2019 Reading List and Recommendations

I managed to read 43 books in 2019. These are the ones you may want to read and why. There’s also a Do Not Read list to save you valuable time.

2019 started off really strong, with a bunch of 5 star ratings of books that I was seriously impressed with. I’m not sure if this is because I changed up my habit of how I add books to the reading list, but I definitely felt like I read better books on whole this year the last. I even enjoyed a programming book (Programming Crystal) which has not happened since Why’s Poignant Guide (though worried that was more about the language, than the book itself.).

2019 in Books

  1. AI Superpowers
  2. Measure What Matters
  3. Between the World and Me by Te Nahisi Coates
  4. What Got You Here Won’t Get You There
  5. Go in Action
  6. The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis
  7. When Breath Becomes Air
  8. Programming Crystal
  9. If Beale Street Could Talk by Baldwin
  10. Bad Blood by Carreyrou
  11. Atomic Habits by Clear
  12. The Huns
  13. The Crucible
  14. The Talented Mr Ripley
  15. The Selfish Gene
  16. The Personal MBA
  17. The Player of Games
  18. New York 2140
  19. Another Fine Myth
  20. Trillion Dollar Coach
  21. Smart Choices
  22. The Breakthrough by Charles Graeber
  23. In Defence of Food
  24. Factfulness
  25. The Lost City of the Monkey God by Preston
  26. This is How To Lose the Time War
  27. The 4 Disciplines of Execution
  28. High Output Management
  29. Ultralearning
  30. Problem Solving 101
  31. The Ethical Capitalist
  32. A Memory Called Empire
  33. The Republic of Pirates
  34. Under the Black Flag
  35. Sapiens (re-read)
  36. Homo Deus
  37. Talking to Strangers
  38. Superpumped
  39. What You Do is Who You Are by Horowitz
  40. The Uninhabitable Earth by Wallace-Wells
  41. Range by Epstein
  42. On Bullshit
  43. The House Advantage by Ma

To Read

Definite adds for your reading list. I love books that make me feel smarter merely for reading them, challenged existing thinking I had, added tools to my toolbox, or I just genuinely enjoyed for a good story well told.

  1. Between the World and Me by Te Nehesi Coates
  2. The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis
  3. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
  4. If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin
  5. Bad Blood by John Carreyrou
  6. Atomic Habits by James Clear
  7. Smart Choices
  8. The Breakthrough
  9. In Defense of Food by Michaal Pellen
  10. Factfulness by Hans Rosling
  11. The Lost City of the Monkey God
  12. The 4 Disciplines of Execution
  13. Problem Solving 101 by Ken Watanabe
  14. Homo Deus by Noah Yuvul Harari
  15. The Uninhabitable Earth by David Walter-Wells

Between the World and Me

Heartbreaking in its raw honesty, candidness, and paternal care, this book surprised me as a long letter from a black father to his black son on all that is wrong with race relations in America. It’s a terrible indictment of race in America, and Coates’ view of American history and of white supremacy in America as an unkillable force rings frighteningly true in the midst of a Trump administration that seems comfortable to cozy up to white supremacists. I would fear for my son too. Worth all the plaudits it has received. Great piece of writing.

The Fifth Risk

I cannot think of a single book by Michael Lewis I have not enjoyed. He has an astounding ability to make complex topics accessible and understandable, even for non-technical readers. Fifth Risk is his exposé of the government handover to the Trump administration: the incompetence and lack of understanding of what the actual government does by thre new administration, and the terrifying dangers and increased risks that political incompetence have increasingly exposed America, and the world, to now. It’s also a great book on understanding some of the more complex functions of US government and how they protect citizens both of the States and the world at large. Terrifying by measures, but a great read. Highly recommended though I felt it ended rather abruptly for a Lewis book though that does not detract from its value.

When Breath Becomes Air

The posthumous autobiography of a literate, driven, neurosurgical resident who discovers he is dying of stage 4 lung cancer and that an entire life successfully lived preparing to be able to enjoy a future life at the top of his field become a life foreshortened. Beautifully written, evocative, tragic, and made me cry (I don’t recommend reading it in public.).

If Beale Street Could Talk

A heartbreakingly beautiful novel of injustice in black America written from the perspective of a 19 year old pregnant mother in New York. I loved the writing. The beauty and power of its prose while delivering an amazing social message echoed all the way down back to the Te Nehisi Coates book I read earlier this year. It made me lament I shouldn’t even try to write a novel, the writing was that good. Definitely the best novel I read all year.

Bad Blood

Carreyrou weaves a fantastic tale from his investigative journalism on the Theranos scandal where Elizabeth Holmes, at one time, Silicon Valley’s celebrated CEO has perpetrated a $9B fraud through fake-it-till-you-make-it tactics, a (manufactured) Haratio Alger backstory, and downright sociopathic manipulation of investors, media, and her employees. Loved the writing, but more than all that, it’s an incredible tale well told of how greed, ambition, and lies drove a fraud that hoodwinked even very smart, experienced business and political operators and the heavyhanded, terrifying tactics the company used to enforce its cult-like will. Highly, highly recommended.

Atomic Habits

Was surprised how much I liked this book. It picks up where Duhigg’s Power of Habit leaves off, providing an operating manual where Duhigg provided the theoretical mechanics of how both good and bad habits become ingrained. Clear provides pragmatic, ridiculously useful advice on how to both break and inculcate good habits and have them stick. I thought this book was going to be a waste of time, but have to admit I took a lot away from it and incorporated a half dozen tactics into my own habit building which all seem to have worked. Highly recommended. Especially good book to start reading if you want to work on your New Year’s Resolutions this year since today is New Year’s.

Smart Choices

Decision making is a key life skill. Getting good at it, tips the scales in your favour towards success in life so that only bad outcomes on good decisions affect you. Do not leave your life to rolling the dice. This book gives a great (if slightly complex) overview of how to think about decisions and how to evaluate them in a form somewhat like David Allen’s GTD formula. It’s not as simple or cut and dried, but this is a book everyone should read (much like ones about productivity, personal finances, and problem solving.). I gave it four stars because I felt it could have distilled more simply, but it has some great insights in here for people with immediate applicability.

The Breakthrough

A phenomenal book on the recent advnces in cancer immunology. While reading, I often thought of this book as the contiuation of an earlier recommendation from another year (and that I raved about), Muckerjee’s The Emporor of All Maladiesfrom the 2016 list. In the time since the writing of Muckerjee’s book, our understanding of how cnacer operates, and in particular, how it eludes our immunological system in a continuous war against being destroyed is what this book talks about. While it focuses on uptake inhibitors and the particuar mechanisms our immune system use to combat cancer (as well as the new class of drugs the breakthrough unleashed), it’s fascinating and very well written. Loved it. Highly recommended it, though I’d recommend reading The Emperor of All Maladies first, possibly even followed by Muckerljee’s sequel, The Gene: An Intimate History before tackling this one. A must read if you’re at all interested in cancer or had your life somehow touched by it (and frankly, who has not had their lives touched by it in some way?)

In Defense of Food

Sort of the practical compendium to Pollen’s earlier book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defence of Food is a guidebook for the perplexed. If our industrial food chains and over-processed foods may be making us sick, what should we be eating? Pollen’s advice is simple… Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much. Though he spends the better part of 250 pages unfolding that advice into a few practical rules and some long explanations, it has definitely changed the way I eat and made me a lot more conscious of what I’m consuming. I have to thank him for it since I feel and have evidence it’s improved my health enormously. Great, easy, actionable, and a valuable and thoughtful read.

Factfulness

I really enoyed this book and its straightforward style from Hans Rosling who died shortly before it was published. The man was a tireless advocate of facts as a way of understanding the world and demonstrating that despite all the gloom we hear about and the current existential challenges the human race faces at the moment, things have been improving. He talks about how wrong virtually all of us are, carrying around these models in our head which he easily and demonstrably proves incorrect in terms of our world beliefs. More than that, things have gotten so much better in the last 50 years despite what media and our own internal narratives tell us. A hopeful book based in fact and evidence, I loved reading this. Made me feel positive about the state of the world at the moment, despite the nightly news.

The Lost City of the Monkey God

I’m a sucker for archaeological mysteries and this great piece of writing about the expedition to seek out and find the fabled Honduran Lost City of the Monkey God, the White City, was a complete page turner for me. I devoured it in a straight 3 days during a ridiculosuly busy work week. Great narrative writing and super interesting insider story on the quest to solve an archaeological riddle with technology (using LIDAR), and ground truthing the discovery. Fascinated by the fact the discovery proved there was an entire other culture of which little is known, eclipsed by our attention on the Mayans living contiguously, though this discovery proved they were remarkably large, sophisticated, and diverse. Equally interesting was the discussion around the politics of the discovery and its excavation as well as the curse that afflicted over half the expedition after they left the jungle. Super enjoyable read. YMMV depdning on your interest in archaeology. Totally jonezing to go on a dig again after reading this.

The 4 Disciplines of Execution

I put this one in grudingly because even though I thought the book confuses a good idea and solid discipline for a business-defining breakthrough, it does have some very good ways of thinking about how to get thingfs done in orgnizations. In particular, I like the fact that it focuses on the fact that new initiatives and strategies are so hard to implement in modern companies due to everyone focusing on BAU (Business As Usual). I also love how it breaks down things into Lag and Lead metrics as a discipline for companies to focus on to change that. While I do think it cherry picks success cases (as all these sorts of books do) and gives short shrift on what to do when things go south or getting buy-in on initiatives of this magnitude (and is very more focused on service and manufacturing industries than say, knowledge work), it is an excellent read if you’re in management. I would say the most practical and applicable business book I read this year.

Problem Solving 101

I am often stunned by how bad people are at making decisions and fuzzy, woolly thinking about the choices people should make (perhaps because encouraging good decisionmaking is my professional metiér). This book, originally written by an ex-McKinsey consultant targeted schoolkids in Japan to help them educate around problem-solving rather than rote-memorization, is a fantastic guide for some simple frameworks around thinking about and making good decisions. It does a great job distilling decisionmaking basics into a digestible, fun, and easy to use handbook for making better decisions, accomplishing goals, and challenging assumptions with hypotheses, data, and good decison making criteria. I want everyone I work with outside of my team to read this. On top of that, it’s a simple one or two day tight, useful read on top of all its other virtues. Highly recommended.

Homo Deus

I gudgingly gave this a borderline 5 star rating though I disagreed heavily with Part III of the book. While I thought Sapiens, his previous book was interesting, with its focus on human beings becoming mastres of the planet due to our power to flexibly cooperate, this book focuses much more on our capability to organize around intersubjective (that is between ourselves) stories around imagined social orders and beliefs throughout history (so factually, imagination is our greatest secret weapon). In paricular, gods, empires, humanism, capitalism, and money. The take is very interesting and in particular Yunuv Noah focuses on the fact that now we’ve effecgively defeated war, famine, and pestilence what should or is humanity turning its attention to? I loved his encapsulation of our aspirations now being immortality, bliss, and divinity and his survey of where we see that being pursued as well as the dangers inherent in some of those pursuits. I was quite disappointed though in his future-casting, however, of humnanity divided between Techno-humanism or Dataism, niether of which seem plausible to me. Nevertheless, an interesting and thought-provoking book and a worthy read.

The Uninhabitable Earth

Another gudging five-star rating, David Wallace-Wells message is quite clear: Things are far, far worse than we realize and we have at best 30 years to pursue a WW II mobilization-scale coordinated effort to keep climate change at a level that will keep us from a world uninhabitable in terms of how we think about it now. The fifth star might be a side effect of the fact I was reading this as friends were sending apocalytic pictures of the wildfires around Sydney, but it feels warranted. Well-written, erudite, and evenly alarmist, though justifiably so it is still somewhat hopeful. It is a desolate, terrifying read, but one we perhaps all need to spend time on considering the failure this year (agai) of COP25 to accomplish anything internationally.

Don’t Read

While I think there were a lot fewer of these than last year, I still couldn’y get away from the fact the book industry contiues to churn out sub-standard works and then market the hell out of them amd neither Amazon or jacket quotes help you to avoid some of these.

  1. Go in Action
  2. The Huns
  3. The Selfish Gene
  4. New York 2140
  5. Trillion Dollar Coach
  6. The Ethical Capitalist
  7. What You Do Is Who You Are

I’ve alrady got a way too long list of books set up for 2020 and hope to challenge myself by being slightly more discplined about my reading to try and knock off a full 50 books this year (currently, my unedited book list is at ~85 before I make some hard choices.).

What was the best thing you read this past year? What do you think I need to add to my reading list that has affect you most as something you read or found useful? Let me know at @awws.


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fc51a9c @ 2020-03-23