The Books I’ve Read in 2017
Energy and Civilization: A History — If you've ever read any of Vaclav Smil's books, you'll know that they're dense. Packed. He doesn't cut any corners. In fact, I doubt the guy has any hobbies. Just about every year he comes out with an information-packed book on a different subject. I've learned so much from him. (But let's be honest, these are books for the true nerds.)
Energy and Civilization is an updating of a book he wrote 20 years ago; a substantial update indeed, it's about 60% longer. If you ever wanted a primer on the history of energy in human society, this is your best bet. It's dense but readable: Smil starts with prehistory and continues right up until the current time. It's not a book you need to read from page 1 until the end. (Unless you'd like to, of course.) The way I read books like this is to scan through the whole thing and then read passages and chapters that I think are of particular interest.
For example, I found Chapter 7 (Energy in World History) to be a really fascinating one in this book. It opened my eyes to all of the progress we made in harnessing energy even before we reached the Industrial Revolution and the fossil fuel era. Did you know that we tripled our ability to harness animal power for energy just by using collared harnesses? Seems trite now, but that must have felt like a massive leap at the time. There are thousands of these small improvements, and these “steady, incremental” changes have continued until this day. We can only guess where we're headed with them. It's an antidote to the Cavemen–>Farmers/Peasants–>Industrial–>Information Age style thinking that's probably in your head now.
My only complaint is that Smil uses units of measurement that most people are not terribly familiar with; but the best remedy is to understand them in relative terms, to understand the magnitude of the change in human society over time.
Thomas Sankara: An African Revolutionary by Ernest Harsch – Sankara was president of Burkina Faso from 1983-1987. This short account gives a good overview of both Sankara the man and the political situation that led to his rise. Both inspirational, for what he tried to achieve, and sad, because his work was undone quickly after his assassination, this story ultimately highlights the most interesting aspect of his legacy – that he continues to inspire many people 30 years after his death.
Ice Age —I first came across this short book many years ago when Charlie Munger called it the “best work of science exposition and history that I’ve read in many years!.” At the time, however, I didn't appreciate the brilliance of John Gribbin or the significance of this work. The book is a masterful example of scientific thought and clear thinking. Anyone with even a passing interest in climate change will find this a worthy contemplation. Gribbin argues that the Ice Epoch — “the succession of relatively long-lived Ice Ages and relatively short-lived Interglacials” — derives from small changes and feedback loops. While we think it's normal to have polar ice caps, having two at the same time might indeed be unique — and it might be what made is human. The book explores applied chaos theory, the role of the ocean currents in climate change, and how feedback loops become an all or nothing proposition with climate change. To call this book perspective changing would be an understatement.
Aphorisms and Thoughts — A selection of some of Napoleon Bonaparte's thinking as compiled by the French novelist and playwright Honoré de Balzac, who, over several years scoured through all of Bonaparte's writings. Balzac's pared down the voluminous writings of Napoleon with a careful eye and thoughtful mind. The resulting book reveals a treasure of thinking. Napoleon's lucid mind becomes apparent without accusation or defense as to his actions.
I also very much enjoyed the photo's in Serge Ramelli's Paris, whose photos capture an elegant and timeless Paris seeming free of the maddening tourists, of which I am one. The alive Paris is at once both better and worse. But more on that later.
Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World by Steven Johnson — Interesting, well-researched and entertaining to read. This book gives a whole new appreciation of how our drives shape our world; how our desire to be entertained helped to create many of our modern structures. Johnson provides a balanced account on the virtues and vices of play as he explores how this fundamental human desire has led to the most striking innovations.
Perennial Seller: The Art of Making and Marketing Work that Lasts, which is basically what we've been doing on this blog for the past 5 years or so. Think of it as compound interest for your brain. Although I don't expect more competition now that the secret is out. After all, it's been in plain sight all this time.
Dragon Lady: The Life and Legend of the Last Empress of China. An interesting book that was very uncomfortable to read. Why? Because the author makes a well-argued and documented case for the inaccuracy of Western scholarship on this period in Chinese history. In addition to making this history come alive with his detailed and vivid descriptions, he chronicles how lazy reporting and greedy individuals managed to create a completely false historical record that became a pervasive foundation for future inaccurate scholarship, right into Oxford and the Encyclopedia Britannica. A sad, chilling, yet fascinating tale.
As I’m about to head off to France for a few weeks. Given, I’ve already read Sarah Bakewell’s awesome book How to Live, I picked up Stefan Zweig’s brief biography on Montaigne. Zweig is a phenomenal writer. I’m as interested in the way he beautifully constructs things as the subject he’s writing about. The book is brief and to the point. It’s also timely. Montaigne withdrew from the chaos of 16th century France to study what it means to live. The parallels to the world in which we find ourselves are striking. The book is highly recommended and I picked up most of Zweig’s other works.
The other book I’m reading this week is A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age, which explores the mind of Claude Shannon who, although lesser known, has been compared with Einstien and Newton in importance. Shannon was a polymath and digital pioneer. Like Ed Thorp, he used his mind to outwit Vegas but the title of this book is apt because he also invented a flamethrowing trumpet. His playfulness brings to mind Richard Feynman at times. Of course, Shannon is most famous for being credited with kickstarting the digital revolution. This is the most comprehensive biography of the man I’ve come across.
First I picked up Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies — Like everyone else who has read this book, I believe it was too long. At least 1/4 too long. The author, Geoffrey West, discusses how understanding scaling can change the way you see the world. My favorite part was “The Big Picture,” which I’ve earmarked to read again. In this West offers a sweeping overview of energy, emergent effects, and linearity.
I also came across One Mission: How Leaders Build a Team of Teams, which I picked up because I loved My Share of the Task. Organizations are not isolated systems. When the pace of change outside your organization is greater than the pace of change inside, you become irrelevant. Like relationships that end, it happens slowly and then all at once. One Mission offers an approach to help adapt.
A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety — A great read if your confidence in political leaders is low. With an unlikely rise from submariner to President, the book is full of stories I hadn’t heard before. Carter took office when confidence in political leaders was low — not long after Watergate. The most interesting thread throughout the book was how the relationship between him and Rosalynn, his wife of 70 years, evolved. While they didn’t start there, they certainly formed an equal partnership well ahead of most others. The book is full of remarkable anecdotes, like the CIA agent who saved his skin by claiming his middle name was Hitler and how Carter made a campaign pledge never to lie.
Mobs, Messiahs, and Markets: Surviving the Public Spectacle in Finance and Politics — A re-read from a few years ago. This book is chalk full of counterintuitive insights and explanations. Consider it an entertaining criticism of much conventional thinking and an in-depth look at human behavior.
The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire — This book was fascinating. It brought new characters into this part of history, revealing a complex tale of the ebbs and flows of the Mongol Empire. It offers, indirectly, a lot of interesting lessons on leadership and legacy. An informative read.
The Education of a Coach — I'm a huge fan of looking to sports and war as a way to quickly filter what works and what doesn't. When people have a lot of skin in the game and success matters a lot, you're going to find a higher signal to noise ratio. Bill Belichick is the coach behind the success of one of the greatest programs in sports history: the New England Patriots. No matter your role, you can learn a ton from this book. I read the entire book because I enjoyed it but you can really start at chapter 10 or 11 if you just want the most critical insights. No, you don't need to read the whole book. One of the reasons that Belichick has been able to sustain success over so many years is that he never thinks he's as good as he really is and never lets the team believe they're better than they are. After they won their first Super Bowl, he hugged a longtime friend and colleague saying “Can you believe we won the Super Bowl against the Trams with this team?” Sometimes the worst thing that can happen to people is winning.
The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More and Change the Way you Lead Forever — The book distils coaching into seven questions that you can use to make a positive difference for those around you. I love this book. It's a rare combination of practical, beautiful, and interesting.
The Einstein Factor: A Proven New Method for Increasing Your Intelligence — despite its title, which I cringed at typing, this book had some useful nuggets. Specifically, I found a reference to Catherine Cox, who did an exhaustive study of 300 geniuses from history in the 1920s including Isaac Newtown, Thomas Jefferson, and Bach. There were some striking similarities—correlations if you will—among the top achievers. Cox notes that one of their shared habits was recording their thoughts in diaries and letters.
The Mathematics of Love: Patterns, Proofs, and the Search for the Ultimate Equation — Hannah Fry follows the arc of relationships from getting a date to staying married, revealing at each stage the mathematical proof for the ideal behavior (in terms of goal achievement). It is interesting, easy to read, and the author clearly sees as much beauty in math as she does in love.
Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy — I started reading this book during a hockey game and stopped watching the game because I had tears in my eyes. This book is for anyone who has ever lost anyone or had a misstep (like mine) *AND* importantly for anyone who wants to be a better friend tending to the needs of a person going through something. Before reading this I was a silent helper, never one to bring something up for fear of upsetting them. Sheryl Sandberg turned my world upside down and showed me how unhelpful I was being. Backed by research from Adam Grant, this book is a powerful companion that deserves a place on every shelf.
I also happened on Humility is the New Smart, in which Ed Hess (who did one of my favorite interviews of all time) talks about the hyper-meritocracy. I liked how this book makes open a mindset shift that we need to improve our adaptability.
The Laws of Medicine — Siddhartha Mukherjee is an amazing writer (he's also written The Gene, and The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize). In this short book, he explores whether medicine is a Science, and if so, what are its laws? The beautiful part of this book was how he related general laws to specific applications rather than reaching to apply them. As he put it, “Living creatures must obey the fundamental rules of physics and chemistry, but life often exists on the margins and in the interstices of these laws, bending them to their near breaking limit.”
I also happened on Why Time Flies, which was full of weirdly interesting stories about how time and light affect our bodies, and Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People in which Vanessa Van Edwards summarises her 8 years of researching body language and communication patterns.
Four Queens: the Provencal Sisters who Ruled Europe — This book is a page turner. Goldstone chronicles the stories of four inauspicious sisters who each became Queens. Set amidst the drama of the 13th century, she brings to life the people and the times in which they lived with accessible and vivid detail. She helps these women find their place in history, and in doing so gives this time period a complexity which it is often lacking in modern portrayals.
How We Get To Now: Six Innovations that Made the World Modern — I loved this book. In a short 250 pages or so, Steven Johnson discusses the development of six things that we all totally take for granted: Glass, refrigeration, recorded sound, modern cleanliness, modern timekeeping, and electric light. What he does best is show the follow-on impact of these ubiquitous human inventions. For example, what does the development of the printing press have to do with an explosion of demand for glasses? Answer: It was only then that lot of people finally found out they were farsighted! What does cleanliness have to do with modern computing? Without insanely antiseptic “clean rooms”, there would be no computer chips! It's not a long or difficult read, but it is full of little things like that which make you really appreciate glories of the modern world.
Warnings: Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes —Cassandra, as myth has it, was a beautiful princess of Troy. She was cursed by the God Apollo with the ability to see impending doom and have no one pay attention to her warnings. Her people ridiculed her when she predicted the demise of Troy. She was right. Too right. Her inability to convince the others drove her into madness and she ultimately lost her life in the tragedy she foretold. Cassandras are all around us. They warn of wars, levies, Ponzi schemes, pandemic diseases, and more. The problem is that people are warning us of impending disaster all the time. Most of them are wrong. For each correct Cassandra, there are many who are incorrect. Dick Clarke and R.P. Eddy's book is about distinguishing the signal of Cassandras from the noise of the many warnings that never come to pass. One of the best parts of this book is the deep psychology behind how real Cassandras are treated in their own organizations after they were proven correct.
Problem Solved: A Powerful System for Making Complex Decisions with Confidence and Conviction — This is not a book about doing the impossible, it is a book about a process for decision making that helps you make better decisions. In an immediate, action packed and complicated world, we are in need of a decision making processes that nudge us to do the work required to make a decision. Einhorn's AREA method fits the bill. I specifically liked the emphasis she placed on breaking down the research phase into a series of easy-to-follow steps.
Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life by Helen Czerski — An amazing book. The prose is so elegant that you don't realize that you are knee-deep in the mathematical concepts that govern our world. Czerski does an incredible job of explaining physics in such a way that you come out of each chapter having actually learned something. Suddenly you can see science everywhere!
For All the Tea in China by Sarah Rose — The tale of the first known corporate espionage in history — the theft of tea from China by the British East India Company. Prior to this, the Chinese had the monopoly on tea, an insanely popular drink worldwide. The British were tired of dealing with the capriciousness that came with such a monopoly, so they set out to steal what they needed to start tea production in India. Not just the seeds and plants, but how to grow it and process it, essentially all the secrets China had obsessively guarded for centuries. (History, of course, does not repeat, but it certainly rhymes.) Rose writes a concise, fascinating story of this extremely successful theft that resulted in significant global transformations.
Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life — An intelligent and human approach that merges Emily's years of experience as a sex educator and the social side of sex with proper science until it dovetails into a fuller understanding of what sex can be to you as a person. Worth reading, if only for her style, I wish more people could write like this — engaging, quirky, honest and unapologetic. This was a conversation with a person, not a sex-ed class. Through uncovering a deeper understanding, our experiences change. The book is aimed at women and also comes as an eye opener for men. The tour includes handy anatomical details and forays into what society tells us we should think about sex, dispelling myths in a way that will make a practical difference. The most radical ideas in the book are not about sex but rather highlight our need for attunement to each other. Ultimately, if we learn to treat ourselves right we can be more responsive to others' needs. And yes, there is a step by step guide to orgasm in the appendix.
The Company of Strangers: A Natural History of Economic Life — An interesting book that situates economics in a multi-disciplinary perspective on humanity. Drawing on a lot of biology, anthropology, and history, this book makes us understand the role of the economy in our life in a whole new way.
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.