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The Books I’ve Read so far in 2017

A list of all the books I've read in 2017 (for the curious, check out the 2016 list, which I distilled into the 16 best books of 2016.)

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Milk and Honey — I feel like I'm the outsider when it comes to poetry. I remember sitting in English class in University and listening to the professor interpret the author in such a way that I'd often think I read the wrong poem. Every now and then, however, I pick up a poetry book and it just gets me. This book put words on feelings I've not put into words. While this helps me understand myself better, for the time being the ambiguity and uncertainty is lost. And sometimes I quite enjoy not knowing exactly what I feel with exacting precision. (Also, while we're on poetry, be sure to check out the dynamic duo of Michael Faudet and Lang Leav. These two are best read together.)

As I ramp up for the next iteration of the productivity seminar, I've been combing my bookshelves to make sure I'm not missing anything and the ideas are presented with clarity. I picked up Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less and while packed with insights and a fresh approach, there is quite a bit that could have been left out. A lot of what we see as outlier success is a relentless ability to focus on what matters. This is harder than it sounds because what matters to me is not what matters to you. No one can tell you what matters — you have to do the work and figure that out for yourself. I also found myself skimming Tools of Titans for insights I can put into practice.

Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers — This isn't a new one, but if you want to understand stress, go to the best. Robert Sapolsky is a neuroscientist who spent many years living with baboons (and you thought you were accomplished), who understands the physiology of stress as well as anyone in the world. I learned a lot about biology, neurology, addiction, and the nature of the stress response, all generally complicated topics that Sapolsky writes about very well – he refuses to use jargon without explaining it. I plan to read many of his other books.

A Man for All Markets: From Las Vegas to Wall Street, How I Beat the Dealer and the Market — A book recommendation by Charlie Munger at the 2017 meeting that took place on Feb 15th. Ed Thorp, the author and a polymath, showed the world how to beat Vegas and forever changed gambling. After that, the genius turned his mind to the biggest casino in the world: Wall Street. Even if you're not interested in investing or math, the book offers a relatively easy to follow account of how you can apply your mind to problems and see them in a new way, thereby gaining an edge.

The Ethics of Ambiguity by Simone de Beauvoir.  An excellent exploration of what it means to be free. She defines the many constructs that man sets up in opposition to true freedom and provides an analysis of how to break these down.  She also offers an insightful ethics on how to manage our freedom in order to support the freedom of others.  There is much wisdom in this short book, and I appreciated how she tried to make her philosophy practical.  Something that can be used in living.

Perilous Interventions: The Security Council and the Politics of Chaos — A must read  book for anyone who makes decisions that examines the negative consequences that come with most interventions. The author, Hardeep Singh Puri, India's representative on the United Nations Security Council, removes the curtain on some of the most high stakes decisions in the world such as: Iraq, Ukraine, Syria, Libya, and Yemen. He also uncovers how action is wrapped in moral arguments. And because countries are a complex system, the consequences of intervention is rarely worn by the interventionists, who all too frequently cause more harm than good. Mistakes are repeated over and over again because feedback in a complex system can be, well, complicated.

Operation Kronstadt by Harry Ferguson — A fascinating book following the stories of two men. Paul Dukes, a concert pianist and spy for England in 1919 St. Petersburg, and Gus Agar, the naval lieutenant MI6 sent to save him. Written by a former MI6 officer, this book is fast paced and brutally honest about the unglamorous life of spies and the often incompetent bureaucracies that back them up.

Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff — A well researched and evocatively written book that essentially tries to rescue Cleopatra from history. It succeeds by giving a portrayal of the woman as she might have been, which is unlike how she has been depicted throughout most of history. Illuminating.

Early Greek Philosophy, Volume II: Beginnings and Early Ionian Thinkers, Part 1 — Man, between this and the Ricordi, I feel like I've moved my brain in the last few weeks. The section on Thales had me thinking a lot about time this week. No matter how ever present time may be, few of us really grasp the concept or its second and third order implications.  I'm about to start Part 2 and I've been reminded, again, that the ancient Greeks are a profound source of timeless wisdom.

Maxims and Reflections (Ricordi) — Considered by many to be one of the major political writers of the Italian Renaissance, none of Francesco Guicciardini's works were published during his lifetime. A child prodigy, Guicciardini developed a close friendship with Niccolò Machiavelli. The two shared an uncanny ability to observe human nature and a non-ethical approach to politics. Guicciardini would eventually earn the epithet “the first of the Machiavellians.” Never intended to become public, the Ricordi were written over a period of about 18 years—from his first office appointment to his involuntary retirement—and represent the private scribbles of a profound mind.

Seduced by Logic: Émilie Du Châtelet, Mary Somerville and the Newtonian Revolution — The fascinating tale of Émilie du Châtelet, who defied the norms of the time and dedicated her life to pursuing her love of mathematics and Voltaire. Despite lacking easy access to academic training and the informal epicenters of intellectual life, she willed herself into a mathematician and trailblazer. Together with her collaborator and lover Voltaire, they build a lab worthy of the best scientists in the land and invited people to come work with them. Voltaire considered her “a genius worthy of Horace and Newton.” When Newton published his theory of gravity it faced opposition. Émilie, however, would be one of the first to understand Newton's Principia had changed the world. Together with Voltaire she would publish Elements of the Philosophy of Newton.

Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy — Very interesting book based on the author's first hand experiences consulting in large organizations. Supported by psychological theory, he explains how cultivating an empathetic approach in one's business can lead to better sales and a happier, more productive work force.

The Twenty-four Hour Mind: The Role of Sleep and Dreaming in Our Emotional Lives — Leading sleep researcher Rosalind Cartwright unearths how much we've learned about sleep and shows just how much more remains undiscovered. It's a fascinating look at what happens when we close our eyes every night — our minds truly are 24/7.

The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt's New World — What an interesting book. I had never heard of Von Humboldt, and by the end I was surprised by this. The first person to put forth an idea of nature as a giant web of inter-dependencies, and the first to observe and challenge the sometimes negative impact of human on the earth, his writings heavily influenced generations of scientists and poets including Darwin and Thoreau. Andrea Wulf does a great job of conveying the passion and paradigm shifting ideas of this exceptionally interesting man.

The Prophet — Philosopher Kahlil Gibran's 1923 masterpiece is a collection of poetic essays traversing time and discipline. In 28 chapters he covers love, marriage, giving, children, crime and punishment, and more. Nowhere is his skill more evident than in his comments on reason and passion, “rest in reason and move in passion.” This book is a gift to ourselves.

Genghis Khan and the Quest for God — Genghis Khan lived at a time where Gods flourished and wars of lust and greed had taken a back seat to the bigger threat, religion motivated wars. The Mongols, under Khan, targeted religious centers because they protected rival authorities and contained treasure they looted, giving much of it back to commercial circulation. Khan didn't belong to any one religion, after sacking an enemy he would consider how well their actions matched their stated beliefs. Religious leaders “accustomed to issuing verdicts of guilt or innocence and dispensing judgments of life or death now found themselves and their faith on trial by a non-beliver.” While he originally viewed large organized religions with deep skepticism, he often solicited the religious leaders (“lords of wisdom”) to tell him what they knew, debating with one another in his presence. “Monks, priests, astrologers, magicians, prophets, alchemists, soothsayers, sages, fortune tellers, and charlatans traveled for months” to come to see him. A great listener, Khan scrutinized each religion known in his empire—Christianity, Taoism, Buddhism, Islam, Manichaeism, Confucianism, and smaller ones. While best known as a fierce warrior, Genghis Khan and the Quest for God explains how Khan struggled for spiritual understanding and how his tolerance influenced the First Amendment freedoms.

The Printing Press as an Agent of Change — This is a deeply impressive work. First published in 1979, Eisenstein was the first person to bring together a comprehensive look at the changes wrought by the printing press in Western Europe. Many of the questions she raises are profound and can be applied when considering the impacts of communications technologies in general. Meticulously researched with a very accessible writing style, this is a fascinating book.

The Undoing Project — I think Lewis is an awesome writer. His three non-fiction books became movies—some of them about arcane topics like finance—for good reason. He's an incredibly talented storyteller who knows how to make his subjects interesting. This one is the story of the friendship between psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, the famous pair who gave us Prospect Theory, the Availability Heuristic, and other wildly successful psychological concepts. It's a touching personal story, and in the process, Lewis very effectively explains Kahneman and Tversky's work in psychology. Another great piece of work.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking (Re-Read)
Great book. Well researched and well written. We are all somewhere on the introversion/extroversion scale, and this book really made me want to embrace and develop my more introverted qualities. It makes a good case for why we need different personality types, and how many of our schools and institutions are failing us because they assume that there is only one way to be that will lead to success.

Liars and Outliers Enabling the Trust that Society Needs to Thrive
Reaches across academic disciplines to develop an understanding of trust, cooperation, and social stability. From the subtle social cues we use to recognize trustworthy people to the laws that punish the noncompliant, from the way our brains reward our honesty to the bank vaults that keep out the dishonest, keeping people cooperative is a delicate balance of rewards and punishments. It's a series of evolutionary tricks, social pressures, legal mechanisms, and physical barriers.