite the title it’s actually pretty decent. Forget the old concept of positive thinking, it’s time for positive action.
The Laws of Simplicity
Author John Maeda proposes ten laws for simplifying complex systems in business and life-but mostly in product design.
The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas
Isaiah Berlin exposes the links between the ideas of the past and the social and political cataclysms of our own time: between the Platonic belief in absolute truth and the lure of authoritarianism; between the eighteenth-century reactionary ideologue Joseph de Maistre and twentieth-century Fascism; between the romanticism of Schiller and Byron and the militant–and sometimes genocidal–nationalism that convulses the modern world.
How to Get Rich Slowly But Almost Surely: Adventures in Decision-Making
This book from the early 70s on getting rich contains a good amount of thoughtful material on making better decisions.
The Art of Worldly Wisdom (4.5 Stars)
With aphorisms ranging from “find everyone’s weak spot” to “quit whilst fortune is smiling, as all good gamblers do,” this engrossing classic of the Spanish Golden Age offers pragmatic, hardheaded, and coldly- calculated advice on how to thrive in a cut-throat world.
The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World (4 Stars)
Whereas once humankind exerted its will in the relatively small arena of artificial selection (the arena I think of, metaphorically, as a garden) and nature held sway everywhere else, today the force of our presence is felt everywhere. It has become much harder, in the past century, to tell where the garden leaves off and pure nature begins. We are shaping the evolutionary weather in ways Darwin could never have foreseen.
Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works
Given that one of the authors, A.G. Lafley, recently took over the CEO spot at Procter and Gamble for the second time, I thought I’d re-read most of this book. (Pairs with Good Strategy Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters (see my post) and The Strategy Paradox).
Fate of the States: The New Geography of American Prosperity
Author Meredith Whitney points out that it wasn’t just consumers who binged on debt. So did state and local governments. The book is worth reading to better understand the position of a lot of major U.S. cities. Detroit is just the start and the ramifications are worth noting. She argues that the fiscal sins of the past are beginning to transform the U.S. economy along regional lines; power and opportunity are moving away from the costs and toward the central corridor because those cities/states are in better fiscal shape.
The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America
This book was described by Atul Gawande as a “sickening, riveting page turner on the financial destruction of the working class.” (I just started this so I don’t have any comments yet.)
Disequilibrium: A World Out Of Kilter
Four dominant forces in a world out of kilter: interdependence, complexity, velocity, and transparency.
Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, by Nassim Taleb.
This is my second time reading through the book and it’s better than the first.
Heraclitus — Fragments
I’ve underlined something on nearly every page of this short book. Consider this: “Many fail to grasp what they have seen, and cannot judge what they have learned, although they tell themselves they know.” If that doesn’t justify reading this ancient wisdom, I don’t know what will.
Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success
Phil Jackson won more championships than any coach in the history of professional sports. He’s also a master at employing social dynamics to build a team. A great memoir, even for the non sports fan.
Radical Abundance: How a Revolution in Nanotechnology Will Change Civilization
Eric Drexler is the founding father of nanotechnology—the science of engineering on a molecular level. Rapid scientific progress, thanks to atomically precise manufacturing, promises to give us the power to produce more of what people want at a lower cost. Consider this a “mind-expanding vision of a world hurtling toward an unexpected future.” His explanation on the difference between science and engineering alone is worth the price of the book.
Your First 1000 Copies: The Step-by-Step Guide to Marketing Your Book
If you’re trying to build a connection with readers, this is for you. Author Tim Grahl is a great guy and his advice is behind some of the changes you’ve seen recently on Farnam Street.
The Letters of Abelard and Heloise
This collection of correspondence between medieval scholar Peter Abelard and Heloise, a French nun, chronicles one of the most tragic love affairs in all history.
New: Understanding Our Need for Novelty and Change, by Winifred Gallagher.
An interesting look at our affinity for novelty and its potential consequences in an abundant world. She writes, “To thrive amid unprecedented amounts of novelty, we must shift from being mere seekers of the new to being connoisseurs of it.”
Blood & Beauty: The Borgias; A Novel
Author Sarah Dunant has an exceptional talent for breathing life into history. From the jacket “Rooted in the brutal and corrupt world of 15th-century Italy, Blood & Beauty opens with Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, clever and charismatic, buying his way to the Papal crown. … To thrive, he must create his own dynasty using the papacy and his family as the building blocks of power. His son, Cesare, fearless and calculating (later immortalized in Machiavelli’s The Prince), provides the driving energy and the muscle. … With the high-wire tension of a political thriller, this portrait of power and its personal costs is the most thrilling family saga to come out of Italy since the godfather.”
Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking, by Daniel Dennett.
Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, by Neil Postman.
The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, by Daniel Boorstin.
Permanent Present Tense: The Unforgettable Life of the Amnesic Patient Henry Molaison, by Susan Corkin.
This is an interesting look at how memory is related to identity. If we can’t hold on to experiences long enough to create narratives, then what sense of self do we have? The book is a tribute to Henry, who, without knowing it, completely transformed neuroscience.
When We Were Romans, by Matthew Kneale.
A great beach book.
The Science of Hitting by Ted Williams and John Underwood.
Not normally a baseball fan, I came by this recommendation through Warren Buffett and I’m glad I did. It is way more fascinating than I would have guessed.
A Loeb Classical Library Reader.
A selection of lapidary nuggets drawn from 33 of antiquity’s major authors includes poetry, dialogue, philosophical writing, history, descriptive reporting, satire, and fiction—giving a glimpse at the wide range of arts and sciences, thought and styles, of Greco-Roman culture.
30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans by Karl Pillemer.
“To learn how to live without regret, persevere through hard times, find fulfillment, and age fearlessly and well, there is no one better to ask than the people who have done it themselves.”
The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption by Clay Johnson.
“Just as we have grown morbidly obese on sugar, fat, and flour—so, too, have we become gluttons for texts, instant messages, emails, RSS feeds, downloads, videos, status updates, and tweets.”
How to Get People to Do Stuff: Master the art and science of persuasion and motivation by Susan M. Weinschenk.
Language Intelligence: Lessons on persuasion from Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln, and Lady Gaga by Joseph Romm.
This book aims to help us “become more persuasive, more memorable and harder to manipulate.”
The Rational Imagination: How People Create Alternatives to Reality by Ruth Byrne.
Explores one avenue of imagination, specfically, the creation of counterfactual alternatives to reality, and claims that imaginative thoughts are guided by the same principles that underlie rational thoughts.
La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life, by Elaine Sciolino.
“In english, ‘seduce’ has a negative and exclusively sexual feel; in French, the meaning is broader. The French use ‘seduce’ where the British and Americans mught use ‘charm’ or ‘attract’ or ‘engage’ or ‘entertain’. .. A grand seducteur … might refert o someone who never fails to persuade others to his point of view.
It’s Not All About Me: The Top Ten Techniques for Building Quick Rapport with Anyone, by Robin Dreeke.
Excellent. Robin Dreeke is the lead instructor at the FBI’s Counterintelligence Training Center in all behavioral and interpersonal skills training. Here are ten techniques to build rapport with anyone.
La Rochefoucauld — Collected Maxims and Other Reflections, by François de La Rochefoucauld.
Deceptively brief and easy to read, La Rochefoucauld’s shrewd, unflattering analyses of human behavior have influenced writers, thinkers, and public figures as various as Voltaire, Proust, de Gaulle, Nietzsche, and Conan Doyle. This is the fullest collection of La Rochefoucauld’s writings ever published in English. I’ll be going back to this again.
Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking by Douglas R. Hofstadter.
The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City by Alan Ehrenhalt.
(Pair with Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities.)
The Plateau Effect: Getting from Stuck to Success, by Hugh Thompson and Bob Sullivan.
I’m not entirely swayed by this book, but the parts on Angela Duckworth (pages 65-73), peak listening (183-185), and spaced repetition were pretty neat.
Once Upon A Number: The Hidden Mathematical Logic Of Stories, by John Allen Paulos.
On the Rock: Twenty-Five Years in Alcatraz
The Prison Story of Alvin Karpis as told to Robert Livesey.
The Tyranny of E-Mail: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox, by John Freeman.
The Craft of Interviewing, by John Joseph Brady.
How to Read A Book, by Mortimer Adler.