If one of the keys to getting smarter is to read more, it probably makes sense to keep track of what you’re reading. This is the result.
For the curious among you, here is how to find more time to read.
* * * 2016 * * *
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.)
* * * 2015 * * *
The Power Broker
Robert Caro’s masterpiece on New York political power between the 1920s and the 1960s, focuses on Robert Moses — the creator of institutions like the Parks Commission and the Bridge, Port, and Tunnel Authorities. Sound mundane? You’ll have to read the book to see what kind of power that gave him. Moses outlasted mayors and governors for a reason. Caro subsequently became known for his four (going on five) part series The Years of Lyndon Johnson which chronicles national political power in the 20th century through the lens of LBJ’s rise to power. (I plan to get into those next.) Caro is probably the most talented biographer of our age; he writes like a brilliant novelist and has the reporting skills of Bob Woodward. The Power Broker is assigned reading at quite a few American universities and it should be. It’s amazing. But it’s not a light read. I mean that literally: It’s 1,100 dense pages, as long as War & Peace. (Tolstoy’s writing influenced Caro significantly, believe it or not.) But it’s so well written I’ve hardly noticed.
The Reluctant Mr. Darwin
David Quammen is an excellent scientific writer – Song of the Dodo is a prime example and something we’ll come back to soon. The Reluctant Mr. Darwin is a short biography of Darwin from the period after his voyage on the Beagle up until his writing of The Origin of Species and the competition with Alfred Russel Wallace. I have longer Darwin bios on my shelf to read soon, but this one is a great short(er) read on that one crucial period. Darwin was meticulous to a fault (which was also one of the reasons for his success). He got off the Beagle in October 1836 and didn’t release The Origin of Species until 1859, after working for eight years on the taxonomy of barnacles!. But he was a true scientific detective, and Quammen captures that brilliantly.
Letters to a Young Scientist
I bought this little book blindly at a small bookstore in Mystic, CT. What a great find. It is written as a series of letters to an aspiring scientist, from one of the world’s great biologists and scientific authors, Edward O. Wilson — known for his theory of Sociobiology, among other things. Wilson knows how to make the process and ideas of science exciting and interesting, and this slim book is not an exception. It’s partly a memoir and partly a how-to guide for a thoughtful young person interested in making a dent in science. Anyone interested in science generally would enjoy it.
Longtime readers will know that I’m a fan of Cheryl Strayed. Her previous books — Wild and Dear Sugar — ran me through the range of emotions from happy to crying. Tiny Beautiful Things remains one of my favorite posts. This book, a quote-book, is more of an abbreviated version of her wit and wisdom. Well worth picking up and makes the perfect gift for anyone going through something difficult in life.
The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty (by Dan Ariely) — This is a fascinating look at our own propensity to cheat and rationalize our dishonesty. Ariely has used a clever series of experiments to expose how context plays a dominant role in how and why we cheat. What seems like obvious cheating at one time seems perfectly OK at another time. It depends on how we frame it in our minds. If you think you’re a Boy (Girl) Scout, give this a read and start learning about your own hypocrisy. Don’t worry – we’re cheaters too. Turns out we all are.
Filters Against Folly and Living within Limits (by Garrett Hardin) — One of us is revisiting the brilliant two books by the ecologist/economist Garrett Hardin. Hardin is famous for the Tragedy of the Commons idea. Hardin focused primarily on ideas related to overpopulation, but like Charlie Munger or Nassim Taleb, you need to read the source material over and over in order to soak up the available wisdom. It’s not easily summarized. Charlie, who funded some of Hardin’s work, called Living within Limits the product of a lifetime of wise thought.
Lives of Eminent Philosophers (Books 1-5) — Responding to our piece on why the map is not the territory, a brilliant friend of mine passed along a related quote by Bion of Borysthenes: ‘we should not try to alter circumstances but to adapt ourselves to them as they really are, just as sailors do. They don’t try to change the winds or the sea but ensure that they are always ready to adapt themselves to conditions. In a flat calm they use the oars; with a following breeze they hoist full sail; in a head wind they shorten sail or heave to. Adapt yourself to circumstances in the same way.’ Many of us confuse the map with reality — be it a metric, a project plan, or whatnot. That’s the point. Anyway, Bion is a pretty hard dude to track down which is why I picked up this book as there is a small section on him.
Shortcut: How Analogies Reveal Connections, Spark Innovation, and Sell Our Greatest Ideas — Analogies are used to frame, persuade, and drive our emotional brain, says John Pollack, the former Presidential speechwriter. I thought I’d skim this book but I had a hard time putting it down.
The Creative Society: How the Future Can Be Won — An interesting take that creative decay is normal a la revision to the mean. The author argues that by knowing how and why this happens, countries and organizations can enable more creativity and adaptability. You can pair this with Where Good Ideas Come From, which I liked better.
Mindware: Tools for Smart Thinking — (Highly recommended) Richard Nisbett, a world-renowned psychologist, explores how scientific and philosophical concepts change the way we solve problems by helping us think better. We’re talking mental models like the law of large numbers, statistical regression, cost-benefit analysis, sunk costs, opportunity costs, and causation and correlation. The point of the book is to show us new ways to frame problems that allow us to apply these mental models.
Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction — Attentive readers will note this is the second time I’ve read this book this month. I’m interviewing the author for The Knowledge Project soon.
The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures — A book recommended by a participant in Re:Think Decision Making 2015. As someone with zero artistic talent I find that drawing things forces me to reduce and simplify, which is a natural way to help me find out what matters. A picture is worth a thousand words. Consider this a smart primer on visual thinking.
The Soul of the World — “Renowned philosopher Roger Scruton defends the experience of the sacred against today’s fashionable forms of atheism. He argues that our personal relationships, moral intuitions, and aesthetic judgments hint at a transcendent dimension that cannot be understood through the lens of science alone. To be fully alive–and to understand what we are–is to acknowledge the reality of sacred things. Rather than an argument for the existence of God, or a defense of the truth of religion, the book is an extended reflection on why a sense of the sacred is essential to human life–and what the final loss of the sacred would mean. In short, the book addresses the most important question of modernity: what is left of our aspirations after science has delivered its verdict about what we are?”
The Devil’s Financial Dictionary — Inspired by Ambrose Bierce’s masterpiece The Devil’s Dictionary, Jason Zweig takes an equally beautiful and cynical view of the entire finance industry. Consider his definition of Annual Meeting: “A gathering held once a year, often at a hotel serving bad food and stale coffee somewhere near an airport, at which the company’s management gilds its results and pretends to listen to the wishes and grievances of the people who own the company.”
City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America — In light of hosting several Re/Think events in Chicago, I wanted to read about the history of the Chicago fire. This was the most referenced book I could find and it did not disappoint. Hint: Mrs. O’Leary’s cow had nothing to do with it.
101 Things I Learned in Engineering School
My undergrad was computer science not engineering. I’ve always wanted to learn more about the discipline though, so when I saw this book I had to pick it up. It’s a great short introduction to some important engineering concepts. Enough to get you curious to look into the topics that interest you in more detail. You can read it in a night and walk away thinking about materials differently. You’ll also have a greater understanding of human error and margin of safety.
Primed to Perform: How to Build the Highest Performing Cultures Through the Science of Total Motivation — Yet another book on unleashing human performance. The book addresses the reasons we work (play, purpose, potential, emotional pressure, economic pressure, and inertia) and presents these in a good narrative. The framing and stories will resonate with many. I, however, think we’re starting to get lost in all the noise. What really motivates people to preform above average is organizational culture. And what is culture but creating an environment that – rather than playing to the latest buzzwords – provides an environment where people feel safe, heard, respected, loved, etc. You don’t need a book to tell you this.
Trump: The Art of the Deal — I’m hesitant to admit that I read all of this and yet I did. The book is an inside look at the man running for President. It’s clear he’s honed his persuasion skills over many years and he’s one of the best. It could get interesting.
The Art of Scientific Investigation — Originally published in 1950, the book endeavors to understand the methods by which discoveries have been made and form some general observations. “Most books on the scientific method,” the author writes, “treat it from the logical or philosophical aspect. This one is more concerned with the psychology and practice of research.”
Maestro: A Surprising Story About Leading by Listening — Research for a Knowledge Project interview with Alexander Shelley, the Music Director of Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra. This book was exceptional and very much along the lines of other business fables such as: The Goal, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, and Death by Meeting.
A Practical Guide for Policy Analysis — Not as boring as it sounds but not as thoughtful as I had hoped. There are tidbits of gold but mostly the book walks through the steps you should take to make a good decision. Where the book excels is the first few chapters where he walks you through some of the nuances and difficulties of determining a path forward through uncertainty. (Best paired with a stiff drink.)
Mindfulness in Plain English — This is a great follow up to Sit Like A Buddha. This book deepens our understanding of the nuts-and-bolts of meditation including the how, what, where, when and why but also how to deal with distractions and common challenges people face along the way. While it’s easy to read through in on long sitting (at 224 pages), you can consume it in smaller doses. (Suggested pairing: a light red or white wine.)
Walden — Rarely out of print since its first publication in 1854, Walden has been called one of the most influential philosophical works in all American literature. Despite that, it remains largely unread — by myself included. The book is a reflection on simplicity. More specifically, Thoreau explores what does one gain from immersing himself in nature? Does it enable a deeper understanding of society? A greater sense of self-reflection? Something deeper? But my words do nothing to Thoreau’s. Here is his offering: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”
In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed — An interesting history of our relationship with time that tackles some consequences. Everything has a pace and somewhere someone is trying to increase that pace — to go faster. Sometimes, however, the thing to do to create something lasting and meaningful is to go slower.
Charlie Munger: The Complete Investor — This book will become my new default for people interested in an introduction to the thinking of Charlie Munger. Griffin does an extraordinary job of curating, synthesizing, and organizing the vast wisdom Munger has left for humanity.
The Adventures of Henry Thoreau: A Young Man’s Unlikely Path to Walden Pond — A worthwhile chronicle of Thoreau’s formative years that acts as a rich backdrop to deepen our understanding of Walden and Civil Disobedience. Like Van Gogh, Thoreau lived in near poverty, relying on the generosity of others to get by. For Van Gogh it was his brother Theo who supported him, for Thoreau it was Ralph Waldo Emerson. One can make the argument that Thoreau’s approach to life is even more important to understand, digest, and apply in today’s world than in his time.
The Emotionally Intelligent Investor: How self-awareness, empathy and intuition drive performance — This book has less to do with investing and more to do with decision making than the title suggests. The book is broken down into three parts: Self-Awareness, Social Awareness, and Intuition. It also indirectly explains why most self-help books fail, how context is important, and asks you to be more introspective.
Thinking with Type: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Editors, & Students — As I start to put together more content for Farnam Street, I’ve been exploring a bit of design theory. You may think that you don’t need to worry about how things like kerning, grids, and typography work but these are all tools that help you communicate effectively. I have a lot to learn in this space and there is no better place to start than here. This book is the foundational book that’s used around the world.
The Ten Golden Rules of Leadership: Classical Wisdom for Modern Leaders — A book that offers a practical philosophical underpinning that fosters mental discipline and a spirit of critical self-examination. “Leadership,” in the words of the author, “is an uncommon composite of skill, experience, and ripened personal perspectives regarding the nuances and complexities of life. … Only those men and women who have cultivated a carefully conceived philosophy of life are capable of genuine leadership.”
The Laws of Thermodynamics: A Very Short Introduction — The author, Peter Atkins, is one of the world’s leading authorities on thermodynamics. Who better to give me an introduction? The book, which I’m working my way through after the recommendation of an incredibly smart friend, explains the four laws and how they work in relatively accessible language. And rest assured, there isn’t a ton of math but you’ll have to carefully note definitions as you go along.
Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations — I got more pleasure out of re-reading this than I get with most books. There is a lifetime of wisdom and lessons here and it’s easy to pick up and put down. Read a note, sip some wine, think. Rinse and repeat. (The translation matters, use this one.)
Simple Rules: How to Thrive in a Complex World — I just started this based on the recommendation of a Wall Street friend. Way more useful than I would have guessed based on the title.
Information: A Very Short Introduction — We live in an age awash with information but few of us understand the philosophical concept of information. In this book, one of the world’s leading authorities on the philosophy of information explores information as it relates to both philosophy and science. It’s a bit dense at times and overly technical in parts but the roots of information mathematics and science are worth exploring.
Pebbles of Perception: How a Few Good Choices make All the Difference — This book is an invitation to be curious, build character, and make better choices. Very much in line with the Farnam Street ethos — so much that I’m mentioned in the acknowledgements. It belongs on your shelf next to Seeking Wisdom.
Sit Like a Buddha: A Pocket Guide to Meditation — If I could encourage you to look into one thing to think and focus better, this would be it. This is an enormously powerful little book that will help you focus your mind, open your heart, and think with more insight. It’s short enough to consume over a glass of wine (or two) on the patio and simple enough that you’ll want to put it into practice.
The Essential Wooden: A Lifetime of Lessons on Leaders and Leadership — A lot of people argue about whether Wooden or Dean Smith was a better coach. I don’t have an opinion but figured I’d start with Wooden. In addition to explaining Wooden’s famous Pyramid of Success, the book is full of personality and keen insights into human nature.
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.
How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading — In preparation for a summer of reading, reflecting, and connecting, I chose to re-read this book. If you believe that you’re not getting everything out of your reading that you should, this book is awesome. When is the last time someone intelligent showed you how to read, skim, and evaluate what you’re reading? (If you know of any other books along the same lines, hit reply and let me know.)
Filters Against Folly: How To Survive Despite Economists, Ecologists, and the Merely Eloquent — This little-known book is certainly deserving of a wider audience. This is one man’s attempt to answer the question of how we, as laymen, can survive in a world increasingly dominated by experts. The answer he provides includes three filters: literate, numerate, and ecolate.
The Lessons of History — A concise book of lessons drawn from the survey of history. The book comes highly recommended by someone I met at the Berkshire Hathaway meeting last weekend. I can’t believe I haven’t read this before. I’ll be re-reading this a few times and I’ve started listening to the audio version in the car as well.
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.”
Scaling Up Excellence: Getting to More Without Settling for Less
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.
Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back
We can’t avoid shocks–we can only become more robust and resilient. Antifragile is better but this book serves as a gentle overview of fragility.
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 * * *
The Unwritten Laws of Engineering
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.
The Secret World of Sleep
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.
Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization
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.
The Optimism Bias
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
F for Effort: More of the Very Best Totally Wrong Test Answers
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.
Inconsequential Dilemmas: 45 Flowcharts For Life’s Peskier Questions
This is for anyone who needs a flow chart to help them decide whether to attend law school or start a rock band.
The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop
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.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem
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 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 Enchiridion by Epictetus
Enchiridon (“The Manual”) is a short read on stoic advice for living. These practical precepts might change your life. (Compliment with The Discourses of Epictetus.)
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).
Medical Axioms, Aphorisms, And Clinical Memoranda
I found this through Peter Bevelin’s excellent A Few Lessons from Sherlock Holmes.
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.
Submergence by J. M. Ledgard
Kathryn Schulz, the author of Being Wrong recommended this book, calling it “The Best Novel I’ve Read This Year.” And she reads a ton.
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.”
The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking
This was a great read. I liked the first element the best, focus on deeply understanding basic ideas. (Summary)
Seneca — Epistles 1-65
After reading this I immediately ordered the others (66-92, and 93-124). The more Seneca I read, the more I wonder why I waited so long.
I have a lot to read in my pile but after reading Blood & Beauty last week — an excellent read by the way — I was inspired to pick up this masterful work again.
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.
Grow Regardless: Of Your Business’s Size, Your Industry or the Economy… and Despite the Government! by Joe Mechlinski.
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.)
Damn Right: Behind the Scenes with Berkshire Hathaway Billionaire Charlie Munger by Janet Lowe.
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.
Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind, by Jocelyn K. Glei.
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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