A list of all the books I read in 2016.
Pax Romana: War, Peace and Conquest in the Roman World — A comprehensive and engaging history of Roman peace, which was brought on not by words but dominance. Goldsworthy recounts the civil rebellions of the conquered, including why they broke out and how the Romans responded. Compelling throughout and offers many lessons of power.
Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living — A refreshing signal in a world of noise that should be read and immediately re-read. There is so much goodness in here that scarcely will you find more than a page or two in my copy without a mark, bent page, or highlight. The entire book offers texture to thoughts you knew you had but didn’t know how to express.
Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation — It was Deci’s work that first pointed us to the idea that autonomy was a huge contributing factor to a person’s level of motivation. He believes that we shouldn’t be asking ourselves, “how can I motivate people?” but rather, “how can I create the conditions within which people will motivate themselves. The oft-quoted section on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is fascinating but there is so much more to this little book.
Seveneves — We don't often recommend novels, but I've dug into this one by Neal Stephenson lately in my pre-bed reading time and found it a fun read. It's a sci-fi novel (and a longer one) based on the moon blowing up into 7 pieces and humanity trying to come up with a plan. Stephenson is a very scientifically literate writer, so his novels are grounded in mostly very real and plausible science, and he brings you along on an interesting journey with a lot of detailed description of the technical specs of humanity's plan. This is more for fun than for learning but it's good to let your hair down every once in awhile while you read.
Management Lessons from the Mayo Clinic — The Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota is one of the most remarkable organizations in the world. It was founded around the time of the Civil War and is still considered one of the premier healthcare organizations in the United States, with a distinctly unique operating model. Any time you have patients willing to fly or drive hundreds of miles to come to you, instead of going to the hospital nearby, there must be something in the sauce. And this book does a good job showing what it is exactly that makes the Mayo Clinic culture unique — something fairly well summed up by one of the chapter headings: “I Am a Better Doctor Here”.
Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization — A fascinating book that shows how to access the tribes in your organization (and your own behaviours) on a scale of one to five. The book offers practical suggestions and indicators of success to elevate people from one stage to the next. If you’re wondering about internal dynamics in organizations, this book offers fascinating insight. My only regret is waiting so long to read it.
The Age of the Unthinkable: Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us And What We Can Do About It — The book outlines how our antiquated and often linear thinking is getting us in trouble. It proposes that this new age needs a new way of thinking, a shift in our paradigms to embrace complexity and unpredictability. Using historical examples the author outlines where we’ve had problems in the past and proposes a new model for interacting with the world. He skillfully argues that by having a deeper understanding of complex systems, their interconnectedness, and their inherent unpredictability, we can open ourselves up to new possibilities.
All I Want To Know Is Where I’m Going To Die So I’ll Never Go There — A fictitious seeker stumbles upon a “library of wisdom” that includes a librarian, Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger. A virtual tour of the knowledge takes place where The Seeker learns now to make better decisions and avoid stupdity.
Who's in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain — This is a fascinating (and readable for the non expert) take on free will and the human mind by the cognitive neuroscientist Michael Gazzinaga, a pioneer in studying split-brain patients and the human mind. The way he sees it, the brain operates with thousands of distinct “modules” that, when operating in parallel, give rise to what we call our “minds”. The implication is that we may not be totally in charge as much as we think we are. His work dovetails nicely with work done by Steven Pinker and Daniel Kahneman, among others. Highly recommended for a few big ideas, but be prepared to do a bit of re-reading to make sure you're grasping his points.
Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives — Those of us with a messy desk (myself included) can feel good about reading Tim Harford's most recent book. Clean workspaces are not an indication of high productivty. Disorder when employed correct can foster creatvity by creating hightened alertness. This is a great gift for the messy desk person on your list to make them feel good about themselves.
The Psychology of Man's Possible Evolution —These lectures, which were originally called Six Psychological Lectures, were first privately printed in the 1940s. Of the first run of 150 copies, none were sold. The essays were published once again after Ouspensky's death, and unlike last time became a hit. While the book is about psychology, it's different than what we think of as psychology — “for thousands of years psychology existed under the name philosophy.” Consider this a study in what man may become — by working simultaneously on knowledge and inner unity.
The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing: Violate Them at Your Own Risk! — A book from the 1990s that's still in print today, in part because it's still relevant with a compendium of twenty-two innovative rules for understanding and succeeding in the international marketplace.
The Origin of Wealth — Traditional economics has been upended again and again over the last fifty years. The latest incarnation is a strain called complexity economics. Pulling from physics, biology, and complexity theory, Eric Beinhocker describes a new and more robust framework to think about economics. This is a wonderful interdisciplinary synthesis, and I've pulled out at least a half dozen useful ideas. The key insight is about how business, strategy, and wealth evolve organically according to some discernible laws of nature and, at the very least, the book seeks to break down some of the barriers between the laws of the physical world and the workings of economics.
The Smith Tapes: Lost Interviews with Rock Stars & Icons 1969-1972 — I came across this book in the Harvard bookstore on a random browsing session. How I ended up in music, a section I typically avoid, is beyond me. The book is a compilation of transcribed interviews by Village Voice “Scenes” columnist, WPLJ FM radio host, and cult figure Howard Smith. Through conversations with the likes of Mick Jagger, Frank Zappa, Andy Warhol, Buckminster Fuller, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, the interviews explored the heart of the radical cultural, social, and political upheaval that was happening in the United States in the 60s. Your inner capitalist in you will even appreciate the Bill Graham interview.
Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distractions, and Get Real Work Done — Not the typical book you'd see on my list but Jocelyn Glei is always worth reading. As someone who constantly struggles with the onslaught of email and works with people that range from “why haven't you replied to the email I sent you 5 minutes ago” to “Oh yea, I saw that email last week, what did you need again” I often feel like I'm treading water with email. The book is full of good advice. Take what works for you, drop the rest.
Henry Clay Frick — A decent biography of one of history's relatively unknown capitalists and member of the so called robber-barrons. Henry Clay Frick, a friend of the Mellons and for most of his life Carnegie, shunned publicity and left an enduring legacy of silence. There is an argument to be made that Frick invented the leveraged buyout, insider trading, stock manipulation, and union busting. The book offers a stunning glimpse into the early battles between labour and capital. Whereas Carnegie was a romantic “apostle of wealth,” Frick was the opposite. He was an apostle of greed, making no apologies for the wealth he acquired through luck, ruthless tactics, risk taking, and sheer brilliance.
Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals — John Gray is a modern English philosopher who, to be frank, writes stuff that makes me uncomfortable. But that's why I read him. He's got provocative ideas on free will, on drug use, on where scientific thinking is taking humanity, and a host of other big ideas affecting modern human life. And he's likely right about many of them. This book probably won't make you feel fuzzy, but it will make you think interesting thoughts about yourself and the world around you, which is all I ask of a book.
The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning — Imagine the sum of our knowledge as an Island in a vast and endless ocean. This is the Island of Knowledge. The coastline represents the boundary between the known and unknown. As we grow our understanding of the world, the Island grows and with it so does the shores of our ignorance. “We strive toward knowledge, always more knowledge,” Gleiser writes, “but must understand that we are, and will remain, surrounded by mystery.” The book is a fascinating and wide-ranging tour through scientific history.
Travels with Herodotus — In the 1950s, renowned journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski finished university and became a foreign correspondent. He was hoping to see the world, and over the next few decades this was successful. Interestingly, he travelled the world with a copy of Herodotus' Histories in tow. Herodotus played an important role ranging from comfort to inspiration. Through Herodotus, Kapuscinski shapes his own views of the world.
Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble — A fun read about Dan Lyons, who for 25 years was a magazine writer, until one day when he gets fired from Newsweek, lands at a startup with the value title of “marketing fellow.” The book is an insightful look at HubSpot’s culture as well as a trenchant analysis of the start-up world and the delta between those who start companies, those who fund them, and employees.
The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living — (unexpectedly life changing) The way most of us search for and attempt to hold onto fleeting moments of happiness ends up ensuring that we're miserable. A great practical book on developing mindfulness, which is so important in many aspects of your life, including satisfaction. Might be the best self-help book I've read.
Conversations with David Foster Wallace — I’m a big fan of DFW. I decided to pick up this book again to revisit his insights on culture and the role of fiction. His 2005 commencement speech, This is Water, continues to resonate with me. For those interested in learning more about his life we’d also recommend reading Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace.
Education of a Wandering Man — L'Amour is known as the the King of the Western. He wrote dozens of historically accurate Westerns that depicted life on the frontier, at a time when many frontier men and women and their kin were still alive. But before he settled down into the writer’s life, L’Amour led the kind of life foreign to most of us today: He was at turns a miner, a hobo, a sailor, and a bare-knuckle boxer, wandering the frontiers of the world. All the while, he pursued a massive self-education by reading through the classic fiction and nonfiction literature of the world. I loved his short memoir — a fascinating look at a very different type of life but with that familiar unquenchable pursuit of knowledge.
The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction — I'm super excited about this. We're reading this book as part of a Member's only read-a-long starting October 1st. We'll be sharing marginalia, notes, questions, and references in a pop-up-slack group just for this project. David Quammen, is the brilliant author who turned me on to science writing. As part of our read-a-long he'll be introducing the book and taking your questions at the end. The book itself brilliantly traverses the ideas and theories of prominent naturalists of the last 200 years. Even if you're not going to join us, it's well worth the read.
The Sovereign Individual — The book, which argues “the information revolution will destroy the monopoly power of the nation-state as surely as the Gunpowder Revolution destroyed the Church's monopoly,” is making the rounds in Silicon Valley and being passed around like candy. Even if its forecasts are controversial, the book is a good read and it's full of interesting and detailed arguments. I have underlines on nearly every page. “Information societies,” the authors write, “promise to dramatically reduce the returns to violence … When the payoff for organizing violence at a large scale tumbles, the payoff from violence at a smaller scale is likely to jump. Violence will become more random and localized.” The Sovereign Individual, who, for the first time “can educate and motivate himself,” will be “almost entirely free to invest their own work and realize the full benefits of their own productivity.” An unleashing of human potential which will, the authors argue, shift the greatest source of wealth to ideas rather than physical capital – “anyone who thinks clearly will potentially be rich.” Interestingly, in this potential transition, the effects are “likely to be centered among those of the middle talent in currently rich countries. They particularly may come to feel that information technology poses a threat to their way of life.” The book predicts the death of politics, “weakened by the challenge from technology, the state will treat increasingly autonomous individuals, its former citizens, with the same range of ruthlessness and diplomacy it has heretofore displayed in its dealings with other governments.” As technology reshapes the world, it also “antiquates laws, reshapes morals, and alters preconceptions. This book explains how.”
Utopia is Creepy and Other Provocations — Nicholas Carr has been on my must-read list since his book The Shallows drew me into the way he writes. Utopia is Creepy gathers a decade's worth of posts and essays from Carr's Blog (RoughType.com). It's almost a counter-weight to the Silicon Valley sense that technology produces a paradise of prosperity and convenience. Carr argues that we're forgetting ourselves. “Resistance is never futile,” he argues. The book is worth a quick look, especially when Carr discusses the fate of reading, which is when he's at his best.
The Vital Question — Biologist Nick Lane is trying to answer what he considers the unanswered question in biology: What is the origin of complex life? How was life synthesized from inorganic matter like carbon and hydrogen? The primordial soup explanation no longer holds weight, and Lane comes up with a very clever and very plausible alternative, built from the ground up — the principles of thermodynamics and organic chemistry. The conditions for life had to be just right, but Lane shows pretty persuasively that the laws of physics can perfectly well lead to complex life the way we see it today. And he thinks that his explanation would have to hold anywhere in the universe, not just on Earth, due to the laws of physics. A warning with this one: It’s not a beach read. Some of it will be over your head if you’re not scientifically literate. But the subject matter is so interesting that we’re recommending it anyway, and it is nominally written for the layperson. It’s good to stretch once in a while — I find myself understanding much more if than I thought I would, and I think you will too. Just take your time.
Life in Half a Second: How to Achieve Success Before It's Too Late — Recommended to me by a friend, this is a great short book that I've been reading in Greece about achieving success and what that entails (code for what it means to live a meaningful life). Not your typical self-help book, the writing style is direct and clear.
To Kill a Mockingbird — I know, I know. Hear me out. Someone I respect mentioned that he thought Atticus Finch was the perfect blend of human characteristics. Tough and skilled, yet humble and understanding. He’s frequently rated as a “most admired” hero in fiction, yet he’s a lawyer competing with Jedis, Detectives, Spies, and Superheroes. Isn’t that kind of interesting? Since it had been at least 15 years since I’d read TKM, I wanted to go back and remember what made Atticus so admired. His courage, his humility, his understanding of people. I forgot just how perceptive Finch was when it came to what we’d call “group social dynamics” — he forgives the individual members of the mob that show up to hurt Tom Robinson simply because he understands that mob psychology is capable of overwhelming otherwise good people. How many of us would be able to do that? Atticus Finch is certainly a fictional, and perhaps “unattainably” moral hero. But I will point out that not only do real life “Finch’s” exist, but that even if we don’t “arrive” at a Finchian level of heroic integrity and calm temperament, it’s certainly a goal worth pursuing. Wise words from this week’s book on Knights sums it up best: “To head north, a knight may use the North Star to guide him, but he will not arrive at the North Star. A knight's duty is to proceed in that direction.”
How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness — I've changed my mind about books that are “accessible introductions” to harder books. I used to be pretty ambivalent about them, but I realized over the years that if they’re done well, they're very valuable. The reason is simple: Opportunity cost. No one can ever get to all the great books. This book is the economist/interviewer Russ Roberts’ take on Adam Smith’s lesser known first book: The Theory of Moral Sentiments which I may never get to in full. Roberts wisely realized that due to its old fashioned language and somewhat nebulous subject matter (basically, human nature), no one was really reading the TMS anymore, yet the book contains such deep wisdom into human happiness and satisfaction. Boy am I glad to have read this — the concepts behind what makes us happy (or not) have not changed a wink since the 18th century, and Roberts does a fairly perfect job making Smith’s work accessible. Adam Smith really had a lot figured out — one of the wisest human beings to ever live. You’ll be surprised what the man who is known as the “Father of Economics” has to say about the relationship between money and happiness. Highly recommended.
Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World — If you’re not familiar with Lee Kuan Yew, he’s the “Father of Modern Singapore,” the man who took a small, poor island just north of the equator in Southeast Asia with GDP per capita of ~$500 in 1965 and turned it into a modern powerhouse with GDP per capita of over $70,000 as of 2014, with some of the lowest rates of corruption and highest rates of economic freedom in the world. Finding out how he did it is worth anyone’s time. This book is a short introduction to his style of thinking: A series of excerpts of his thoughts on modern China, the modern U.S., Islamic Terrorism, economics, thinking, and a few other things. It’s a wonderful little collection. (We’ve actually posted about it before.) Consider this an appetizer (a delicious one) for the main course: From Third World to First, Yew’s full account of the rise of Singapore.
The Grapes of Math: How Life Reflects Numbers and Numbers Reflect Life — In a book the layman will understand, Alex Bellos takes us through a survey of the mathematical world from triangles, rotations, and power laws, to curves and calculus. Perhaps the most precious parts for me, however, were on the history of numbers and our early interactions with them.
Will Rogers: A Biography — Someone I deeply respect recently mentioned that he considered Will Rogers, one of America’s most beloved figures in history, to have lived a life with “unblemished” character. He treated people well, he acted with integrity, and he worked hard and deserved his success. So, naturally, I wanted to follow up on that. It’s been worth the jaunt. Rogers seems like one of the most pleasant men who ever lived, and although I’m no comedian, it’s clear to me that his modest, well-mannered, humor-filled way of life left him happy and well-loved all the way 'til the end. His famous quote “I never met a man I didn’t like” says a lot about him. Great lives are always worth exploring, and here’s one.
An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments — Perfect summer reading for adults and kids alike. One friend of mine has created a family game where they all try to spot the reasoning flaws of others. The person with the most points at the end of the week gets to pick where they go for dinner. I have a suspicion his kids will turn out to be politicians or lawyers.
Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise — Anders Ericsson has made a living studying the peak performers — chess champions, violin virtuosos, star athletes, and memory mavens. His findings have been interpreted by many over the years, including by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. Ericsson, himself, however, has never elaborated in depth on them until now. It's worth reading because you can ignore all of the other books that interpret his results.
The Wright Brothers — The great biographer McCullough is back with another one — a short biography of The Wright Brothers. Before you roll your eyes and say “The first guys to fly, Kitty Hawk and all that, I know, I know” — understand that Wilbur, Orville, and Katherine (the unsung sister, who McCullough gives her place in history) were some of the most intellectually curious people of the 20th century. Did you know Wilbur sustained an injury that caused him to become extremely depressed (to the point of reclusion) in his teens? He took that time to read his butt off and then partner with Orville in a series of ventures that led to the Big One. These guys didn’t go further than high school and started out as printing press operators and bicycle mechanics, yet they pulled off one of the defining engineering feats in human history. No ordinary lives could have achieved this, and they were anything but ordinary. A great tale.
Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking — Dan Dennett is one of the most well known cognitive scientists on the planet — this book is a collection of 77 short essays on different “thinking tools,” basically thought experiments Dennett uses to slice through tough problems, including some tools for thinking about computing, thinking about meaning, and thinking about consciousness. Like Richard Feynman’s great books, this one acts as a window into a brilliant mind and how it handles interesting and difficult problems. If you only walk away with a few new mental tools, it’s well worth the time spent.
The Gene: An Intimate History — Siddhartha Mukherjee wrote the bestselling (and Pulitzer-Prize winning) Emperor of all Maladies, a history of cancer. He’s matched that feat here with The Gene. The book is a history of genetics, our search for the gene, and what’s possible with the modern understanding of how genes work (good and bad). Mukherjee not only knows his stuff, but he’s a great writer. If you’re willing to put in the effort, understanding the “big ideas” of genetics is worth your time, and it’s hard to think of a better way for a non-specialist to do it than by reading this one.
The Serengeti Rules: The Quest to Discover How Life Works and Why it Matters — An easy and short read, but worth the time to pick up some useful nuggets on biology and ecology through the stories of the scientists who figured them out. The author bounces around as he describes various efforts over the years to figure out “how the world works” when it comes to life on earth. His goal is to waltz you through the “rules” of ecosystems and why they matter, but the main reason to read it is to pick up a few of the big ideas of biology. The intricate regulation of ecosystems from microscopic to planetary is always an interesting and broadly useful topic, especially if you consider how human-created systems operate in roughly the same way.
The Seven Sins of Memory (How the Mind Forgets and Remembers) — I found this in the bibliography of Judith Rich Harris’ No Two Alike. Schacter is a psychology professor at Harvard who runs the Schacter Memory Lab. The book explores the seven “issues” we tend to find with regard to our memory: absent-mindedness, transience, blocking, misattribution, suggestibility, bias, and persistence. The fallibility of memory is so fascinating: We rely on it so heavily and trust it so deeply, yet as Schacter shows, it’s extremely faulty. It’s not just about forgetting where you left your keys. Modern criminologists know that eyewitness testimony is deeply flawed. Some of our deepest and most hard-won memories — the things we *know* are true — are frequently wrong or distorted. Learning to calibrate our confidence in our own memory is not at all easy. Very interesting topic to explore.
Talk Lean: Shorter Meetings. Quicker Results. Better Relations — This book is actually full of useful tips on listening better, being candid and courteous, and learning what derails meetings, conversations, and relationships with people at work. Don't worry. It's not about leaving things unsaid that might be displeasing for other people. In fact, leaving things unsaid is often more detrimental to the relationship than airing them out. Rather, it's about finding a way to say them so people will hear them and not feel defensive. If you want to get right to the point and not alienate people, this book will help you. I know because this is something, personally, I struggle with at times.
Everybody Matters — I hate the title and had the person who sent it to me not been a friend, I might not have even looked at it. Title aside it's an interesting book written by Bob Chapman, CEO of the $1.7 billion manufacturing company Barry-Wehmiller. It's full of anecdotes on useful topics. One example is how Bob changed the incentive structure for one of his acquisitions by making a game of the sales process. “Why do we have scoreboards for sports teams but not for business,” he writes. “Wouldn't it be wonderful if everybody in every job knew what the score was, how they were doing, and how their team was doing?”
The Evolution of Money — An illuminating overview of money, beginning in Mesopotamia and the development of coin money in early Greece and Rome and continuing through to today's digital currencies like bitcoin. I loved the historical overview but hesitate to believe this book will help us determine money's next transformative role.
Ego is the Enemy — A book about how we can overcome ourselves and do our best work. Ego impedes learning. Ego impedes understanding. Ego can blind us. Yet ego can also fuel us and cause us to do otherwise impossible things. Self-awareness is the first step to reducing its negative impacts and harnessing its power.
The Master Algorithm: How the Quest for the Ultimate Learning Machine Will Remake Our World — I recently had a fascinating multi-hour dinner with the author, Pedro Domingos, on where knowledge comes from. Historically, at least, the answer has been evolution, experience, and culture. Now, however, there is a new source of knowledge: machine learning. The book offers an accessible overview of the different ways of machine learning and the search for a master, unifying, theory. The book also covers how machine learning works and gives Pedro's thoughts on where we're headed.
Kevin Zraly's Windows on the World Complete Wine Course — This was research for a podcast I just recorded with Veronique Rivest, one of the best sommeliers in the world. During the interview, which should be posted in the next few weeks, she recommends The World Atlas of Wine, which I just picked up. She recommended going through region by region and trying wines from each one. I can't think of a better summer project.
The Burden of Office: Agamemnon and other Losers — Tussman was a professor at Cal Berkeley in the '60s and '70s, and in this book does some very idiosyncratic retelling of a few classic stories: Antigone, the Odyssey, King Lear, and parts of the Bible among them. Once you get used to Tussman’s unusual style, you realize he’s trying to remove those well worn stories from banal mythology and put them in tangible context to understand what there is to learn about real human nature, political authority, war, vanity, extreme passions, and a host of other things that are relevant to us all. It’s not a long read, but there’s a lot here if you’re willing to sit with the book a bit. It also helps to have some familiarity with the stories ahead of time.
Fluent in Three Months — Apt because I'm rapidly trying to learn French. The author, Benny Lewis, speaks over ten languages that he taught himself. While the book offers a blueprint for hacking learning a language and is full of useful tips, not all of them are practical.
Words Like Loaded Pistols: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama — A primer on the key techniques of rhetoric (Ethos, Pathos, and Logos). More importantly, the book is a structured history of great oratory. Whether you want to believe it or not, we use rhetoric all the time. You do want to get better at it, don't you?
The Pyramid Principle — The international bestseller on how to produce crisp, clear, compelling writing. This was recommended by a participant at one of our Think Week events. The book is phenomenal.
The Buffett Essays Symposium — A (previously unseen) transcript of a 1996 symposium held in New York with the likes of Warren Buffett, Charlie Munger, and Bill Ackman. The focus of the symposium was Buffett's letters to shareholders with a series of panels dissecting the ideas in the letters: corporate governance, takeovers, investing, and accounting.
Steal the Show — When you're required to persuade, inform, or even motivate others, you're required to play a role. If you want to play that role better, you should learn how to prepare for the moments. My copy is loaded with highlights.
I've been exploring both Paleo and Ketogenic diets and recipe books lately. As you can imagine I ordered about 25 books on the subjects. Here are the five I've liked best so far:
- Keto Clarity: Your Definitive Guide to the Benefits of a Low-Carb, High-Fat Diet (A good place to get started if you want to know more.)
- The Ketogenic Cookbook: Nutritious Low-Carb, High-Fat Paleo Meals to Heal Your Body (This has some amazing recipes.)
- Quick & Easy Ketogenic Cooking: Meal Plans and Time Saving Paleo Recipes to Inspire Health and Shed Weight (Again a few of these hit it right out of the park for me.)
- Well Fed: Paleo Recipes for People Who Love to Eat
- Against All Grain: Delectable Paleo Recipes to Eat Well & Feel Great (Danielle's other books were must orders after this one: See Celebrations and Meals Made Simple)
Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics Explained by its Most Brilliant Teacher — Feynman is the best physics teacher ever, maybe the best teacher of scientific concepts we’ve seen. His clarity of thought is incredible, which means he can explain things in an equally clear way. This is a short book with six chapters on some of the big, fundamental ideas of physics, explained in plain English. Yes, in some sense reading this is a bit like eating your carrots. However, Feynman lays a lot of butter and brown sugar on the carrots, and there are some big, interesting mental models to be had for a non-scientist. The relationship between physics and other sciences, the principle of conservation of energy, gravitation, and the basics of quantum mechanics are among the topics covered.
The Lives of a Cell — Another shorter book this week – this one by the biologist Lewis Thomas, who died in 1993. Lives of a Cell is one of three collections of his essays written for the New England Journal of Medicine in the '60s and '70s (another being The Medusa and the Snail). Each vignette is no more than 5-6 pages, and the book is about 40 years old, yet Thomas has humanist insights about medicine, biological science, and ecology that are poignant and fascinating, even in areas where the science has moved forward a bit since. I think about his work as “philosophy done through science.” It's fun being exposed to many different topics in a short span, especially coming from a writer like Thomas.
Why Don’t We Learn from History? — This is a short (~120pp) book by the military historian and strategist BH Liddell Hart, a man who not only wrote military history but surely influenced it, especially in Germany in the World War period. He wrote this short synthesis at the end of his life and didn’t have a chance to finish it, but the result is still fascinating. Hart takes a “negative” view of history; in other words, What went wrong? How can we avoid it? The result of that study, as he writes in the intro, is that “History teaches us personal philosophy.” Those who learn vicariously as well as directly have a big leg up. Something to take to heart. I plan to read more of his works.
A Powerful Mind: The Self-Education of George Washington — What a great book idea by Adrienne Harrison. There are a zillion biographies of GW out there, with Issacson’s getting a lot of praise recently. But Harrison narrows in on Washington’s self-didactic nature. Why did he read so much? How did he educate himself? Any self-motivated learner is probably going to enjoy this.
Rise to Greatness: The History of Canada From the Vikings to the Present — Not up on Canadian history? Here is a one stop shop that covers very well the American/British/French/Native interconnections that existed (especially in the Northeastern United States) as well as the birth of two nations.
Inferno: The World at War 1939-1945 — Ever since reading the unforgettable essay by Lee Sandlin called Losing the War, I’ve become increasingly interested in WWII history. Such an extreme world event has great instructive power, and is simply very interesting to learn about. It wasn’t that long ago when you consider it. I wanted a good one-volume account and this has proven to be a solid, but sometimes challenging, choice. The pace of the book is great and covers what it needs to cover, but I find myself having to look up a few too many things that the author assumes I should know, in my opinion unfairly. But a great learning process nonetheless and engrossing material.
On Success — A little known volume by Charles T. Munger, which is really a collection of a few speeches. When traveling, it sure beats carrying around the massive Poor Charlie's Almanack. It's also interesting to note that there are several versions of his speeches.
The Closing Circle: Nature, Man & Technology — A fascinating book from the 1970s offering “the four basic and inescapable laws of ecology,” and thus building on our existing knowledge. Barry Commoner, the author, was a pioneer. The book also explores on the “impending environmental disaster that mad has created with his own technology and that threatens to destroy human society.”
Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action — I picked this up because I thought it would be a good beach read and further my understanding of why some companies are able to trounce the competition with less talent, less money, and no structural advantage. On this it delivered.
The Lean Startup — This book has become part of the cultural fabric of the startup community.
Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In — I recently read one of Roger Fisher’s other books — Getting it Done — and decided to read his bestseller on negotiation as well. The book has sold a zillion copies for a good reason — he offers a way “out” of highly contested negotiation. Many people are probably familiar with the concept of BATNA — Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement — but there’s a lot of other good stuff in his framework. Munger called it “wise and ethical” and I agree.
Necessary but not Sufficient — The title of this book is a great mental model. Distinguishing the relationship between things at this level helps focus on what matters. Perhaps an easy example will help illuminate: swinging at a pitch in baseball is necessary to hit the ball, but not sufficient to do so. Another way to look at it: Necessary conditions must be satisfied to obtain something, whereas sufficient ones guarantee you will obtain it. We quickly go down a rabbit hole here but that's a basic introduction. This is Goldratt's most criticized book. One of his other books, The Goal, remains a mandatory read for most MBAs (reading a book is not sufficient to understanding it — something a lot of schools, and people, confuse).
The Poverty of Historicism — This classic by the 20th-century philosopher Karl Popper is his refutation of the idea that history has some pre-determined outcome or inevitable destiny; that there are “laws of progress” or that history has an unavoidable outcome like anarchy, fascism, or capitalistic rule. It’s an enjoyable and short read and Popper makes his point well. I’m enjoying delving into his work. As far as philosophy goes, Popper is pretty readable and clear, and his writings have a practical and useful end to them. He’s the opposite of the babbling, arrogant intellectual at the cocktail party.
Getting it Done: How to Lead When You’re Not in Charge — I picked up this book because I noticed it had blurbs on the back by Charlie Munger and Robert Cialdini. Hard to miss, right? The title previews the content of the book pretty well — the authors call it Lateral Leadership and discuss how it applies in a few different arenas. There’s also quite a bit about making better decisions and learning more effectively yourself. The book is a little bit of a slog at times — it’s written by a lawyer — but if you’re willing to give it your attention, there are a host of very good ideas in here from a pair of effective decision makers. (Roger Fisher also wrote Getting to Yes which is probably the most popular and useful book ever written on negotiation.)
When Breath Becomes Air — It's been a while since I've cried reading a book. This beautifully written memoir, by a young neurosurgeon diagnosed with terminal cancer, attempts to answer the question What makes a life worth living? If you read this and you're not feeling something you're probably a robot.
The Sense of Style — Cognitive psychologist Stephen Pinker has written a style guide for the 21st Century and it’s awesome. Pinker updates Strunk & White for modern writers while avoiding hard rules and focuses much more on what makes our writing readable and enjoyable. His background as a linguistic scientist comes in handy as he explains grammatical and syntactical concepts, and he provides many examples of clear, useful writing contrasted against painful, punishing prose. It’s not hard to deem this as the best book around at the moment for making your writing more clear and more lively.
Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World — Cal Newport's new book is a great read on a subject I've been thinking a lot about lately. In a world of distraction, how you organize your time and days makes an enormous difference. Read this.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind — One of the best books I’ve come across in a long time. Sapiens is a work of “Big History” — in the style of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel— that seeks to understand humanity in a deep way. Many of Professor Harari’s solutions will be uncomfortable for some to read, there is no attempt at political correctness, but his diagnosis of human history is undeniably interesting and at least partially correct. He draws on many fields to arrive at his conclusions; a grand method of synthesis that will be familiar to long-time Farnam Street readers. The book is almost impossible to summarize given the multitude of ideas presented. But then again, most great books are.
River out of Eden — This is, perhaps, Richard Dawkins’ simplest and most straightforward book on evolutionary theory, but note that it is wrapped in his usual religious debunking, which value lies in the eye of the beholder. I find it interesting, although occasionally unnecessary. The book is a quick read and the concepts will be familiar to those having read some of Dawkins’ longer stuff, but it’s a nice piece of work to remind one of the big gene-centered evolutionary concepts and why they are so powerfully explanatory in a world of such complexity as ours.
The Prince of Medicine: Galen in the Roman Empire — We owe a lot of modern medicine to Galen of Pergamum (A.D. 129- ca. 216) who began his career tending to wounded gladiators in Asia Minor and rose to one of a few who treated the family of Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Galen, a polymath who adopted ideas from different schools, wrote on everything from gout and grammar to ethics and eczema. “The Galen of this biography is a tireless interrogator of nature, an attentive inquisitor of patients and reader of diagnostic clues, a ruthless critic of ideas unsupported by experience, skeptical of nearly all received medical knowledge, and an aggressive and competitive public figure.” If Hippocrates was the founding figure of medicine, Galen was its greatest exemplar.
It's Your Ship — The subtitle is Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy. I've read a lot of leadership books and this might just be the best damn leadership book. The military, like most organizations, invests a lot of money preparing for tomorrow with antiquated methods — believing that technology and not people is the advantage. As such, most organizations undervalue people and have stopped helping them grow. There is a reason, however, why culture (in the long run) eats strategy. “My ship’s job was war,” Abrashoff writes, “your company’s purpose is profit. But we will achieve neither by ordering people to perform as we wish. Even if doing so produces short-term benefits, the consequences can prove devastating.” (Pair with Plain Talk: Lessons from a Business Maverick and you might not need to read another leadership book again.)