Here are some of my favorite books out of all the books I’ve read this year.
Culture series — I read the entire ten book series over the course of 2016. The Culture series is set in the distant future where enlightened AIs run society and humans, freed from a life of labor, have to deal with the rest of the galaxy. What is life like when material want is eradicated? What about encounters with less enlightened aliens? Or perhaps backward planets lagging in development? All this and more is thoughtfully and philosophically dealt with in this amazing series. My favorite out of the ten books was the brilliant Matter, but I’d recommend starting with Player of Games.
Hainish Cycle — Continuing in my classic SF adventures, I tore through several of Ursula Le Guin’s novels. She writes with a poignancy and precision that makes her prose sing, and treats with themes that are larger than what’s typically encountered in science fiction. Among the books in the cycle, The Dispossessed stood out for me as a moving tale of two civilizations riven by decades of animosity. The entire work itself is beautifully and carefully framed, making it a work of art in its composition and form.
Three Body Problem/Remembrance of Earth’s Past Series — Translated from Chinese, this three book series: Three Body Problem, Dark Forest, Death’s End treats with the near and far future in a scenario where humanity makes contact with an alien civilization. It considers how earthlings react (on both personal and societal levels) as well as the interplay and tension between the two civilizations themselves. The series as a whole considers some Big Ideas and even Bigger Questions. The translation is superb and the series comes to a satisfying conclusion over the course of its narrative arc.
The Years of Lyndon Johnson — This is perhaps the best historical biography I’ve ever read. Four books so far, with a fifth on the way, it is not only meticulously researched, but is deliciously and superbly well-written. The first book, The Path to Power, opens with a long consideration of West Texas topography — a topic in which I had previously found no interest — but does so so brilliantly that I found myself enraptured by the pages. Robert Caro can write. The third book, Master of the Senate, is a stunning telling of LBJ’s use of political power to Get Things Done in the Senate. The entire series is an amazing study of the nature of power (“Power, Lord Acton says, corrupts. Not always. What power always does is reveal.”) and an intimate portrait of LBJ.
The Silk Roads: A New History of the World — What would history look like if we placed the Middle East at the center of it? How did the events of the centuries impact that region? This book does that, and does so brilliantly, resulting in a lovely, wonderful, endearing, immensely scoped tale. Follow the history of an entire region across the span of thousands of years. The threads of the narrative pull together so well as to have kept me turning the pages. A tremendous work of scholarship and an enlightened insight into a region that, to this day, continues to be a locus of history.
Hillbilly Elegy — The tale of a Yale-trained lawyer and his childhood in the hard scrabble backcountry of southern Ohio and northern Kentucky, used as a prism through which to view hillbillies, white working-class America, and the middle class. An illustrative collision of cultures, and of the havoc those collisions can bring upon lives.
Between the World And Me — Written as a letter from father to son, this book features beautiful, almost lyrical prose, filled with heart and feeling. A moving, powerful work on a difficult-to-read-about topic. Poignant, almost private, it is a gift to be able to read this and take steps on the path to a better understanding.
Evicted — Painstakingly researched through applied field research, the author embedded himself in Milwaukee to understand eviction, both from the perspective of tenants and landlords. Devastating, heart-wrenching, and depressing, but powerfully and evocatively told through moving, sonorous prose.
First Break All The Rules — A timeless classic, dating from before the first tech bubble burst (written in 1999), this book contains advice that’s useful not only to active and aspiring managers, but to all those who report to a manager. Through the lens of encouraging self-discovery, it emphasizes the need for understanding as the engine for growth and provides a set of questions to help drive a career forward.
Managing Humans — I’ve long been a reader of Rands in Repose, the author’s blog. This book contains some of the best essays from that blog, plus more, and provides a useful set of rubrics and lenses through which to view software engineering specifically and the technology industry more generally. Read this understand how giant tech companies actually get work done and the vital importance of middle managers: “A successful organization is built of layers of people that are glued together with managers. Each layer is responsible for a broad task, be it engineering or QA or marketing. Between each layer is a manager whose job it is to translate from one layer to the next … in both directions. He knows what his employees want. He knows what his manager wants, and he’s able to successfully navigate when those wants differ.” This book teaches how to be most effect as a manager in the middle between all those overlapping layers.
Chaos Monkeys — Irreverent, dark, sardonic, at times caustic — yet compelling. This tale of one man’s adventures at a Silicon Valley startup tells it straight up. Viscerally honest, replete with unexpected wisdom and surprising amounts of heart. Also, as a bonus, contains the most lucid explanation of advertising tech that I’ve come across. Read this to understand part of what makes this Valley run.
Stop Stealing Dreams — Available as a free PDF, this book takes a hard look at what education is for, how it got to the way it is now, and why it needs to be different. Powerfully written and easily digestible in small chunks, this is a thought-provoking read that looks forward to imagine what schooling/education/learning could and should look like in this Internet-enabled, connected world.
Dressing the Man — Only available in hardcover, but worth it. Beautiful photos and timeless principles for permanent fashion. Focused pretty heavily on professional attire (think law firms more than tech companies, let alone startups), but the underlying principles (color matching across skin tone/eye color/clothing/accents) apply everywhere. As a bonus, it delves into how many of the “standards” have come about, with fascinating history lessons into why things are the way they are (when in doubt, blame the Duke of Windsor). I don’t wear a suit to work nowadays, but this book was still a fascinating, eye-opening, and ultimately quite useful read.