Editor's note: As of June 2020, I've moved this list to a Notion page. You can find it at the link below.
Latest and greatest book rolodex
AuthorTitleRating (0 to 10)Fiction / Non-fictionYear PublisherYear I ReadThoughts
Bill AuletDisciplined Entrepreneurship4NF2014Wiley2020
I'm skeptical of all "n steps to achieve x" books. Disciplined Entrepreneuship, with its 24 steps to achieve product-market fit, is a nice overview of what to do when launching a new product, but I didn't feel it covered each topic at enough length to teach me anything new. I'd recommend glancing through this and then digging into the source material Aulet references herein (e.g. Crossing the Chasm, a must read for anyone in enterprise SaaS.)
Semmy PurewalLearning Web App Development8NF2014O'Reilly2020
This book gave me new empathy for the people that work with CSS everyday. It’s also a great way to dive into full-stack development, that full journey from client to server to data store and back again, especially for those without a technical background. I’d dabbled in the dark arts a few times before, Python data migration scripts at my previous employer, a Game of Life derivative in HTML and JS, but I’d never built a full web app and run it on a cloud server. So as quarantine began and I found it harder to focus on my usual reading, I decided to give it a try. In my past experiences with web app frameworks such as Django, I’d always stall on a small interchange detail. The intro documentation to these frameworks is well-written, just not for someone who’s never binded a local DB to a nodejs server. If you’re one of those people (as I was,) then this book is for you. It starts with the basics of HTML, CSS, and JS, and then moves into AJAX, JSON, server programming, data stores, API design, and how to deploy your service to a cloud provider such as Heroku or AWS. The book’s author does a great job of building from chapter to chapter, so you rarely find yourself in a stackoverflow k-hole, trying to find the thread that will tell you why something isn’t working the way it should. By the book’s end, you’ll have a full app working on a cloud service. Fun! I’d recommend this book for anyone looking to get a more thorough understanding of what’s happening under the hood of the internet, and for all the product managers out there. You don’t have to be technical to be a product manager, but it doesn’t hurt.
Joan DidionSlouching Towards Bethlehem9NF1968
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
A good companion during quarantine. This superb collection of essays made me miss California. Even when Didion writes about the hot dust of the Central Valley, or the dark underbelly of San Francisco in the sixties, she does so in a way that makes you want to be there. You see the golden haze on the horizon, you smell the eucalyptus in the air, you feel “a long way from the bleak and difficult East, a long way from the cold, a long way from the past.” Perhaps that’s the promise of California, that even at its worst, it still has that light, that smell, that possibility. When she’s not writing about California, Didion writes about the self. Self-respect, morality, youth. That she can write about such abstractions in such a personal, concrete way is the genius of Joan Didion’s style. The book’s final essay “Goodbye to All That”—an essay about Didion’s own youth spent in New York City—is a perfect testament to this ability. It’s raw and honest; it tells you all of the ugly truths of spending your twenties in New York City, while still making you want to live it all over again. It’s the way I imagine many of us feel about our twenties—an unstable, chaotic time that we miss from a distance for the rest of our lives. That Didion can communicate this nuanced sentiment in a short essay about New York City is what makes Slouching Towards Bethlehem so great and why I’d recommend it to anyone looking for an introspective read during the age of corona.
Marguerite YourcenarMemoirs of Hadrian8F1954
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
How long can you stand to listen to one man reflect on his own life? Ask yourself this question, and many others, with Marguerite Yourcenar’s enlightening, somewhat-of-a-slog Memoirs of Hadrian. The contents of this novel are as advertised, these really do read as the memoirs of Hadrian, all told from his perspective, all in the memoir format, all in the elegant but difficult prose you’d expect of a Roman author writing in Latin. (If you’re like me, you’ll comment aloud on the beauty of this prose while, in secret, you re-read entire paragraphs to make sure you actually understand what’s just happened.) Unlike John Williams’s Augustus, which darts from character to character, varying its format and tone, Memoirs of Hadrian is a monument to one man, told by one man. What makes Memoirs of Hadrian special—its singular voice, perspective, and format—is also what makes it a book that is, at times, difficult to enjoy, and I suspect, for many, difficult to finish. When it’s at its best, it brings us into the mind of its subject and gives the author behind his voice (Mme. Yourcenar) a stage on which to deliver some of the more eloquent insights on life and meaning that I’ve read. At its worst, its memoir format introduces monotony and tedium into the later acts of the book, or at least it did for me. Despite this, in its elevated moments, this book reaches what all literature seeks and what only the classics attain, a statement on the human condition that spans eras. This passage from the book’s closing pages is a good place to end. Its words, inspired by a Roman emperor from 130 AD, written by a French author from the 1950s, read by me in 2020, the year of the corona-virus and Trump’s re-election campaign, resonated: “Life is atrocious, we know. But precisely because I expect little of the human condition, man’s periods of felicity, his partial progress, his efforts to begin over again and to continue, all seem to me like so many prodigies which nearly compensate for the monstrous mass of ills and defeats, of indifference and error. Catastrophe and ruin will come; disorder will triumph, but order will too, from time to time. Peace will again establish itself between two periods of war; the words humanity, liberty, and justice will here and there regain the meaning which we have tried to give them. Not all our books will perish, nor our statues, if broken, lie unrepaired; other domes and other pediments will arise from our domes and pediments; some few men will think and work and feel as we have done, and I venture to count upon such continuators, placed irregularly throughout the centuries, and upon this kind of intermittent immortality.” Intermittent immortality. A bittersweet oxymoron if there ever was one, and an idea worth fighting for.
Dan SafferMicrointeractions: Designing with Details6NF2014O'Reilly2020
Every product person thinks they can jump into the deep end of low-level product design and tread water at some point in their career. I’ve been there, flailing, trying to talk through each outcome of an interaction out loud while keeping its model fixed in my mind at the same time. It is not a recipe for success. If you’ve been there, too, and want a better way to buoy yourself through your next interaction design project, you might try this book. It’s a helpful framework for thinking about the microinteraction, that ‘contained product moment that revolves around a single use case—a tiny piece of functionality that only does one thing.” Even if you’ve designed hundreds of UX flows before, the book’s discussion of interaction rules and modes is a helpful reminder of just how much complexity can be contained within a single design interaction. It also contains quite a few examples that you can look to for inspiration for micro details to get right in your own product (conversely, 95% of the examples come from, so you could just go there instead.) A quick technical read for the product and design thinkers out there.
Gregory ZuckermanThe Man Who Solved the Market6NF2019Portfolio2020
The introduction of this book had me excited. The first chapters are a lot of fun—they read in the Michael Lewis style of non-fiction: ready for the big screen. But it’s an energy that I didn’t feel the book sustained from beginning to end. By its middle, bogged down in side character introductions, I found myself wondering whether the juice was worth the squeeze. The topics discussed in this book are fascinating, but I repeatedly found myself wanting more detail than what was provided in TMWSTM. Its author mentions how Markov chains were integral to the success of the quant modeling done within Renaissance Technologies, but it doesn’t go into the details of the specific types of trades that leveraged such modeling. It talks about how they used regression-to-the-mean to find opportunities for market retracements, but it doesn’t give a great idea of how much of RT’s gains were made off these simple retracement bets. There are things I enjoyed about this book. Its description of the mundane Long Island offices of Renaissance. The details about how RT’s employees would talk to local business owners on trips to get a sense of the microeconomy surrounding their potential investment. All the parts about Simons recruiting his team of non-financial talent for his investment company. There’s good stuff in here, I just left with the sense that there could have been more.
John Le CarreTinker Tailor Solider Spy10F1974Penguin2019
We’re all suckers for the spy trade. The jargon. The craft. It’s just all so cool. The accomplishment of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is to make you feel this sentiment more than ever, while at the same time making you question whether we’d have been better off without it all in the first place. Fewer casualties, better foreign relations, though we’d certainly have missed the exciting reading material. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Carre’s seventh novel and the first in his Carla trilogy, takes place in the same world as his other novels. Le Carre immediately drops the reader into this secretive underground of mundane paperwork and technical trade details—”he reckoned that a slammed door made less noise in that silence than a door surreptitiously closed.” There’s no introduction, no explanatory passages, just jargon and characters that we’re not sure if we’re supposed to know. Carre makes his reader work for the rewards of this book. To read it is to be reminded of Rowling’s introduction into the wizarding world—we’re plopped on the doorstep of number four Privet Drive, where we immediately start to hear new words like “muggles” and “Hogwarts”, only to be told their meaning at a later point in the narrative. Carre’s world and subject material, though of a less magical nature than Rowling’s, fosters this same sense of exciting discovery as you delve into it for the first time. The world building is one of the great aspects of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the other is its plot, a complex knot of moles and assassins. I felt like an intelligence officer just trying to pick apart all of its threads. Days after I finished the book, I was still having “a-ha” moments as another piece of the puzzle would slip into place in the back of my mind. The complexity of the book extends from its plot to its nuanced social commentary. In the mid-70s, at a time when Britain faced a waning position on the global stage, Carre’s novel used its characters to ask whether the country and its intelligence program were ready to face the music: “He saw with painful clarity an ambitious man born to the big canvas, brought up to rule, divide and conquer, whose visions and vanities were all fixed upon the world’s game; for whom the reality was a poor island with scarcely a voice that would carry across the water.” In the midst of a spy thriller Carre delivers this poignant message about a nation’s nostalgia for its former glory—that is the genius of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
Cal NewportDigital Minimalism8NF2019Portfolio2019
I remember when Facebook opened its service to email addresses that didn’t end in ‘.edu’. It was my senior year of high school, and we were all looking for some place that wasn’t MySpace. And so we invaded the social network and we started to upload pictures taken on digital cameras to a website that was still years away from the Like button, from the News Feed, from the mobile app. Now we call it social media. Back then it felt less like media and more like a private forum. A forum where you and your friends would talk about last weekend’s photo album. Not a single, curated picture, or a carousel of favorites—an entire album, with all of its out-of-focus and poorly lit outtakes. It was a very different service than what we associate with the big blue ‘F’ today. I start with this remembrance of things past not just because of my own nostalgia, but because of a question posed by Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism. The book asks whether services such as Facebook are still worth it given what we know about their societal costs, and whether, in their newer manifestations, they’re providing the value we came to them for in the first place. If we started using Facebook because a friend tagged us in a photo, should we stay to thumb through feeds of status updates, memes, and promoted ads? It’s an empowering question to ask in a time when social media services are referred to as public utilities and feel like a mandatory fabric of our daily lives. In asking it, Newport pushes us to reevaluate our position to these services, and to determine whether the time we give them could be better spent elsewhere. It’s to Newport’s credit that he doesn’t leave us to our own devices in defining the meaning of “elsewhere,” some of the best chapters in this book are the ones that aren’t about the time we spend on social media, but about the time we could be spending out of it. Halfway through a chapter about the value of solitude, I found myself realizing how little time I spent in that “subjective state in which your mind is free from input from other minds.” In the era of AirPods, it’s easy to live in a constant state of input, racing to fill every minute on the sidewalk with the perfect podcast. This book reminded me of the value of a quiet walk. It also pushed me to re-evaluate my own relationship with social media services. Though its tone can get a little combatant for my taste at times (the second to last chapter’s title “Join the Attention Resistance” is a good example of this,) this book is a good evaluation of the role of social media in our personal lives. If you’ve found you’ve developed a habit of pulling to refresh, and don’t know why, this book is for you.
John WilliamsAugustus10F1972
New York Review Books
There are things we can never learn from the tangible remnants of history. Take the Roman emperor Augustus. We can read of how he came to power at nineteen, following the murder of his adopted father Julius Caesar, but we can never know how it felt to see that messenger galloping towards him with the news, or what he and his closest confidantes discussed in the chaotic moments that must have followed its delivery. We can look upon his lifetime accomplishments, carved into bronze and stone, but we can never know how he himself looked upon those words in the waning days of his life. The humanity of history is, more often than not, lost to us. In his riveting novel Augustus, John Williams attempts to salvage this lost humanity, using an epistolary narrative of historical and fictional letters to tell the story of Augustus’s life. It is a testament to literature’s power of empathy that he succeeds. The novel is separated into three chronological books. The first covers the death of Caesar and Augustus’s rise to power. There are tactical battles at sea. There are political gambits in the capitol. There are assassination attempts. The whole thing is awesome and reads like the best of Game of Thrones. Above all else, this first book is a testament to the friendships built early in life, and the travails that they buoy us through. “We were friends from that moment onward; and that moment of foolish laughter was a bond stronger than anything that came between us later—victories or defeats, loyalties or betrayals, griefs or joys. But the days of youth go, and part of us goes with them, not to return.” The second book focuses on the middle years of Augustus’s life, specifically, on his relationship with his daughter Julia. It’s a downshift from the pure adventure of part one, but it’s in the tragedy of this second act that the book reaches its peak. Julia Augusti is a complicated figure of history. She was exiled from Rome after her involvement in a number of extramarital affairs, the last of which linked her to an assasination attempt against her own father. It would be easy to paint her in a simple and unfavorable light based on this tangible record of history. But Williams pushes for a more nuanced and empathetic understanding of her character, looking for the justification and the rationale intention behind each of her actions. It’s in Julia that the book finds its most powerful character and its most empathetic moments. The third book comes from the perspective of Augustus himself. As he writes to a friend in his old age, the novel’s title character reflects on his accomplishments and his legacy. It’s here, in the musings of an old man, that Williams makes the case for an alternate version of Augustus than the one put forward by the most popular threads of history. As the first and greatest emperor of Rome, Augustus is oft viewed as a driving force of history, as a person of singular vision who made the world bend to his will. In William’s portrayal of him, he’s anything but. Here, in these reflections, Augustus recognizes himself not as a man of will, but of fate. As someone who had no choice but to act in the way that he did, as a man who was subject to the larger forces around him. As the book’s introduction highlights so well, it’s a theme of fatalism common to William’s work: “All of Williams’s work is preoccupied by the way in which, whatever our characters may be, the lives we end up with are the often unexpected byproducts of the frictions between us and the world itself.” As William’s version of Augustus looks back on his own life at the book’s end, he faces himself and what he’s become as a result of that friction between him and the world itself. That he does so with credulity in the eyes of the reader is proof to everything that leads up to the final moments of this book, to William’s strength as a writer, and to the empathetic power of the novel form itself. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
Mary BeardSPQR: A History of Ancient Rome5NF2015Liveright2019
To begin I want to emphasize how excited I was to read this book. My first taste of Roman history came last year when I discovered the excellent "History of Rome" podcast, and I'd been looking for a good read on the subject ever since. I started SPQR, excited to dig into the details. Despite my opening zest for the subject material, I soon found myself bogged down in what read as a chronological skim of the empire's major events, void of the exciting details or larger themes that makes historical narrative a joy to read. Famous battles passed by in sentences, without mention of tactics or strategies. The story of Julius Caesar, from his early conquests to the Ides of March, passed by in a few pages, without the tension or build you'd expect from the assasination that brought the age of the emperor to Rome. In short, I was disappointed. Part of this disappointment is a function of the simple math of SPQR: it uses five hundred pages to cover one thousand years of history—details will, of course, be lacking. (To be fair, as a broad introduction to the timeline of Rome, SPQR succeeds.) The other part comes from SPQR's reticence to embrace the narrative within its subject material. The book works as record keeper rather than story teller—eg "here's what we can know for certain, here's what we can never know"—at times, it feels as though it's afraid to speak to larger themes as they'd be the work of their author and not of the source material itself. It raises an interesting question about why we read history in the first place. Is it just for the facts themselves, or is it for our intepretation of those facts and the human stories that we (sometimes erroneously) project onto them? John Williams's incredible work of historical fiction Augustus, which I've started reading since finishing SPQR, mingles history with imagination. Purists argue the fiction muddles the history. In my view, it brings us closer to the characters of that history than a simple chronology ever could. We can forgive ourselves for wanting a good story.
Clayton ChristensenThe Innovator's Dilemma (reread)8NF1997
Harvard Business Review Press
A quick re-read for book club. There's so much analysis and data packed into this book, it can easily overwhelm on a first pass. A second pass (if you should decide to take it) is a good reminder of what The Innovator's Dilemma is all about: solving and adapting to market needs. My favorite idea from this book: the change in the basis of competition that happens when incumbents exceed market demand. First customers care about functionality, then reliability, then performance, and, then finally, when there's nothing left to differentiate on, price. How you stay away from commoditization, that's the trick.
(Anthology) s.b. Garrison Keillor
Good Poems9F2002Penguin2019
A past roommate left this book behind when they moved out a few years ago. It's been on my nightstand ever since. Every few nights, I'd pick it up and read a poem or two. Two apartment moves later, I finished the collection. As advertised, these are good poems.
Kenya HaraWhite7NF2009Lars Muller2019
A meditation on the color white. In this short, ethereal book, Kenya Hara asks us to consider the color white—its absence of color, its emptiness, its hollowness—and what it draws from our depths. In the contemplation of a void, Hara suggests, we find not emptiness, but nuance and meaning. To look at a blank piece of paper and see something, not nothing. It’s all very zen, and I found my mind drifting at times. But, then again, maybe that’s the point? White is one of the more unique books I’ve read. It reminded me of the importance of simplicity and nuance in design, of silence and openness in communication. I expect I’ll return to it again soon.
Jane JacobsThe Death and Life of Great American Cities8NF1961Vintage2019
“This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding.” There’s a lot to love about Jane Jacobs—savior of Washington Square Park, defender of the West Village—but I’ll start with this sentence. These are the first words of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. What an opening shot. The voice Jacobs uses here—direct, void of pomp or condescension—is one of my favorite things about this book. It’s the antithesis of the sentiment that permeated city planning during the time. It also makes this book a joy to read. With each faulty assumption she discovers in the traditional school of city planning, Jacobs has another line for the ages. Another personal favorite: “The trouble with paternalists is that they want to make impossibly profound changes, and they choose impossibly superficial means for doing so.” The next thing I love about this book: after you read it, you’ll never look at your neighborhood the same way again. You’ll start to look at street blocks with a critical eye. You’ll wonder what brings pedestrians into your neighborhood when you’re away at work. You’ll ask if there’s a healthy mix of old and new buildings, and whether you have border vacuums draining the life out of your neighborhood. These questions stem from the inductive approach Jacobs brings to her subject, and to the problem she seeks to solve by studying it. Namely, what is the purpose of cities and, when we seek to improve them, what is the problem we are trying to solve? This brings me to the last thing I love about this book: it is a great template for how to define and understand problems within complex systems. Throughout her analysis, Jacobs continually comes back to her problem to solve, asking why we even have city planning in the first place. “Merely to think about cities and get somewhere, one of the main things to know is what kind of problem cities pose, for all problems cannot be thought about in the same way.” Even with a subject as complex as city planning, Jacobs shows us that a disciplined approach that keeps its end goal in sight can unearth new insights, even in fields that we witness and live in every day. A great read for anyone in product, or for anyone looking for a greater appreciation of the city in which they live.
John Le CarreThe Spy Who Came in from the Cold9F1963
Victor Gollancz & Pan
I found an old hardcover copy of this book on the shelf of a beach house. My first Le Carre novel after a number of movies based on his work, and an all-time favorite episode of Fresh Air (linked at the end of this summary.) There are two things to say about reading Le Carre. First, it’s much easier to follow the espionage when you can re-read a conversation. I’m slow, so when it comes to Le Carre movies I often find myself swept away in the thrill of the Circus, secretly wondering, “wait, which one is George Smiley?” The second thing about reading Le Carre is that he’s just such a good writer. His writing never does more than it needs to, which is what you’d expect from an author who spent the first part of his career in the service. It’s that experience that lends Le Carre’s writing the detail that serves as the foundation of the book’s cold realism. An interrogator informs his subject, “you have not told us whether your Service favors pins or paper clips because we haven’t asked you, and because you did not consider the answer worth volunteering… [but] it is always possible that in a month or two we shall unexpectedly and quite desperately need to know about the pins and the paper clips.” Pins or paper clips, those are the details that make a great spy novel. I’m a paper clips man myself.
Lawrence WrightGod Save Texas4NF2018Vintage2019
The first chapter of this book had me excited. Excited to dig into Texas, to see its oil fields, its empty spaces, its good history, its bad. I didn't know what I'd find in the pages to follow, but I had a vague sense about them, as I do about Texas in general—some abstract blend of a Stevie Ray Vaughn song, an open southwestern vista, and a sense of rugged individualism. I was a city slicker ready to find home on the range. What followed in this book was a disappointment. God Save Texas reads as both Mr. Wright's personal memoir of Texas and his brief survey of the most prominent points in its long history. The result is a brief summary of the state, told through a narrative that flits between history and personal memoir, without really digging into either enough to find substance. The formula drove me to leaf through entire chapters once I hit the book's halfway point. As I said, the first chapter piqued my interest; there's a lot in Texas to learn and to discover, you'll just need to read more than this book to do it.
Robert CaroThe Power Broker9NF1975Knopf2019
“One must wait until the evening to see how splendid the day has been.” These are the opening words of a book about the magnificence and destruction that result from the concentration of power. Power—its accrual and its corrosion, its accomplishment and its corruption—sits at the center of The Power Broker, Robert Caro’s chronicle of the life of Robert Moses, master builder of New York City. In his long career, Moses drove the creation of much of what we look on as modern day New York: the West Side highway, the Central Park restoration, Jones Beach, Jacob Riis Park, Lincoln Center, all of the Long Island expressways and parkways, these are just a few of his creations. To shape New York to his vision, to bend its image to its will, Moses became an expert in the control and manipulation of power, both in the world of politics and policy, as well as in the world of money and leverage. Amidst this power and the brilliance of Moses, the opening words of the book serve to anchor the reader, to see his creation and his genius, but to wait until the waning light of his days before asking what it all meant for the citizens of New York City, to ask whether they should be grateful for a public servant like Bob Moses. Caro isn’t so uncouth as to lay the answer in front of us. Instead, he delivers an uncompromising, thorough piece of journalism that is all we could ever need to find the answer ourselves. Before embarking on the body of the work, and the archives of dusty policies and contracts that reside within it, Caro only closes the book’s introduction with this, “it is impossible to say that New York would have been a better city if Robert Moses had never lived. It is possible to say only that it would have been a different city.” Indeed. (A note on the underlining of thorough: I really cannot underline it enough, as I’m sure other weary readers can attest to. It’s this thoroughness that makes The Power Broker such a strong work, while at the same time making it such a slog, especially in its later chapters. I found myself marveling at the research and time that went into the book’s detail, while, at the same time, asking why the author decided it all necessary to include. The answer, I think, is journalistic integrity. Up until the publication of this book, only one other had been published on the life of Robert Moses—a puff piece. Perhaps Caro felt that the only worthy study of such a life was the exhaustive one, in every sense of the word. That to best give readers the clarity needed to appraise such a life, a thorough examination was required. In any case, it’s a long book.) I could spend pages of my own on the themes of idealism and power that rest in this work and how they weave around one another. I could outline how Moses built his power through policy and through a cabinet’s worth of public positions that he assembled into an iron throne [had to do it] of power, unassailable from any direction; how he leveraged bond covenants and public authorities to forge an unceasing public works machine; how that unceasing machine led Moses to a myopic focus on output for the sake of output itself, and not for the problems of the people that he had once promised to serve. But I’ll leave all of that to the book itself. The last thing I’ll say about The Power Broker is that it is, in its own way, a love letter to New York. To the once untouched shore of Long Island, to the grime and graft of New York City, to its neighborhoods, to its leaders. For me, I found the book at its best in its glimpses of New York City and its history, in all of their splendor and glory. Twilight walks through the Lower East Side with a cigar smoking Al Smith, loud arguments between Moses and La Guardia in the Mayor’s office, the first season of Shakespeare in the Park, and this description of summer in New York that only someone enamored with the city could write: “In summer, to the sweltering masses of New York, the cool great hills and rolling surf of Long Island beckoned like a vast playground filled with the milk and honey of leaves and grass, of sun and sand, that would sweeten the bitterness of city life.” Bridges, roads, and summers in New York City—those things that, once created, never change.
Cixin LiuThe Three Body Problem8F2008
Chongqing Press
When I was a kid we had an egg slicer in our kitchen, this pewter cradle with a handle of parallel wires hinged to its end. You’d put a hardboiled egg into the cradle and pull down the handle to drag the wires through the egg until the slices would fall away from each other, ready for salting. There is a scene in The Three Body Problem with a container ship that brought to mind my childhood egg slicer. If you’ve read the book, you’ll know what I mean. If you haven’t, perhaps this opaque analogy (and the summary that follows it) will convince you to. I can’t say much about the plot of The Three Body Problem without giving too much away, so I’ll just tell you that it involves suicidal scientists, a virtual reality game centered around the solution of a classic physics problem, and the dark Maoist history of China. It’s Ted Chiang meets Murakami meets Ready Player One. The characters drift in and out, the plot developing around them at an idle pace, until the larger science fiction themes of the book take hold of the story and drive it to its conclusion. Those looking for a peek into China wrapped in an excellent science fiction story, replete with its share of film-ready scenes (I already mentioned the egg slicer,) will find a lot to enjoy in The Three Body Problem.
Ben Hogan
Ben Hogan’s Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf
8NF1957Pocket Books2019
I am bad at golf. I read this book to get better at golf. While I’m still waiting to see my lot improve, this book assured me that there may be light at the end of the tunnel, and for that I am grateful.
Ed CatmullCreativity Inc7NF2014Random House2019
Ratatouille is the best Pixar movie. It is a story about creators, told by creators. What’s more, it’s delivered through the metaphor of a rat—the perfect analogy for the creator who, during his own struggles with the creative process, in all likelihood self-identifies with vermin. This book, Ed Catmull’s Creativity Inc., takes a long look at this creative process and asks how we can succeed within it. Both as individuals, and as groups of people. The focus of this book is companies. Specifically, how their leadership can bring the right cultural values and principles to their organization to let it flourish and produce the best creative output it can. For me, the biggest takeaway from this book is the importance of psychological safety—the feeling that you can give and receive candid feedback without feeling attacked. In the book, Catmull talks about “the braintrust”, the group of Pixar wizards (Lasseter etc) who would give feedback to films. The key elements of the braintrust that made it successful. 1. Candor. “Without without the critical ingredient that is candor, there can be no trust. And without trust, creative collaboration is not possible.” 2. A lack of authority. The braintrust offers feedback as suggestions, not as demands. 3. Additive, not competitive. The braintrust was about adding to ideas, not competing with them or trying to prove that yours were better. In addition to the braintrust, Catmull puts forward plenty of other good ideas about management and distributed decision making. Many of these come from applying scientific principles to the organizational maladies that emerge at work. An example: through the model of stochastic self-similarity (the natural state in which a self-repeating pattern occurs within multiple levels of an organism—eg ferns,) Catmull acknowledges that the problems that happen at the top of an organization must be happening at all levels of an organization, therefore distributed decision making (and trust) is the best policy. I’ll abruptly end this summary on that, but if there’s one thing to remember about this book, it’s trust. With trust, we can risk something, we can participate in “the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.”
Michael OvitzWho Is Michael Ovitz?8NF2018Portfolio2019
I hadn’t heard of Michael Ovitz either. Here are the spark notes from his memoir, Who is Michael Ovitz? Michael Ovitz was the founder and CEO of Creative Artists Agency. Though you likely haven’t heard of him, you’ve definitely heard of everyone he’s worked with: David Letterman, Barbra Streisand, Dustin Hoffman. A kid that grew up on the outskirts of LA, Ovitz went to UCLA and put himself through college as a tour guide at Universal Studios, where he focused on learning everything he could about the business. By his late twenties (after a few years at William Morris Endeavors,) he had founded his own company and started finding clients. At the peak of his power, he was running CAA and putting together massive syndication deals in which the agency brought together a complete “package”—writer, script, director, talent—which it would then sell to studios and networks in exchange for a large cut of future earnings. It’s a textbook example of Christensen’s theory of the conservation of attractive profits, albeit in a place you wouldn’t really expect: a talent agency integrates writers, actors, and producers to disintermediate the power held by studios for so long. Even if the business side of the talent agency world isn’t of much interest to you, you’ll enjoy this book. In its pages you’ll find the early days of the Jurassic Park production, the creation of Magic Johnson’s financial empire, and an unforgettable walk through Manhattan with Bill Murray. There’s some of the self-praise and self-justification you can often expect in these business memoirs, but it also comes with a heavy dose of introspection. Ovitz isn’t afraid to tell you that he could have worked 10% less and been a lot happier. He also isn’t afraid to say when he wronged the people he worked with. At its end, this is a book about being thoughtful with every person you meet and know, and that’s why I’d recommend it to anyone.
Mckinsey & co
Valuation: Measuring and Managing the Value of Companies
This is a big book about business. No false pretenses: I didn’t read the whole thing. This book is 1,000+ pages of deep valuation technique, if you’re not in VC, finance, or some other capital allocation role, there are going to be parts of it that are not relevant to you, as was the case with me. That said, with all the advanced tax management and divestiture policies aside, there is a hearty helping of good basics in this book for anyone evaluating product and business opportunities in their day-to-day. If that piques your interest and you’re curious how to approach this book, here’s the path I’d take. First, dig into part one, which covers the basics of valuation analysis. You’ll learn how the primary drives of value are growth and return on invested capital. You’ll learn how to break each of these components down into each of their own component parts, and understand the math behind how all of it works. You’ll learn that, in some cases (and pretty much all cases when you’re in startup land,) the formula this math leads to won’t actually help you, as it doesn’t work if your growth rate exceeds your weighted average cost of capital. You’ll learn that increasing your ROIC generally has a higher return on valuation than increasing your growth rate. Next, take a look at part two, which covers actually valuation frameworks to use when looking at specific companies. It’s here that you’ll get into specifics of enterprise value and how to actually run an analysis—a lot of it ended up being more detail than I was looking for at the time, but up to you. Worst case scenario: buying this book will give you a good resource to come back to if you ever find yourself needing to do one of these valuations. Finally, I’d jump all the way ahead to part five, which covers special cases. The chapter on high-growth companies is really valuable to anyone working in startup land, where high growth rates render the traditional valuation function useless. In this chapter, the book walks through a future-back valuation of a high growth startup (Opentable in 5th edition, Yelp in 6th) from market size estimates, to market share estimates, to forward operating margin estimates. It also handles using scenario analysis to make sure you’re giving bear to bull ranges on any of the estimates you’re coming up with. It’s a lot of assumption-based work, but a good walkthrough that may help you think through any opportunities you’re considering at your own startup and how they might impact market size, market share, and operating margin. Overall, it's a heavy, technical read but one I’d recommend (in part) to anyone looking to up-level their financial literacy and to help them evaluate business opportunities in their own role.
Matthew DixonThe Challenger Sale8NF2011Portfolio2019
Your customers don't care about your product, they care about their business. When I found myself getting pulled into more enterprise sales conversations in my product role at, I reached out to one of the top sellers I had worked with in my previous position at Percolate and asked for his favorite books on sales. This was at the top of his list. It's a great, concise read that starts with teaching customers how they can win their market, rather than just jumping into the demo of your product. Even if you're not directly in sales (sidenote: every career path eventually ends in sales,) there's still a lot of value in this book—it reminded me to look at the larger challenges our customers were facing and to think about how our unique differentiators could help them solve those challenges. Highly recommended for anyone in product management.
Andy GroveHigh Output Management (reread)9NF1983Vintage Books2019
This book is a kick in the ass, and I say that with the highest praise I can muster. I first read High Output Management in 2016 when I was just starting out as a product manager. I read the book’s introduction, with its direct, unyielding tone, and I thought to myself, ‘wow, I need to work a lot harder.’ One paragraph from the introduction stuck out in particular: “The consequence of all this [globalization] is very simple. If the world operates as one big market, every employee will compete with every person anywhere in the world who is capable of doing the same job. There are a lot of them, and many of them are very hungry.” Last week, as part of a book club at work, I read High Output Management for a second time. The direct urgency of that introduction still rings as true now as it did in 2016. Following those pages, I found myself re-underlining all of the same paragraphs that I did three years ago. There’s just so much great advice in this book. A total classic and one I expect I’ll come back to for years to come: in part for the advice, in part for the kick in the ass.
Ross MacdonaldThe Galton Case6F1959
The Library of America
Californian mystery-noir, set in the 1950s, written in the 1950s. The book's protagonist—Lew Archer—finds himself searching for the long-lost heir to an oil baron fortune. Along the way his case takes him from Los Angeles to San Francisco to Half Moon Bay—the rough, simple exposition paints a picture that readers from the state will appreciate. There's plenty in this book that hasn't aged well, but it's a fun story. I found it to be a perfect break from the non-fiction list I'd built up over the previous months. Next time you're looking for a beach read, try some 50s pulp fiction.
David OgilvyOgilvy on Advertising7NF1963Vintage2019
This is a book about how to move people with words. “When Aeschines spoke, they said, ‘How well he speaks.’ But when Demosthenes spoke, they said, ‘Let us march against Philip.’” I had heard about this book for a few years but finally decided to grab a copy when we started a positioning project at work. The book is worth your time. Ogilvy writes with clarity and brevity— you won’t find yourself scavenging through case studies for morsels of insight. These insights cover a wide range, one chapter covers the role of a CEO in an ad agency, another outlines a detailed set of rules for headlines and copy. Throughout, Ogilvy sprinkles the kind of advice you’d expect to get from a successful person over drinks. “Don’t sit across the table from clients in a sales meeting, mix in with them instead.” “Always hold a sales pitch in a room too small for the audience, even if it means holding it in the bathroom.” I have yet to attend a meeting in a bathroom, but, still, the message sticks. As I mentioned at the outset, this is a book about how to move people with words.
Tracy KidderThe Soul of a New Machine10NF1981
Little Brown and Co
In two years this book will turn forty. Long after that, product managers, engineers, and designers will keep reading it, finding that, aside from the technology itself, not much has changed about the way they work. A 1981 story about a team of engineers building a computer, The Soul of a New Machine starts with a boat caught out at sea. In Pulitzer-winning prose, Tracy Kidder wrings out the soggy experience of his subjects. They’re out on the cape, far from shore. The sea starts to chop and salt crashes over the bow. Nausea sets in. With it comes doubt. The day sailors cling to their private sections of gunwale, wishing they’d never left land. It’s a total feint of a lede until, suddenly, you realize: this is the perfect introduction to a book about shipping product. The crew makes it back to land and with that Kidder brings us into the main setting of his story—the brick-walled basement of Data General. Here, amongst the cubicles and the foam-tiled ceiling, we meet the characters of the book, and their tools. There’s the hardware team—the Hardy Boys—piecing together sockets and circuit boards. There are the microcoders, responsible for the microcode that will turn assembly language into binary. And there’s Tom West, the director of the project, making sure the product the team’s building will function with the rest of Data General (both its stack and its politics.) This is a book about the search for great, life-affirming work and purpose. Often, the ultimate outcome of that work is ineffable or hard to comprehend—some greater future contribution to society that we might not be able to see from the present. (The team in this book knows they are building a computer to help Data General hit its annual sales target. They do not know that the small innovations they’re making along the way will enable future generations to make their own small innovations and so on.) In spite of the obscurity of that long-term purpose, the Data General team finds purpose and meaning in its own existence, in being a team of individuals who are motivating each other to do their best work. They aren’t being paid extra. They aren’t getting extra perks. They are just finding purpose in the journey of the project itself. Kidder starts his book on the sea. He ends it in a cathedral: “In the Gothic cathedrals of Europe, you can see the glorious fruits of free labor, given freely. What is usually meant by the term craftsmanship is the production of things of high quality; Ruskin makes the crucial point that a thing may also be judged according to the conditions under which it was built. Presumably the stonemasons who raised the cathedrals worked only partly for their pay. They were building temples to God. It was the sort of work that gave meaning to life. That’s what West and his team of engineers were looking for, I think.”
Isaac AsimovFoundation10F1951DoubleDay2019
Sapiens, but in space. I had wanted to read Foundation ever since I was first introduced to Asimov through his fantastic short story "The Last Question" (an absolute must read and one you'll have finished in fifteen minutes after a quick Google search for its title.) I didn't know what to expect with this book but was quickly gripped by its story of interstellar history and civilization. The story is one of empires and how they're formed in their nascent years. Over the course of the book, Asimov walks us through the early empires of feudal alliance, the middle-era empires of religion, and the modern empires of capitalism that we know so well. Like I said, Sapiens, but in space. Plus, it was written 60+ years before Harari came along.
Brian McCullough
How the Internet Happened: From Netscape to the iPhone
Netscape was my first browser. Amazon was my first online purchase. AIM was my first online messenger. As someone that was born in the closing hours of 1989, the Internet's history is, in many ways, my history. I think that's part of why I enjoyed this book so much. It's coverage of the 90s, in particular, made for a very fun read. The other reason why I enjoyed this book is its role as a record of all of the great internet products and business models we've seen so far, and what we can learn from each of them. I had heard many of these stories before on McCullough's excellent podcast, but taken together, they show a larger history helpful for anyone who works in, or is interested in, the internet. It’s all here: AOL install CDs, IPO pops that deserved it, IPO pops that didn’t, cannabalized business models, banner ads,, the list goes on. If you remember anything in that list and want a refresher course on how it all went down, then How the Internet Happened is for you.
Ravi Agrawal
India Connected: How the Smartphone is Transforming the World's Largest Democracy
Oxford University Press
India Connected is an eye-opening view into the ways people across the world will use products in unexpected ways. One of my favorite Jurassic Park quotes to use as a product manager (and there are many) is “life finds a way”, meaning you can never know all of the ways in which people will use your product. This is no truer than in India, where customer use cash for Uber rides, pay for 4G access by the minute, and use intentional missed calls as a way to page friends without incurring data costs. This book is a fascinating look into modern day India and the true revolution introduced there by the smartphone.
John UpdikeToo Far to Go: The Maples Stories7F1979
Everyman's Library
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".
Ken Kocienda
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.
Jake Knapp
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 Helmer7 Powers8NF2016
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 PollanHow to Change Your Mind6NF2018Penguin2018
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 MaughamThe Moon and Sixpence10F1919Penguin2018
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 FitzgeraldThe Great Gatsby (reread)10F1925Scribner2018
I read somewhere that great art tells you something about yourself each time you return to it. Last weekend, finding myself on a trip to Long Island at twenty eight, I decided it was time for another visit to West Egg. The book is, in large part, so re-readable because so many of us last read it when we were in high school. 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 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 no student forgets. 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 that cover of blue night. 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.” I found new darkness in Gatsby himself. 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 an 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, (which has in turn become the tragedy of some of the great characters of the 20th century, think the Corleone family) 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 tragedy of these characters is a modern one, and it's best embodied by the book's 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 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.
John WilliamsStoner10F1965
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 TwainAdventures of Huckleberry Finn9F1885
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 CarreyrouBad Blood8NF2018Knopf2018
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.
Jonathan RoseThe Literary Churchill: Author, Reader, Actor8NF2014
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 KingThe Shining9F1977Anchor Books2018
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 WestoverEducated7NF2018Random House2018
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 BrowderRed Notice7NF2015
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 BuffettThe Essays of Warren Buffett7NF2015
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 CialdiniInfluence: The Psychology of Persuasion7NF1984Harper Collins2018
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 ChurchillMy Early Life8NF1930
Musaicum Books
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 MooreCrossing the Chasm8NF2014Harper Business2018
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 Odyssey8F2018Norton2018
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 HorowitzThe Hard Thing About Hard Things8NF2014Harper Business2018
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 RovelliSeven Brief Lessons On Physics8NF2016Riverhead Books2018
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 Gate8NF1990Harper2018
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 PowersThe Overstory6F2018Norton2018
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 CollinsBeyond Entrepreneurship6NF1992Prentice Hall2018
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
Security Analysis7NF1934McGraw-Hill2018
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 DickensGreat Expectations6F1861
Penguin Classics
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 KushnerMasters of Doom7NF2003Random House2018
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 WalshThe Score Takes Care of Itself7NF2009Portfolio2018
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 BourdainKitchen Confidential7NF2000Bloomsbury USA2018
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 WolfeThe Right Stuff7NF1979
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 IsaacsonSteve Jobs7NF2011
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 Project7NF2013
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 KalanithiWhen Breath Becomes Air7NF2016Random House2018
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 GilThe High Growth Handbook6NF2018Stripe Press2018
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 GaddisOn Grand Strategy5NF2018Penguin Press2018
"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 Business5NF2013O'Reilly2018
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 ZinnA People's History of the United States5NF1980Harper2018
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.]
Peter Morville
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 PinkTo Sell Is Human3NF2012Riverhead Books2018
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
Crucial Conversations3NF2007McGraw-Hill2018
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
Nudge3NF2009Penguin Books2018
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 DoerrMeasure What Matters3NF2018Penguin2018
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 Data1NF2016Wiley2018
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 ChristianThe Most Human Human9NF2011Anchor Books2017
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 IshiguroThe Remains of the Day10F1988Vintage2017
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 KnightShoe Dog9NF2016Scribner2017
“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 BerlinThe Hedgehog and the Fox10NF1953
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 TolstoyWar and Peace10F1869Vintage Classics2017
“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 themselves in the study of 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 were, up to that point, 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 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 dance in a warm cabin. A sleigh ride at twilight. It’s in these sequences 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 ChristensenThe Innovator's Dilemma9NF1997
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.
Michael Mauboussin
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.
ShakespeareMacbeth9F1603Signet Classics2017
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.
Jeff Gramm
Dear Chairman: Boardroom Battles and the Rise of Shareholder Activism
9NF2015Harper Business2017
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 PorterCompetitive Strategy8NF1980
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 KingOn Writing8NF1999Scribner2017
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.”
ShakespeareKing Lear8F1606
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.
Peter Godfrey-Smith
Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness
8NF2016Harper Collins2017
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 GoldrattThe Goal8NF1984
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.
Haruki MurakamiWhat I Talk About When I Talk About Running7NF2008
Vintage International
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 BakkeThe Grid6NF2016Bloomsbury USA2017
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 CarnegieHow to Win Friends and Influence People8NF1936Gallery Books2017
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 SaundersLincoln in the Bardo7F2017Random House2017
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 LevyTo Pixar and Beyond7NF2016Mariner Books2017
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 AngellThis Old Man7NF2015DoubleDay2017
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 EganManhattan Beach4F2017Scribner2017
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 HaysThe Dixie Association6F1984
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 ChiangStories of Your Life and Others6NF2002
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.