2017 Reading List and Recommendations

12 minute read

From the 48 books I completed in 2017 this is what I think you should add to your own lists and why (and some you just might want to). More importantly, a Do Not Read list to save you valuable time.

A lot of the books were historical, as I was trying to more deeply understand the period between 900 CE and 1600 CE and fit it into my understanding of how that led into the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. The rest were a healthy, non-fiction dose of science, technology, and career semi-applicable reading.

2017 in Books

  1. Creativity Inc by Ed Catmull
  2. Lead with a Story
  3. Smarter, Faster Better
  4. Homemade Muscle
  5. City of Fortune: How Venice Won and Lost a Naval Empire by Roger Crowley
  6. Saladin: The Sultan Who Vanquished the Crusaders and Built an Islamic Empire by John Man
  7. Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World
  8. The Great Mortality
  9. Plagues and People
  10. The Silk Roads by Francopan
  11. Do Cool Shit
  12. Question Based Selling
  13. Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders
  14. Let My People Go Surfing
  15. The War of Art
  16. Repeatability
  17. Living within Limits by Hardin
  18. Love Yourself Like Your Life Depends On It
  19. Surely you’re Joking, Mr Feynman!
  20. Getting Past No
  21. The Node Craftsman Book (and Node Beginner’s Book)
  22. What I Learned Losing a Million Dollars
  23. Get More
  24. Morning Star
  25. So Good They Can’t Ignore You
  26. The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians by Peter Heather
  27. The Dark Tower by Stephen King
  28. Programming Elxir 1.3
  29. It’s Your Ship by Abrashoff
  30. The Gene: An Intimate History
  31. Magellan: A Biography by Stefan Zweig
  32. Guns, Sails and Empires
  33. The Conquerors: How Porrtugal Forged the First Global Empire by Roger Crowley
  34. Programming Phoenix
  35. The Last Voyage of Columbus
  36. Serverless Architecture on AWS
  37. Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike by Phil Knight
  38. Emergency by Neil Strauss
  39. Python Crash Course by Eric Matthes
  40. Leaders Eat Last
  41. Flask Web Development
  42. Turn the Ship Around
  43. The LaundryMen
  44. Modern Vim
  45. The New Jim Crow
  46. Creating a Data-Driven Organization
  47. Tools for Titan by Tim Ferriss
  48. Born Standing Up by Steve Martin

To Read

These are definite must reads from 2017 for me. These either added something to my understanding, my life, or were just amazingly well written (in some cases, all three). Bottom line: They were useful. They made me feel smarter having read them.

  1. City of Fortune
  2. The Silk Roads
  3. The War of Art
  4. The Fall of the Roman Empire
  5. The Gene: An Intimate History
  6. The Last Voyage of Columbus
  7. Shoe Dog
  8. Emergency
  9. The New Jim Crow

City of Fortune

While it’s hard to see it now with all the cruise ships obscuring it, Venice was once the master of the world; powerful beyond belief, controlling wealth and fortunes undreamt of by its citizens when they were a collection of villages eking out a living on the marshy, island isthmuses that formed it before it rose to prominence.

How did it come to rise so quickly and hold power and sway for so long? While the answer is quite honestly down to its control of the spice trade through Egypt, the story of how it rose, battled, and even rivalled the other great powers of the Western world at the time is fascinating and an interesting tale of economics and political intrigue.

Even more interesting is the decline. Basically, the Portuguese cracking the ability to round Africa in the 16th century (see The Conquerors in the next section) effectively bypassed the monopoly route and stranglehold the Egyptian mamluks had on the spice trade, providing the ability to go direct to source, avoid extortionate markups, and reducing transport costs by long range shipping versus land routes (and also, it could be argued, leading to our modern banking system.).

Also, living in Singapore, it’s a doubly fascinating read, as despite Singapore’s narrative on how it came to be one of the strongest modern economies in Asia, I personally feel its dirty secret is the debt it owes to having had the foresight to build the largest port in Asia, and… when that became eclipsed, move into regional transshipping to maintain its position and entrepot wealth. It’s both an explanation and a warning to where I hang my hat currently and to the fickleness of mercantile fates.

(for another fascinating book on shipping in general, and alternative theories about modern economic growth and wealth, do read The Box)

The Silk Roads

Even with all the kudos this book received, this book is an underappreciated masterpiece. Much like The Emperor of All Maladies last year, I recommended this to anybody who would listen to me in 2017.

Especially if you were educated under a Western educational system, it is amazing how much of history are stories a culture tells itself to explain the world to itself in a coherent way consistent with its own narrative and origin stories.

Even more incredible is how we accept these narratives virtually unquestioningly since they allow us to structure a coherent and consistent worldview from the culture we inhabit. From the Western view, Greece begat Rome, which begat the Enlightenment, which led to the rise of England, and the intellectual system that designed the Western world.

These narratives though, are just one side of the story, and rife with inconsistencies of the way one culture perceives its particular view of history. This book, however, shows how a lot of the things you knew had holes in them when you were learning them, are amazingly better understood by seeing a view of history completed from an Asian perspective of events going on in that area of the world.

For me, this book let the penny drop on half a hundred little things that had nagged at the back of my mind or been taken as gospel in my education. It’s just a fantastic piece of work that made me feel like I better understood the complexity of historical forces better with an additional nuanced non-Western perspective of events, rather than an overly-simplified, one-dimensional view from the West.

Great book. Devoured it whole-heartedly. A definite, definite read.

The War of Art

I loved this book. A short, amazing work of genius.

Show up. Do the work. Be a Professional. Do what you fear… and a heap of other amazingly useful, non-BS advice about how just to get down to it and do great work.

If you write at all, or really do any creative endeavour of any aspiration, you should read this book. Seriously, it rocks.

The Fall of the Roman Empire

Continuing in the vein of historical narratives accepted on faith, the decline and fall of the great Roman Empire is something largely ill understood though basically mythologized to be punctuated by the Visigoths appearing from the vantage point of the Palatine Hill and riding in and sacking Rome.

The hypothesis posited here, however, is more one of slow decline and irrelevancy, as the axis of power from the 4th century on had moved from Rome more north to Ravenna and other points, essentially out of Italy. “Roman” became a culture, rather than a place, and peoples living a certain way of life from the Euphrates to Hadrian’s Wall.

The other interesting idea here is that, effectively, the Huns moving into the Hungarian plain effectively displaced entire swatchs of barbarian tribes: the Goths, Alans, Vandals, and Suevei, needing to move west of the Carpathians and into the borders of the Roman Empire. Eventually, these powers put increasing pressure on the declining Roman Empire eventually bringing it to the point where the barbarians could walk right up to the gates of Rome and sack it.

Empires don’t really fall all at once, they rust into obscurity and irrelevancy. The narrative around the Fall of Rome is much like that of the Fall of Constantinople; more myth than fact.

The Gene: An Intimate History

Muckerjee won the Pulitzer with The Emperor of All Maladies last year, and his next book continues on with his characterization of cancer as an inherent issue in our genes, to write an incredible history of how we’ve come to understand the gene.

Coherent, understandable, and incredibly readable despite the complexity of the subject matter, it was a fantastic page-turner flipping between the scientific history and Muckerjee’s own very personal history of his family’s genetic issues and shadows.

Just do yourself a favour and read this one. Fantastic read. I actually think I might have even liked this book better than Emperor.

The Last Voyage of Columbus

Sure you know in 1492 he sailed the ocean blue, but what else do you really know about Columbus? This story ends up being fascinating, by taking a flawed, relentless adventurer and writing the story of how what happened after he discovered America and had to deal with continual issues of recognition (it was not until nearly the 18th century that he was widely credited with discovering America… up until then it was Amerigo Vespucci who wrote about it but had not discovered it.).

Even more tragically is how Columbus continued to try and continue his quest for the fabled route West to the actual Indies, and how he struggled after cutting for himself an amazing deal for the wealth that he had discovered after making that first voyage of discovery.

I really liked this book, though I’d be hard pressed to say why. Perhaps the similarities it has with early internet startup kings that then struggle to make money or realize the hype of their launch, or the fact that ultimately, Columbus, despite being recognized perhaps forever, historically ended up being a semi-tragic figure, even being taken back to Spain in chains at one point.

Worth the read, and sort of fascinating as the story behind the name.

Shoe Dog

In general, I dislike business memoirs as I find they are way too self-congratulatory and so choked with confirmation bias, self-aggrandizing, and self-promotion that they’re virtually worthless. They’ve become particularly common since the rise of the billion dollar internet unicorns.

But quite seriously, this is a great memoir, told with humility, well-written and rawly honest. I have to admit, even though I am not the biggest fan of Nike shoes, it was a pretty amazing read. Highly recommended, even though I don’t think there was a lot to pick up from it in terms of useful and applicable business advice. Just thought it was a great read.

Emergency

This kind of surprised me, because I am not the biggest fan of Neil Strauss.

Nevertheless, he’s managed to write a great book that borders on the paranoia we all feel while seemingly watching the world is going to hell in a handbasket, and what he’d intending to do about it.

It effectively chronicles his journey from your typical knowledge worker everyman-of-us with no survival skills to someone with increasingly useful skills in both handling himself, survival situations, and basic self-sufficiency.

What I loved most about it, unlike some of his other books, was that it was amazingly redemptive. Rather than being an “in it for myself” guy when the zombapocalypse happens, Strauss somehow becomes a better human being and stand-up guy, actually training in skills that are helpful in helping his fellow man in actual times of crisis and being one of those guys that would end up running towards a catastrophe to help out, rather than away from it to save his own skin.

Found it oddly redemptive and surprisingly really enjoyed it. Great read. Gave me heaps of idea for myself for skills I should really, really learn in the next year or so.

The New Jim Crow

I have to admit that I was kind of against this book before I even read it, as I had trouble with the idea that the US penal system effectively created a system of control against blacks that was as bad as the Jim Crow laws of post-Emancipation America.

The author, however, makes a damn good case for this actually being true though, and while it might not be explicit, the subtle strands of individual policies and the insidiousness and enforcement of the War on Drugs and perhaps even a tacit, but ever-present racism in American society has effectively created just that.

Devastating book that makes a vibrant case for reform in America.

Might Reads

I’m throwing another category in here this year, which is books you might want to check out that I felt were interesting, but just a little south of great or had an original idea which deserves reading about but fell short in execution. There were a few of them over the year, which is why I felt they needed to go on the list. I feel they all added to my life, just lacked something that made them a little less than amazing.

  1. Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World
  2. Plagues and People
  3. Repeatability
  4. The Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire
  5. Born Standing Up

Don’t Reads

I’m often surprised at the number of books which are overhyped by the publishing industry these days. Worse, I hate when I get sucked in by them or are simply cult of personality books or fashionable. These are the books that I was super disappointed in this year and recommend avoiding completely. Scarily, more than one of them were by authors whose previous work I’d really admired, so they were all the more disappiointing.

  1. Lead with a Story
  2. Smarter, Faster Better
  3. Do Cool Shit
  4. Simple Habits for Complex Times
  5. Guns, Sails and Empires
  6. Leaders Eat Last
  7. Modern Vim
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