I read a mere 39 books this year (still not sure why it was so much lower then recent years.)
Felt like I read a lot, even with the new job and academic pre-PhD side-hustle, but felt there were few books which I felt were must reads or that I gleaned a lot from. Other than Sprint and How Big Things Get Done, your professional and personal life will not get any rocket assists from my recos this year (though those two are definitely worth the reads). I’ve written short summaries for the Must and Perhaps Reads. The Don’t Reads I’ve not commented but doubt they’re worth your time.
Here’s my 2023 in books:
- Battle Royale
- Lovecraft Country
- Team of Rivals
- Unreasonable Hospitality
- How Big Things Get Done
- Benjamin Franklin: An American Life
- The Rust Programming Language
- The Mountain in the Sea
- Be Useful
- The Go-Giver
- The 3 Alarms
- The Only Study Guide You’ll Ever Need
- Leading by Ferguson
- The Creative Act
- Negotiation Genius
Before Squid Game, before Fortnite, before Hunger Games, there was Battle Royale. This seminal work of a totalitarian regime that turns one high school class every year against each other in a fight to the death, created the splinter of the idea that became a common trope in dystopian science fiction for our modern era. Violent and disturbing, the book is strangely redemptive as it is an indictment of totalitarianism and how to combat it, but its vision of the mechanism of how a regime keeps its people in line is eerily and disturbingly resonant with recent news cycles.
(warning: surprisingly hard to find. I don’t think there are English ebook versions available. I had to have a friend buy an English dead tree edition in Singapore and then bring it to me where I was hiding out in Thailand at the beginning of the year.).
Fantastic little book covering off Design Sprints as they are practiced in Google for driving results. Sooo many good ideas here and love the laid out methodology for spending 5 days to come up with a feature or business that you can reliably release to production and see if you have something which adds business value and you can grow. This is a gem, much like Four Steps to the Epiphany that should really be on the reading list of everyone who builds digital products. Great book.
Growing up as a kid I read HP Lovecraft as a legend of eldritch horror only being dimly aware or disturbed by the obvious and replete racism in his books. This book turns that entire, troubling legacy on its head by having its protagonists during Jim Crow-era America travel through a both racist and Lovecratian American landscape that just makes for a great and clever storytelling. Really liked it and the characters resonate. Made into a TV series as well and has a sequel. I have not read yet. Besides The Mountain in the Sea (which was also very good but not for everyone) I’d say this is the best fiction I read all year.
Team of Rivals
I love books that make me feel smarter reading them, and this in-depth account of Abraham Lincoln’s rise to the presidency as well as his shepherding of the US through the Civil War (I, for example, did not realize he was assassinated a mere three days after winning the war despite knowing a great deal of detail around the assassination itself.). My biggest beef on this book though is that I wanted more detail on how Lincoln managed to take this group of very disparate and even warring individuals and forge them into this amazing team. While it is described it is never really explicit how the various pieces came together and I often felt there was nothing truly to take personally from this tale other than the fact that Lincoln was perhaps the greatest American President whose like has not been seen since. A few things to take from it, but a really great piece of historical investigation.
I feel anyone in the service industry, or in a company that has a service component to its business, should read this. Detailing the rise of Eleven Madison, which went from #50 to the best ranked restaurants in the world in a shockingly short number of years, the book details how the hospitality and front of house aspect of the restaurant, its experiential quality beyond just the food, became a driver for getting them to that spot. More than that, I feel it’s just a paeon to the nobility of service, creating great experiences for your customers, and going a bit beyond and still making money. Great read.
How Big Things Get Done
To be honest, I did not expect a lot from this book on how megaprojects go wrong, but not only does it talk about how we can achieve better outcomes on the types of projects few of us will ever be associated with, the application to smaller scale projects feels like it makes it required reading. Some of them are fairly obvious, but I really liked ideas about utilizing experience, well understood components (”frozen technical experience”), and especially liked the idea around modularity which I think was best explained in one of their examples as don’t build a 140 story building, build one story 140 times. Really useful read. And has some fascinating stories of absolute disasters in project planning that are great cautionary morality tales. A lot of great first, core principles to take from this book.
Benjamin Franklin: An American Life
Isaacson just somehow has this amazing ability to make even long-dead personalities shine as if contemporary, and have to admit I deeply enjoyed this one on probably American’s most famous founding father and perhaps, folk hero? I think Franklin probably represents the best of what America tried to be: egalitarian, industrious, forthright, and scientific and he served his country in amazing ways throughout his life as well as being an amazing foil for a growing nation through his writing and Poor William’s Almanac. And at a certain point in history he was not only a famous scientist (most of our words around magnetism descend from his studies on the matter). This was counterpoint to the strange, almost absentee approach he had to fatherhood and family throughout his life which sorts so strangely with the rest of his very-involved and contributing life. I did find the book a little overly long, though especially appreciated the sections on how he became ambassador to France and how he helped win the American Revolutionary War via his service there and getting funding against Britain. A complex, if slightly overly long treatment, but worth your reading if you’re interested in history and one of its more interesting figures.
The Rust Programming Language
Most programming books are, I have to say, horrible. Perhaps the last one I actually did not feel was torture was Why the Lucky Stuff’s Ruby book (chunky bacon and foxes forevah!). While personally I find Rust overly complex, I admire it’s commitment to eliminating nils and its “worry-free concurrency” as compared to something like Go (whose simplicity means I can hold the whole language in my head and you can literally learn the basics of in a weekend.). Rust is considered hard and difficult to grok, but this book does an extremely admirable job of introducing the basics and making you capable of writing non-trivial programs by the time you’re done it. It’s not shabby and if you have getting across Rust in 2024, you can do much worse than starting with this book.
Strangely short and ended abruptly, this book on simply walking America was interesting and reflective on the fact that so much of our modern society is owned, fenced, and simply exploring it is considered suspect or erratic. I’m not quite sure what I took away from this book but it sat in the back of my head a while making me think about self-sufficiency, hunter-gathering, living off the land, and being nomadic in different ways than my current digital nomadism.
The Mountain in the Sea
Really enjoyed this novel which uses the discovery of intelligent octopuses as the McGuffin in telling a tale about mind, communication, culture, and at its root, the loneliness and indifference that populates modern life. Great piece of speculative sci-fi on humanity, how we perceive and affect our world, and our morality and movement through it. So many interesting ideas here that make the book thought provoking, I often found the story less interesting than the ideas that were raised in the excerpts from fictional non-fiction books of the characters. Solid read though. Well worth your time if you haven’t read any solid sci-fi in a while.
This book was actually a gift to me, which made me a bit sad, because it was actually somewhat like a book I thought would be interested to write. Subtitled, A History of the World in Eight Plagues the central tenet of the book is that microbial epidemics has had a greater effect on shaping world history than anything humanity has done. More than that, it goes on to suggest it is a fundamental shaper beneath the surface of many of our institutions and development. I have to admit, I think it takes the point too far from contributing to primary causative effects, and in fact, even angered me by making it seem that slavery as we saw it practiced in the Americas was fundamentally a question of Africans disease resistance to pathogens American natives and European settlers were not resistant to, but some of the points are very worthy of consideration. While I also feel the book got a bit political rather than focusing on pure facts (for example, while AIDS is undoubtedly a plague, saying inequality is one takes the point too far, particularly in the light of things like the flu pandemic of 1918 and diseases like MDR tuberculosis. Though the point of poverty and health is an interesting reinforcement to the one of my last books of the year Mountains Beyond Mountains on the founding of Partners in Health and Paul Farmer. I feel if this book had stuck more to facts, and been a lot clearer about steps to take to prevent a future outbreak of something like COVID, it would have been an instant spot in Must Reads but somehow went off the rails at the 5/8ths mark.
Yes, a self-help book and the advice is basic and tried and true, but the interesting part of this was how it comes from Arnold Schwarzenegger and the glimpse of his life as champion bodybuilder, action star, and (we forget about this one) governor of California.
I have to admit I kinda enjoyed it though perhaps because of the effect that since everyone knows what he sounds like, the entire book is read in your head with an Arnie accent voice (which somehow makes it more entertaining). But it’s surprisingly well written, succinct, straightforward, and has solid advice that can really benefit anyone so putting it here.
2023 in Books
This was the tale of the tape in terms of books along with my star ratings out of five for them.
- Battle Royale (Remastered) ★★★★★
- Building a Second Brain ★★★
- The Go-Giver ★
- The Angel’s Game ★★★★
- Benjamin Franklin: An American Life ★★★★
- The Rust Programming Language ★★★★
- Give and Take ★★★★
- Inspired ★★★
- Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow ★★★★
- The Luck Factor ★★★
- Sprint ★★★★★
- Jade City ★★★★
- The 3 Alarms ★★
- Uprooted ★★★★
- The Only Study Guide You’ll Ever Need ★★
- Freedom (by Junger) ★★★★
- The Mountain in the Sea ★★★★
- Bigger Leaner Stronger ★★★
- Leading (by Alex Ferguson) ★
- Lovecraft Country ★★★★★
- The Creative Act ★
- Negotiation Genius ★★
- Put Your Ass Where Your Heart Wants to Be ★★★★
- Solaris ★★★★
- The Starless Sea ★★
- Secret Invasion ★★★
- The Good Life ★★★
- The One Page Financial Plan ★★★
- Smart Brevity ★★★★
- Team of Rivals ★★★★★
- A Fire Upon the Deep ★★
- The Invention of Nature ★★★
- Pathogenesis ★★★★
- Nine Fox Gambit ★★★
- Unreasonable Hospitality ★★★★★
- How Big Things Get Done ★★★★★
- Same as Ever ★★★
- Be Useful: Seven Tools for Life ★★★★
- Mountains Beyond Mountains ★★★★