“If you have an interdisciplinary mindset — which I’ve had for decades — you’re just going to go through books like a scavenger slotting things out of the book into your own internal system.”
— Charlie Munger
In 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.
* * * 2015 * * *
Rules of the Game — I bought this by mistake when a good friend of mine in San Francisco recommended The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists. (Both books are by the same author and deal with the same subject matter.) My friend’s recommendation was based on how these books can teach you to relate to people and point out obvious flaws in regular (i.e., non-pickup) social situations. I’ve learned quite a bit exploring them and used a few things this week in meetings.
Applied Minds: How Engineers Think — This book examines the enormous impact of engineering on our world (including constraints and trade-offs) and introduces to us the toolkit of modular systems thinking.
The Unquiet Grave: A Word Cycle by Palinurus —To sum up this is “a highly personal journal written during the devastation of World War II, filled with reflective passages that deal with aging, the break-up of a long term relationship, and the horrors of the war.” The collection of aphorisms and quotations from European literature is extensive for such a short work.
Think Twice: Harnessing the Power of Counterintuition — I’m going to be interviewing the author, Michael Mauboussin, this week for one of the first episodes of my podcast. Yes a podcast. Finally. Now don’t get your expectations too high, I’m a rookie at this stuff. Anyway, we’re going to talk about decision making and how to make better decisions as individuals and as organizations. If you’d like to suggest a question just leave a comment. And if you haven’t already, I highly recommend reading his two books (Think Twice and The Success Equation) before listening to the episode.
The Power of Full Engagement — I read this book years ago when a former boss left it on my desk. I remember changing some things afterward and noticing a big improvement in my energy and focus but had totally forgotten about the book until I started doing a some of the research for my webinar. The book is an excellent look at how we have more control over our energy than we think. Energy is our engine and there are four primary sources: physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. While the book’s authors didn’t really explore it, energy has a lot to do with temperament. And temperament has a lot to do with making good decisions.
Diaminds: Decoding the Mental Habits of Successful Thinkers — A must read.
Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error — I’m a huge fan of the author and pick this book up on occasion for reasons I can’t quite articulate. For a quick summary – that fails to do the book justice – go here.
When Genius Failed: I’ve been a huge fan of Roger Lowenstein since reading one of the books that literally changed my life (Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist). While I’d read When Genius Failed before, it was great to re-read this. It seems that throughout history we, as a people, forget that sources of trouble that are small can have huge implications. We forget that leverage makes us fragile. Just when we think we’ve figured out the world and reduced it to an equation based on empirical evidence … it changes and lights a tinderbox. The world is never the same and seemingly smart people are on the wrong side of history.
The Three Marriages: A beautiful and thought-provoking book that argues we should stop thinking in terms of work-life balance. “Work-life balance is a concept that has us simply lashing ourselves on the back and working too hard in each of the three commitments. In the ensuing exhaustion we ultimately give up on one or more of them to gain an easier life.”
Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?: Leading a Great Enterprise through Dramatic Change — This is the second time I’ve read this book. The first was either as part of my MBA or right before I started. It’s such a good book that I’m inclined to believe that it wasn’t part of my MBA. Gerstner’s ideas were controversial and we know, with hindsight, they were right. Anyone with the chutzpah to say that the last thing IBM needed was a vision (as CEO!) is someone to pay attention to because you know this is not an ordinary individual.
Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization — A book about life and death in the form of a philosophical investigation into our desire to perpetuate ourselves into the future; our will toward immortality, if you will. The book looks at this through the four basic immortality narratives: Staying Alive, Resurrection, Soul, and Legacy.
The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy — Anthropologist David Graeber traces the peculiar history of bureaucracy and “reveals how it shapes our lives in ways we may not even notice.” At times depressing, at times hilarious, at times hard to follow (I don’t subscribe to the bureaucracy as state violence argument – for instance), the book is a worthy reflection on our culture.
Mess: One Man’s Struggle to Clean Up His House and His Act — In the Inferno, Dante placed the hoarders in the fourth circle of hell. That circle would be overflowing today if you look around. This is the story of one man, a writer, who engages his clutter, “in all aspects, as an all encompassing project.” The most intersting bits for me were the psychological exploration. (Pair with The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.)
Happiness: A Philosopher’s Guide — This is a great book that walks us through some of history’s greatest thinkers and their answers to what is happiness and how do we achieve it? A bit of a warning, once you start exploring these questions and shining the light on your own life, things might never be the same. I think this is a hugely important book that hit me at the right time.
Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero — I loved that this biography of Seneca digs into his contradictions without judging — how can such a seemingly wise man tutor Nero, the monster; how can a man who shuns comfort enjoy the fruits of great wealth. Instead, James Romm, the author, seeks to understand these contradictions. (Another good stoic biography is The Inner Citadel)
Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children — Offers a glimpse into the hearts and minds of some of American history’s most admired figures. Spanning more than 300 years, the letters offer timeless advice on life and love.
How to Get Lucky: 13 techniques for discovering and taking advantage of life’s good breaks — Some people are luckier than others and it’s not always by chance. Lucky people tend to position themselves in the path of luck. They take risks but not stupid ones. They know when to give up on love, stocks, and even opinions. A great read.
Bet With the Best: Expert Strategies from America’s Leading Handicappers and Bet With the Best 2: Longshots — I read significant portions of both books. The Crist essay in the first book is well worth the price of the book alone. It’s also the most applicable outside the world of handicapping horse betting. I’ll probably do a post on it someday but until then it is worth remember that you don’t win by predicting the future, you win by getting the odds right.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez: The Last Interview: and Other Conversations — Especially fascinating because I haven’t read any of his writing. His insight into why some online videos for pleasure leave us wanting more is spot on and I found his thoughts on love piercing.
Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd — I loved her analysis on how when the number of products in a category expands, the differences – or competition – between them become increasingly trivial. In business school we talked about differentiation a lot and this book reminds us that we sometimes forget what it means to be different. Then I kinda map this to life — as I listen to an endless onslaught of powerpoint I realize that no one wants to be different in meaningful ways. In part because of Keynes wisdom: ‘Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.”
The Letters of William Godwin, Volume 1 — Between Letters of Note and van Gogh’s Letters, I’m suddenly finding old letters a lot more interesting than I would have imagined. Godwin, an original thinker, became a leading intellectual during the crisis in British politics, which followed in the wake of the French Revolution. The volume is edited by Pamela Clemit, who does an excellent job with footnotes to add context to the correspondence.
David Foster Wallace: The Last Interview and Other Conversations — A.O. Scott of the New York Times called DFW “the best mind of his generation.” This short book offers an intimate look at his thoughts on the state of modern culture, entertainment, adulthood, and literature.
Goethe’s Poems and Aphorisms — A lot of the poems were lost on me. The aphorisms, however, were well worth the price of the book. Piercing, insightful, and generally still as relevant today as when they were written, they should be read in small batches and not all at once.
Adultery: A novel, by Paulo Coelho (author of The Alchemist) — A gripping and chilling exploration of how the life that everyone dreams of can sometimes leave us torn between the terror that things might stay the same and dying to feel something different. In this situation, people find themselves living in emptiness, yearning to feel alive again. They must choose between two things that will almost certainly destroy them. (Must read.)
Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking) — A look at how the way we interact online uncovers general truths that you can only find looking at large-scale data. “Even at the person-to-person level,” the author writes, “to be universally liked is to be relatively ignored. To be disliked by some is to be loved all the more by others. And, specifically, a woman’s overall sex appeal is enhanced when some men find her ugly.” This isn’t just about sex appeal. I reflected upon this the other day in a meeting where I watched another boring presentation. The presenters were not trying to be excellent, they were just trying to be liked. And that is a very middle-of-the-road approach. I felt like standing up and repeating the lyrics from Eminem on 8-Mile: “Didn’t you listen to the last round, meat head? Pay attention, you’re sayin the same shit that he said! Matter fact, dog, here’s a pencil. Go home, write some shit, make it suspenseful, And don’t come back until something dope hits you …” Call it the tyranny of meh.
Obvious Adams, a short, yet important, book that I wish more people would read and think about. (You can find a pdf here.) In a nutshell the book represents the mindset that “avoiding folly is easier than seeking brilliance.” It’s amazing what we see when we focus on the obvious insights that we’re missing because we’re trying too hard to grasp the esoteric.
Think: Why You Should Question Everything (this was disappointing and I’m a little ticked at myself for not putting it down).
Get Smarter: Life and Business Lessons. This book distills a lifetime of business lessons by one of Canada’s most prominent (and wealthy) business leaders. While a lot of it would be material that’s familiar to Farnam Streeters, it’s got more than a few key insights that make it worth the price of admission.
Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative — Despite what we think, nothing is original, it’s all one variation of combinatorial creatvity and play.
Managing Oneself by Peter Drucker — This is an excellent short read. There is a strong argument to be made that knowing how you work and your strengths and weaknesses is more important than ever in the knowledge economy.
The Art of Stillness — an excellent counterbalance to our diet of movement and stimulation.
Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs — Parts of this book were great. I’m not a fan of the cultural mythology around the idea of the lone genius. One interesting note is that pairs develop their own language. This dovetails nicely into some of what we talked about in conversations, where it can be hard to actually participate in these conversations as someone outside of the pair. If you want to read a book on dynamic duos, I liked Michael Eisner’s book, Working Together: Why Great Partnerships Succeed, slightly better but they are different so it’ll depend on your tastes and what you’re trying to get out of it.
I also read The Distraction Addiction, which was OK. I’ve yet to see someone do a really good job (and this includes Nicholas Carr’s The Glass Cage) of setting the context of the reality of too much information, too many technological tools, and the effects on us as people and where we’re going. I’ve had to merge The Shallows, Average Is Over, Crazy Busy, and a few others to come up with some preliminary thoughts on all of this. None worth sharing at this point but if you’re into this space, that’s a solid foundation.
Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life — As one critic put it — “a portrait of this elusive but paradigmatic thinker that deserves to be ranked among the few truly indispensable intellectual biographies of the modern era.” Benjamin was a German philosopher and critic of culture. His essays on Goethe, Kafka, Kraus, Leskov, Proust, Baudelaire are arguably some of the most critical writing of the past century. The biography illuminates the arc of his life and work which culminated with an overdose of morphine.
* * * 2014 * * *
(Not updated from September 2014 – Jan 2015).
The Education of a Value Investor: My Transformative Quest for Wealth, Wisdom, and Enlightenment
A great book by a great person on being human, stumbling down the wrong path, and changing directions. Full of practical insight on life, not investing.
Buddha Standard Time: Awakening to the Infinite Possibilities of Now
Now is the only time we have.
Plato’s Revenge: Politics in the Age of Ecology
A great and under-appreciated book mixing Plato and ecology.
The Power of Noticing: What the Best Leaders See
Harvard professor Max Bazerman’s latest.
Berkshire Beyond Buffett
I love Lawrence Cunningham, he’s the editor and publisher of one of the books I most frequently give away: The Essays of Warren Buffett: Lessons for Corporate America.
The Glass Cage: Automation and Us
Nick Carr is one of my favorite writers. I’ll read him on any subject but I’m particularly interested in his views on how technology affects humans.
The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection
It used to take us hours to get bored. Now it’s like 10 seconds. Another book exploring the intersection of technology and culture. Are we at another Gutenberg moment?
I, Steve: Steve Jobs in His Own Words
Interesting to go back to the source and pull out some of Steve’s thinking.
Crimes Against Logic: Exposing the Bogus Arguments of Politicians, Priests, Journalists, and Other Serial Offenders
I’m trying to organize and think better. There is an entire slate of books like this on my shelf.
On Turning Eighty
A beautiful book on what it means to live, love, and grow old.
Habit Stacking: 97 Small Life Changes That Take Five Minutes or Less
I’m generally not a fan of these type of books but I did want to know more about “habit stacking.”
The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done
I’ll write a review later.
Decide: Work Smarter, Reduce Your Stress, and Lead by Example
A practical guide to cut through excuses and reframe how you make decisions. McClatchy attempts this meaningful undertaking by re-framing around two broad categories of tasks: Gain and Preventing Pain. Gain tasks are what give us meaning and energy. They let us grow. Too often, however, we let preventing pain tasks usurp our time. Modern time-management tools encourage this inefficiency. As a result we feel busy and stressed, like we’re on a treadmill that we can’t get off.
Geoffrey Madan’s Notebooks
Commonplace books reached their peak in the seventeenth century. This book then, published on the cusp of the sound-byte generation in the early 1980s, is somewhat of an outlier. Hard to find and out-of-print, the book, argues Robert Darnton, “deserves to be rescued from oblivion, because it is a great read, especially for anyone interested in reading itself as a way of making sense of the world.” Madan was a connoisseur of the excellent and original and this collection, a subset of his notebooks, does not disappoint.
Learn or Die: Using Science to Build a Leading-Edge Learning Organization
This is by far the best book I’ve read on the subject of learning. I emailed the publisher and suggested they rename it The Art and Science of Learning. The book aims to answer two questions: (1) How does one become a better and faster learner; and (2) How does one build an organization that learns better and faster than the competition? By learning how our mind learns we’re able to help it along.
The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety
Watts convincingly argues that much of our anxiety results from our tendency to avoid the present. “If happiness always depends on something expected in the (uncertain) future,” he writes, “we are chasing a will-o’-the wisp that ever eludes our grasp.” We spend too much of our time engaging in mental time travel – either in the past or the future. In so doing we miss the pleasures of the moment. Life, however, is nothing more than a string of such moments. This is a book to read and re-read on a regular basis.
Mirror Worlds: or the Day Software Puts the Universe in a Shoebox…How It Will Happen and What It Will Mean
I got this recommendation from Marc Andreessen. Written in 1993, this lucid account of the software revolution foreshadows second life and the internet of things. Gelernter also elaborates on how software design can enable combinatorial creativity.
Aristocratic Experience and the Origins of Modern Culture: France, 1570-1715
Ironically, the conflicting demands of seventeenth-century aristocratic culture created an untenable state that nurtured the more egalitarian ideologies of the eighteenth century and the weakening of the patriarchal ideology.
18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done
Clutter builds up in our lives. We’re busy. But there are ways that people use to cut through distractions and find a way to focus. These are the people worth studying and learning from. In this over-crowded sector, however, the problem is separating the wheat from the chaff. Peter Bregman, the author of this book, is more signal than noise. His tips and advice, some of which can be found here, offer a practical way forward for our increasingly overwhelmed world.
What W.H. Auden Can Do For You
I was excited to crack this one open for two reasons. First, I have no experience with W.H. Auden, who many consider one of the best poets of the twentieth century. While I’ve heard good things, I’ve never really looked into him. Second, the author, Alexander McCall Smith, is also the author behind The Sunday Philosophy Club, a novel recommended by Nassim Taleb. The book falls short of generating enthusiasm for Auden but ends up proving its worth in the exploration of how we can be changed by something we read. Art has the beautiful ability to make us see things in a different light. As Smith writes: “We are changed because we now understand something that we did not understand before.”
How and Why to Build a Wine Cellar
I’m less interested in the finer details and architectural merits of wine cellars than the consumption of wine. So while it may seem odd that I would read a book primarily about building a wine cellar, the chapters on “breathing, aroma and taste,” and “the psychology of wine tastings” made this book entirely worthwhile. Another highlight was the section on recognizing spoiled wine, which included an explanation of why it is often best to choose the latest vintage available at most restaurants.
The Accidental Connoisseur: An Irreverent Journey Through the Wine World
An accessible look at wine and wine culture from the new world to the old. Wine is full of weird vocabulary. Does your wine really taste like caramelized apples with a hint of rosemary? I’m not sure. This book makes me feel a little more comfortable in my rather unsophisticated palate. I don’t taste much other than grapes and my vocabulary is limited to statements of preference: “I like this” or “I don’t like this.” Two parts of the book were more interesting than the rest for me. The first was the look at how different cultures enjoy, describe, and consume wine. The other was how those descriptions actually come to affect how we make the wine itself.
Euripides — Fragments
A worthy addition to any library. The guy is full of wit and wisdom. Consider #583, which says “That (you) know nothing of your mistakes is sufficient to kindle your bravado.” Or #1042: “We are all wise in giving advice, but we don’t realize it when we ourselves go wrong.”
A Prescription for Adversity: The Moral Art of Ambrose Bierce
Ambrose Bierce fought in some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War before he went on to become a prolific journalist and storyteller. Known for his slashing sarcasm he was a feared antagonist. This book is an overview of Bierce’s work, which can be followed up with his most notable works. One thing that makes Bierce interesting is that he doesn’t lead you astray with his stories, he allows you to see what you want all along. At some point in the story, however, you realize your thoughts were wrong; your emotions got the better of your reason. He plays with your mind as he explores the advantages and limitations of reason.
Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Curating
Through a series of interviews with Hans Ulrich Obrist the book explores what it means to curate in the artistic sense. With the web and sites like Farnam Street, curation has evolved from its traditional core yet many things remain the same. To my surprise the most interesting passages of the book had nothing to do with curation. Rather, they were Obrist’s thoughts on speed, time, and sleep.
The Nature of Value
The author is a long-time Farnam Street reader who sent me a pre-release copy of the book. The book takes a multi-disciplinary approach to “help investors understand the economy and how investors can use this new understanding to improve their allocation decisions.” While I got lost in some of the terminology at times, the book does have a unique perspective.
A Philosopher’s Notes
Another book in the how to live category. The idea of learning about life through Marcus Aurelius, Emerson, Nietzsche, Buddha, and others is a good one. In many ways it reminds me of Farnam Street: I’m trying to help you live a more meaningful life. I think that’s why a friend passed it along. If you’re looking for a good book on how to live for the beach, you could do worse. If you’re going to the cottage, however, I’d go with Sarah Bakewell’s book: How To Live.
Living with Wine: Passionate Collectors, Sophisticated Cellars, and Other Rooms for Entertaining, Enjoying, and Imbibing
A beautiful book about wine collecting with fascinating pictures of amazing wine cellars. As I embark this year to make wine — from sourcing grapes to charring oak barrels you can expect a few more wine books to appear. This makes an awesome gift for someone who loves wine.
Stress Test: Reflections on Financial Crises
This is a really good book but if you’re looking for something neat and tidy about how this will be the last financial crisis, this isn’t the book for you. Geithner has dealt with one financial crisis after another: the run on the Mexican peso, the run on the Southeast Asian currencies, the Russian default, the bank crisis and so on. The unsatisfying part of the book is that Geithner seems to feel that no one is to blame for the crisis — he blames everyone. And despite talking in the earlier part of the book on how crisis were always addressed with a mindset to avoid the same thing in the future, they never seem to be able to get it right. (A good complement to The Tyranny of Experts.)
The Philosophy of Epictetus
A thematically organized version of Epictetus’ writings with repetitions omitted. A great introduction if you’re looking for one.
Risk Savvy: How to Make Good Decisions
The book argues that in a world full of information and complexity sometimes our best bet is to use simple heuristics to avoid problems. Just as increasing debt rarely solves a debt problem, complex problems are rarely solved with complexity. The book is a good counter-balance to the system two rational thinking books that are becoming somewhat pervasive. Do you know how Captain Sullenberger chose to land on the Hudson after his plane hit the flock of geese on that fateful day? He used a heuristic.
The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor
An incredible read. For the longest time we’ve seen poverty through the lens of a ‘technical problem’ that requires ‘expert’ solutions. Well, experts have been recommending technical solutions for years and the problem doesn’t seem to be getting better. These solutions address the immediate problems but all too often ignore the systemic issues that caused them in the first place. I see this same phenomenon repeated in organizations around the globe. It’s a lot easier to address the immediate ‘technical’ problems than to solve the broader issues that cause them. An argument against “naive intervention.”
No Place to Hide
I could hardly put this book down.
Letters of Note
This book is full of interesting letters from the likes of Eudora Welty, Hunter Thompson, E.B. White, Virginia Woolf, Galileo Galilei, and more.
The Philosophy of Chrysippus
Unlike a lot of books on Stoic philosophy, this is a tough one to read. While it delivers a solid and well-researched account of Chrysippus, someone I’ve been wanting to know more about, the real gold is the bibliography. This alone is worth the price of the book.
The Meaning of Stoicism
This book, from 1966, was mentioned as a source in The Philosophy of Chrysippus. The last chapter, entitled The Stoic Way of Life, was a fascinating overview of how stoicism has shaped modern life. It is believed, for example, that the Stoa were the first to recognize the equality between husband and wife. Another idea brought about by Stoic ethics is moral character regardless of position. This fosters the ethos of work and workmanship, and is a precursor to professional ethics. Another Stoic philosophy is the belief that the rich should practice charity.
The Sunday Philosophy Club
When Nassim Taleb recommends a fictional novel, I read it. While billed as a detective novel, Isabelle Dalhousie is no Sherlock Holmes. She is, however, into applied ethics. A great read.
Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time
A lot of you email me and ask about productivity and time management. This book is a journey of one woman’s quest to find out what ripped her leisure time to shreds and take it back. To find insights, she speaks to neuroscientists, sociologists, and productivity gurus. This is what she found out along the way.
Cyrus the Great — The Arts of Leadership and War
Amazing. Cyrus was pretty awesome. His insights about leadership have “inspired great men from Julius Caesar to Benjamin Franklin to Lawrence of Arabia.” Peter Drucker called this book — Xenophon’s biography of Cryus — “the best book on leadership.” You’ll learn about Cyrus’ various campaigns as he conquers Babylon. While the story is old, the leadership lessons are as relevant today as they were then. Among other things “Xenophon shows you how to conduct meetings, become an expert negotiator, deal efficiently with allies, communicate by appealing to the self-interest of your followers, encourage the highest standards of performance, ensure your organization has the benefit of specialists, and prove that your words will be backed by your deeds.”
Tower of Basel: The Shadowy History of the Secret Bank that Runs the World
The Bank for International Settlements (BIS) was the brainchild of eccentric Bank of England governor, Montagu Norman. Established in the early 1930s to facilitate German reparations under the 1919 Treaty of Versailles to the victorious WWI allies, it has now become a hub of transnational finance operating in the shadows of the financial world. Norman, with the help of Walter Layton, established a constitution for the BIS that ensured political independence, financial autonomy, and confidentiality. The bank’s history is full of double-dealing, trading integrity for survival. The book suggests that in 1999, 11 nations launched the euro in the hopes that economic concerns would trump politics. They also hoped it would inspire fiscal discipline in countries which, historically, have found frugality difficult. In a prescient move, in 2004 the BIS warned against state guarantees of commercial interests. Subservient to no state, the bank’s only allegiance is to the financial system it helped create.
The Obstacle Is The Way
As someone interested in learning more about stoic philosophy this book hits the right notes — insightful, practical, and just the right length. The book is based on the famous quote by Marcus Aurelius: “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” Adversity is nothing more than opportunity, right?
Letters From a Self-Made Merchant to his Son
This book has been on my shelf for over a year. I have no idea why. While the letters are over a hundred years old, they are full of timeless wisdom and practical no-nonsense advice to parents and wisdom seekers alike. Something I’m sure to re-read over the years.
Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil
I’m fascinated by morality. Some people believe that morality is mostly learned. Others think that we are born with a deep sense of good and evil. The truth is we acquire morality from both. We are born with a moral sense — a capacity to distinguish between kindness and cruelty. We are also born with a rudimentary sense of empathy and compassion, fairness, and justice. As we age these are nurtured and augmented by our environments, experiences, literature, and even television.
The Galápagos: A Natural History
An abbreviated introduction to the Galápagos that left me with more questions than answers. There are quite a few gorgeous 19th- and early-20th-century illustrations. The chapters on the human impact to the islands, something near and dear to the author, seemed to flow better and be somewhat more complete. In the end, though, I was left wanting more. More illustrations. More ecological, evolutionary, and geological principles to explain the islands and their unique habitat. More pictures of flora, fauna, and wildlife. And more of those gorgeous illustrations.
The War of Art
After my post Anne Lamott: Some Instructions on Writing and Life a voracious reader and best-selling author sent me a note on Lamott’s book telling me that it’s full of terrible advice. Instead, he pointed me to The War of Art, an utterly fascinating book that not only describes the experience of writing but how to overcome some of the difficulties. The book is about more than writing, it’s about overcoming obstacles to success. He was right: it is much better.
Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War
This was a book I picked up while reading My Share of the Task. Significant parts of the book overlap in time so it was interesting to see the same situations through very different lenses. More than that however, Gates is the only Defence Secretary to serve both a Republican and Democratic President, which afforded him unique insights. What most intrigued me was how decisions were made and the differences in process between Bush and Obama.
The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers
This is the best business book I’ve read in a long time. Perhaps one of the best ever. Ben Horowitz has been to hell and back and he’s got the scars to prove it. He’s built billion dollar companies, mentored CEOs, been within weeks of bankruptcy, worked with some of the smartest people in the world, and started a tech company in the middle of the dot com crash. Through it all he’s found there are no easy answers. After reading it, I immediately bought several copies and shipped them to friends of mine.
Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing
This is a book about being idle. No really. We’re bombarded with non-stop messages of increasing productivity, doing more, working harder — all with the aim to get an ever increasing amount of work done. This book is the opposite to all of that, a look at why we should actually get less done. While the book makes a neuroscientific argument, which is imperfect at best, the basic message and benefits of giving our brain a break—putting it on autopilot if you will—resonates with me. The author argues, “in the short term, busyness can destroy creativity, self-knowledge, emotional well-being, your ability to be social—and it can damage your cardiovascular health.” Not to mention your relationships. The most fascinating part of the book was a look at how we came to dread idleness and the role religion played. (Complement with In Praise of Idleness, by Bertrand Russell and Leisure: The Basis of Culture).
The Modern Utopian
A quirky and often interesting look at the alternative communities of the 60s and 70s. Receiving less attention than the drugs, sex, and rock and roll, they helped define the era. This is a “chronicle of daring ventures in cooperative living.” The most interesting communities were Walden House, Walden Two, and Twin Oaks. Although for all three of those, I wish the author would have dug a little deeper into the connection with B.F. Skinner.
Christine Schutt, whose prose has been compared to Emily Dickinson, examines the spectacle of love. I’m not a literature critic but it was an engrossing window into the evolution of a young couple’s marriage as “it is challenged by the quandaries of longing and sexual self-discovery.” As for the Dickinson comparisons, you’ll have to judge that for yourself.
Getting Ahead: Three Steps to Take Your Career to the Next Level
Not a typical book that I’d buy these days but the right person sent it to me and it has a foreword by Marshall Goldsmith so it was worth checking out. The book is essentially a guide for improving perception, increasing visibility, and exerting influence at work. After reading this book, I realize that when I’m consulting, I run into a lot of people using these tricks — like “speak up, speak first, and speak often in meetings.” I suck at office politics, so don’t look to me for any answers. (When I told a friend I was reading this he recommended, Secrets to Winning at Office Politics: How to Achieve Your Goals and Increase Your Influence at Work, which looks like a nice complement.)
On Machiavelli: The Search for Glory
Machiavelli is often misunderstood and more often taken out of context. Everyone has an opinion, yet few people have read The Prince or Discourses on Livy. Machiavelli’s doctrine is assumed to be that the end justifies the means (but what, if anything, justifies the means if not the end?) How is a new prince to take power and maintain it? Machiavelli is also concerned with the distinction between those who were astute and effective in acquiring their posts and those who were installed by power or luck. The former are less vulnerable to turns in fortune than the latter. Cesare Borgia, who we learned about in Blood & Beauty: The Borgias, is a puzzle as he was both competent (and possibly a model prince) as well as installed by luck as his father became Pope. The book is a quick and easily digestible look at the major points of Machiavelli’s main works.
My Share of the Task: A Memoir
I could hardly put this book down. General Stanley McChrystal is way more fascinating than I first thought. I’ve never been one to read a ton of personal memoirs but I’m starting to warm up to the idea. The book is full of leadership lessons from someone, who through a combination of luck and skill, rose to command all US and coalition forces in Afghanistan. Of course it was the interesting profile of McChrystal in Rolling Stone that changed history, causing him to prematurely resign.The book is well written, captivating, and full of interesting insights that will help develop your leadership ability.
One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life
As a balance to The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking I thought I’d read this book, an exploration of the roots and methods of positive thinking. For better or worse, “positive thinking” has become the “unifying element” of the Western search for meaning. Nearly ubiquitous, it forms the foundation of “business motivation, self-help, and therapeutic spirituality.” Anyone, who has ever been told at the worst time possible to “think positively,” would call the positive thinking movement bullshit. I’d agree. While the book does a decent job of exploring the background and breadth of the movement, it does an unsatisfactory job at exploring the credibility of a movement that “considers the outer world nothing more than a reflection of an individual’s private outlook.”
The Myth of Sisyphus
This book deals with answering the question: is it legitimate and necessary to wonder whether life has a meaning. And, therefore, how should we look at “the problem of suicide face to face.” Camus proposes awareness: we must not kill ourself, “but realize instead that (we) are condemned to death, and live (our) life saturated with that terrible knowledge.” The book is at once magical, as a work of art, and sobering, in its subject and conclusions. Apparently you’re supposed to read this book with The Stranger. I didn’t. The books were written together as an exploration of the futility and absurdity of life, for ‘in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger.’
The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives
A great book for me to read so soon after finishing Fooled By Randomness as they both approach the same subject from vastly different angles. Mlodinow’s book is a gentler, though not necessarily better, introduction than Taleb’s. After walking through some elementary lessons in statistics that even professionals get wrong, the book explores how our lives are more informed by chance and randomness than we think. Along the way he offers some tools to help us make better decisions.
The Poverty of Historicism
Taking a closer look at the application of the scientific method to the social sciences. The central historical doctrine is “The belief… that it is the task of the social sciences to lay bare the law of evolution of society in order to foretell its future …” In place of historicism, Popper puts forth the argument in favor of “piecemeal social engineering.” The core argument of the book is that the past is like looking through the rear-view mirror, and does not always allow accurate prediction of the future (theories vs. laws).
Essential William Blake by Stanley Kunitz
Why Blake? Maybe it was because Steve Jobs was a huge William Blake fan. Or, maybe it was because of his background. Either way this served as a gentle introduction to Blake, who was considered a crank and madman by his contemporaries. Wordsworth, who outlived Blake by 23 years, was more generous than most in his reading of Blake. Upon discovering Songs of Innocence and of Experience, he remarked “There is no doubt this poor man was mad, but there is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott.” I really enjoyed some of the selections, such as Proverbs of Hell and The Human Abstract.
12 Years a Slave
A true story about a freeman who was lured out of the safety of his state under false pretences, kidnapped, sold as a slave, and shipped south. “Let not those who have never been placed in like circumstances, judge me harshly. Until they have been chained and beaten – until they find themselves in the situation I was, borne away from home and family towards a land of bondage – let them refrain from saying what they would and would not do for liberty.” The harrowing story is written by the man himself. He had to hide the fact he could read and write. Any indication to his masters that he was a freeman would be a death-sentence. He couldn’t even tell his fellow slaves of his background. He writes, “There, was no possibility of any slave being able to assist me, while, on the other hand, there was a possibility of his exposing me.” This is not a book you read and forget.
Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want
Understanding the minds of others—what they think, believe, feel, and want—is the key to social success. While our minds generally function pretty well in this area there is room for improvement. Epley argues that we make predictable and therefore correctable mistakes when trying to get inside the heads of others: we oversimplify (which, itself is an oversimplification.) One systematic way we err is when we believe we have better mental capacities than another person (dehumanization). For instance, in the not so distant past, we used to believe that children could not feel pain. To better understand—and presumably encourage against dehumanization—we’re often taught that we should put ourselves in the shoes of others to better understand their thoughts and feelings. This, however, may not be the best strategy as it relies entirely on what we already know, and no amount of perspective taking will make judgements better if we have a mistaken understanding of the other person. Epley proposes “perspective getting” as a better alternative. If you’re a court judge, for instance, and you want to know what water-boarding feels like you can ask someone who has experienced it or you can experience it yourself.
Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets
As hard as it is to believe, I’d never read Fooled by Randomness until now. The core of Taleb’s other books — The Black Swan and Antifragile — can be found in this early work. One of the best take-aways for me was the concept of alternative histories. “Probability is not a mere computation of odds on the dice or more complicated variants; it is the acceptance of the lack of certainty in our knowledge and the development of methods for dealing with our ignorance. … Mother Nature does not tell you how many holes there are on the roulette table … In this book, considering that alternative outcomes could have taken place, that the world could have been different, is the core of probabilistic thinking.”
Hooked: A Guide to Building Habit-Forming Products
A book about, as you can probably guess, what compels people to use a product regularly. While some products become habit-forming through luck, others can be manufactured into habits if you understand what makes users tick. Habits are behaviours that we do with little or no conscious thought — they are system one thinking. How do you manufacture them? The answer is the “hook model: a four-phase process companies use to form habits.” The model consists of: Triggers, Action, Variable Rewards, and Investment.
Contagious: Why Things Catch On
An interesting exploration of what makes thing popular. Despite what you think it’s not just about influence and word of mouth. The author, Johah Berger, breaks it down into six principles: Social Currency, Triggers, Emotion, Public, Practical Value, and Stories. I’ll be doing a post on this shortly so I don’t want to give too much away. (Some people have asked to know posts in advance so they can read the book and then see how what I post compares to what they take away. Here’s a good chance to do that.)
Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity
The Divine Comedy, by the poet Dante, is a masterpiece. Despite this common knowledge most people have never read the adventure story: “a journey into the mysteries of the afterlife, a pilgrimage through hell, purgatory, and paradise towards a final, face-to-face meeting with God.” At a broader level, the poem deals with themes of life most of us grapple with: what matters? how should we judge behaviour? what does it mean to be alive? Reading Dante is like a one-on-one course with Prue Shaw, one of the world’s foremost experts on Dante. Intended for the general reader, the book offers an introduction to Dante’s poem with the aim of communicating the power of Dante’s poetry—”the imaginative power, the emotional intensity, the linguistic brilliance, and the skill with which he orchestrates his themes.” You need not have read Dante to appreciate Shaw’s work, in fact if you haven’t read it, consider this a gentle introduction.
What He’s Poised to Do: Stories
I came across this diverse and moving collection of ‘witty and haunting stories’ about love, infidelity, and the vanishing art of letter writing through a conversation at a bookstore. Upon the recommendation of the book-lover, I opened to a random page that read “She’s older. That’s the first thing you need to know about her. I’m pregnant. That’s the first thing you need to know about me,” and bought the book. The author, Ben Greenman, is an acclaimed novelist and writer at the New Yorker.
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
This is a beautiful book. If you’ve ever wanted to write better — from the first draft to the final product — I highly recommend this readable book. Make no mistake, it’s not a ‘how to’ book, rather it is an exploration of the process of writing and what it means to write.
Last Ape Standing: The Seven-Million-Year Story of How and Why We Survived
The fascinating and somewhat counter-intuitive tale of how being born more prematurely than others, a uniquely long and rich childhood full of play actually helped us increase the odds of survival. While this isn’t as good as Song of the Dodo in terms of science writing, it’s up there.
Growth Hacker Marketing
A short book by Ryan Holiday on the changing landscape of marketing and what that means to anyone in sales. And, if you believe Daniel Pink, which I do, we’re all in sales. I read the kindle edition but the paperback comes out in September.
Lead with a Story: A Guide to Crafting Business Narratives That Captivate, Convince, and Inspire
One thing I need to get better at is telling stories. “Experience is the best teacher,” writes Paul Smith, “a compelling story is close second.” Effective stories allow an audience to feel and see things for themselves. I know this sounds strange but it really hit me that I need to get better at stories when I was presenting at Bradley University last week to a group of student athletes. So I asked a few people who I know are good at stories which books they’d recommend. Lead with a story is one of them and Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting, which is on its way to my house, was the other.
The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking
I had this book on my shelf for a while and while I’ve skimmed it I missed an incredible chapter on goals and why trying to control the future doesn’t work. Oliver Burkeman convincingly argues that our pursuit of happiness is what makes us miserable. The alternative? Embrace all of the things we try to avoid: failure, uncertainty, pessimism and insecurity.
Tempo: Timing, Tactics and Strategy in Narrative-Driven Decision-Making
A lot of books talk about the what and how in decision-making. This book also talks about the when, where, and who, with when being the driving question the book seeks to explore. Tempo has three elements: rhythm, emotion, and energy. Usually we adapt to the tempo of our environment. It’s a lot harder to set the tempo or change it. Wholly original and utterly fascinating.
Gregor Samsa worked himself ragged to pay off his parents’ debts—they were not as bad off as he believed. His grotesque metamorphosis “is the physical manifestation of his abasement.” He has only himself to blame, as he accepted “wretchedness as it was thrust upon him.” Like other Kafka protagonists, he errs, in part by allowing himself to “be acted upon” rather than acting. (Complement with Kafka’s The Trial.)
Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation
As algorithmic intelligence takes over, Tyler Cowen envisions a world with a shrinking middle class. The key question for workers is whether you are good at working with, or augmenting, intelligent machines or not? In other words, do you make the computer better? If not, Cowen believes you might be in trouble. He warns, “if your skills do not complement the computer, you may want to address that mismatch. Ever more people are starting to fall on one side of the divide or the other. That’s why average is over.”
Focus: Use Different Ways of Seeing the World for Success and Influence
Explores how our focus changes what we see and how we are influenced. While we have a tendency to be promotion-focused or prevention-focused, we can be fairly ambidextrous. When we’re promotion-focused, we’re focused on avoiding missed opportunities. When we’re prevention-focused we’re more conservative, trying to minimize losses. The book has an interesting explanation for why condom sales soar in a recession—taking our cues from the environment, we become more prevention-focused.
To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others
I’ve now bought this book three times. I bought it last year and lent it to a friend before I had a chance to read it. They never returned it. Then I bought a paperback, forgetting that I already had a kindle copy. The book is on the changing role of sales. We’re all in sales. Yes, you too. Do you try to persuade anyone? Yes? Then you’re in sales. Importantly, we’re moving away from a culture where salespeople have an information advantage over buyers. The balance has shifted and the implications are worth noting. Information parity changes how you should sell: we have to learn new skills—to pitch, to improvise, and to serve.
Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight
A great read. Like some introverts, sociopaths mimic the way other people behave so they can “hide in plain sight.” The book takes you into the mind of an intelligent sociopath and is hard to put down. Maybe not a book you want to read in public though, lest people get the wrong idea about you.
Breakpoint: Why the Web will Implode, Search will be Obsolete, and Everything Else you Need to Know about Technology is in Your Brain
Good ideas, when taken too far, die under the weight of success. “[W]e often destroy our greatest innovations by the constant pursuit of growth.” The book is about identifying and understanding breakpoints. In an example, the author predicts Facebook will shrink under its own weight. “Nature has a lesson for us if we care to listen: the fittest species are typically the smallest. The tiniest insects often outlive the largest lumbering animals. Ants, bees, and cockroaches all outlived the dinosaurs and will likely outlive our race.”
The Stoic Art of Living: Inner Resilience and Outer Results
An interesting introduction to three stoic philosophers: Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. The book explores selected excerpts of their work and shows us how inner resilience leads to inner peace. In the words of the author, “The Stoics saw what we need. And they left us some powerful advice about how to find it in our lives.”
I was fortunate enough to receive a pre-release copy of this book. While generally not a fan of books that promise “getting to more without settling for less,” two parts at the back of the book really made this worth reading for me. The first was the part on the premortem. The second was the seven lessons “that are essential for scaling up without screwing up.”
The Little Guide to Your Well-Read Life
I read this as research for a project I’m working on. Mary Hart, a professor at Harvard Business School, summed the book up: “Perfect for all of us who can never get enough time with good books. It not only urges us to indulge deeply and often, it shows us how.” It’s a bit hard to find, used copies are pretty cheap though.
Zen in the Art of Archery
The author, Eugen Herrigel, spent time in Japan after World War II and wanted to better understand Zen Buddhism. This is impossible to understand through books and requires an activity. He picked archery and found a Zen master who reluctantly accepted him as a student. Herrigel, being a Westerner, sought rapid progress and linear improvement through technical mastery. This wasn’t enough and became self-defeating. To truly master an art it has to become an “artless art” where it grows out of unconsciousness. Thus archery became a path to greater understanding.
What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast
A quick and entertaining look at how and why successful people use mornings as an engine towards getting things done.
Power of Communication,The: Skills to Build Trust, Inspire Loyalty, and Lead Effectively
If you can’t communicate effectively you cannot lead. This is the best book I’ve read so far on the link between leadership and communication. Effective communication is hard. Ineffective communication begins with ‘What do we want to say?’ “That’s both selfish and self-indulgent,” according to the author. It’s also unlikely to have the desired effect. Only in bureaucracies is the goal to ‘communicate something,’ the rest of us want to communicate in order to accomplish something.
The Last Lecture
What would you tell people if you knew you were going to die? I’d seen the lecture and wanted to revisit it. The book—actually 61 mini lectures—is filled with living-life-to-the-fullest advice from an amazing professor who only had a few months to live. You’ll find everything in here from parenting advice to duty and integrity.(Pair with 30 Lessons For Living and my interview.)
Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence
“While the link between attention and excellence remains hidden most of the time, it ripples through almost everything we seek to accomplish.”
Body of Work: Finding the Thread That Ties Your Story Together
Essentially a book about finding your core. A good companion to Choose Yourself.
How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character
A book too interesting to skim. We’re raising kids to never fail so they can’t ever deal with adversity. We’re losing our toughness. More worrisome, we’re failing to teach them how to think and falsify our ideas. The chapter “How to think” is worth its weight in gold. I’ll have much more to say on this book.
My Life in Middlemarch
Rebecca Mead has written a book like no other I’ve come across. An irresistibly creative story about how her favorite book, Middlemarch, changed her and perhaps more importantly, changed as she read and re-read it over the years. Her passion for the book is contagious. After reading this, you’ll want to go out and pick up a copy of Middlemarch.
The 4-Hour Body: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat-Loss, Incredible Sex, and Becoming Superhuman
If you’ve resolved to eat healthier and get into better shape this year, start here.
* * * 2013 * * *
A lot of engineering and computer science people face problems in organizations. This is a list of generalizations, to which there are always exceptions, but if followed in general will ensure that you are not labelled as an organizational anarchist. While a good primer on how to not make waves it was not nearly Machiavellian enough. I’d pair it with Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don’t.
After reading the article The Science of Sleep, one extremely well-read reader pointed me towards this book, which is the best book I’ve read on sleep yet. For me, the most fascinating parts were: (1) the discussion on why sleeping on complex problems helps us solve them; (2) “overnight therapy,” the idea that sleep reduces the strength of dangerous memories, such as a car crash, by helping us disestablish the emotional ties to the actual memory and (3) how you can use sleep consolidation to improve learning. The book does an excellent job putting the science into layman’s terms.
A fascinating read about how warfare is evolving. Robb examines Fourth Generation Warfare (4GW), which is essentially loosely networked groups against states. 4GW is the first generation of non conventional wars. There are no pivotal moments on a battlefield that decide the war. Think along the lines of Al-Qaeda and Anonymous. 4GW is all about turning the strengths of States against them and causing asymmetric financial hardship. While I appreciate his approach and the systems thinking, Robb is still too conventional. I think his expertise on the subject creates a bit of a blind spot when it comes to warfare and the internet. Still, this is a must read.
At first, I thought I’d just skim this book. To my surprise I ended up reading it cover-to-cover. Sharot argues that we’re optimistically biased, because this “helps protect us from accurately perceiving the pain and difficulties the future undoubtedly holds.” Additionally, “it may defend us from viewing our options in life as somewhat limited.” This, in turn, reduces stress and anxiety, improves mental and physical health, and nudges us to try things
The hilarious sequel to F in Exams: The Very Best Totally Wrong Test Answers. While most of these students probably got zero for their answers, some of them are incredibly creative.
This is for anyone who needs a flow chart to help them decide whether to attend law school or start a rock band.
The book takes on the business journey of hip hop from the early 70s till about 2007. Along the way you find out some fascinating stories. Did you know MC Hammer was part of a Christian rap group? Or that when Eminem was given a chance to ditch the people who helped him when he was a nobody he chose not to despite the obvious financial incentive and pressure from his new producer? Me either. Here’s the sequence from the book:
I found a clause in the contract where you can get rid of your product crew,” Day told (Eminem). “Just cut them a check for a hundred thousand dollars and move on.”
“No,” Eminem replied. “They believed in me when I didn’t have shit. They’re staying in there.”
The Quotable Kierkegaard
You know that awkward moment when you find yourself reading the same thing Mike Tyson is reading at the same time? Yea, that. ‘Everyone loves philosophy until they get punched in the face.’
How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big
I love Dilbert. Among other things Scott Adams’ book will show you that goals are for losers, passion is bullshit, and mediocre skills can make you valuable if you have enough of them. The best part of the book, however, was the discussion on systems and goals. Systems trump goals. See here for more details.
What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted: 200 Years of Popular Culture in the White House
An informative look at how culture has affected presidents and how presidents have affected culture. Politics is divisive but culture brings us together. Presidents are consumers and creators of culture and, as with anything presidential, strategically wield this power for political advantage.
Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much
When something you need is scarce or not there (say time if you’re a busy person, money if you’re poor) it narrows what your mind can see. This has negative effects, such as amplifying cognitive biases. This, in turn, increases the odds of making poor decisions.
In Antigone, Polynices, son of Oedipus, went to war with his brother, Eteocles, the ruler of Thebes, for control of the city. These two kill each other and their uncle, Creon, assumes control of the city. Creon regards Polynices as a traitor. Accordingly, he denies his body a decent burial. He warns that anyone ignoring this edict shall be put to death. Of course, Polynices and Eteocles have a sister, Antigone, and she defies Creon’s orders.
I’d never heard of Joan Didion until recently. Yes, to preempt you, that does mean I’ve been under some sort of literature rock for years. Anyways, this, a collection of essays, is her first non-fiction work. What really roped me in was her essay On Keeping a Notebook.
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.
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