|Author||Title||Rating (0 to 10)|
Fiction / Non-fiction
|Year||Publisher||Year I Read||Thoughts|
|John Updike||Too Far to Go: The Maples Stories||7||F||1979|
The New Yorker ran the first story of this collection—"Snowing in Greenwich Village"—in its archive issue last year. It's quiet and spectacular, like you'd expect snow in the village to be. I picked up the collection shortly thereafter. The whole thing is entertaining, with some stories better than others. The second to last story—"Gesturing"—is one I'd read a few years ago in a separate collection. It's one of my favorite short stories ever. Updike at his best. If you want the highlights, I'd start with "Snowing" and then check out "Gesturing".
Creative Selection: Inside Apple's Design Process During the Golden Age of Steve Jobs
St. Martin's Press
I loved this book. Ken Kocienda was the co-founding engineer of Safari and the principal engineer responsible for the iOS keyboard. In this book he talks about the design and development process they used to deliver great products at Apple. Over the course of the stories in this book, Kocienda outlines the process of creative selection—a process in which developers and designers work to get to a functional prototype of an idea or interaction as quickly as they can, using said prototype to evaluate their ideas and discard the bad ones. The faster the iteration, the faster the evolution of the solution and the better the final product. This is one of those books with ideas that you'll start bringing up with your team before you're done reading it. It's already become an intergal part of how our own design team works. Huge bonus: it's a blast to read. Cannot recommend this book highly enough.
Sprint: Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days
Simon & Schuster
A great quickread on how to run a week-long design sprint. Whether you have a big decision that you need to vet with customers, or are in a rush to throw together an mvp, this sprint format is a great way to go from problem to sketch to prototype to customer test in one week. This actionable framework will help you de-risk your biggest product investments—you’ll spend a week to find whether your hypothesis is correct, instead of a few months.
|Hamilton Helmer||7 Powers||8||NF||2016|
Deep Strategy LLC
With his landmark book Competitive Strategy, Michael Porter put forward a simple thesis: operational excellence does not equal sustainable, defensible value. Instead, it’s using that operational excellence to build an unassailable advantage—a unique technological edge, a brand built over decades—that creates the long-term value that comes from high market share and high defensible margins. With 7 Powers, Hamilton Helmer takes the best insights from Porter’s theory of competitive strategy and turns it into a digestible reference to use during points of flux in a company’s trajectory. In the book, he starts with a simple function for the value of a business: the size of its market times its market share times its margin. He then goes on to discuss the seven positions of “power” in which an incumbent enjoys high market share and high margins. The “powers” are all topics you’ve read about before if you’ve read Porter or other writing on strategy (Ben Thompson’s blog comes to mind,) but what Helmer does so well in this book is to provide a framework for understanding each of these positions and the benefits and barriers they provide. For each position, he provides a short case study, an overview of benefits the incumbent holds and barriers new entrants must overcome, and a view on surplus leader margin (or how much margin an incumbent makes in a given industry where they have power.) With his overview of the seven powers complete, he then moves into a discussion on statics and dynamics. If we know what makes a company such as Netflix’s position so powerful (static analysis,) what can we infer re: how Netflix got to that position in the first place (dynamic analysis.) The result is a view into when certain powers are available to certain businesses. As an example, the power of branding, viewed by many a startup founder as a means to meaningful differentiation, only actually becomes a sustainable moat for margins over many years (think Tiffany’s or Apple) when taken within the dynamic lens provided here. By the end of the book, you’ll be in a better position than you were at its start to assess your own business and its true, long-term strategic position.
|Michael Pollan||How to Change Your Mind||6||NF||2018||Penguin||2018|
I was skeptical about this book. I first heard about it from a friend, who referenced it as he pitched me on his newest app idea: “Headspace, but for shrooms.” This exchange may have soured my initial view on the coming resurgence of psychedelics. Months went by and I heard about the book through other channels. I decided to jump in and see what it could teach me about psychedelics and the human mind. Let me start with what I loved about this book. First, it’s built around a fascinating personal thesis. The author is in his sixties, his son has left the nest, his mind is calcified and set in its ways, and he begins to wonder if psychedelics might not be wasted on the young, if they might not have more to offer us later in life “after the cement of our mental habits and everyday behaviors has set.” This becomes the central tenet of the book: can psychedelics change the way our minds work and, if so, how might we use them to heal our most serious afflictions of the mind—addiction, depression, fear of death. It’s when it’s centered on this subject that the book is at its best, focused on the real-world application of these substances and what they can tell us about how the human brain works. Though the science here is in its nascent stages and sample sizes are too small to show conclusive evidence, it’s a captivating discussion and one that got me thinking about my own mind and the habitual neural paths within it. Even without the aid of psychedelics, this book will help you to expand your own perspective on how the human mind works, and that says something. Now on to what I didn’t love about this book. First, it’s far too long. The early chapters on the history of psychedelics were welcome context, but I found them too detailed to hold my attention. Second, there’s only so many pages you can read about people tripping on shrooms and acid. They’re all subjective experiences, and after reading the ninth account of someone slipping off the planet and falling into the presence of god, I felt a little underwhelmed. I guess you just had to have been there, man. Finally, there are a lot of tenuous correlations drawn between psychedelics and positive outcomes, whether they be in the past (the creative boom of Silicon Valley) or the future (a cure for alcoholism.) In these moments the book felt as though it was grasping at straws, trying to prove cause and effect when all it needed to do was discuss possibility. So that’s the book. As I said at the outset of this summary, I was skeptical going in. I’m still skeptical, but less than I was before picking up How to Change Your Mind. In that sense, I guess you could say the book delivers on the promise of its title. Mind changed: no Headspace-shaman-app required.
|Somerset Maugham||The Moon and Sixpence||10||F||1919||Penguin||2018|
I first read the name Somerset Maugham in the byline of an epigraph. It was a suitable introduction. Maugham’s writing—tight, dry, British—lends itself to quotation with ease. He’s also very funny. The Moon and Sixpence, Maugham’s novel based on the life of painter Paul Gauguin, lends itself both to its author’s quiet humor, and to his meditations on work and purpose. The story begins in late 19th century England, where our narrator first meets Charles Strickland—a dull stockbroker in his mid forties and the fictional stand-in for Gauguin—at an evening dinner hosted by the wives of London. In a few weeks time, Strickland will leave London and his family forever. He’ll move to Paris to become a painter, his true calling. A century past that, one of his works will sell for a record $210 million. He will become one of the most celebrated painters in history. But for now, in this scene, Mr. Strickland is silent, encaged by the small talk of a dinner party. Maugham embraces the contradiction with sardonic glee. This paradox—the genius of eternity forced into the social constraints of a generation—drives the book’s humor. Its meditative quality comes when Strickland leaves for Paris to pursue his singular purpose. For Strickland, it isn’t fame or acclaim or success that he chases. It’s beauty. Beauty, and what it means to find it in life, emerges as the dominant theme in the book. It shows itself most in Strickland’s monastic pursuit—his paintings, and the dark shroud of understanding contained within them, are its explicit manifestation. But beauty reveals itself in other, subtler ways throughout the novel. There are characters who find beauty in quiet, apartment-bound relationships, characters who find beauty in the families they build. It’s a nudge from Maugham. Create something. Make it beautiful. Be at peace. — Great book.
|F. Scott Fitzgerald||The Great Gatsby||10||F||1925||Scribner||2018|
I reread Gatsby last weekend. I had heard a sentiment about great art and its ability to tell you something about yourself each time you return to it, and so finding myself at twenty eight and on a weekend trip to Long Island, I decided it was time for another visit to West Egg. The book’s re-readability is cemented by its place in our high school curriculum. It’s a story of lonely socialites sipping away their late twenties, and we’re all assigned to read it when we’re fifteen. Not that the book doesn’t leave a mark in high school. It is heralded as the American novel of the 20th century for a reason, and even in high school, in the midst of our pimples and our social angst and our college applications, we can sense the book’s greatness. We know a good party when we see one, and the last line—oh, that famous last line—is one that every student who gets to it won’t forget. Though there’s plenty that we miss on our first pass of West Egg, we remember the green light. The second time I read Gatsby was towards the end of college. Adrift in a post-finals fugue, I was scanning a bookshelf for something to read when I found those familiar yellow eyes in the blue night of the cover. I dove back in. This time, armed with a few years of the American college experience, I found a new humor in the beautiful, listing exposition of the book. In the third chapter, I saw not just the grandeur of the garden party, but the vain debauchery of it as well—the “casual innuendo and introductions forgotten on the spot.” There was also new darkness to be found in Gatsby himself, a twinge of irony in the epithet “great”. Despite his rapid ascent into the elite of American society and the list of “general resolves” that got him there, there was a hopelessness to his situation. Playing Trimalchio to the lushes of Manhattan, he lived a fake plastic American dream in which the wealth he desperately acquired (through what we’re obliquely led to understand were not respectable means) was lavished upon a raucous upper class in exchange for an approval that only moved farther out of Gatsby’s reach with every party he threw. It was this, Gatsby’s tragedy, that I remembered most from this second read. Now, having just finished the book for a third time at twenty eight, I’ve found something else in the book: the tragedy of everyone else within it. The modern tragedy that is every character in the book (aside from its namesake) is best embodied in its unreliable narrator Nick Carraway. On the book’s last page, we see the best of Gatsby, and the worst of everyone else. In the final paragraph, with that famous close, we see what Nick admires most about Gatsby: his optimism, his tireless pursuit of the green light, his ability to see wonder in the world. In the paragraph that comes before it, we get something different: the tragedy of Carraway himself. While Gatsby is “running faster,” “stretching out his arms farther,” constantly reaching for something, Nick has no idea what he wants. He pursues nothing. He is the Ishmael to Gatsby’s Ahab, adrift between soporific afternoons and gin twilights, caught in an era when all of the world's “green shores” have been discovered, when silent copses of trees “have made way for Gatsby’s mansion,” an era beyond the point in history when Carraway could come face to face with something “commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” In such an era, he has no choice but to find his own meaning within himself. He tries his best, and finds a proxy in the character of Gatsby, but by the book’s chronological end, he leaves the East, resigned to float aimlessly, wanting “no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart.” It makes Nick Carraway one of the first anti-protagonists of the modern era: a person without meaning, in want of nothing, driving from one party to the next. Most of the time, Carraway doesn’t even recognize the direness of his position. He gets into the bond business because he supposes “it could support one more single man.” He starts the book by revealing the core of his character—”I’m inclined to reserve all judgements”—then spends the rest of the book judging everyone around him. And despite his supercilious claims to sobriety, it’s clear by the end of the book that Mr. Carraway is at least, in part, a lush, never raising a hand to the festivities when they start up around him. It’s only in “the enchanted metropolitan twilight” of New York that Nick feels “a haunting loneliness.” He sees “poor young clerks who [loiter] in front of windows waiting until it [is] time for a solitary restaurant dinner—young clerks in the dusk, wasting the most poignant moments of night and life.” In these moments we see what Nick sees, that he is one of those lonely young clerks, living for nothing, and wasting those most poignant moments of life. It’s an oblique tragedy within The Great Gatsby. I couldn’t quite see it at fifteen or twenty, but at twenty eight… well, I suppose that’s why we watch movies more than once. To find something new.
New York Review Books
“Sometimes, immersed in his books, there would come to him the awareness of all that he did not know, of all that he had not read; and the serenity for which he labored was shattered as he realized the little time he had in life to read so much, to learn what he had to know.” This novel is one of the better works of American literature I’ve read in a long time. Within its first pages, you know it to be great—the writing is that good. The book’s protagonist, William Stoner, comes of age on the barren soil of a Missouri farm before attending the local university for agriculture school. There, amidst the trappings of chinch bugs and manganese, Stoner takes a required course in English literature. In the hazy afternoon of that classroom, the words of Shakespeare’s Sonnet #73—”this thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong, To love that well which thou must leave ere long”—set him in reverie. When he awakens, his life has found a new path: teaching. In the decades that follow, we see Stoner as husband, as father, as professor. We see a life that holds the dull sheen of unfulfilled potential, of quiet and patient survival. But John William asks us to look closer, to examine the life that resides behind the ochre hues on Stoner’s surface. In that examination, William’s strength as a writer comes forward, showing us, in the simplicity of Stoner’s routine, in his constant persistence, a life built on love and on passion. “He smiled fondly, as if at a memory; it occurred to him that he was nearly sixty years old and that he ought to be beyond the force of such passion, of such love. But he was not beyond it, he knew, and would never be.”
|Mark Twain||Adventures of Huckleberry Finn||9||F||1885|
Dover Thrift Edition
On a trip to New Orleans last year, I stood on the cement waterfront of the big easy, in the white sun and the thick wet air, and I looked across the muddy still of the Mississippi River and thought to myself, “I want to float.” The next day I bought Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It took me a year to finally sit down and read it in, of all places, Amsterdam—a far cry from the slow waters on which I was first inspired to revisit it. Still, it held up in spite of the tidy European infrastructure of my surroundings. I last read the book in my early teens. The only thing I really remember about the book from back then still holds true: the ending is not good. I won’t kvetch about it here. Everything else about the book, I loved rediscovering upon this second read. Huck and Jim, the silent expansiveness of a river at night, the Odyssean plot that weaves it all together. Even after the tedious ending, the good parts are enough to make you want to ford upstream and let the current float you down again. “You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.”
|John Carreyrou||Bad Blood||9||NF||2018||Knopf||2018|
If your founder emulates Steve Jobs, ensure they’ve the right behavior in mind. If your founder worships Steve Jobs, exercise caution. If your founder wears a black turtleneck to work everyday, run. I finished this book the day before Theranos announced it would dissolve itself. Fun timing. Carreyrou's account of the rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes is a thrilling read on one of the crazier startup stories we’ll ever see out of silicon valley. Barring any other hyper-valuation meltdowns, we'll look back on Theranos as the cautionary tale from the age of the decacorns. Between the peaks and valleys of the Theranos tale—it will, without a doubt, make for a very fun movie (I await with eager anticipation each and every Sunny Balwani scene)—there are a few general takeaways for anyone from startup land. One, secrecy in startups. Always a red flag. If leadership isn’t transparent, if you can’t do your job because you aren’t allowed to know what’s happening in other departments, something is wrong. Two, a founder that can’t accept criticism and have the wherewithal to step back to a position of objectivity will have a hard time knowing how to reposition the business when things get tough. When it became clear that nanotesting compromised test results, Theranos could have dialed back its offering to one that didn’t put patients at risk. Instead, they forged ahead and landed in fraud. Third, vaporware. Bad in general. Very bad in healthcare. Final takeaway: praise the field of investigative journalism.
The Literary Churchill: Author, Reader, Actor
Yale University Press
In The Literary Churchill: Author, Reader, Actor, author Jonathan Rose examines the life of Winston Churchill, his triumphs, his defeats, and the unifying principle of his life that bound them together. It is the question of that last bit—a unifying principle—that has beget the work of many a historian who, upon examining the life of Churchill, ask themselves, what goal, what philosophy, what end drove the brazen courage, the artful penmanship, and “the impulsive courtship of danger” that defined one of the great men of history. For the life of Churchill is a story that, when taken in composite, finds itself in want of a single ideal under which to unify it. Here was a man resolute in his convictions, no matter their polarity. Surely there must be some single idea that emboldened the strength of those convictions. The answer, as Rose tells it to us in this book, is literature. It is literature and “the desire to frame a thrilling story in real life” that drove Churchill to blind fiasco at Gallipoli, and that led him to storied victory at Dunkirk. Rose starts his view into the literary life of Churchill by examining the foundation on which any great literary builds a life, through their writing. And it is one of the great takeaways from this very well-written book that the primary source material of Churchill’s own writings is what stands out the most. Here’s Churchill on the Nile at dusk: “Usually the river was simply muddy and dull: Yet there is one hour when all is changed. Just before the sun sets towards the western rocks a delicious flash brightens and enlivens the landscape. It is as though some titanic artist in the hour of inspiration was retouching the picture, painting in dark purple shadows among the rocks, strengthening the lights on the sand, gilding and beautifying everything, and making the whole scene live. The river, whose windings give the impression of a lake, turns from muddy brown to silver grey. The sky from a dull blue deepens into violet in the west. Everything under that magic touch becomes vivid and alive. And then the sun sinks altogether behind the rocks, the colours fade out of the sky, the flush off the sands, and gradually everything darkens and grows grey like a man's cheek when he is bleeding to death. We are left sad and sorrowful in the dark, until the stars light up and remind us that there is always something beyond.” It’s in Churchill’s early writing that we see his commitment to the examination of life, and to living it for the sake of history. That is, to live in such a way that allows for the most exciting narrative possible. In Churchill’s writing, there is a profound awareness that the words put on paper would be the ones to define his legacy. “Words are the only things which last forever,” he declaimed. “The most durable structures raised in stone by the strength of man, the mightiest monuments of his power, crumble into dust, while the words spoken with fleeting breath, the passing expression of the unstable fancies of his mind, endure not as echoes of the past, not as mere archaeological curiosities or venerable relics, but with a force and life as new and strong, and sometimes far stronger than when they were first spoken, and leaping across the gulf of three thousand years, they light the world for us today.” Though the words of Churchill have yet to stand the test of three thousand years, these stand a decent chance: “You ask, what is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival. Let that be realized; no survival for the British Empire, no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for, no survival for the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward towards its goal.” There are moments in life where—sometimes knowingly, sometimes unknowingly—we lean on a sense of self borrowed from the screen or the page. Later, we reflect on such moments as the events of a great story, a story whose plot revolves around us. And in the instant when we recognize that narrative, our narrative, we may turn and look forward into the life that still awaits us with a special awareness that we are, in the act of living, writing that story. From that point on, every action we take is seen through the lens of that story and the impression it will leave on those who read it. Eventually, the momentum of life picks us up and we forget we were writing a story at all. Not Churchill. Churchill lived every moment, wrote every word, for the generations that would follow him. And so he has become “a man larger than life, composed of bigger and simpler elements than ordinary men, a gigantic historical figure during his own lifetime, superhumanly bold, strong, and imaginative, one of the two greatest men of action his nation has produced, an orator of prodigious powers, the saviour of his country, a mythical hero who belongs to legend as much as to reality, the largest human being of our time.”
|Stephen King||The Shining||9||F||1977||Anchor Books||2018|
A cheery tale for winter in the mountains. I had been looking for an opportunity to read a classic Stephen King horror novel ever since finishing his memoir-guide for writers, On Writing. When I recently found myself in my parents’ house in Idaho, with its remote silence and its snowed-in eaves, I decided it was time to start The Shining. I’m a huge fan of the movie. The thought of sinking deeper into the mysteries of The Overlook Hotel—(why does Jack Nicholson show up in the ballroom picture at the end of the movie?)—all while seated amidst the pines of Idaho, the idea filled me with giddy fear. It’s a feeling Mr. King did well to keep at a high throughout the entirety of this terrifying novel. King brings a type of sick hilarity to the situations his characters find themselves in. Even when you’ve seen the movie and know what’s coming, it’s the book that leaves you with the little details that you wish you could forget. The sensation of standing in a busy hotel lobby as it empties out on closing day; the claustrophobia of first floor windows, once filled with mountain vistas, now broadcasting the white static of a two-story snow drift; the sinister intention behind the moans and creaks of a tired old building with no one else inside it. The Shining is an awesome classic of a book, and one I will remember for a long time.
|Tara Westover||Educated||8||NF||2018||Random House||2018|
This book is a wild story about one individual’s pursuit of knowledge. The author Tara Westover grew up in the shadow of a mountain. Her parents were staunch conservatives who spent their free hours stockpiling for Judgement Day. Westover didn’t have a birth certificate until she was nine, and she never went to school. Educated is the story of her climb out of that childhood and into the upper tiers of academia. On the way to her doctorate, Westover survives one violent sibling, two car crashes, and a series of junkyard accidents. The book discusses many themes throughout that journey. Family, faith, self-belief. But it’s the theme of education that resonates most. This is not the education of public policy and high school curriculums. It is the education of a desperate individual. It is the education that’s built alone over an unending sequence of dim nights. Its books aren’t defined by a course list, but by the subjects the autodidact stumbles across along their own self-guided ascent. It’s the education of a Wikipedia hole. You start on one page, then come across a linked subject you know nothing about. Now you’re looking at two pages. Now four. You go deeper and deeper in. You discover the foundational subjects beneath that first page. Hundreds of tabs later, you have some semblance of the true scope of the subject you have started to learn. I loved this book because it reminded me what I love about reading, and about learning itself.
|Bill Browder||Red Notice||8||NF||2015|
Simon & Schuster
Probably the closest look you can get at the wave of capitalism that broke across Russia in the 1990s and the stagnant pool of corruption it left behind in its wake. Red Notice starts as its author Bill Browder emerges from Stanford Business School, eager to take on investment in the Eastern bloc. The reality of what he finds there borders on the tragicomic. Freezing hotel rooms, rusted out shipping fleets, misogynist clients offering “a woman to keep [him] warm at night.” The exposition is dire enough to give the reader a moment’s pause, “why would anyone invest here?” In reading these early chapters a scene comes to mind. It’s a moment from the opening minutes of There Will Be Blood. The prospector Daniel Plainview huddles on the cold and wild frontier, alone, sans bivouac, surviving until morning. Eventually, Mr. Plainview strikes gold. In an eruption of fire and black tar, Plainview looks on as his first oil well erupts, carbon spewing into the sky. As he looks into the black fountain, oil dripping down his face, we feel what he feels, a swelling of limitless possibility—it is the sensation of standing atop an ocean of oil. It’s this same sensation I imagine Mr. Browder felt when he, too, finally found a well beneath his own frozen frontier. But where Plainview found oil fields, Browder found oil companies. Recently privatized, massively discounted oil companies. At one point, Browder pours capital into an oil company that’s selling at a 95% discount to net tangible assets. He makes a ten thousand percent return on the investment. It’s at this moment that Vladimir Putin enters the narrative, and Browder’s role as capitalist ends. He’s soon banned from Russia, and the Michael Lewis stylings that constituted the up-and-to-the-right story of the book’s first half give way to a story of corruption. Here the book takes on a new moral weight, as Browder carefully reconstructs the tragedy of Sergei Magnitsky, his former attorney and a victim of the Putin regime. I won’t give anything else away, but the book is a fascinating glimpse into how Putin came to power in a nation of oligarchs and how that power has bolstered the corruption that persists in Russia today. (A final addendum: the already infamous Trump-Putin Helsinki summit happened earlier today—all the more incentive to pick up this book and get a closer look at the moral standing of the Putin regime.)
|Warren Buffett||The Essays of Warren Buffett||8||NF||2015|
The Cunningham Group
“All of human unhappiness comes from one single thing: not being able to remain at rest in a room.” This is a quote from Blaise Pascal. It does not appear once in The Essays of Warren Buffett. Still, it’s a sentiment I think the Berkshire chairman would enjoy; a bon mot to punctuate the end of a paragraph on market fluctuations. This theme, “how to remain at rest in a room,” is one that emerges time and again over the course of the essays contained in this collection. Whether it’s a discussion on the value erosion of high-frequency trading—”returns decrease as motion increases”—or an opinion on corporate America’s obsession with M&A—”dealmaking is exciting and fun, working is grubby”— Buffett’s insight often comes in the form of counterpoint to mass opinion. It’s these points that are the unique selling proposition of the collection—there aren’t many places where you’ll read sentiments such as “it’s as bad to be overvalued as it is to be undervalued.” For those kicks, Buffett's letters are the only shop in town. That being said, there’s a lot of great advice contained herein that goes with the grain, too. Work with people you admire. Don’t lose focus. Avoid the ABCs of business decay: arrogance, bureaucracy, and complacency. It’s advice about management and leadership. The type of stuff you read in Bezos annual shareholder letters and see in late-90s Jobs keynote presentations. Across this broad spectrum of Buffett learnings there is one commonality: a general style of folksy good cheer. In all of his discussions, Buffett keeps a mind to please the reader. There are quick little quips and midwestern anecdotes about how to sell a lame horse. It’s a humor that helps when you’re pages deep into an essay on derivatives trading. I’ll end with my personal favorite. At the close of a long discussion on the merits of gold and the returns one could expect by purchasing a solid cube of it, Buffett leaves us with this: “you can fondle the cube, but it will not respond.”
|Robert Cialdini||Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion||8||NF||1984||Harper Collins||2018|
Sometimes I feel as though I’ve been had. A favorite band will come through town and I’ll pay too much for scarce tickets: had. Or a long-lost friend will spot me on the sidewalk, “hey, do I know you?”—then I see the clipboard: had. If you, too, feel as though you’ve, at some point in your life, had the proverbial wool pulled over your eyes, Influence might be the book for you. Robert Cialdini is a self-described patsy who set out to understand how the world’s compliance professionals—used car salesman, Cutco representatives, proselytizers—use instinct and psychology to bend us to their will. What he found are six psychological principles—reciprocity, consistency, social proof, liking, authority, scarcity—that make up the chapters of this book. Behind each lurks some example to which you’ve likely already fallen prey. Laugh tracks, cults and fraternities, christmas presents, all come into play in this psychological study of persuasion. Cialdini’s Influence is a relatable window into the rules that govern our minds, and a fascinating study of how some will try to leverage those rules to their advantage.
|Winston Churchill||My Early Life||8||NF||1930|
Winston Churchill’s hilarious adventure-memoir. My Early Life starts in Churchill’s childhood then follows him through his schooling, his army service, his work as a war correspondent, and his early career in parliament, all of which took place before his twenty seventh birthday. It’s a book with war at its center, whether it be Winston’s early war against education—aptly remembered by his first textbook: “Reading without Tears”—or the wars he took part in during his early twenties. Despite the would-be grim subject matter, Churchill keeps the narrative light and funny throughout—for him, these were wars of great adventure, wars in which a British gunship floating down the Nile would toss a bottle of champagne to a young Churchill standing on its banks, wars in which “nobody expected to be killed.” Perhaps it was this sentiment (and its latent courage) that led Churchill to the exploits in this book. Over its course, the reader sits witness to a cavalry charge, an armored train derailment, and an escape from a South African prison. It’s all very exciting. And it all happened before the two world wars in which Churchill was to play such an important role. For Churchill, these early years were the ones he could look back on with fond nostalgia, the years in which there was still glory and adventure in war, the years before the Great War of Europe. But even in remembering his life at 27, and recalling the dark days that were to come, Churchill keeps his humor: “Events were soon to arise in the fiscal sphere which were to plunge me into new struggles and absorb my thoughts and energies at least until September 1908, when I married and lived happily ever afterwards.” A thrilling comedy of a memoir told by one of the most important historical figures of modern history.
|Geoffrey Moore||Crossing the Chasm||8||NF||2014|
Many business books do too much. Whether they’re memoirs or lessons on a specific subject (e.g. “management” or “strategy”,) they list insights and learnings to the point where the reader, at best, takes two or three things away from what they’ve just finished. It’s no fault of the author—some of the best business books out there follow this format—it’s just difficult for the reader to retain the knowledge put in front of them without a tighter narrative or goal on which to build that knowledge. Geoffrey Moore’s book does not have this problem. As its title suggests, it concerns one, very specific goal: crossing the chasm. Moore argues that all high-tech businesses (with the possible exception of B2C companies) face a chasm of adoption as they move from early markets to mature markets, where they’ll ultimately make the majority of their return. The early markets consist of visionaries looking for game-changing products, the mature markets consists of pragmatists looking for performance improvements. Over the back half of Crossing the Chasm, Moore walks through the four phases involved with moving a business across the chasm (warning: military analogies abound,) and the process checklists to follow within each of those phases to help a team find the right market for its product. For that is what this book is about in the end: finding the right beachhead market for your product, and sticking to that market until you’ve won it. It takes focus, the ability to say no, and an understanding of what it means to deliver a “whole product” to your target customers.
Homer (Emily Wilson translation)
The ancient greeks believed in a concept called xenia. The word means “friendship” and “hospitality” and gives us the contemporary (and, sadly, ever more relevant) “xenophobia”. Under the Zeus-ordained law of xenia, the ancient greeks offered shelter, food, and conversation to any stranger on their doorstep. The Odyssey, a story about an unfortunate but clever man who tries to return home, only to instead find distant lands with an alarming range of foreign policies, is, in the words of its latest translator, “a series of case studies in xenia.” What we learn by the end of these studies is that those who practice xenia find the gods’ favor; those who do not meet messier ends. (There are exceptions to this rule. Sons and daughters of the gods get special treatment. The Odyssey is a complex work from a complex time.) This lesson—unfailing kindness to strangers who find their way to our thresholds and borders—is but one of the many contained within the ancient poem that, across millennia and translations, find their way into our own time and land with surprising relevance. (Other lessons include: the Sirens and the temptation of perfect knowledge; the Cyclops and when not to taunt.) If there’s a reason the lessons come through now better than they did when I read this in high school, it’s Emily Wilson’s wonderful translation. As outlined in her translator’s note, Wilson self-imposed a number of constraints on her work: it had to add up to the same number of lines as Homer’s original (insane); it couldn’t use any fancy words that wouldn’t have been used in the oral tradition in which The Odyssey was originally told; it couldn't use archaic English. The result is a text that is simple and readable, as the original epic poem was meant to be, and one that brings the 21st century closer to the themes and lifestyle of the 8th BCE.
|Ben Horowitz||The Hard Thing About Hard Things||8||NF||2014|
A book of “most important rules” and hip-hop epigraphs. Though tailored for the founder or CEO, The Hard Thing About Hard Things is a great read for anyone who knows how difficult startups can be (no matter the role) and wants well-worn advice on how to survive. Horowitz writes with a brutal honesty that does more than just expose the potholes in the road to tech glory, it underlines the integrity founders must have for a shot at success. This book is a story of choices, choices “between doing what’s popular, easy, and wrong versus what’s lonely, difficult, and right.” The founder with the guts and the integrity to see what’s right, to ask themselves what they aren’t doing, to tell it like it is, no matter what face they lose in the process, is the founder who can make the hard, right decisions. Well-written. To the point. Honest. I look forward to revisiting this book often.
|Carlo Rovelli||Seven Brief Lessons On Physics||8||NF||2016|
An enlightening little book on physics. Carlo Rovelli first published these seven essays as a Sunday series in his local newspaper. The result is an Italian stroll through the principles that govern our world, brief lessons on relativity, quantum mechanics, and thermodynamics, with an added dash of sprezzatura. A great read over coffee on a weekend morning.
Bryan Burrough and John Helyar
|Barbarians at the Gate||8||NF||1990||Harper||2018|
Barbarians at the Gate details one of the all-time great bidding wars in the history of Wall Street. In the late 1980s, Ross Johnson led RJR Nabisco, with its cushy expense accounts and private jets, into a leveraged buyout process that would spiral upwards and out of his control. What follows is the body of this book, a fantastic piece of journalism that provides a detailed view of how deal-making actually happens at the upper echelon of buyouts. Up close, in the maelstrom of late-night Manhattan boardroom negotiations, you’ll find yourself rooting for your favorite of the book’s many characters; in the light of the book’s afterword (written twenty years after its initial publication) we see that those small confrontations that drove the book’s narrative were in fact signs that the RJR Nabisco deal, fueled by ego and personal vendetta, had escalated beyond reasonable returns for any of its interested parties. One of the great stories on the perils of ego and loss aversion.
|Richard Powers||The Overstory||7||F||2018||Norton||2018|
This book will remind you to look at trees. The writing in the early chapters is breathtaking. There is one chapter in particular about a time-lapsed chestnut. It’s one of my favorite pieces of writing I’ve read this year. The second section of the book is when I started to grow restless with the narrative. The main characters start to weave into each other’s lives, and there’s a bit too much treehugging for my liking. Then the characters start calling each other Maidenhair and Mulberry and Doug-fir and it all got to be a bit too much for me. Like an episode of West Wing when the White House staff is just a little too smug with themselves. You could have taken 100 pages out of this section and I wouldn’t have blinked. It’s also a section where I found myself growing weary of the style of writing in this book. It’s a book about trees, and so a lot of it ends up being exposition about trees. This means a lot of flowery adjectives. By this point in the book, I was ready for more nouns and verbs. The last third of the book saved it for me. It gets back to the plot and things start to happen. The book ends on a strong theme of humanity’s role in the larger tide of life. It’s the neutral message of earth’s longview. It is not optimistic, or pessimistic, is simply is. I’m glad I read this book, and recommend it to anyone looking for good contemporary fiction (even if it does come with two of my least favorite trends in contemporary fiction: the ensemble cast of characters who all magically weave into each other’s lives by the end of the book, and beautiful exposition for the sake of beautiful exposition.) I appreciate trees more now and for that I thank The Overstory.
|Jim Collins||Beyond Entrepreneurship||7||NF||1992||Prentice Hall||2018|
I watched a Reed Hastings lecture. He mentioned he tries to read the first 80 pages of this book once a year. So now I do, too. A good refresher on what great leadership looks like and the importance of setting a vision within a company.
Benjamin Graham & David Dodd
Every time you read the words “intrinsic value”, drink. Security Analysis sat on my shelf for a long time. I had ordered it on an impulse after a Bill Gurley recommendation only, upon its arrival, to quickly recognize it as the type of book that is read on more than a whim. It was relegated to my “read it someday” pile, forgotten. I finally picked it up again earlier this month. For those that have read Graham’s other well-known work The Intelligent Investor, Security Analysis will be familiar territory. It uses the same foundational principles—intrinsic value and margin of safety, those two bulwarks of the value investor—and applies them to investment analysis. As the journey through Security Analysis raises new questions, Graham examines each of them with a steady and unrelenting logic. He peels back layers of speculation and popular opinion, carefully distinguishing between what we can know and what we cannot, until, finally, he arrives at some hardwon scrap of objective truth. It’s a process that calms and satisfies. If there’s a general takeaway for me from Graham’s writing, it’s his approach to thinking. It’s the approach of an objective and unemotional mind as it tries to find those small ledges of truth we can stand on in a complex and opaque world. Aside from what we can learn from Graham as a thinker, there are plenty of specific, investing-related takeaways in Security Analysis as well. Two come to mind. First, on the income statement, Graham advises us to treat forward earnings trends as a qualitative form of analysis. To recognize the limits of what we can know, and to acknowledge that any and all forward looking forecasts are, by the nature, built on a qualitative and speculative scaffolding. Graham doesn’t ask us to refrain from this practice, but he does ask us to acknowledge when we are engaging in it. The second specific takeaway from Security Analysis: it’s all about the balance sheet. I’d read a long time ago about the benefits of leverage on a company’s balance sheet, but Graham does a great job to explain it here. He also does a lot to underline why the balance sheet in general is such an integral part of company analysis. As with any Graham book on investing, there are plenty of dated, early 20th century examples for him to walk you through. Steel yourself for the inner workings of railroads, utilities, and industrials.
|Charles Dickens||Great Expectations||7||F||1861|
The bildungsroman of young Pip. A few weeks ago it occurred to me that I'd never read any Dickens, so I picked this up on a mortal whim. The plot is a little sensational, but the characters and the humor still ring true a hundred and fifty years later. No one writes about a wet bog at sunrise like Dickens.
|David Kushner||Masters of Doom||7||NF||2003||Random House||2018|
The story of the creators of Doom. This book reads the way I'd expect the transcript of The Defiant Ones to read. Two guys get together, put in a lot of late nights, disrespect the general estabilishment, and build something great. Only, at the end, they flail on pet projects instead of selling to Apple for three billion dollars. Fun read and a good reminder that throwing more engineers at a problem doesn't make it go away faster.
|Bill Walsh||The Score Takes Care of Itself||7||NF||2009||Portfolio||2018|
I remember watching Steve Young win a Super Bowl for the 49ers when I was five. It’s one of my first sports memories. I didn’t live in the Bay Area. I didn’t understand football. But there was something in watching Young march down the field that fired a synapse in my small, undeveloped brain: “remember this.” Looking back on it, that “something” was winning. We remember the victors. As a five-year-old, I remembered Young—the quarterback and face of that winning organization. Now, having read this book, I’ll remember Bill Walsh—the head coach and mind behind that winning organization. The Score Takes Care of Itself is Walsh’s treatise on leadership. In it he details his history as the head coach and general manager of the 49ers. He took on the role in 1979. The Niners were the worst team in football. Three years later, they were Super Bowl champions. How did Walsh take them there? By focusing the team on what they could immediately control. A commitment to excellence and professionalism. An understanding of contingencies and the importance of planning. A positive outlook at all times. The book includes a lot of other great management gems and, being about football, has its fair share of cool stories about Joe Montana and Jerry Rice. I found the book through a Keith Rabois lecture on team management—if you’re someone who’s looking to learn more about that subject, The Score Takes Care of Itself is a great place to start.
|Anthony Bourdain||Kitchen Confidential||7||NF||2000|
To read Bourdain is to hear Bourdain. His writing has the unmistakable pith and toughness of a Parts Unknown voice over. Stylized but rough. Adverbial but concise. And always with the affected bon mot to cut to commercial. Kitchen Confidential is the memoir that put Bourdain on the map. It includes all the great behind-the-counter reveals of his classic New Yorker essay “Don’t Eat Before Reading This.” Don’t order fish on Monday, don’t order your meat well-done, be careful with mussels. If that’s all you’re looking for, you can get it from the essay. The reason to come to the memoir is to see Bourdain’s story up close. The first oyster that made him fall in love with food. His first line cook gigs in Cape Cod. The pace and work ethic of a chef. It’s a wild journey, chock full of the best characters you can imagine existing in the New York food scene underground. The book went on a little longer than I would have liked, but then I never have been able to make it through an entire episode of Parts Unknown. Still, I keep coming back. There’s a magic in the first twenty minutes of each episode. It’s the magic of seeing a new place for the first time. Few did a better job of making you feel that, on the page or the screen, than Bourdain.
|Tom Wolfe||The Right Stuff||7||NF||1979|
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Tom Wolfe is the kind of writer who puts the phrase “burned beyond recognition” down onto paper, looks at it, then decides to twist the knife just a little more. And so we end up with this: “Even out in the middle of the swamp, in this rot-bog of pine trunks, scum slicks, dead dodder vines, and mosquito eggs, even out in this great overripe sump, the smell of ‘burned beyond recognition’ obliterated everything else. When airplane fuel exploded, it created a heat so intense that everything but the hardest metals not only burned—everything of rubber, plastic, celluloid, wood, leather, cloth, flesh, gristle, calcium, horn, hair, blood, and protoplasm—it not only burned, it gave up the ghost in the form of every stricken putrid gas known to chemistry. One could smell the horror. It came in through the nostrils and burned the rhinal cavities raw and penetrated the liver and permeated the bowels like a black gas until there was nothing in the universe, inside or out, except the stench of the char.” You can just feel the gruesome glee behind every keystroke. I picked up The Right Stuff earlier this year after Wolfe passed away. In the book, he chronicles the story behind the first seven U.S. astronauts and the early years of the NASA. This is a history that includes the first jet test programs in the badlands of the South, where half of the pilots met their end auguring into the ground. These early flights give the book its horrific, can’t-look-away start. When it gets into the space program itself, the drama shifts from test pilots on the edge of destruction to the politicking and media-handling of the astronauts, those single combat warriors challenging the Russians in space. It makes for a read that’s less of a rush than the book’s opening chapters, but one that’s still worth the ride. By its end, you get a few orbits around earth and a glimpse into how different the media machine looked in the 1960s.
|Walter Isaacson||Steve Jobs||7||NF||2011|
Simon & Schuster
Somehow I never read this book when it was first published in 2011. Seven years later, having left California and lived in New York for three years, I decided to pick it up. Mostly it made me miss the 280, that corridor of golden hills and winding roads and tech history. It’s the early days of that history, and the role that Jobs played within it, that captivated me most in this book. A mid-70s Jobs—product savant, enfant terrible—rampages around Woodside in his bare feet, living off Odwalla juice and driving forward the personal computer revolution. The story keeps its steam through his exile to NeXT and his triumphant return to Apple, but starts to read a little like a product puff piece when it reaches the iPod years. Still, there’s plenty to learn from Jobs throughout the arc of his life. For me, the two biggest takeaways were his insistence on hiring A players and his ability to inspire those around him towards an impossible, almost fanatical goal, and then achieve it. While there's a lot of good to take away from this story, I'll make one last point: with anything related to the mythos of Jobs, there's always the risk that product leaders will take away the wrong things. As product managers, we learn about Jobs's style of product vision (sheer intuition, he rejected market research) or about his style of leadership (sometimes marked by verbal or psychological abuse) and we ask ourselves, "is that what I need to do to be successful?" For me, the answer to that question continues to be a resounding "no". In Isaacson's biography, we see that the leadership and decision-making style Jobs adopted was hugely dependent on the path that took him to Apple. When we read of that path, we can learn the most from it by understanding that it serves not as something to emulate, but as something to inspire us to set out and bushwack our own way forward.
Gene Kim, Kevin Behr, George Spafford
|The Phoenix Project||7||NF||2013|
IT Revolution Press
A devops homage to Eli Goldratt’s The Goal, The Phoenix Project celebrates its predecessor in more ways than one. It, too, tells the story of a capable manager cast adrift in an incapable organization. It, too, introduces a mysterious guru-like figure to help said manager find operational nirvana. And it, too, presents all of this, all of these business-directed ends, under the guise of a novel. That’s right. All of the groan-inducing, cringe-worthy business fiction of The Goal is back and better than ever in The Phoenix Project. It’s all good fun—the writing keeps a nice pace, and the cliched style, though obvious, ultimately ends up like Snakes on a Plane: so bad, it’s good. The added bonus is the clarity the book provides to many of the issues endemic to product teams. And while the biggest value add here is the borrowed application of inventory management theory to the world of product management, a learning that many readers probably took from The Goal, there are plenty of other takeaways exclusive to The Phoenix Project that make it a valuable read for anyone who enjoyed the book that inspired it.
|Paul Kalanithi||When Breath Becomes Air||7||NF||2016||Random House||2018|
Paul Kalanithi was a nationally-recognized neurosurgeon and neuroscientist. In the final year of his Stanford residency, just after he received the highest national award for research in neuroscience, he was diagnosed with stage IV cancer. When Breath Becomes Air is the urgent memoir he penned in the final months of his life. He died in 2015. Though the fate that befell Kalanithi is tragic, his book is not. There are sad moments but, in the words of Kalathini, “a tureen of tragedy is best allotted by the spoonful.” Between spoonfuls, Kalanithi takes us down the path of his life, from his childhood in Arizona, to college summers in the mountain crooks of Tahoe, to the sleepless nights of his residency. Through it all, Kalanithi writes with an easy precision—to read his writing is to feel the calm one gets in the care of a professional; the easy, comforting palaver of a great doctor. When Kalanithi’s story turns to cancer, it becomes a study of resolve and acceptance in the presence of death. To face death head on, "unblinking," to see that an easy death, a quiet fade into the night, isn't the same thing as a life well lived. In these pages, Kalathini leaves us with his own understanding of the good life, that it’s a life in which we exist in a constant state of striving, reaching towards the plumb asymptote of perfection, never quite reaching it, but that's no matter, "tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further..."
|Elad Gil||The High Growth Handbook||6||NF||2018||Stripe Press||2018|
A true handbook. A quick, digestible reference guide for anyone at a startup. I found certain sections more useful than others. As an example, the product management section is a solid checklist of what every product organization should be thinking about on an ongoing basis. The growth marketing section, in comparison, is more of a role directory than anything else. Still, the book does what it sets out to do with brevity. No case studies, no superfluous introductions, just learnings.
|John Lewis Gaddis||On Grand Strategy||5||NF||2018||Penguin Press||2018|
"The fox knows many things, the hedgehog knows one big thing." In On Grand Strategy, John Lewis Gaddis takes this aphorism, first made famous in the Isaiah Berlin essay classifying writers into foxes and hedgehogs, and applies it to the field of military and diplomatic strategy. In history, Gaddis sees hedgehogs—those leaders who drove towards a single goal while ignoring anything that got in their way—and foxes—those leaders who surveyed the field in front of them and let reality guide their decision-making. Napoleon's disastrous campaign into Russia in the early 19th century? Hedgehog. Queen Elizabeth's reticent positioning against an overeager Phillip II? Fox. What Gaddis brings to this decades-old discussion on foxes and hedgehogs is a question: what of the leaders that can be both? In the words of Fitzgerald, “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” It's Gaddis's thesis in this book that the greatest strategists in history are the ones who can keep the pragmatism of the fox, while still pushing with the idealism of a hedgehog. Lincoln embodies this sentiment. He was able to push for the end vision of a united, emancipated Union, while making the short-term concessions (e.g. Fugitive Slave Act) that would keep him from getting there. Vision with pragmatism. It's a strong theme, and one that readers can apply to any decision made within a complex system. The style in On Grand Strategy reads a little like a college lecture; you'll find yourself missing references, and wondering why Virginia Woolf walked into a discussion on Machiavelli, but it all still makes for a fun discussion.
Foster Provost & Tom Fawcett
|Data Science for Business||5||NF||2013||O'Reilly||2018|
I picked up Data Science for Business while trying to think about a more analytical approach to some questions at work. As a non data scientist, I picked up those learnings from the first few chapters, then skimmed the rest of the book. Chapter 3, which focuses on classification algorithms and information gain, is fantastic. It uses real-life challenges, such as how to estimate churn probability in a customer base, and walks you through how you'd identify the most important attributes in your data set and use them to land at churn probability estimates for your different segments. For this chapter alone, the book is worth the price of admission. When it moved past classification and regression, I bowed out.
|Howard Zinn||A People's History of the United States||5||NF||1980||Harper||2018|
Howard Zinn’s chronicle of United States history. In the face of the classic historical narrative that celebrates “governments, conquerors, diplomats, and leaders,” Zinn centers his own lens on the disenfranchised: native americans, african americans, women, laborers, latinos. His goal is to speak on behalf of these peoples and reveal a side of American history heretofore obfuscated by the school-taught version, which Zinn dissects with ruthless glee over the course of APHOTUS. Throughout the book, Zinn casts plenty of aspersions towards the leaders of society, following a theory of history in which leaders drive cause and effect and, as a result, are culpable for leading the U.S. into its tragedies. In my opinion, he generally overreaches here (though the book contains plenty of examples of presidential malfeasance—Jackson and Nixon come to mind,) spending too much time on willful wrongdoing and not the kind that emerges over time despite the best intentions of elected officials. Compare this with Tolstoy’s theory of history, in which the zeitgeist is charted not by leaders, but by the emergent behavior that results from the complexity of our world. It’s a view that tempers the control and blame we attribute to individuals, looking instead to the structural systems that constitute our society and the negative outcomes that can emerge from them. It’s a helpful framework to keep in mind when considering the great question that faces readers of APHOTUS: does capitalism lead to the structural exploitation of the the lower classes? By the end of Zinn’s history, we understand that the answer must, to a certain extent, be yes. The question we’re left with wishing he had answered: is there any system in which the answer would be “no”? [Personal aside: Though I don’t agree with everything Zinn puts forward here and the tone in which he does so, this book challenged my idea of American history and made me think about how we got to 2018. Worth a read for anyone that wants to get into it.]
Information Architecture: For the Web and Beyond
I’ve read some pretty dry books. A book on taxonomical metadata structures. A small library of books on data analysis. A book on modern American usage in writing. When I’m approaching a new problem or challenge, I like to read as much about it as I can, no matter how well-versed I think I am in it or commonsensical I perceive the subject to be. I’ve found that there’s always something, no matter how infinitesimal, to be found. Something to help better digest the subject and solve the problem at hand. That pursuit is what led me to Information Architecture: For the Web and Beyond. We started an app redesign at work and I thought to myself, “well, it can’t hurt to read a book about information architecture.” Most of the content herein I’d naturally intuited from using products all my life, but there a few chestnuts of knowledge and perspective in here that I wouldn’t have gleaned otherwise. Not a book I’d recommend to most, but if you’re rethinking the layout of a collaboration app, this might give you a nudge in the right direction.
|Daniel Pink||To Sell Is Human||3||NF||2012|
A quick read that seeks to disprove some of the common myths we hold about sales. Pink argues that in today’s world of information symmetry, it’s the seller that best serves their customer that wins the deal. This idea of servant selling comes up again and again in the book—a good reminder on the value of listening, asking good questions, and finding the right problem to solve.
Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny
I heard about this book by way of a Stewart Butterfield tweet. He called it one of the best business books he’d read in the first half of 2018. I liked it. It’s a quick read about the difficult conversations we all have—both inside and outside of the workplace. Even if you already consider yourself the coolest of cucumbers, Crucial Conversations is a good reminder on what makes any conversation great.
Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein
A good refresher on the importance of defaults, Nudge spends its first 100 pages walking through cognitive biases and how they can be directed them using defaults based in “libertarian paternalism”. It’s a good overview of the difference between a nudge (putting fruit in the cafeteria) and a mandate (taking out the soda machines.) The rest of the book asks how we can apply nudges in the realm of social policy: student loans, healthcare, social security. It makes for an interesting discussion, but if you’re here for the design theory, you can skim through the book’s second half.
|John Doerr||Measure What Matters||3||NF||2018||Penguin||2018|
A big healthy serving of case study soup. The opening pages on Andy Grove are great (though nothing you wouldn’t already get from High Output Management,) and the Youtube and Google Chrome case studies will prove helpful to any employee in the midst of an OKR planning cycle. I skimmed through the rest.
Tomasz Tunguz and Frank Bien
|Winning with Data||1||NF||2016||Wiley||2018|
A high-level summary of data best practices at leading tech companies. It's a good overview, but I was hoping Tunguz would dive deeper into the topics covered herein. There were moments reading Winning with Data where, after reading a sentence such as "FB used a common data lexicon to align their siloed teams," I found myself asking of the inanimate page in front of me, "how did they create the common lexicon?!" This book covers a subject near and dear to my heart, but with too many general anecdotes and not enough detailed insights.
|Brian Christian||The Most Human Human||10||NF||2011||Anchor Books||2017|
Once I started this book it was all I could talk about for weeks. In The Most Human Human, Brian Christian competes in the Loebner competition, a modification of the Turing test that pits human against machine. In the contest, a judge communicates via console with two parties. At the end of the five minutes, the judge must choose which is the human and which is the computer. The tournament is best known for the award it gives to “the most human computer”, the chatbot that most often beguiles the judges into feigned connection. But it’s for the competition’s lesser known award that Christian writes his book---the award for “the most human human,” or the human contestant who most often convinces the judges of his own humanity. In pursuit of the award, Christian explores what makes chatbots successful, what human traits they exploit, and how can we use that context as a means to guide our own conversations. And so, over the course of The Most Human Human, a strange inversion takes place: the Turing test becomes a question not of a computer’s intelligence, but of our own humanity. Along the journey, Christian explores the stateless nature of argument, the improvisational moments of chess, and Claude Shannon’s theory of information entropy. It’s all fascinating. If anyone out there reads these notes, read this book. Then email me when you’re done so we can talk about it.
|Kazuo Ishiguro||The Remains of the Day||10||F||1988||Vintage||2017|
How do we live a life that, in the waning light of our days, keeps its color? That is the question at the center of Kazuo Ishiguro’s heartbreaking novel The Remains of the Day. It’s a good question to ask ourselves, if not one to be discussed at tea time. Britain being the land of cordial restraint that it is---a place where “the very lack of obvious drama or spectacle [is what] sets the beauty of [the] land apart”---Ishiguro poses his question to us through the politest medium possible: Mr. Stevens, a butler for the ages. By the time we meet Stevens, his glory days are beyond him. He’s started to leave giblets of polish on the silverware. His profession itself, to which he’s devoted a lifetime, has lost its importance---the ballrooms of the great estates sit empty, draped in canvas. Through the kindness of a new employer, Stevens finds himself on a roadtrip to a seaside hamlet in the west. As he zips along in his Ford and the countryside unfolds around him, Stevens narrates the events of his life, unpacking the principles he’s held along the way. As Steven’s gets closer and closer to his destination, we learn more about the mistakes he’s made, the faith he’s misplaced, and what awaits him at the end of the road. A journey into the meaning of greatness, Remains of the Day asks us if we’re living for ourselves---if we can look backwards and say we made our own mistakes, that we did not let someone else make them in the name of greatness.
|Phil Knight||Shoe Dog||10||NF||2016||Scribner||2017|
“Don’t put twelve innovations into one shoe. It asks too much of the shoe, to say nothing of the design team.” Shoe Dog, Phil Knight's memoir on the early days of Nike, is full of little aphorisms like this---learnings from life in a shoe factory. Many have direct implications on design and business, others on the purpose and goal of life itself. You leave Shoe Dog with a greater appreciation for the importance of cash flows and for remembering to take a look around and breathe in the present. That Knight can, at the same time, do both of these things---guide us towards sound business and well-being---is the greatness of Shoe Dog.
|Isaiah Berlin||The Hedgehog and the Fox||10||NF||1953|
Princeton University Press
“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” With this aphorism, Isaiah Berlin begins his essay The Hedgehog and the Fox, an exploration of Tolstoy’s view of history and of the man himself. In his opening, Berlin separates writers into two camps. In the first camp, there are the foxes, those thinkers who view life in its multiplicity, masters of observation who distill the world into its individual parts and find the unique essence within each. These writers, because of their broad knowledge of the many, reject any single guiding principle or moral. In the second camp, there are the hedgehogs, the thinkers who believe in one unifying idea, “a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel.” Between these poles Berlin places Tolstoy, a writer who, through his epic novel War and Peace, reveals himself as a master of the many who wanted nothing more than a singular purpose around which to build his life, a fox pining for the life of the hedgehog. Tolstoy wrote War and Peace to explore the causal effects of mankind, to understand why history unfolds in the way it does. In exploring these causes, Tolstoy decimates the scientific theories of history that prevailed in his own time, i.e. that the course of history was decided by the heroes---Napoleon, Alexander I---that led nations, and, instead, discovers his own theory of submissive determinism. In this theory, the complexities of the real world, all of the millions of ways in which people and places and circumstances push upon one another to guide the force of history, extend beyond the limits of rational thought and imagination. Anyone claiming to know the predetermined path of history amidst those complexities is, to Tolstoy, woefully misguided. The only known certainty is that as humans, we can never know the “inexorable” fate that awaits us---all we can do is submit ourselves to the “necessity” that guides our decisions towards that fate. To Tolstoy, man’s inability to submit to the “inexorable” force of history is our great tragedy, that in a closed room, we have the free will to raise our arm, but that within the context of those around us and the necessity that arises from our position in the world, that free will is impotent and a slave to greater forces. For Tolstoy, “the heightened form” of that chaos in which we live, “the microcosm in which the disorder of human life is reflected in an intense degree, is war.” In War and Peace, we see plenty of men who purport to have influence and control over war, that “heightened form of chaos.” But we also, in the heroes of the novel---Pierre, Prince Andrei, Natasha---see those who find a graceful secession to determinism. Through these characters, Tolstoy reveals his belief in a singular, “good” way to live. So what is this “good” way to live? Tolstoy puts forward his characters in War and Peace as a realist response to the historical theorists of his time. He chooses not to glorify Napoleon (and other tactical strategists who claimed to exercise control over the chaos of war,) but to emphasize the real, inner lives of Russians who lived during the time, the ones who, throughout the course of the novel, gain “glimpses into the flow of life” and ultimately acquiesce to its pull and direction. What is so revealing about Tolstoy in these characters and what they discover, Berlin states, is that their moments of illumination come not from a deeper base of knowledge, not from an expanse of facts, but from a sort of unknowable wisdom. Though “Tolstoy does not put it in so many words,” he shows us through the actions of his characters that he knows what is not the path to this illumination---e.g. the mysticism of the Freemasons, the presumption of the tactical strategists---and what, in loose guidance, is---Pierre’s conversations with Karataev, Andrei’s realization on the field of Austerlitz. To Berlin, such is Tolstoy’s own tragedy, that through his protagonists, and the harmony they find with the “contours of circumstance,” he reveals himself as someone searching for the purpose of life. But, like his characters, he finds it only in fleeting glimpses. Before long, he falls back into his role as fox, as master of the realities of our world, a writer whose “sense of reality was until the end too devastating to be compatible with any kind of moral ideal which he was able to construct out of the fragments into which his intellect shivered the world.” That is Tolstoy’s tragedy, a paradox in which the good life lives within the bounds of necessity, that our freedom is simply a choice to acknowledge that in the larger scheme of history, we have no choice, no power, and that in the moment we understand this paradox, in that rare glimpse of our position within “the contours of circumstance,” we are caught in an eddy, a brief respite in our motion, before our inevitable return to the swift current of history.
|Leo Tolstoy||War and Peace||10||F||1869|
“If the world could write itself, it would write like Leo Tolstoy.” Or at least it would need as many words. The length of War and Peace has become, if not a running joke, then, for many, the defining characteristic of the book. But aside from the cracks about dislocated shoulders and removed epilogues that the tome’s heft provides, it also reveals in itself and in its author an unrelenting focus on truth and realism. There’s a passage in Garth Risk Hallberg’s City On Fire where a character muses on the number of words needed to write a perfect, realist representation of the world. He walks down the street, asking himself how many words he’d need to describe a single minute of life. A thousand? Ten thousand? How many words would it take to describe an entire day? At a certain scale, his task becomes Sisyphean in nature and he arrives at the realist’s paradox: to find truth in a world beyond man’s capability for understanding. This paradox (and the question at its center) is the defining characteristic of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, a book that searches for truth within the annals of history and whose scope reveals the lengths to which its author is willing to go to find that truth. Truth and realism are themes throughout Tolstoy’s work, but in War and Peace, they manifest in history. What drives the course of history? What is the cause behind its events? What is the role humanity plays in that history? Taking place in the early 19th century, the book frames these questions around the era of Napoleon and the wars he beget---the first of 1805, in which he conquered Europe, the second of 1812, in which he woefully attempted to conquer Russia. In the years that followed these wars, historians and the greater populace found themselves trying to craft a narrative around two historical events that had, until then, been amongst the greatest tragedies of Europe. They landed on a story built around “great men,” a story that pointed to the genius and might of their leaders, chiefly Napoleon, as the driving forces behind the events of the early 19th century. It’s a comforting proposition. History, and all that happens within it, sits within the control of humanity. Tolstoy’s aim in War and Peace is to disprove this theory. To show that, in contrast to everything that the construct of history tells us, its events are not a product of the leaders of mankind but of the greater complexity of the world itself. That wars and battles, “the microcosm in which the disorder of human life is reflected in an intense degree,” are decided not by commanders, but by a multiplicity of factors beyond our control and understanding, that the larger course of events is out of our grasp, and that any leader who claims to reside at the helm of the zeitgeist (as Tolstoy’s fictionalized version of Napoleon does at multiple points throughout War and Peace) is a self-deceiving charlatan. These heroes of traditional history actually have the least control over the course of its events, Tolstoy argues, precisely because their seats of power sit furthest away from its deciding moments. Instead, it is the real people of history, those participating at its lowest-level of events, that influence it, however imperceptibly and infinitesimally. It’s in this contrast that Tolstoy shifts the focus of his book away from the figures of history and towards the regular people that live within it. In doing so, he introduces us to his primary characters---Pierre, Natasha, Andrei---and to his idea of what it means to live a good life. It’s in these characters that, in contrast to men like Napoleon, we see what Tolstoy defines as the heroes of the era, those people who, in living through 1805 and 1812, ascribe its causes and effects not to themselves or to their leaders, but to forces beyond their control. That for them (and for Tolstoy,) the good life resides not in a desperate hope to control history but in a graceful submission to it. It’s in this light that the meaning of the book’s title moves from the plane of history to the plane of the self. The characters of War and Peace, all of who start the novel in the earlier years of their lives, thirsty for glory and for a complete comprehension of the world, have, by its end, discovered in themselves a more nuanced acceptance of their place within history. In Tolstoy’s eyes, these characters, once at war with the undercurrent of the world and the complex forces driving its history, have now found peace with it and with themselves. One of the great coups of War and Peace is that in its fictional characters, it creates personas greater and more memorable than the historical figures around which they revolve, further winning its audience to the theory of history and of the self that its author puts forward. That we can read a book about war and Napoleon and leave not with a hunger for grandiosity and ambition, but with compassion and a more delicate appreciation of our own position in the world, that is Tolstoy’s accomplishment with War and Peace. Though his descriptions of war and history stick, it’s the moments of everyday life in 19th century Russia that illuminate. A hushed conversation in a drawing room. The mazurska in a warm cabin. A sleigh ride at twilight. It’s in these moments that, amidst the driving force of history, Tolstoy reaches out from centuries past, pushing us towards little moments forgotten as if to say, there, see that, that’s what to live for.
|Clayton Christensen||The Innovator's Dilemma||10||NF||1997|
Harvard Business Review Press
For a long time I thought I'd never read this. I had picked up so many excerpts of it on tech community blogs, so many paragraph summaries of the theory of disruption, I figured I had the general gist of what was covered herein. I'm glad I finally put that thought to bed. More than just being the definitive guide to tech strategy and the organizational behaviors that drive it, The Innovator's Dilemma is, in itself, a great example of how to structure theory through empirical data and logic. For that framework alone it's worth the read---even if you think yourself incapable of hearing the word "disruption" again.
The Success Equation: Untangling Skill and Luck in Business, Sports, and Investing
Harvard Business Review Press
When are laurels the result of our merits and not our good fortune? In his excellent and instructive book The Success Equation, Michael Mauboussin provides a framework for thinking about this question. Through a thorough statistical analysis in sports, business, and investing, Mauboussin shows us the importance of reversion to the mean (and the pitfalls to avoid when incorporating it into a forecast) and of choosing the right statistics when trying to move an organization towards a specific goal. As humans, we naturally want to tell a story, to ascribe cause to success. Good predictions and forecasts distance themselves from that inclination and incorporate the influence of luck. By looking for the persistent and predictive events around us, we can influence them with process and structure to get to the long-term outcome we seek. A great book with a lot of fun sports statistics that illustrate the ideas contained throughout.
Another visit to the Shakespeare canon. The last time I read Macbeth was in high school, when I played the slight and diminuitive role of Caithness, a Scottish lord with four lines. (The production pursued a Civil War theme, putting the cast in rebel uniforms. Because of my smaller role, the best wardrobe could throw together was a grey jacket with a nehru collar, giving my character the unfortunate impression of an 80s Japanese businessman who stumbled into the wrong set. In hindsight, it was pure high school theater comedy.) Macbeth isn't my favorite Shakespeare, but it does contain one of my favorite Shakespeare soliloquies: "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." Fun to revisit.
Dear Chairman: Boardroom Battles and the Rise of Shareholder Activism
A surprisingly entertaining account of the rise of shareholder activism in the 20th century. Gramm follows the movement's course from its early days in the 1930s, where Benjamin Graham was snubbed at the Northern Pipeline annual meeting, to the 1980s, where corporate raiders like Carl Icahn came knocking on the doors of F500 companies armed to the teeth with junk-bond-fueled cash, to the early 2000s, where hedge funds used the 13D letter to shame game corporate management dolts. Gramm mixes financial expertise and dry humor to make this a fun and informative read about the game between corporate management and investors, and some of the biggest personalities (and letters) to emerge from it in the 20th century.
|Michael Porter||Competitive Strategy||8||NF||1980|
Simon & Schuster
Michael Porter’s famous book on business strategy. I learned about Competitive Strategy and its five industry forces in college. It all seemed straightforward enough and so it never occurred to me to read the book itself. That changed earlier this year when Bill Gurley praised it in a Q&A session. With that push, I resolved to give the book a readthrough front-to-back. I’m glad I did. It’s a valuable framework for assessing industries at large, and the strategic groups and individual firms within them. There are a lot of great concepts and models throughout the book that you aren’t going to pick up from a “five forces” slide. A few of my favorites include buyer selection, the entire chapter on competitor analysis, and strategic group maps. The second part of the book, a focus on the analysis of different industry types, is great, too. Anyone in business will read those chapters and nod along as they identify with whichever group their own business belongs to. There’s a lot in this book, but if there’s one thing I’ll take away from Competitive Strategy, it’s the idea that not all industries are created equal. The idea that in some industries there are larger structural forces at work that put a cap on the profitability of the firms within the industry and of the growth potential of those firms and their employees. These are structural forces that no level of execution can alter. It’s an important ballast in the face of the optimism and will that drives the startup landscape—there are some businesses that no team, no matter the caliber, can save. Some industries just suck to be in, plain and simple. Knowing which ones to avoid is the question that Competitive Strategy looks to answer.
|Stephen King||On Writing||8||NF||1999||Scribner||2017|
When I was in high school, I heard Stephen King speak at Seattle Arts and Lectures. I remember a few moments from that talk---the murmur of surprise when half the audience learned he’d written The Shawshank Redemption, the King acolytes standing in applause at the mention of the Dark Tower series---but what I remember most was that he was funny as hell. That humor winds its way throughout On Writing, King’s memoir-slash-writing guide that, for some readers, might do a better job than Strunk and White of helping the elements of style stick to the wall. Sure, every reader of Strunk and White leaves with a disdain for the passive voice, but the comedic loathing that King brings to the subject is enough to keep any writer vigilant. Here’s King mid-roast: “Two pages of the passive voice make me want to scream. It’s weak, it’s circuitous, and it’s frequently tortuous, as well. How about this: ‘My first kiss will always be recalled by me as how my romance with Shayna begun.’ Oh, man---who farted, right?” Other tools of the trade that King sharpens: adverbs---don’t use them; vocabulary---don’t overdress it; second drafts---your first draft, cut by ten percent. It’s all a good reminder of what to keep in mind when you’re at the keys, without being so much information that you forget what you’ve read. But On Writing is more than a writer’s toolbox, it’s a reminder of why we write in the first place. Through the memoir portion of this book---”C.V.”---and all the parts that follow, it’s King’s passion and enthusiasm for his work that surface. “Writing is not life, but I think that sometimes it can be a way back to life.”
Dover Thrift Edition
"This is the excellent foppery of the world, that when we are sick in fortune---often the surfeit of our own behavior---we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon and the stars as if we were villains by necessity, fools by heavenly compulsion...” A gloomy August read in the summer of Trump and lunar totality.
Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness
The octopus. Creature of mischief and craft. In captivity, it extinguishes lights with jets of water. In the wild, it houses itself in makeshift bivouacs of discarded coconut halves. How did the octopus, “an island of complexity in the sea of invertebrate animals,” develop its brain and its distributed nervous system? Why did it develop its intelligence, when its lifespan averages just two years? Why does any species develop consciousness and subjective experience, and how does that consciousness “arise out of the raw elements that comprise living things?” Such are the questions that Peter Godfrey-Smith seeks to answer in Other Minds, his exploration of consciousness in humans and octopi. The two species live on distant branches of the tree of life, sharing a common ancestor that lived over 600 million years ago. As a result, the octopus developed its own distributed intelligence, separate from the intelligence that mammals evolved—in Godfrey-Smith words, “the octopus is probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien.” In looking into the minds of others, Godfrey-Smith uncovers clues into the evolution of our own consciousness and how it evolved through our interaction with the world and those around us.
|Eli Goldratt||The Goal||8||NF||1984|
North River Press
Eli Goldratt’s classic business-book-as-novel. The book asks a simple question: what is the goal of a business, and how can its management measure and drive forward that goal? Goldratt presents the answer not through business book convention---tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then bash them over the head with case studies---but through the incentives of fiction and plot. While the format (and its somewhat contrived moments of clarity) inevitably leads to some eye rolls, it also presents Goldratt’s thesis in a way that sticks. The result is a surprisingly fast-paced read about how to identify the constraints within a system and leverage them to move towards a goal.
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
A funny little memoir from Haruki Murakami. As the title suggests, it’s about running. The prose plods along like a long distance runner: steady, continuous, matter of fact. At a certain point in the book, its scope expands beyond running and into what, for Murakami, is a close spiritual equivalent: writing. Murakami started to write at around the same time he started to run, and much of WITAWITAR deals with the solitude and endurance associated with both. When he writes about miles 33 to 47 of a 62 mile ultramarathon, the dark place where the body becomes nothing but a “machine,” we get the sense that Murakami might be talking about more than just a race. Indeed, the book, which starts with the simple question of why we run, by its end becomes a larger question of why we do anything at all. The answer it arrives at is pure Murakami. No silver bullet. No grandiose realization. Just a small nod, and a man in motion.
|Gretchen Bakke||The Grid||7||NF||2016|
All the wind and solar in the world won’t save us if we don’t invest in our shared infrastructure. Such is the message behind Gretchen Bakke’s The Grid, an informative read about an oft-ignored but important topic: our electric grid. The book covers the basics including how electricity works, the history of the grid, and the regulations that formed it (a necessary chapter, though, surely, the one destined to send readers into bureaucratic, existential lunacy,) before getting to our energy future. If you make it through the chapter on regulations, you’ll leave The Grid with an appreciation for the unique challenges that renewables and variable generation bring to our existing infrastructure, and the options available to us to fix it. The answer likely rests not within the pipe dreams of fusion or mega-batteries but, instead, modest policy improvements around distributed generation and grid maintenance. That bureaucracy and small improvements might be our salvation from Mad Max dystopia, that’s The Grid.
|Dale Carnegie||How to Win Friends and Influence People||7||NF||1936||Gallery Books||2017|
One of those books that you dread reading on the subway, How to Win Friends and Influence People is a good book with an unfortunate title. Though the title hasn't aged well, the material mostly holds up. Underneath its shiny go-getter, climb-the-ladder veneer, HTWFAIP is a book about how to be a better human: have a genuine interest in others, listen, make sure people know they're important. It's the basics here, but every time I read this book I'm reminded of a way in which I could better treat others. Plenty of Lincoln quotes sprinkled throughout, which is nice.
|George Saunders||Lincoln in the Bardo||7||F||2017||Random House||2017|
Probably the only historical fiction you’ll ever read with the word “turd” in it. Lincoln in the Bardo, debut novel of esteemed short fiction master George Saunders, introduces other firsts to the genre with its protagonists---swollen ghosts who putter about like neutered socialites, unaware of their mortal status---and its colloquialisms: ”assfuk”. For all of the ways in which LitB deviates from the mean of historical fiction, the book reveals itself as classic Saunders, whose shorter works use whimsy and humor to wring empathy out of the deplorable situations of the ordinary (and often comically pathetic) little guy. There are plenty of lovable wallowers here, but it’s the book’s lofty focus, Lincoln, oft-heralded moral beacon for humanity, that separates it from Saunders’s shorter works. By focusing on a character shrouded in awe and mythology, Saunders takes on a seemingly impossible challenge: make the reader empathize with a legend. Through historical references, wry humor, and sadness, Saunders brings the reader closer to Lincoln than they’re likely to have been in sometime, and does so from a new trail of ascent.
|Lawrence Levy||To Pixar and Beyond||7||NF||2016||Mariner Books||2017|
The story of Pixar as told by its CFO. In the early 90s, before the release of Monsters, Inc. or The Incredibles or Ratatouille, when Toy Story was still just five minutes of pre-production animation, Steve Jobs tapped Lawrence Levy to come into a small animation house north of Berkeley and turn it into a viable business. What followed is To Pixar and Beyond, Levy’s fun recount of how Pixar became a juggernaut in animation. This book is a joy to read for a lot of reasons---it keeps good pacing, it provides a unique look at what it would have been like to work with Jobs, it reviews Pixar’s IPO and its unprecedented renegotiation with Disney---but more than anything else, it’s about Pixar. It’s about stories. I was a newly minted six-year-old when Toy Story came out. The movie completely absorbed me. I can still remember my brother and I playing with our respective Buzz Lightyear and Woody action figures, long after the movie was released. To get to revisit this period of my life, through the lens of the success of the movie and the company behind it, was one of the pleasures of reading this book. Another was this chestnut of a 90s sentence from the author: “I decided it would be fun to skate to blockbuster.”
|Roger Angell||This Old Man||7||NF||2015||DoubleDay||2017|
A collection of writings -- columns, essays, haikus -- from long-time New Yorker contributor and master stylist Roger Angell. Through his long career (Angell is 96 as of this writing,) Angell probably became best known for his fantastic baseball writing. There's plenty of that here, but what stuck with me most from this read were Angell's portraits of an evolving, changing New York City. From a rememberance on the former ubiquity of horses, to a lament on the loss of the sidewalk celebrity sighting, the details of the great city herein will make you walk around with a greater appreciation of the present. This concept of appreciation for the little things is one that runs throughout the book, but comes to its forefront in its eponymous centerpiece, Angell's 2014 New Yorker essay "This Old Man," in which he reflects on what it means to be 94. The essay, which comes near the end of the collection, combines themes from throughout the book to illuminate what it means to see a century pass; the fond memory of loved ones departed, and the feeling that, as our ambition's fade with time, it's in those around us that we'll find repose.
|Jennifer Egan||Manhattan Beach||6||F||2017||Scribner||2017|
In my first two years in Brooklyn, I spent a lot of time on runs down Kent Avenue, winding my way around Wallabout Bay and onto Flushing Ave. I'd peer into the Navy Yard and look upon its abandoned factories. Until I picked up Manhattan Beach, the runs were the full extent to which I spent thinking about the Navy Yard, that old forgotten part of New York City. Jennifer Egan's novel is one about the lost locations of the city, and the splendor and glory that once took place in them. Though the book is a quick and entertaining read, with a conventional plot and cast of characters to keep things moving, it's the time and place of the book that kept me coming back. It's a book that asks us to take a moment to remember the spaces we inhabit and to imagine the past lives that took place within them. Though the plot sometimes feels like an afterthought to the exposition itself, I'd recommend Manhattan Beach to anyone curious to learn more about Brooklyn and its wartime history.
|Donald Hays||The Dixie Association||6||F||1984|
Simon & Schuster
The Dixie Association, Donald Hays's novel about minor league baseball in the South, reads like an afternoon in the bleachers. A little dingy. Slow in a good way. It coasts. In the midst of its steady clop are moments of minor league greatness. A slugger unwinds into a curveball hung over the plate, the ball still rising as it leaves the park. An ace puts a spitter in the dirt. Baseball moments. In between the baseball, Hays drops in Cuba, lots of booze, and a co-op farm. Though the book feels a hundred pages too long, if you're in the mood for hearty baseball in the South, consider The Dixie Association.
|Ted Chiang||Stories of Your Life and Others||6||NF||2002|
First Vintage Books
A set of technical sci-fi short stories from author Ted Chiang. Chiang's stories are dense and, at their best, fascinating explorations of the philosophical and spiritual, often told through the lens of physics or mathematics. My favorite stories here are those in which Chiang's characters face a teleologic world and, through the course of their character arc, come to terms with its fatalism. Sometimes this is via higher powers (the literal deus ex machina of "Tower of Babylon"), sometimes out of a lack of choice (Neil's fate in "Hell Is the Absence of God"), and sometimes through Fermat's Theorem of Least Time ("Story of Your Life," which later became the movie Arrival.) Chiang's style occasionally gets a bit too technical for my liking -- it's not the haphazard whimsy of Vonnegut -- but the ideas here are what captivate.
|Mark Jeffrey||Data-Driven Marketing||6||NF||2010|
John Wiley & Sons
I grabbed this after finding it on Bezos's required reading list (in the back of Stone's The Everything Store.) In Data-Driven Marketing, Mark Jeffrey proposes ways to quantify and measure the marketing campaign factory -- a company process historically driven by abstracted industry surveys far away from the point of purchase. There's plenty of good stuff here for the marketer who's looking to transform their organization to one that uses data and forecasted returns to drive decision making, but there's also just a great framework for how to make ANY project measurable. In bringing data-driven decisions to the marketing org, Jeffrey shows how to bring structured decision making to the start of any product initiative, not just those within the marketing realm. I'd guess that was probably the biggest takeaway from this book for Bezos. That any program initiative (even in the traditionally unmeasured marketing department) can use metrics to forecast and weigh its value to the larger organization.
|Joel Greenblatt||The Little Book that Beats the Market||5||NF||2010|
John Wiley & Sons
A little book with a modern take on Graham’s value investing, Joel Greenblatt’s TLBTBTM gives two pieces of advice. One, buy companies that are cheap---i.e. those with a high earnings yield. (Greenblatt calculates earnings yield as EBIT/EV so as to take into account any debt structuring that helps pays for those earnings.) Two, buy good companies---i.e. those with a high return on capital. (Greenblatt calculates return on capital as EBIT divided by net working capital plus net fixed assets, so as to see earnings (independent of interest payments and tax rate) as a percentage of what it costs to actually run the business.) The principles here are great, though in practice Greenblatt’s magic formula requires lots of monthly maintenance to earn a consistent return (also: he calls it the magic formula.) Most readers (including myself) will likely put down TLBTBTM and continue with their invest-and-forget-about-it ETFs, but the book is a good recap on value investing and the importance of a business that can invest back into itself at a high return on capital.
|Jerry Weissman||Presenting to Win||5||NF||2009|
I picked this up after reading about it on Bill Gurley's blog. It's a good reminder on the fundamentals of a great presentation. Start with an end goal in mind. Tell your audience what they'll gain by following you to that end goal. Take them there. (Also, keep eye sweeps to a minimum.)
|Edward R. Tufte|
The Visual Display of Quantitative Information
A book about charts. Beautifully published. A few outstanding example graphics in-laid throughout -- Minard's map of Napoleon's doomed march into Russia is one that stands out (found here: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/29/Minard.png). I found myself skimming through the book's latter half. Still, it has some good principles of "graphical integrity" that are good reminders. Summarized as follows: 1) label everything, 2) don't lie (in data or in graphic), 3) show data variation, not design variation, 4) for money use real not nominal, 5) never use 3D, 6) provide context.
|Steve Krug||Don't Make Me Think||4||NF||2014||Pearson||2017|
How do you keep the expletives from flying when a customer uses your site? In the aptly titled Don't Make Me Think, Steve Krug answers this and other questions. Krug summarizes his views on usability into a simple rule: create something useful that users can learn how to use without the service being more trouble than its worth. In other words, a product that is useful, learnable, memorable, and efficient. Other highlights of the book include the trunk test (if a user was thrown into the trunk of a car and dropped in the middle of your site, would they know where they were?) and kayak problems (if a user encounters an issue but quickly figures it out and moves on, don't worry about it.)
|Marc Levinson||The Box||4||NF||2016||Princeton||2017|
380+ pages on the shipping container. The Box tells the story of how a simple innovation in freight disrupted the cost structures of shippers and changed the global economy forever. In its best moments, the book tells the story of Malcom Mclean, a constantly scheming businessman and the godfather of the shipping container, and recounts his manaical push to connect land and sea freight through the container's innovation. In its doldrums, the book spends more time than this reader would have liked recapping the details of the labor union agreements that helped usher out the era of breakbulk shipping. Still, The Box is a good read on the effects of disruptive innovation on a world scale and worth the time of anyone looking to learn more about the global supply chain.
I picked up Hamlet after Annie had us watch Slings and Arrows, a great mini-series about a Canadian theater company staging the play. This was my first revisit to Shakespeare since high school -- the time apart has done good things. Twelve years after reading this in sophomore lit class, it's Shakespeare's longevity that stands highest. That you can read characters first put on paper 400+ years ago and, through their "thou"s and "ere"s and "how now"s, still recognize something in them. In the gloomy tragedy of Hamlet, in its "carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts," in its "accidental judgements," in its "purposes mistook," we can see our own reactions and know they once lived on the faces of those come before us. Pretty neat.
|Doris Kearns Goodwin||Team of Rivals||10||NF||2005|
Simon & Schuster
Without a doubt one of the most absorbing books I’ve read. I was sad when it ended. Team of Rivals covers a tremendous scope, chronicling not only the life of Lincoln but the lives of his political rivals turned cabinet members as well. The book follows a chronological narrative, starting with the childhood of its main subjects and then moving on to the budding political ambitions that formed in their youth. The early parallel narrative drives home the comparison between Lincoln and his peers (all but Lincoln received a formal education, he was almost entirely self-taught) while, at the same time, illustrating the common thread woven between them as a product of the era (e.g. all felt they lived in the shadows of their predecessors, the founding fathers.) The book then leads to Lincoln’s nomination, his election as President, the South’s secession, all the way up to the end of the Civil War. Through all of this it becomes clear, Lincoln’s fortitude of character, humor, and supreme intelligence and leadership are what pulled the Union through the war while dispelling slavery from its constitution. Few others, if any (maybe Seward?), could have done it. What else is clear by the book’s end is that Lincoln was one of the best people ever to have lived. Period. I can’t really say much more on this as I wouldn’t do the book justice. You’ll have to read it. I will just say that by the end of the book I really loved Lincoln. It’s what made it so hard to get to the end. Not only because any Lincoln book ends with his assassination, but because getting to the end of the book meant leaving the pages spent with him. Highest praises to Goodwin for crafting such an excellent story around one of the best people ever to have lived. It’s a difficult narrative to leave, and so I’ll use a quote from Tolstoy to do it for me. “Now, why was Lincoln so great that he overshadows all other national heroes? He really was not a great general like Napoleon or Washington; he was not such a skilful statesman as Gladstone or Frederick the Great; but his supremacy expresses itself altogether in his peculiar moral power and in the greatness of his character. Washington was a typical American. Napoleon was a typical Frenchman, but Lincoln was a humanitarian as broad as the world. He was bigger than his country---bigger than all the Presidents put together. We are still too near to his greatness, but after a few centuries more our posterity will find him considerably bigger than we do. His genius is still too strong and too powerful for the common understanding, just as the sun is too hot when its light beams directly on us.”
Giuseppe di Lampedusa
|The Leopard||10||F||1960||Random House||2016|
Giuseppe di Lampedusa died before the publication of his only novel but after he was told it was “unpublishable.” The novel -- The Leopard -- went on to become the top-selling novel in Italian history and has been published worldwide. It’s found its way onto “Classics” lists. The book follows Don Fabrizio, a mid-19th century prince who finds himself facing the Garibaldi revolution that eventually lead to the decline of the Italian monarchy and the rise of its new state. Fabrizio was modeled after Lampedusa’s great-grandfather, who left behind diaries used in the writing of The Leopard. This lends the book a familial air as its author chronicles his family’s legacy, searching for meaning. The Leopard is beautifully written. It describes the sun-beaten gardens and hills of Sicily with wry humor and melancholy. In one paragraph, Lampedusa wrings sweaty beauty out of a putrid rose when the Prince puts “one under his nose” and smells “the thigh of a dancer from the Opera.” Behind the excellent exposition is a political revolution, a love story, an unrequited love, and the aging Don Fabrizio, caught between a dying generation and one he doesn’t understand. The result of all of these threads is Lampedusa’s novel, a beautiful and sad book about a royal family in Italy. Highly recommended.
|Edith Wharton||The Age of Innocence||10||F||1920||D. Appleton||2016|
The back of this book describes “a portrait of desire and betrayal in old New York.” It all sounds very racy. And, to be fair to the publisher, parts of The Age of Innocence are, indeed, racy. But this book is much more than that. TAOI is set in late 19th century New York, a time when New Yorkers called upon one another in rococo drawing rooms and when formality and deference ruled. Wharton uses the era’s guiding principles of secrecy and omission in her prose and dialogue, driving plot using the opaque speak of the era: double negatives and vague insinuations of “unpleasant” things best left unsaid. The protagonist, Newland Archer, is a young man on the eve of betrothal. When introduced in the opening pages of the novel, Newland already has the Manhattan scene figured out, “content to hold his view without analyzing it.” He knows it is the same view as all the other “carefully-brushed, white-waistcoated, button-hole-flowered gentlemen” that, like him, turn “their opera-glasses critically on the circle of ladies who [are] the product of the system.” Enter Ellen Oleska, the prodigal cousin of Newland’s betrothed and a recent ex-pat fleeing to America from a dreadful marriage. As a foreign-raised woman and a potential divorcee, Ellen represents all that is foreign and progressive to the prim New Yorkers (and to Newland himself.) By the time she meets Newland, he’s already starting to have doubts about the woman he’s chosen to marry, a beautiful girl but one with “the innocence that seals the imagination and the heart against experience.” As he spends more time with Ellen, coming to understand the progressive ways she’s adopted and why she seeks a divorce, Newland uncovers the reality of the life New York society has drawn him into, “a hieroglyphic world, where the real thing [is] never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs.” At the point at which he realizes all of this, Newland, of course, falls in love with Ellen, and the raciness begins. But it isn’t just romance for the sake of romance itself. Instead, it’s Newland’s conflict with himself, his attraction for Ellen, and what Ellen represents, that shows us TAOI is about finding one’s own system of society-agnostic beliefs and holding fast to them, even in the lashing gale of society, duty, and time. The Age of Innocence examines how, channeled by our own will and the fate that rests outside it, we grow into ourselves. In the midst of all this self-discovery, Wharton uses setting and place to illuminate what different characters mean to Newland, an especially helpful trick when there’s only so much her characters can say, bound as they are by the observances of their era. When Newland walks into the warm, low-ceilinged house of Ellen Olenska, with “the little fire-lit drawing room and the sound of carriage-wheels returning down the deserted street” (the house is located in the then unbelievably abandoned neighborhood of West Village) we can instantly picture both the warmth of the odd, cozy room, as well as the alternate life it signifies for Newland, who grew up in the stuffy mansions of lower Fifth Avenue. Besides being the love interest for the story’s protagonist, Ellen also serves as a proxy for its author. Wharton grew up in the late 19th century, spent time in Europe, and wrote TAOI during the progressive era. When Ellen returns from Europe, tired of the progressive era and its liberal freedoms and harsh judgements, we see an author writing from a progressive age but pining for simpler times. Upon returning there, Wharton, like Ellen, finds a society of feigned innocence and secrecy. So it is that both Ellen and Wharton find themselves suspended between generations, one progressive and one formal, at rest in neither.
|Strunk & White||The Elements of Style||10||NF||1959||Pearson||2016|
A classic. The Elements of Style is the definitive guide to writing and thinking with clarity. I first found TEOS in 2013. Since then, I've tried to take a pass once a year, a spring cleaning for accumulated bad habits accumulated. Parts I and II (written by Strunk) address elementary rules of usage (grammar) and composition (usage); if they were mandatory reading in schools, the world would be a simpler place. Part V, E.B. White's 1951 extension, "An Approach to Style", "leaves solid ground" and dives into style and taste. White emerges with a handful of aphorisms, useful both in writing and out of it. (S/O to my brother James for first identifying the broader application of White's lesson.) What follows are my favorite rules from TEOS. Use the active voice. Put statements in positive form. Use definite, specific, concrete language. Omit needless words. Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end. Write in a way that comes naturally. Write with nouns and verbs. Do not overwrite. Do not overstate. Avoid the use of qualifiers. Do not affect a breezy manner. Do not explain too much. Avoid fancy words. Be clear.
|E.B. White||Here Is New York||10||NF||1949|
The Little Bookroom
E.B. White's famous essay on New York City. He makes great observations about NYC: the energy brought by "settlers", the commuter's odd role in city life, the diversity of culture and how acceptance is obligated through proximity, the privacy allowed to its inhabitants. Mostly, Here Is New York is a tall example of White's perfect style. He's known as being one of the best (if not the best) stylists in writing, and it shows throughout this essay. There are too many good examples to add here, so I'll just put in a few of my favorites -- the type of elegant, long-flowing sentences for which White is probably best recognized. 1. On hot summer nights in NYC: "And the fan takes over again, and the heat and the relaxed air and the memory of so many good little dinners in so many good little illegal places, with the theme of love, the sound of ventilation, the brief medicinal illusion of gin." 2. On the commuter's relationship to the city: "He has fished in Manhattan's wallet and dug out coins, but has never listened to Manhattan's breathing, never awakened in its morning, never dropped off to sleep in its night." 3. On looking upon the city's physical grace: "the great walls and towers rising, the smoke rising, the heat not yet rising, the hopes and ferments of so many millions rising---this vigorous spear that presses heaven hard." 4. On an old willow tree that presides over an interior garden: "In a way it symbolizes the city: life under difficulties, growth against odds, sap-rise in the midst of concrete, and the steady reaching for the sun... If it were to go, all would go---this city, this mischievous and marvelous monument which not to look upon would be like death." Here Is New York is a must-read---for those who have lived in New York, for those who do so now, and for those who will do so upon finishing this essay.
|Tom Robbins||Still Life with Woodpecker||10||F||1980||Bantam||2016|
Tom Robbins is the writer you'd get if you crossed Vonnegut and Wallace, then removed any lingering melancholy. His sentence structure keeps the light, straight-forward pacing of Vonnegut's midwestern stylings. "Hostess Twinkies mate for life." His subject matter flirts with the contemporary and political humor of Wallace, tossing about references to Ralph Nader and making other violations of the Platonic Always. Still Life With Woodpecker is a pleasure to read. It is quick, funny, and completely its own. It's one detraction might be its lack of focus. Instead of maintaining one theme or question throughout, it darts from feminism to romanticism to individualism, with many other isms sprinkled between. Despite their number, the themes of SLWW never become a burden to the reader; they're almost left as little things to think about as the plot forges ahead. And it does just that. Much like a Vonnegut novel (most notably Cat's Cradle or Sirens of Titan), SLWW routes its characters from Seattle to Hawaii to Saudia Arabia in the span of a couple hundred pages. Luckily for us, Robbins leaves devices in place that permit him to return to the dreary rains of Seattle frequently. If there's one thing that Robbins takes visible pleasure in scribbing upon the page, it's rain. "On the mainland, a rain was falling. The famous Seattle rain. The thin, gray rain that toadstools love. The quiet rain that can rust a tin roof without the tin roof making a sound in protest."
|Benjamin Graham||The Intelligent Investor||9||NF||1973|
In The Intelligent Investor, Benjamin Graham combines folksy style and a razor sharp intellect to present a philosophy of investment and security analysis that dispels the whims of the market and, instead, focuses only on what can be known about a business. By the end of this book, Graham shows that the intelligent investor is the investor who understands his worst enemy is not the market, but himself; he reads the fine print, looks at diluted EPS, and relishes the bargain bin of a bear market. If you're only looking for investing advice, you can skip The Intelligent Investor and start a dollar-cost averaging plan in an S&P 500 index ETF. If you're looking for a deeply rational and logical read about what makes successful investors and companies, this is the book for you.
|Andrew Grove||High Output Management||9||NF||1983||Vintage Books||2016|
Andy Grove's Silicon Valley classic on management. This book shows up on a lot of product managers' must-read lists, which I found a bit surprising given its focus on middle management at large corporations. Some of these corporate ideas come through as a bit dated -- there's an entire chapter on the value of meetings that misses the pace and culture present at smaller companies. Still, High Output Management provides great insights into work itself (no matter its focus) and how to apply production principles and leverage to generate the most output. Grove writes with rigor and without bullshit, meaning this book is good for anyone who wants a good kick in the ass and a good framework for applying it.
|Michael Lopp||Managing Humans||8||NF||2012||Apress||2016|
This book is a hand of clarity and wisdom amidst the organized chaos that can be working at a tech startup. Rands (the pseudonym for author Michael Lopp) writes with simple wit. His style is to the point and without condescension, making him the sort of manager or mentor to which you’d want to listen. Rands focuses on product management: how to deliver product on schedule while keeping a team of engineers happy (i.e. not bored) and interested in the work they’re doing. There’s a lot of great insight on that specific subject, including Free Electrons (10x engineers), the importance of hacking as a PM (staying up on dev languages and issues you’re team is dealing with,) and avoiding the Fez (how to help employees stay in the upper right corner of the skill and will spectrum.) But Rands also does a good job of describing survival tactics for working at any company, whether or not you’re a product manager (or even in tech, for that matter.) A great example of this is the Rands test, a litmus test for understanding 1) are you receiving good guidance and feedback from your manager? and 2) is there a good level of transparency within your organization -- do people know what’s going on? As with all of Managing Humans, the intended audience of Rands are those that find themselves in manager roles, but I found that the book is equally helpful for “managees.” Managees are those of us with managers -- read: all of us. Lastly, there is some great stuff in this book on simply staying hungry and productive. From Rands discussion of “the cave” and getting into “the zone,” to his ideas on “soaking” yourself in thought as a means to approaching difficult problems, there’s plenty of insight here, both for those in tech and those out of it.
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
Little Brown and Co
Brad Stone’s The Everything Store is a well-crafted chronicle of Amazon.com and its founder Jeff Bezos. The book briefly touches on Bezos’s earlier years and family background before diving into his quant days at D.E. Shaw, where he and its founder started brainstorming business models built around a new technology called “the Internet.” Of the many pleasures in Stone’s book (including the page-long list of Bezos quotes collected from employees during his “nutter” outrages,) one of its best is the way in which it recounts the early days of the web. This was an era when starting a company meant six months of difficult technical work just to get a website running on a server in a garage. It was also an era when e-commerce and web product fulfillment seemed like a fever dream to most in the retail industry. Stone does a great job of highlighting the trials Amazon faced in its early years, as well as the scrutiny it faced from Wall Street during the downturn of the dotcom bubble in the early 2000s. Through all of this, you get the sense that even in its hard times, Amazon was driven to success by the fundamental mechanics of their business model and its founding in a belief that the Internet would define the future. In many ways, The Everything Store isn’t just a story about the triumph of Amazon, but of the internet as well. Outside of the technical aspects of The Everything Store -- and there’s a lot of cool stuff included what with the origin stories of both AWS and the Kindle -- Stone does a great job of outlining how Amazon’s management has evolved as the company’s grown. Throughout all of it, the constant has been Bezos’s exacting demand for excellence (and his temper.) One of the most interesting parts of TES is Bezos fight against chaos, his (many would say successful) attempts to stave away the problems of bloat and complacency that often takeover at companies of a certain size. (As an example, Amazon doesn’t allow Powerpoint presentations. Instead, every meeting starts with a six-page brief written by whoever is running the meeting.) If there’s a single point to take from The Everything Store re Amazon’s strategy it’s this: for the last twenty years, through unrelenting diligence and high expectations, the company has excelled at finding models -- their storefront, their marketplace partners, their fulfillment centers, AWS, their partnership with publishers -- that they can exploit to their advantage. They continue to innovate by maintaining a Draconian commitment to the brutal truth (nothing at Amazon is sugarcoated) and doing what’s best for the customer.
Simon & Schuster
In the 1980s a group of economists, biologists, and physicists gathered in Santa Fe. The motley group was ready to move past the models of simplicity they’d built in their respective areas; the economists their perfect rational agents; the biologists their reductionist study which sought to study life at its simplest levels; the physicists their pure mathematical theory. They weren’t exactly sure what it was they were looking for, just that it lay at the intersection of their disciplines, that it was the larger study of what happens when you stop looking at the individual pieces and start putting them together. Complexity is a book about what they found. A book about the complex adaptive systems that reside at the edge of chaos — the point between order and chaos where dynamic, patterned behavior emerges. The result is an enthralling read that covers everything from artificial life, to phase transitions, to the evolution of cooperation. It also includes a gnarly hang gliding crash.
|Steve Grand||Creation: Life and How to Make It||8||NF||2000||Harvard||2016|
A fascinating book from Steve Grand (developer of the early-90s game Creatures) about life and how to recreate it. The cover of this book, bejeweled in hacker typefaces and 90s-era graphics, might scare some readers away; it looks dry and technical. Not to fear. Behind the cover, Grand is an entertaining and philosophical writer, elevating his ideas out of the machine-level as he attempts to illuminate “life’s majesty” while showing us how it can be built. He walks away from his role as Frankenstein with a set of principles about life and how it must be built in digital systems, the core tenet of which being that “the natural world is composed of a hierarchy of persistent phenomena, in which matter, life, mind, and society are simply different levels or aspects of the same thing.” From here, Grand works up life’s layers of persistence, from particles, to molecules, to multi-cellular organisms, to intelligent beings. (It’s this bottom-up approach highlighted by Grand that caught the eye of Bezos, and was leveraged in Amazon’s org structure as well as in the way it built AWS -- that is, as a collection of microservices that can be leveraged in higher-order systems.) In all of these objects and organisms is one common element: an ability to persist in the natural world. How they do so – feedback loops, genetic inheritance, adaptation – is the subject of the rest of the book. By its end, Creation shows that even though we exist in a fatalistic world (there can be no effect without cause,) we can take joy in knowing that our destinies, however fixed, will never be known to us.
A collection of the five full-length plays written by Anton Chekhov and performed during his lifetime. The works are characterized by a quiet realism unfamiliar to audiences of their era. They often end without firm resolution. Though his early works (particularly Ivanov) are marked with moments of melodrama, his best portray real characters of depth, relatable now as they were in the early 19th century. There are no protagonists or antagonists in Chekhov's plays---only people. Almost all of them unhappy. Unrequited love or the immovable march of time are the two biggest malefactors here, but other progressive themes find their ways into the characters of Chekhov: environmentalism, anheodnia in the absence of work/purpose, the changing of the old guard with the new. With all of these themes, Chekhov makes room for their discussion by pushing actual plot elements (e.g. duels, suicides, auctions) off the stage, a move since adopted by most notable contemporary writers. Of the plays in this collection, The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard were my two favorites; all are worth reading. Still, I prefer Chekhov's short fiction---it's without the constraints of 19th century theater and, as a result, its drama often feels quieter and more poignant than that within Chekhov's plays.
|Sally Mann||Hold Still||8||NF||2015|
Little Brown and Co
I started this after seeing Mann read at the National Book Awards last year. It's a memoir about her life spent growing up in Virgnia and the years that followed. The book is filled with the photos Mann took over the span of her career -- the famous photos of her children, the southern gothic landscape, a disturbing chapter about a "Body Farm". The memoir is entertaining on its own. Mann's family has a lot of interesting back story, and she has her share of wild family events that have taken place on her farm in Lexington. Through all of these events and photos run the themes of memory and death to which Mann consistently returns. In dealing with the death of her parents, Mann seems to be writing this book in search for times past (and there are enough references to Proust throughout the course of Hold Still to show that his own 'À la recherche du temps perdu' has an influence on Mann.) What she arrives at in her own search through memory is a coming to terms with death, and a comfort in knowing the legacy that she leaves behind in her work and in her family.
Inspired: How to Create Products Customers Love
A good quick read on product management. Highlights include the emotional adoption curve, the importance of building a prototype and testing users' response to it, and bringing engineers to the customer to see how they're using the product. Cagan also outlines the importance of minimum product i.e. how to ship what your users need without getting caught up in a superfluous feature set.
|Ernest Cline||Ready Player One||7||F||2011||Dark All Day||2016|
A quick and entertaining read. Ready Player One describes a dystopian future where citizens spend their days inside a VR-world called OASIS. When the digital world's creator dies, leaving behind a treasure hunt for his entire inheritance, the story's protagonist Wade (and everyone else in the world) try to be the first to get to the prize. Cline's writing style won't win any critical acclaim, and its protagonist has a few too many near-death escapes via deus ex machina, but it's a fun book with a lot of good 80s references. That said, as a late 89er, I missed a lot of these. But the one's I did get -- The Goonies, Monty Python, Blade Runner, D&D -- gave me a real hoot. A good read for anyone who used to be really into RPGs.
|Robert D. Putnam|
Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community
Simon & Schuster
I started Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone after hearing of it through the “What I’m Reading” section at Alex Danco’s blog. The book examines trends in civic engagement over the course of the 20th century. Across a general index of what Putnam calls “social capital” (including involvement in public discourse, politics, volunteering, and other community activities) Putnam finds an alarming trend: after an explosion of civic engagement following world war 2, America has seen an alarming drop-off in social participation in the last thirty years. Putnam spends the first third of the book presenting this trend in data. It’s strong analysis and necessary for an academic thesis of this nature, but the good stuff starts when Putnam examines why this decrease in social capital is happening. He finds that the two largest contributors to this trend are generational succession and television. The former being the process in which a younger generation, with new values, grows to be a larger and larger percentage of the total population, and the latter being, simply, Americans spend a lot of time watching TV. Time that formerly would have been spent elsewhere in the community. In my opinion, Putnam’s argument for generational succession seems derivative of the other causes he’s including in his diagnosis (TV, suburbanization, greater emphasis on workplace and two-career families) — that is, generational succession has an impact on civic disengagement because the younger generations have grown up in a society with those causes he’s outlined (e.g. TV.) Of all of the attributive causes he mentions, television (and its impact on American society) is the most fascinating. In 1950, less than 10% of American homes had TVs. In 1959, only nine years later, more than 90% did. This makes television the “fastest diffusion of a technological innovation ever recorded.” As a comparison, in 2008, when the first android phone was released, 10% of the US population had a smartphone. Now, eight years later, optimistic efforts have US smartphone penetration at ~70%. Even smartphones didn’t spread as quickly as the television. There’s a strong parallel between television’s rapid expansion in the 50s and the growth of mobile today. Both modify the way we spend time, and both represent a passive consumption of media that isn’t present in other mediums. Because television and mobile has taken such a lion’s share of the average person’s time, there’s often a harsh backlash towards these mediums for reasons of nostalgia. As T.S. Eliot noted when the television had taken root in American society, “it is a medium of entertainment which permits millions of people to listen to the same joke at the same time, and yet remain lonesome.” But, to be fair, a similar thing could be said of books. Or radio. And in the midst of all their progress, and all of the dissenters who look back fondly on the past, there is only one constant: change. And so if there’s one thing to take away from Bowling Alone, it’s that the path forward is one of a progressive mindset, not a nostalgic one. Nostalgia’s importance is in reminding us that there was a time when social capital and civic engagement were more involved in the life of Americans, but we must realize that the only way to reach that level of engagement is through progressive methods that align with today and with the future. The technological innovations we’ve built are here to stay. Now we just need to use them in the best way possible.
|William Zinsser||On Writing Well||7||NF||1976||HarperCollins||2016|
If you want to improve your writing, read The Elements of Style. If you want to further improve your writing, read William Zinsser's On Writing Well. Zinsser focuses on writing good non-fiction. Non-fiction that avoids cliches and keeps the attention of the reader through a devout examination of its subject matter. This book holds a lot of great advice for writers, including how to write about specific subjects like sports and the arts, as well as a set of basic principles to adhere to when writing and re-writing a piece. ("The best writing is rewriting." - E.B. White.) In presenting the "trick" to good writing, Zinsser reminds us why we start writing in the first place. "Living is the trick. Writers who write interestingly tend to be men and women who keep themselves interested. That's almost the whole point of becoming a writer. Learning is a tonic." It's simple, really. Keep writing. Keep learning.
|Yuval Noah Harari||Sapiens||7||NF||2011||Harper||2016|
A brief history of homo sapiens. The book covers everything from the first known beginnings of our species, through the agricultural and scientific revolutions. The more recent ages pass as high-level history, and as such, aren't super gripping. The best moments of the book come when Harari examines the early history of sapiens, and what enabled them to brutally dominate every other species on the globe. That advantage was, primarily, language. Other insights include the luxury tax -- the concept that humans didn't live better after they invented agriculture, but they had no choice to continue forward once they had birthed more mouths to feed -- as well as the invention of memory management through things like writing. Harari ends his book suprisingly well when we poses a question to our future: "is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don't know what they want?"
|Annie Dillard||Pilgrim at Tinker Creek||7||NF||1974|
A meditation on the beauty and violence in nature, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a mesmerizing read but one that often lost me in its subject material. There are some unforgettable passages in this book -- a reflection on sharks feeding at dusk, backlit in waves like "scorpions in amber," stands out -- but I often found myself adrift in sentences that, though intense in their passion for nature, didn't transmit to me as a reader. Still, this book reminds of the beauty in wait outdoors; a good read for anyone who likes to spend time in the woods.
|Frederick Brooks||The Mythical Man-Month||6||NF||1975||Addison Wesley||2016|
“Adjusting to the requirement for perfection is the most difficult part of learning to program.” The Mythical Man-Month is a canoncial book in the world of programming and systems design. It covers a lot of topics -- delivery estimation, project delays, the communication tax associated with introducing new members into a team, project documentation, program documentation, et al. -- that are still applicable today, forty years after the book was first published. That being said, there are a few dated topics in TMMM (a chapter about how to free space in a drum drive stands out in my mind.) Still, TMMM is a classic and a must-read for those interested in program development and its role within the design of complex systems.
Gayle Laakman McDowell and Jackie Bavarro
|Cracking the PM Interview||5||NF||2014||CareerCup||2016|
In the last few months I've been collaborating more with the product team at work. I started this book after a recommendation from one of our PMs. It's a helpful reminder of the scope involved in the product manager role, and how that scope changes between different organizations. At Amazon, MBAs are hired to handle PM jobs that focus on strategy and market opportunity, with technical PMs focusing on the actual requirements, build, and QA elements. At Facebook, PMs are expected to have strong technical backgrounds and the ability to hack through problems. At Google, PMs are expected to be independent and help develop bottom-up ideas through data analysis and research. At Microsoft, ideas are top-down, and PMs are expected to execute on a in-progress strategy, not develop on of their own. These inter-company comparisons are one of the highlights of CTPI, the others being the technical interview questions guide (a short review of algorithm basics) and the guide for handling and thinking through product-based questions (i.e. how do you explain what you like and don't like about a product?) All that said, parts of this book felt quickly hashed together or unnecessary -- the behavioral questions section stands out in my mind as a main offender. The book is also full of typos, which is frustrating in any case, but especially in regards to CTPI and the subject matter it addresses.
|Franz Kafka||Kafka: The Complete Stories||5||F||1971|
A tough one. I knew there was grief involved when I picked up Kafka. I took it on a Christmas vacation, thinking my general good cheer would be enough to keep me buoyant through its pages. I was dreadfully mistaken. The first story of this collection, titled "Description of a Struggle", is almost unreadable. There is no common narrative throughout, and its characters trade physical maladies constantly, making the reader wonder, "WTF is going on?" The next story "Wedding Preparations..." is more of the same. To be fair, these were the first two stories Kafka wrote, and were not intended for publication. From there, the collection picks up with three of Kafka's most famous works: "The Judgement", "The Metamorphosis", "In the Penal Colony." The writing in all of these is technical, with parentheticals frequently thrown into the mix of long sentences. In this way, Kafka's almost a bit Proustian in his style, though if Proust is considered the grandfather of flowery, elongated prose, Kafka might be his dark prince counterpart. His sentences seem constructed to bring out a sense of weariness (and not beauty, or awe,) in the reader. That said, though Kafka might not be the most pleasant author to read, he accomplishes his mission of malaise. The most powerful stories in this collection are those that communicate a sense of helplessness or alienation, often aided by devices of infinite time and space. As an example, in "The Great Wall of China", the immensity of the wall (and of China itself) put the protagonist into a state of insignificance; for him to dream of holding any meaning within himself would be a fallacy. In another story, "Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk", the protagonist strives for individual accomplishment, only to have the infininte well of time absorb her in death, where she will "rise to the heights of redemption and be forgotten like all her brothers." There's something Borgesian in these stories. They aren't quite paradoxes, but they are situations in which protagonists find themselves facing infinity and, to Kafka's power, resigning themselves to it.
|Heather Hedden||The Accidental Taxonomist||1||NF||2010|
Information Today, Inc
A technical book on taxonomy design and maintenance. Though it covers its subject matter with plumb commitment, I would not wish it upon any other than its intended audience. For those that fall into this group, TAT's strengths lie in its discussion of non-preferred terms and their importance in taxonomy/thesaurus design, as well as the pros and cons of human v. automated indexing.
The Best American Short Stories of the Century
A collection of short stories from the 20th century, curated by the late Mr. John Updike. This being a multi-author anthology, I'll refrain from any stylistic or structural tendencies of the writers, and instead just give a quick summary of those stories that earned my rare, ***three-star*** honor. (When I read short stories, I've gotten into the habit of rating them after a read or two. No stars means it's an ordinary story - not bad. One means it had something that really stood out. Either prose style or diction or exceptional exposition or something along those lines. Two means the collective story packs a punch and leaves a strong emotional impact. Three is "holy shit that was amazing" good. Four stars is either Chekhov's "The Girl with the Little Dog" or DFW's "BI#20.") My favorites from the collection are as follows. William Saroyan, "Resurrection of a Life" - an exhilirating first-person reflection of an old man on the life he's led and the inhale-exhale, ravaged hunger with which he lives it. There's a poetry to this prose and when he speaks of those existential things (the world ignores us, there is no meaning other than being here right now, etc.) that are oft lambasted by the critics, his sheer passion and enthusiasm are enough to make the reader believe the things he's saying. Or at least I did. Very hard to read this story and not immediately exhale (and then, very consciously, inhale.) The next on the list is "Miami-New York" by Martha Gelhorn. It's a story about two strangers on an overnight plane during World War 2. It's a flirty, fun sort of read; like watching any sort of fresh romance on TV. You're rooting for both characters as they take chances on one another. The tone of the story is what stays with you. It captures a sense of eroticism and loneliness at the same time -- one that the collection curator Updike pins as the feeling of wartime America -- "erotic opportunity, constant weariness, and contagious recklessness." The next is John Cheever's "The Country Husband." The story is normal and then chilling and then relieving (but disappointedly so.) What stands out about this story is the exposition. When Jupiter comes running through the hedge at the end of the story, you can't help but smile at that triumphant rake of a dog. This story has one of the best closing lines ever: "Then it is dark; it is a night when kings in golden suits ride elephants over the mountains." What exactly does this mean? Is it a good night? A warm night? A night when fantasies can go on in peaceful sleep? I'm not sure - I just love the phrasing and the rhythm and all of it. The next story, and possibly my favorite of the collection, is "Gesturing" by John Updike. It holds his beautiful prose and his characters but mostly it holds metaphors. Grand metaphors the size of skycrapers. Elusive metaphors like the gestures we make when we think no one is looking. Invisible metaphors, like scratches in glass. They're all layered over one another in masterful orchestration which pulls an eternal happy ending out of seemingly droll humanity and mortality. Which is to say it is very Updike. (I've only read "Pigeon Feathers" and a handful of his other stories, so I'm taking a random sample, but it seems to be a trend in his short fiction.) The last of these stories is Alice Elliott Dark's "In The Gloaming." In the story, a mother takes care of her 33-yer old son, who is suddenly home-ridden after coming down with a serious illness. In the moments before dark, after dinner, after her husband has gone inside to work, she and her sick son sit out on the dimming porch and talk. It makes you think that if it's possible to really get to know the people around us that we love so much without the impending weight of nightfall (read: death) to hurry us along. Other highlights of the collection (the two-stars - still incredible stories!): Grace Stone Coates, "Wild Plums"; F. Scott Fitzgerald, "Crazy Sunday"; Eudora Welty, "The Hitch-hikers"; Vladimir Nabokov, "That in Aleppo Once..."; E.B. White, "The Second Tree from the Corner"; Mary Ladd Gavell, "The Rotifer"; Alice Adams, "Roses, Rhododendron"; Harold Brodkey, "Verona: A Young Woman Speaks"; Thom Jones, "I Want to Live!"; Pam Houston, "The Best Girlfriend You Never Had."
“One of the strangest and most wonderful books in the world.” Eleven words from D.H. Lawrence that perfectly encapsulate my feelings on Moby Dick. It is an odd little epic. A work of contrast that bounces between realism, matter-of-fact nonfiction, and verse-like passages on the sea (and the mind’s wanderings through its depths.) This novel loomed in my mind. An insurmountable task. America’s longest, greatest book that, someday, I would fail to read. You can imagine my surprise upon finding the humor and pace with which Melville lights his masterpiece. The language, though at times difficult, filled with unusual sentence structures and colloquialisms, often opens up with humble simplicity. In one of my favorite early chapters, “A Bosom Friend”, Melville comments wryly (but affectionately) on his new, unlikely friendship with the cannibal Queequeg: “a cosy, loving pair.” Not always to be so subtle, Melville later openly lampoons those depicters of whales to come before him in the aptly named “Of The Monstruous Pictures of Whales.” One particularly unlucky fellow gets a hefty amount of shade: “in a word, Culver’s Sperm Whale is not a Sperm Whale, but a squash.” (Kill ‘em!) When he’s not tickling the reader, Melville winds out long, romantic sentences that wring out the awe and horror we witness in the face of nature. “… as the wind howled on, and the sea leaped, and the ship groaned and dived, and yet steadfastly shot her red hell further and further into the blackness of the sea and the night… then the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into that blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander’s soul.” Damn. Outside of his humor and his bizarre but endearing prose, Herman’s masterpiece is labeled as such because of its ability to find in nature’s infinite scale the relatable details of analogy. Though it’s named after the pursuit of a one Captain Ahab, the book is less about chasing a whale and more about what to do when you don’t have a whale to chase. The book’s narrator – “Call me Ishmael” – is the sort to find himself lost in the “blending cadence of waves with thoughts,” staring into the “deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature.” Ishmael is an introvert of sorts. This contrast, the monomaniacal, bloodthirsty Ahab and the depressed, aimless Ishmael, frames the most important of the many conceits Melville puts into Moby Dick: the paradox of the human condition. That is, if I truly know what I want, and I’m willing to go to any lengths to get it, I’m the mad man, being dragged into the deep; overhead, “the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled on five thousand years ago.” If I look into the depths of myself to find meaning, I’m just “another orphan,” floating “in manhood’s pondering repose of If.” And in all this crisis of existence we have no eye for how soon it will all be over. What a tragedy we share. “All men live enveloped in whale lines.”