It’s no secret that I read a lot. Even after you get through the technical and industry reading I do, I pretty voraciously tear through books (in 2017 so far, I’ve finished 16 books already.). My Kindle is daily carry. So, I get asked about book recommendations frequently.
These were the books I completed in 2016 and what I think you should add to your own lists and why. More importantly, a do not read list to save you valuable reading time.
2016 in Books
- The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
- Collapse by Jared Diamond
- The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
- Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey
- Switch by Heath and Heath
- The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
- The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss
- Great Chain of Numbers by Tim Swanson
- Nudge by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein
- Constantinople by Roger Crowley
- Faraday, Maxwell, and the Electromagnetic Field by Basil Mahon and Nancy Forbes
- Red Rising by Pierce Brown
- How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big by Scott Adams
- Golden Son by Pierce Brown
- Creativity by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
- Doing Good Better by William MacAskill
- The Inevitable by Kevin Kelly
- How the Scots Invented the Modern World by Arthur Herman
- Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Dafoe
- Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland.
- The Wright Brothers by David McCullough
- Different by Youngme Moon
- The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin
- Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson
- The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee
- Wizards First Rule by Terry Goodkind
I felt that there was a lot of chaff in 2016. Amazon reviews and endorsements have leaped the shark so avoiding “fashionable”, highly marketed books is a big problem. But, this is what I found compelling and interesting and things I’d recommend you definitely read. YMMV.
- The Emperor of All Maladies
- The Wright Brothers
- The Omnivore’s Dilemma
- The Name of the Wind
- How the Scots Invented the Modern World
The Emperor of All Maladies
A stunning piece of work and I can’t mention it without noting it won a very deserving Pulitzer. Subtitled “A Biography of Cancer”, Muckerjee approaches cancer from the history of what we’ve increasingly understood about what is turning out to be - a side effect of our own genetics (and living longer) and that it is many diseases rather than a single illness. Muckerjee also explains why the much lauded “War on Cancer” moonshot failed to win or make a great deal of headway. Excellent book. You need to read this, as I can’t imagine anyone these days whose life has not been touched either personally, or at the fringes, by cancer.
As a second recommendation to this, I’d also recommend a 2015 pick, Being Mortal by Atul Gawande which deals with end of life issues and our current medical system.
The Wright Brothers
I think everyone knows the Wright Brothers invented the airplane, but few know much beyond that and the location of the Kitty Hawk flight. This book paints the picture of what the brothers actually were like, their (somewhat unusual) life and upbringing), but more than anything, I was impressed at how their methodical, almost scientific method approach to flight, rejection of orthodoxy in the face of their own data and experiments, and single-minded pursuit over years of the dream of flight allowed them to become the first people to free us from the bounds of Earth. The parallels to the internet startup world are salient, so lots of lessons to take from history here. Great book.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma
Fascinating because of the reflections on the industrial, organic, and self-sustained food chain and our position in it, this is both a scary and surprising book about something we do every day, but rarely think much about, which is where our food comes from. If anything, it’s made me much more aware of what I ingest and how that food gets to me (in fact, I’ve actually changed my eating habits markedly in 2017 because of its influence.). Particularly fascinating was Pollan’s reflections when he tried to be a hunter-gatherer.
The Name of the Wind
I’ve found a lot of fantasy and scifi I’ve been reading lately boring, derivative, and repetitive in terms of trite plots, rehashing of Randian themes, and way too much deus ex machina. But… The Name of the Wind I liked. Fundamentally, because of the great writing. The author’s ability to turn a phrase and write well made me enjoy it immensely and the hint of the story told backwards from a time when things had gone wrong for such a bright future sucked me in. Enjoyed it. Unfortunately, I felt the sequel to it failed to live up to the promise of the first book (and why the hell can’t anyone tell a story in one book anymore? Why is everything a trilogy or pentology in these genres?). Well worth your time if you like fantasy/scifi.
How the Scots Invented the Modern World
While the title is tongue-in-cheek (or one hopes it is) and I think the author belabours the point more than a bit (at what point are you no longer a product of where you emigrated from or where your parents were born and a new thing of the country you’ve moved to?), the book is an enjoyable read about how many innovations of the Scots drove the 19th century to an amazing degree and turned around one of the poorest countries in Europe previous to that time.
For me, this was a story of how universal education and literacy and commitment to intellectual rigour and entrepreneurship lifted an entire nation to the forefront of scientific, industrial, and commercial prominence. The one critique I have of the book is the fact the author glosses over certain elements or where examples simply did not support the thesis.
So, read it critically, but read it.
Despite the current problems in Turkey, Istanbul is one of the wonders of the world and heavy with history in a way few other cities are. But also, it was the seat of the Eastern Roman Empire where Christianity was on the knife edge of disaster and fell to the onslught of the “Saracens” and shook the faith of the entire Western world as it existed at that time. If you’re at all interested in history, this is a good, easy read.
At least from what I’d learned of the Fall of Constantinople back in school, it was a mere footnote fact of Turkic ascendancy and a date, and the shock of the Holy Roman Empire at the time that the incredible walls that had protected Constantine’s shining jewel on the Hellespont would never fall.
But the story is much more complex and nuanced; one of religious schism, slow and sad decline, the rise of new powers into political vacuums, and new technologies changing the face of warfare.
I’d also recommend Crowley’s City of Fortune on the rise and eventual decline of Venice as the pre-eminent sea empire in the Mediterranean. Salient for its parallels to Singapore with its port (well, if you live or visit here.).
As well, here’s a list of “Don’t Reads” in this list as well, which are books that everyone says you should read, but which are overhyped or the ideas are rehashed, obvious, or don’t offer you anything you can use. Basically, books I thought where I wasted my precious time reading them or the payback was too minimal to warrant the investment. In that list, I’d not bother reading the following:
- The Inevitable
- Great Chain of Numbers
- Doing Good Better
- The Three-Body Problem
- Wizards First Rule
All the rest not on either list fall in the area of those that are interesting but not “must reads” and are not things to absolutely avoid.
I hope you enjoy anything I’ve recommended you do end up reading. Do let me know.