I read 20-ish books in 2018. I think this is a personal record, and I owe it largely to a group of friends called the “Asynchronous Book Club,” or ABC for short. To wrap up the year, and to help my poor swiss-cheese memory, I’d like to share a quick comment on each in case you’re interested in picking up a new book.
Dreaming the Beatles: The Love Story of One Band and the Whole World
Rob Sheffield • Buy it on Amazon
I’ve consumed a lot of Beatles-related media, and this book is the closest to a relatable version of the Story as I’ve found. It does an especially good job of proving the Beatles relevant to 2018.
Ancillary benefit: it’s just really good music writing. We’ve all read a lot of bad music writing in our lives, so you understand why this is a big deal.
I Am A Strange Loop
Douglas R. Hofstadter • Buy it on Amazon
Classic Hofstadter: ideas in mathematics and philosophy applied to fundamental existential questions. Unfortunately, this book reads (ironically) like stream-of-consciousness riffing, and doesn’t ever really pay off some of the broad-reaching abstractions he dreams up.
My favorite parts were the sections on self-reference. This is where I got really excited about the idea of “I,” where I felt like Hofstadter had something unique going on. When we say “I’m hungry,” who is doing the talking? Who is the sentence about? Can those two people be the same person? Looking at these questions through the lens of Russel’s dismantling of Principia Mathematica was really cool.
By the end, I was putting my head down and reading through to get it over with. I’d definitely recommend keeping the book on your shelf, but don’t put too much into it.
★ Why Buddhism is True
Robert Wright • Buy it on Amazon
This was one of my favorite reads in a long time. In it, Wright connects some of the ideas and practices of modern/secular/Western Buddhism to the science of well-being. His writing is straightforward and crystal-clear. He connects his ideas to his own meditation practice, which in turn helped me continue my own practice.
The downside to Wright’s version of Buddhism is that it is narrow and personalized to the author’s experience as a Westerner. To me, part of the appeal of Buddhism is in its mystery, the fundamentally non-intuitive parts, the deftness with which it transcends Western logic and orderliness.
The Foundation Trilogy
Isaac Asimov • Buy it on Amazon
It won the Hugo Award for “Best All-Time Series” in 1966, so I figured I’d give it a read. Boy howdy, is it a good science fiction.
If you’ve read Three Body Problem, you’ll get a lot of the same themes: lots of logic twists and loops, lots of time and space covered. The characters that Asimov creates are super-neat, though; they have a lot of depth to them, even when he spins one up for a chapter or two.
You can sense the author’s interest in the series waxing and waning throughout, but even at it’s most “etc etc stuff happened etc etc” it’s a nice read. When it really clips, it’s un-put-down-able.
Steven Pinker • Buy it on Amazon
I picked this up because of Bill Gates’ glowing review.
The first quarter of the book builds up a very thorough arsenal of data to demonstrate that despite common attitudes, the world has been getting better and better since the enlightenment. I have some major problems with the “today is the best day that has ever passed” arguments, but it’s nice to know that there are some good trends going on.
I found everything after page 100 a total bore. Pinker spends the last half of the book on humanism and other philosophical realms, making an impassioned — but pretty basic — case for optimism. I can only take so much glad-handing before I need a reality check from continental existentialist.
1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
Charles Mann • Buy it on Amazon
I really enjoyed this book. I gave it a shot after doing half of “Enlightenment Now” and half of “Skin in the Game;” both extremely self-aggrandizing and dripping with ego. 1491 is neither of those things. Mann does an admirable job of telling a wide array of stories about the pre-Columbus Americas. He puts his ideas into historic and contemporary context, and doesn’t condescend or ignore the lay reader. His theories about Indians (I still have a hard time with the fact that he insists on calling them Indians) are extremely novel (to me), but don’t seem extreme. Overall, solid historic non-fiction.
The Culture Code
Daniel Coyle • Buy it on Amazon
Sorry to disappoint, this is not in any way related to Dan Brown’s seminal 2003 masterwork The Da Vinci Code.
Instead, it’s a solid survey of how culture factors into a team’s performance. Nothing really earth-shattering; just a straightforward, real-world discussion of why team culture matters. Coyle spends each section on a few of the usual suspects — Navy SEALS, jewel thieves, Tony Hsieh — and breaks down different aspects (performance, creativity, how many catchphrases they use) of each team.
While there’s a bit of survivorship bias going on here (somehow the Dutch East Indies Company never makes it into these books), there were some really nice actionable takeaways.
Highly recommended for management buddies.
Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup
John Carreyrou • Buy it on Amazon
This one’s a really good page-turner. It follows the course of Theranos from being a twinkle in Elizabeth Holmes’ eye all the way up to early 2018. It is amazing just how much deception and fraud was going on at the highest levels of this company, and how so many people were willing to turn a blind eye to it. Carreyrou’s writing is super straightforward, and while he is a player in the story, he comes across pretty impartial in the whole matter.
Bonus: you’ll get the Taylor Swift song stuck in your head every time you read.
On Grand Strategy
John Lewis Gaddis • Buy it on Amazon
I honestly can’t remember why I picked this up: maybe an Amazon recommendation, maybe a reference somewhere in management book recommendations. I read it in the middle of my tenure at The Wall Street Journal, probably hoping to pick up some tips for navigating complex political workplaces.
Gaddis spins a series of essays on ‘grand’ strategy, specifically western white male strategy (with occasional references to Sun Tzu). His writing tends towards stream-of-consciousness, and tends to harp on the same few themes of realism and focus. This isn’t a strong recommendation, unless you really need more motivation to read Machiavelli.
S.P.Q.R.: A History of Ancient Rome
Mary Beard • Buy it on Amazon
What really got to me as I was finishing the book is that, over the course of 1000 years, Roman culture changed surprisingly little. Despite evolving from a representative(ish) republic to a full-blown autocratic empire, attitudes about slavery, religion, civil liberties, voting, etc. hardly changed at all. I’m sure there are things that did change, but I imagine a Roman in 200CE could probably hop in a time machine and get along just pretty well in 700BCE. I think of going back just 150 years — in 1868, the American Civil War had just ended and reconstruction was in full effect — and even as a white male of European descent, I don’t think I’d be able to fit in.
After 200CE, things get pretty wild in Rome and everything changes quickly. But there are lots of other examples from this time period and before of huge cultures staying stable over a millennium: Egypt, China, and Japan, to name a few off the top of my head. Crazy to think that at one point in time, you could say “oh man my great great great great gramma really liked this song too” or “my family has lived on this block for 500 years.”
Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams
Matthew Walker • Buy it on Amazon
In case you don’t wanna read it, I’ll summarize: if you’re not sleeping at least 8 hours every single night, you will die a painful death at a young age.
If you’re still interested, Why We Sleep is a solid pop science book by a respectable sleep scientist. It cites a lot of original research, as well as state-of-the-art science. Sleep, it turns out, is really good for you, and for some dumb reason we don’t get enough of it. Walker also delves into the science of dreams, which I found particularly fascinating.
While it offers only a few practical tips (only take melatonin for jet lag, avoid LEDs, 65ºF is the ideal bedroom temperature), I came away with an increased appreciation for the sleep I do manage to get.
One small bone to pick: Walker puts down insufficient sleep as the primary cause for many health issues. He uses age as the main dimension to which sleep correlates, but doesn’t really address how race, gender, or socioeconomic factors correlate to sleep. I’d put good money on the rich and privileged getting more sleep than the poor and oppressed. Privilege means access to better nutrition and healthcare, and in turn means longer and healthier life. While Walker claims that the studies were balanced, I imagine that sleep inequality would be extremely challenging to isolate. I’d love to hear more about this, but it gets glossed over.
The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States: A Speculative Novel
Jeffrey Lewis • Buy it on Amazon
Hoo boy. I haven’t read much speculative fiction — the Earthseed Series is probably as close as I’ve come lately — but I picked this up on a strong recommendation from Sourdough author Robin Sloan.
The 2020 Report is formatted as a congressional report following … you guessed it … a nuclear strike against the US by North Korea. The actions that it describes are simultaneously absurd and realistic: for instance, the president’s tweets are a major macguffin. Something about the matter-of-factness of the writing, combined with the ludicrous characters involved, really shook me.
The book itself is a quick read. I blew through it in a week or so of intense reading; it’s quite a page-turner. Highly recommended if you enjoy staring deep into the existential dread of the Trump presidency.
The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World
Charles C. Mann • Buy it on Amazon
This is a meaty, mealy book on the origins of the modern ecological and environmental movement. Mann dives deep on two scientists — Norman Borlaug and William Vogt — who kicked off two very different approaches to the growing population of humans and our impact on the planet. Borlaug, the titular Wizard, espouses technology as the path to a sustaining and supporting continued exponential growth. Vogt, as the Prophet, advocates for restraint and responsible consumption. Both men made a significant impact on humans’ relationship with the environment during their lifetime; Borlaug won the Nobel prize for his work engineering high-yield wheat, and Vogt more or less invented environmentalism.
I found Mann’s dichotomy false, though. One can believe technology can sustain growth while simultaneously advocating for restraint in consumption. The wizard vs. prophet debate is easily won: why not both?
Also, while Vogt had a significant influence over policies of conservation in the late 20th century, Borlaug literally saved hundreds of millions of lives. Hybrid wheat and rice made Mexico, India, Pakistan, and others significantly less reliant on imported food, creating stronger, more independent economies in those nations. This chart says a lot — grain yield in India and Mexico hockey sticks in the 1960s, more than tripling by 2000. Mann egregiously overstates Vogt’s contributions as compared to Borlaug’s. Maybe I’m a biased Wizard here, but Vogt’s stance on population control also get underplayed, and they stray a bit too far into some of the nastier trends in 20th century nation-building.
Overall, solid historical non-fiction. I give it a B.
Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts
Annie Duke • Buy it on Amazon
I bought this book in a stupor after finishing another. That’s the best and worst part about the Kindle: I end up buying a book when I’ve just finished another, purely out of despair and loss aversion.
I didn’t think this book would be good, even after reading the first few chapters. Annie Duke is an academic-turned-poker-champion; she’s won a few big tournaments, but now makes her living on the speaking circuit. I’m pretty skeptical of anyone who makes a living telling people what they think, so I was mostly reading it out of a desire to not waste 10 bucks.
I was pleasantly surprised by the core material of the book. It boils down to this: the quality of your decisions and the quality of the results of your choices are not perfectly correlated. You can make a great decision that turns out poorly, or a poor decision that turns out favorably. Learning the difference between poor decisions and poor outcomes is the key to improving your decision making skills.
This core is well-supported by lots of allusions to sports and betting, which I found entertaining enough to carry my attention. If you can get this one on sale, used, or from a library, it’s worth it. Otherwise, no real mind-blowing wisdom here.
★ How to Cook Your Life: From the Zen Kitchen to Enlightenment
Dōgen Zenji and Kōshō Uchiyama • Buy it on Amazon
I’m going to do a poor job of representing what this book is really about. On its face, the book is about cooking. Specifically, the first half is an instruction manual written by Dōgen about how to be the cook in a buddhist monastery in the 13th century. The second half was written by Kōshō Uchiyama in the 20th century, reflecting on Dōgen’s instructions, and interpreting them as guidance for life in general.
As far as Zen goes, this book is a great introduction to some of the everyday teachings and cultural elements of practice. Buddhism is a religion, and so there’s a lot of theology interwoven throughout the text. I personally don’t know much about the theistic parts of Buddhism, and was able to follow along, so I figure most readers will be ok with those elements. There’s clearly a lot lost in translation between Japanese and English, but the translator does a good job of providing tons of footnotes to pull back the curtain and address the difficulty of keeping the text faithful.
As cheesy as it sounds, this book was enlightening. Sort of in a literal way — I feel a bit lighter after reading it. The practice of Big Mind, Parental Mind, Joyful Mind is a really straightforward platform for mindfulness, and the writing of Dōgen really sticks with me. Highly recommend.
Cixin Liu • Buy it on Amazon
Three-Body Problem was one of my favorite reads of 2017. The scope of the trilogy, the twists and turns of logic and narrative, the unique perspective of the author; Three-Body Problem had everything I love in hard science fiction. I went into Ball Lightning expecting the same experience, or maybe something close to it. I was a little disappointed.
What I like most about hard sci-fi is that it doesn’t lean on suspension of disbelief as much as other genres of sci-fi and fantasy. Ball Lightning has a lot of hand-waving moments that skirt the constraints of reality, making it harder for to be invests in the characters or the world Cixin builds.
★ A People’s History of the United States
Howard Zinn • Buy it on Amazon
This is an important book. I was raised in the US, learning US history; after reading A People’s History, I’m stunned at how much I missed. Zinn starts with the arrival of Europeans in North America, and (in the edition I read) ends with 9/11. Between those two moments are many, many stories of people who don’t get a voice in schoolbook history, including Native Americans, African slaves, laborers, and women.
A People’s History is not a complete history. Zinn is very up front about that. It’s also a very involved read; it’s more like a textbook than your average historic non-fiction best-seller. But if you’re interested in American history at all, it’s worth the investment.
Dan Ariely • Buy it on Amazon
I stayed away from economics in school, assuming it was a boring version of applied mathematics (I snobbishly saw physics as the more interesting version). In the past few years, I’ve changed my mind: economics is incredibly interesting. I regret not realizing this earlier.
Predictably Irrational does a great job of making economics — specifically, behavioral economics — accessible to folks like me. Ariely has curated a series of essays on the surprising ways in which we often defy logic when making decisions in our everyday life. From dating, to buying coffee, to going on a diet, it turns out humans frequently behave in ways that are counter to the neat logic of supply and demand.
Reading this book, I found myself taking a lot of the conclusions for granted. Of course we aren’t reasonable about what we eat, or who we’re friends with, or what we throw away. My enjoyment of this book was based not in these observations, but in the way Ariely connects them in a surprisingly consistent framework.