2021 Reading List and Recommendations

I read 47 books in 2021.

There’s no real trick to reading that number. Make it a daily habit (get an hour in every day) and carry a Kindle everywhere. Block your lunch hour or another time if you need to schedule.

My star ratings out of 5 are below for every book. Good stuff is in the “To Read” list. I’ve also included a “Do Not Read” list for books I wish I had not wasted my time on.

2021 in Books

  1. Energy and Civilization ****
  2. The Soul of an Octopus ***
  3. Capitalism without Capital *****
  4. The Illustrated Man ****
  5. The Little Book That Beats the Market ****
  6. Chasing New Horizons *****
  7. The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs *****
  8. Consider This *****
  9. How to be a Chief Operating Officer
  10. Empire of Blue Water *****
  11. Kokoro ****
  12. Anything You Want *****
  13. Parallax: The Race to Measure the Universe ****
  14. Poetry as Insurgent Art ****
  15. How to Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for Stranded Time Traveler *****
  16. Summer Frost ****
  17. Spice: History of a Temptation ****
  18. In Praise of Shadows ***
  19. Indistractable ***
  20. Hell Yes or No ****
  21. The Code Breaker *****
  22. Waking Up ****
  23. You’re Not Listening ***
  24. Talk to Me **
  25. Head Full of Ghosts ****
  26. The Order of Time ****
  27. The Next Great Migration ***
  28. Jennifer Government *****
  29. Everyday Golang **
  30. The Premonition *****
  31. Providence ****
  32. The Second Mountain ****
  33. Crucial Conversations ****
  34. The Double Helix ****
  35. Project Hail Mary ****
  36. 4000 Weeks *****
  37. Ageless *****
  38. The Merchants of Doubt ****
  39. A Terminal Code ***
  40. The Scout Mindset ***
  41. The Black Flag of the North ***
  42. The Making of the Atomic Bomb*****
  43. Essentialism (re-read) ***
  44. Effortless **
  45. The Spirit of St Louis ****
  46. The Undoing Project ***
  47. The Last Wish ****

To Read

  1. Capitalism Without Capital
  2. Chasing New Horizons
  3. The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs
  4. Consider This
  5. Empire of Blue Water
  6. Anything You Want
  7. The Code Breaker
  8. Jennifer Government
  9. 4000 Weeks
  10. Ageless
  11. The Making of the Atomic Bomb

Perhaps Read

  1. Parallax
  2. How to Invent Everything
  3. The Double Helix
  4. Merchants of Doubt
  5. The Spirit of St Louis

Capitalism Without Capital

The last 20 years have seen vastly new types of companies arise whose value is not necessarily seen on the traditional accounting balance sheet. In accounting non-capital items are intangibles, so effectively we’re seeing firms without capital doing capitalism. A shift from what we’ve seen in the previous century. The key things that distinguish intangible assets which help drive company values that we haven’t seen in the past can be distilled down to 4 S’s

  1. Scalability
  2. Sunk Costs
  3. Spillovers (other companies and people benefit)
  4. Synergies

It’s an interesting approach to what creates value in new economy companies and an interesting, different way to thinking about value, particularly if you invest. Recommended.

Chasing New Horizons

Surprisingly awesome blow-by-blow account of the 26 year odyssey to make the first visit to Pluto. Forget the fact it was demoted from planethood. For many of us growing up in the days when Pluto was the Ninth, it symbolized the edge of the solar system and entire ideas about the last frontier.

Unexplored until New Horizons reached it, the book outlines how science actually gets done on a monumental scale and the debates and travails of the political fortunes of even major projects of scientific interest.

Written by the person who devoted his entire career (really) to getting the probe to Pluto and expanding our scientific knowledge of the solar system, it’s an impressive, inspiring read about determination, value, and legacy.

The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs

First picking this up, I was a little concerned it would be a rehash of another recommended dinosaur book from two years ago, Why Dinosaurs Matter, but I have to say this is a richer, more informative, and deeper dive into the scientific details, and with better storytelling than my first recommendation.

Loved reading this book and learned a shovel-load of things I did not know (especially concerning the Permian extinction), or I had wrong, and I assume were holdovers from my formal education on dinosaurs of 30 years ago.

A great book, fantastic read, and super informative and interesting.

If you’re at all interested in paleontology, or still think of dinosaurs as plodding, stupid, cold-blooded animals that deserved to go extinct, you should seriously read this scientific page turner.

Consider This by Chuck Palaniuk

It’s always super interesting to hear a writer talk about their craft, but I’m always amazed at how erudite some of them are describing their work.

It can be disheartening because even their writing about their writing is amazing.

So it goes with Palahniuk. I love him for Fight Club (#protip: the book is better than the movie).

In this extended treatment of the writer’s craft, at least as he practices it, he does an amazing job laying down the practical things you need to do to create great art and good tales well told.

Picked up a lot that I am hoping (at the time I am writing this) to use for NaNoWriMo this year.

Wish me luck. Definitely worth the read in much the way Bird by Bird is and Stephen King’s book talking about his craft.

Empire of Blue Water

Of all the books around piracy and privateering (yes, there’s a difference) I’ve read the last few years, I’d have to say this is far and away the best.

A really well researched yet slightly strange combination of Henry Morgan (yes, the rum Henry Morgan) and the history of Port Royale.

Port Royale was the English centerpoint of the Caribbean in its cold war against Spain and once considered the wickedest town in Christiandom. Port Royale’s devastation by an earthquake not long after Henry Morgan’s passing actually led to the foundation of the modern day capital of Jamaica, Kingston.

While the author takes some liberties (synthesizing Roderick, a fictional privateer, for illustrative purposes for example) it’s an exceedingly well written page turner which deftly helps you understand pirates and privateering in the context of the times and the great warring powers.

Great overviews of the seemingly unbeatable and wealthy Spanish Empire and the British contestation of the West Indies in history, theocracy, politics, and money.

I have to say I really enjoyed it and learned quite a bit about Morgan’s deserved fame after his sacking of Portobello, Maracaibo, and ultimately, the all-important Panama. I really think this book is under-rated. Definitely enjoyed it and helped me understand the Golden Age of Piracy much better.

Anything You Want

A super short, enjoyable read that made me really miss and jonez badly about running my own company. Silvers distils some key lessons on how he ran one of the most admired companies that (actually, not just said it) disrupted the music business. I liked his approach to his customers beyond the money since it resonated strongly with me, and especially his approach that you can create real value and worthwhile outcomes for people by creating and guiding a company. And you can create your own set of rules which is aligned with your philosophy (so you can be the change you want to see in the world.). It echoed with me strongly because of my experience running Neo and some of the things we did there which (I still feel) made it a great place to work for people and how we supported people in their lives. I took these 4 things away from the book which you could read in under 2 hours.

  1. Know Your Compass - what do you find valuable and how do you want to spend your time
  2. Build Utopias, don’t build a business
  3. Invent or improve until you have a hit
  4. No “Yes”. Either “Hell yeah!” or “No”

Sure, they might seem obvious, but when you’re actually in the midst of living your life, or running or working for a company, they become easy to forget.

I particularly liked Silver talking about how he made himself less of a bottleneck and how he eventually decided to sell the business, since it has been much on my mind what comes after for me this past year.

The Code Breaker

Isaacson’s biographies are always good, but while I don’t find this is his best, he writes a surprisingly compelling story of the discovery of CRISPR through the biography of its co-discoverer Jennifer Doudna.

While the book does a good job of characterizing Doudna, by far the more interesting narrative is the tremendous insight into the cast of characters and sequence of events and discoveries that led to the eventual refinement of CRISPR as both a Nobel-worthy technology and then as a tool that has the actual potential to change the course of our species.

Well-written and insightful (and I have to admit it corrected a few misconceptions I had about CRISPR despite me feeling I knew the subject matter well). Recommended if you’re trying to understand CRISPR and its associated technologies to say nothing of the role it played in creating the mRNA vaccines which led to the COVID vaccines which lead the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

Jennifer Government

I’ve not been the biggest fan of fantasy and scifi over the last few years.

Have just found most of the stories derivative and quite frankly feel a lot of authors are just milking multi-book deals which add absolutely nothing to new books they write. Liked Jennifer Govenrment though, a great story about a dystopian near-future where corporations have tken over most of life to the point people take the last names of the corporations they work for. Marketing campaigns don’t even stop at manipulating homicides and underfunded governments are toothless to enforce legal norms.

A cautionary morality tale to be sure, but enjoyed it nonetheless.

4000 Weeks

I have to admit to not wanting to like 4000 Weeks.

First it veered into the new-age-y philosophical at times. Second, the author had already trod a path I had followed. Third, he’s most likely right in what he says.

Basically, 4000 Weeks tells you your life is short and to stop trying to optimize for the future you will never, ever reach.

Traditional time management is a trap, and the fact of the matter is you need to make hard, ruthless choices about what you focus on and what you let drop (or become strategically mediocre) and enjoy the time you have doing the things you want to do.

Effectively, embrace the fact that the actual human lifetime is terrifyingly, insultingly short etc and get what you want to get done with it.

Ageless

This was actually a surprisingly good book.

While it mirrors other authors’ beliefs in biogerontology, that aging is a condition that we should push to cure, Ageless takes a more even-handed view of the ideas and discusses the precise problems and issues that would be required in order for us to reach a “breakeven” point where improvements in health technology could expand both our lifetimes and life quality to where we experience (and I love this term) “negligible senescence”.

The author makes a strong case for a concerted scientific effort and body of work to focus on tackling the issues which would allow us to do this.

Well written, thoughtful, and avoids the fantastical breathlessness of other books in this space. Worth the read.

The Making of the Atomic Bomb

Definitely the best book I read in 2021. It deserves its Pulitzer. But fair warning: it is a brick, clocking in at over 30+ hours of weighty reading.

The amount of detail it gives into the physics, politics, and wartime development of the Bomb is astounding. It gives amazing context on how the most devastating weapon ever created came to be, and why and how it was used is as impressive a piece of work as I’ve ever read in non-fiction.

For some, I think it may be daunting, but for the patient, persistent, and curious, it rewards.

I had always judged harshly the people who helped develop the horror of the bomb, but the amazing amount of detail and colour the book recounts (from as small a thing as a critical, yet pivotal conversation and misunderstanding between Bohr and Heisenburg after the start of the Second World War, down to how commandos effectively stopped the German bomb programme with the sinking of a ferry) is how we should actually learn about history.

Not through pat caricatures that simplify, but obscure complexity.

I also really respect how it recounts in physically sickening detail the horrifying effects of the bomb on the people of Hiroshima and does not gloss over the full impact of what a terrible thing had been created.

Amazing book. Worth the time investment to read imho.

Perhaps Read

Parallax

It’s often amazing to me how things as simple as measures of time and distance have caused such incredible leaps forward for humanity (and been so difficult to accomplish).

Much like the excellent book Longitude on the difficulty of measuring westward and eastward motion around our globe was a major issue until the invention of accurate timepieces, Parallax is similarly about being able to measure distances in space that led to advances in our understanding of the universe.

The book outlines the 200 year quest humanity had empirically verifying astronomical theory, first through the Copernican vs Ptolemaic model of the universe, and then to accurately model the distance to stars, and answering questions about the distance to galaxies.

Much more interesting than it sounds even if you’re not an astronomy geek like me.

How to Invent Everything

A fun, irreverent book presented as a survival guide for stranded time travellers who get to fork the timeline and make sure they can survive once when their time machine has malfunctioned.

The book (which was part of research for a game I want to write) goes over the great inventions of humanity and how you can basically reproduce them easily and run the world with your knowledge. It also pokes fun at some pretty stupid oversights in the history of science and invention which are almost comical in the fact we missed them.

Really enjoyable, easy read that educates, and a great refresher on the foundations of our modern scientific culture (and, of course, super handy if you ever do get stranded in the past.).

The Double Helix

I recommend this book despite the fact there are aspects of it I deeply disliked about it and the author.

I read it because of the influence of the book on numerous scientists in the life sciences, including as a seminal book that influenced the early Doudna (recipient of the 2020 Nobel prize with Charpentier for their discovery of CRISPR mentioned earlier in this post).

The good things about it are that Watson manages to convey the excitement of scientific discovery and an account of how science actually gets done rather than how it appears seamlessly easy looking back in many history of science textbooks. And the role piecing together small clues from a wide, and diverse field may lead to profound discoveries (if not outright luck).

The bad though is Watson’s himself: elitist, shockingly sexist, and hero-worship-centric manner which I tried to put down to the time and place alike you would offensive racism in a 18th century period piece. So, be forewarned. That said, it’s an interesting read.

Merchants of Doubt

This is actually an important book to read if you’re at all on the fence about climate change, even though the book covers the attack on science to create doubt and so create confusion around science-based debate on issues in the last 50 years.

Starting with the cigarette industry’s well-documented attack on the science around how bad smoking is for you, their techniques for creating doubt, and extending through other issues such as second-hand smoke, DDT, and all the way to climate change, it’s a terrifyingly well-documented and exhaustive book on how media has been manipulated and how powerful lobby interests have worked against the public interest and the personalities and organizations involved.

And therein lies the trouble, it’s a heavy read (though it would have to be, as you could see any factual inaccuracies being attacked outright if not airtight.). The real point of the book happens not until very near the end where it’s clearly articulated that the problem is not really about the attack on science, but the debate really comes down to the degree of involvement of government in commercial affairs and their ability to legislate externalities to market failures.

Bogus science and media disinformation is just the tool that lobby groups use to affect those outcomes. It is an important read, I just wish it was an easier one (though this creation of doubt and use of pundits who never have peer reviewed research as science-fact and casting doubt on scientific consensus is terrifying, particularly how effective it’s been.).

The Spirit of St Louis

I find it a bit of a strange thing that a former Pulitzer prize winner is actually not available electronically (and a slightly terrifying comment on tacit control of culture by Amazon and Apple Books), so you’ll have to get the dead-tree version of this puppy, but Lindbergh’s account of the first trans-Atlantic flight in his purpose-built Ryan monoplane is a great adventure read and an historically important document on aviation before it became the commercial (but still amazing when you think about it), drudge we now suffer through on economy flights. Just with the talk of the early days of aviation and all the talk of barnstorming and flying daredevils and having to parachute to safety the book is kinda great.

Lindbergh is a much better writer than you would think, and weaves a great story of his life and the first flight and 32 hours it took to cross the Atlantic, interspersed with flashbacks through his life.

For some historical irony, I read the story of his 14 hour flight from San Diego to Lambert field in St Louis while taking a 14 hour trans-Pacific flight from Singapore to Vancouver. Kind of astounding when you think of the less than 100 years that has happened since a trans-Atlantic flight could secure someone the $25,000 Ortieg prize and global accolades.

Do Not Read

These are either rehashes, redundant, or irrelevant. You can be looking at even mediocre books with the time you would have used on these and be better off. Take a look at the To Reads in some of my past annual Reading List recos from 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017 or 2016 for something that is a better use of your time.

  1. Talk to Me
  2. Effortless

Fin

And that’s a wrap. Hope everyone has a happy New Year and gets a few great books under their belts in 2022.

Let me know what you think about the post on twitter @awws or via email hola@wakatara.com and if it actually made a difference for you. I’d love to hear feedback about your own thoughts, processes, or approaches and what may have worked for you or tweaks to the above. Reasoned opinions on why I might be wrong and what might be even better always welcome (and would love to get some book recommendations if you’ve been reading my lists for a while and think there’s something I might love.).


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a9a1803 @ 2022-01-27