I traveled less in 2019 than I ever have in my adult life and since I do much of my reading on trips (flights, trains, etc), I read a little less than usual.
That said, I still read some great books this year and my reading skewed more towards fiction than in the past. There’s probably an escapism lesson there but I’ll spare you. Here are my picks for the best books I read in 2019:
I’ve been a huge fan of Robert Greene’s work ever since his 48 Laws of Power was recommended by my boss back when I was a 19 year old intern at Booz Allen Hamilton. Greene’s books combine two of my favorite subjects – history and psychology – to give actionable takeaways that you can apply in your daily life.
The Laws of Human Nature is Greene’s long awaited book, his first since publishing Mastery in 2013. The book absolutely accomplishes what it set out to do, namely:
The truth is that we humans live on the surface, reacting emotionally to what people say and do. We form opinions of others and ourselves that are rather simplified. We settle for the easiest and most convenient story to tell ourselves.
Consider The Laws of Human Nature a kind of codebook for deciphering people’s behavior—ordinary, strange, destructive, the full gamut. Each chapter deals with a particular aspect or law of human nature. We can call them laws in that under the influence of these elemental forces, we humans tend to react in relatively predictable ways. Each chapter has the story of some iconic individual or individuals who illustrate the law (negatively or positively), along with ideas and strategies on how to deal with yourself and others under the influence of this law. Each chapter ends with a section on how to transform this basic human force into something more positive and productive, so that we are no longer passive slaves to human nature but actively transforming it.
The Laws of Human Nature key takeaways listed below are my personal favorites but this book has a ton in it and I suspect different things stand out to different readers.
The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben is an eye-opening read that will have you looking at the natural world in a completely new light. If you took high school biology, you probably learned that one characteristic of plants is that while they’re alive, they are static creatures. We were told that although they adapt to their environment, they live at a standstill in the same place for their entire lives. And they certainly aren’t communicators. Well, as you’ll learn in The Hidden Life of Trees Key Takeaways, trees are actually dynamic, social, and incredibly complex creatures. The Hidden Life of Trees provides an entertaining deep dive into the alien world of trees.
A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes by Adam Rutherford is a well-written, entertaining book about the journey of humanity through time. Genetics is a topic frequently discussed in popular media, at least in part because it presents discrete variables (genes) which allow comparison between individuals on a common substrate (the human genome). However, as Rutherford so eloquently presents, popular genetics encourages many biological misconceptions that are oversimplifications, at best.
In 2014, I made it a goal to re-dedicate myself to reading. I read a ton growing up but for the past 6-8 years, I probably read less than 10 books per year outside of class. The books I recommend below were all personally transformative for me in one way or another. As with any book, the influence the books below had on me was based on a combination of things including what was going on in my own personal and professional life as well as what was happening in the world at the time.
This is not a ranking list so the books are presented in no particular order.
I really, really wish I had read this book before starting my undergrad degree in engineering. Throughout college, I felt frustrated about the theoretical focus of engineering education. I fall more on the visual learner side of the spectrum so learning about chemical engineering was particularly difficult (it’s hard to picture molecular interactions). The times I felt most comfortable were when a previously discussed concept was physically shown in a lab class. As my friends from college are very much aware of, I was pretty outspoken about my frustration with the curriculum and the way engineering was being taught.
This book dives right into the engineering education issue and so much more. It’s told in a narrative format about a father-son, cross-country motorcycle journey that’s filled with flashbacks and self-discovery, but most importantly, goes into the philosophy of the relationship between art, science, and practical application. I have to credit this book for finally “connecting the dots” for me between the classroom engineering concepts I learned at CMU and the real world around me.
This was a quick but very influential read. Anyone who has tried to build, write, or create anything will appreciate Pressfield’s book, which basically boils down to how to recognize and conquer The Resistance, something we’ve all felt when doing something necessary but difficult.
There aren’t many people more creative than the Kelley brothers, who helped found and lead IDEO, the world’s leading design consultancy. The biggest takeaway for me was that creativity is something we all possess. Some of us just lose confidence in our creativity while growing up. Perhaps we were told we can’t draw or that we were analytical or that we were athletes and so stopped exploring our “creative side”. I read this in tandem with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and found the two to be very much related. This book is the reason I decided to take my first acting class and then helped me find the confidence to think I could be decent at it.
Can’t believe I didn’t read this book until this year. If you’ve had moments of doubt about your life’s direction (whether personal or professional), this book will literally feel as if it’s written for you. Read it.
Side note about Paulo Coelho: some people get put off by the religious (Christian) nature of his writing. Whether you consider yourself religious or not (I’m personally not religious at all), his writing is still inspirational and provides guidance with the existential questions of life.
I’ve gotten really interested in the sharing economy this year (also known as the 1099 economy or the Uber economy) and this was the best book I found about the young industry. The book was written in 2010 (before the whole Uber craze really took off) so it’s amazing that so many of the predictions in here are spot on. Bostrom’s analysis and thinking around the whole space are great in terms of giving you a complete picture into the trends and forces causing “on-demand” and “sharing” services to explode in popularity today. The coolest takeaway from her analysis of the sharing economy: it’s really a move away from the unnatural “largeness” of 20th century corporations and a return to the more local economies of the past (and hopefully future).
If you’re interested in the sharing economy, you HAVE to read this book.
Hands down the most creative book I read all year and possibly in my entire life. The book has 10 “first chapters” of stories intertwined with a love story involving…you! It sounds bizarre but it’s so engaging and I wasn’t able to put it down once I started.
The book was originally written in Italian (Italo Calvino was Italian, in case you couldn’t guess that from his name) and reading this really made me wonder what, if anything, was lost in translation. The English version is so great, I can’t even imagine how good the original was.
Whether or not you’ve read the Blake Masters class notes from Thiel’s Stanford class, this is an interesting and important read. Regardless of if you agree with his politics, there are few people out there like Thiel and his contrarian thinking definitely gets you thinking outside the box. I personally don’t agree with 100% of his views but his thinking is presented in a readable, accessible manner that had (and still has) me looking at the world with a renewed desire to solve big, meaningful problems
Taleb is a genius, plain and simple. I wrote about his work earlier this year and his writing has been hugely influential in crystallizing my thoughts on risk. Just as importantly, his work is hilariously written and somehow manages to make 3 books about a “boring” topic like risk impossible to put down.
Warning about Taleb: He’s EXTREMELY opinionated, which leads to some amazing and entertaining writing but can also piss some people off. If you read his books and end up falling into the pissed off group…can’t say I didn’t warn you.
Directly related to Taleb’s work is World War Z. The zombie infection outbreak is a great, thankfully fictional, example of a Black Swan event. I also happened to read this around the time of the ebola breakout so that probably played a part in making this so memorable for me.
I was a huge fan of the movie too but the book is very different. The movie was told from one person’s point of view while the book is basically a series of recollections from various points in time during the outbreak and war, with no central character.
This year I got interested in learning more about Stoic philosophy. I’ve never been one to “sweat the small stuff” so Stoicism made intuitive sense from the beginning. The coolest thing to me was reading Meditations and literally seeing a Roman emperor struggle with the same things I do on a daily basis – namely, knowing that the world isn’t perfect and adapting my attitude to make sense of and operate in that world. Learning about Stoicism also played a big part in helping me come up with my morning routine.
So those were the top recommendations from my 2014 reading. If any of these books look interesting to you, definitely make the time to read them. Also, if you have a Goodreads account, let’s connect there.
I’m always on the lookout for more to read so definitely send your recommendations my way!
It’s so easy these days to think you’re an expert at something. Read a few articles about a topic, look at a few Quora questions, maybe watch a YouTube video – and bingo, you’re an “expert”. Unfortunately, even though knowledge is more accessible today than ever before in human history, deep knowledge still takes the same amount of time and effort as it did before.
Maybe the reason I’m thinking about this today is that I made the mistake of watching the news for a few minutes this morning (blame my parents – they had it on). With election day coming up, they were trotting out source after source – all of whom had mostly no idea what they were talking about. For example, they brought out Richard Branson to explain the Virgin Galactic crash. Sorry, Richard Branson may be the head of Virgin but he’s not an engineer – he doesn’t understand what went wrong. Sure he can regurgitate talking points but that’s about it. The worst part is that people are going to watch that interview and walk away feeling like they’re “experts” on what went wrong – and share that opinion with others. You’ll see the same thing if you watch MSNBC/Fox News/CNN and listen to someone talking about any topic – healthcare, jobs, the economy, etc.
Reading a few Wikipedia articles is certainly better than knowing nothing about a subject but it doesn’t replace true learning. That’s why I recommend books over any other learning source (except real world experience of course). The knowledge necessary to write a great book about one topic requires such deep subject matter mastery – it just doesn’t compare to any other communication medium. The only exception I’ve seen to this rule are bloggers who write just as deeply as great authors. The only difference is they distribute their content for free on the Internet in short chunks (aka blog posts).
Deep knowledge takes time, effort, and experience, which is why I don’t consider myself an “expert” in anything yet. With some luck, maybe I’ll be close in 10 years.