These are my favorite books that I‘ve read in 2018, out of the 103 books I read this year:
The Baroque Cycle (Quicksilver, The Confusion, System of the World) — Rich, resplendent, and towering, this series of three (or eight, depending on how you count) books soars from the Glorious Revolution to the Court of the Sun King to rambunctious adventures around the globe. Filled with scientific references, historical tidbits, and cameos (as well as larger parts played) by historical figures, this series is a delight.
Norse Mythology — Ancient tales, lovingly retold in clear, crisp prose.
Rubicon — The events a hundred years before, and immediately after, Caesar crossed the Rubicon. Compellingly told and woven into a fine tapestry depicting the gradual and then sudden dissolution of the Roman Republic.
The Square and the Tower — Erudite and thoughtful consideration of the interplay between networks (the eponymous square of the title) and hierarchies (the tower) across history.
On Grand Strategy — A series of vignettes selected from history, highlighting themes of grand strategy across time.
Grant — A human portrayal of a simple man from Southwestern Ohio; of his struggles, his character, his flaws, and his virtues.
Elon Musk — Written in 2012, this book offers insight into Elon Musk‘s early life, initial success in business, and current motivation and drive.
A Mind at Play — I first heard the name Claude Shannon in undergrad, in a little experimental course called 6.095: Information and Entropy. I remember being fascinated at the simplicity and depth of the theory that Shannon laid out. This book surveys his life and the development of that theory, as well as Shannon‘s own incredible combination of intellectual breadth and depth.
The Dream Machine — A tour de force history of the early days of interactive computing. A window into a near-forgotten era, and of the work of J.C.R. Licklider, who did much to bring the dreams of that era into the reality of instantaneous, planetary-wide, communication and computing that we take almost completely for granted today. Highly recommended.
Information Rules — Though written at the turn of the century, this book‘s dated references do not distract from the underlying soundness of the theory and insight offered about the network economy.
Prediction Machines — A brief survey of the business implications of the deep learning revolution, with a look at what sort of things are ripe for disruption and how that might happen. Accessibly written, even for a non-technical reader, this book does a great job of illustrating what sort of applications we’re likely to see in the future and why.
Deal of the Century — A fascinating portrayal of the dissolution of the telephone monopoly in the early 80s. Memorable characters and a stirring story well told make this a surprisingly hard-to-put-down read.
The Box — Shipping containers. Seemingly so obvious and yet, as this book reveals, not.
Bad Blood — In the end, if the science doesn‘t work, the science doesn‘t work. This book illustrates just how long hype and spin and bluster and fraud can hold off a collision with reality.
Shoe Dog — Part autobiography, part business history by the founder of Nike, this book focuses on the early years. Heartfelt and honest; warmly written. Perhaps most surprising, to a modern reader, are the challenges of financing an aggressive growth strategy in a world before venture capital.
Make Time & Deep Work — This pair of books, best read together, share strategies and tactics on how to make time for deep work. In a world filled with shiny distractions (digital and otherwise), finding time to focus on what‘s important (as well as determining, what, in fact, is actually important) is itself of vital importance.
Thinking in Bets — Entertainingly written by a former champion poker player, this book applies lessons learned around the card table to life and business. Insightful and a fun read.
Good Strategy, Bad Strategy — I‘m surprised this book was not on any of the reading lists of strategy courses I took in business school. Perhaps the clearest articulation of how to formulate strategy, as distinct from sloganeering, a common doppelganger thereof.
Powerful — From one of the authors of Netflix’s famous culture deck comes this amazing book. Honest, direct, filled with excellent, actionable guidance on how to create a company culture and what sort of company culture one should strive to create.
The Culture Map — A practical, insightful look at international business cultural differences, told with humor and heart. Useful to anyone who works with folks from anywhere else.
The Revolt of the Public — Originally self-published in 2014 and republished, in an updated form, this year by Stripe Press, this book, by a former CIA analyst, looks at technological change as the catalyst that has caused the public to revolt against leaders and provoke a crisis of authority. Weaving together such seemingly disparate events as the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, Brexit, and Trump, the book makes a compelling case that all these movements, at their heart, are enabled by the distributed, unmediated communication enabled by the Internet. The author argues that these movements “from the outside” often lack a positive agenda but are instead able to unify various factions through a common desire to oppose the status quo, without agreement on what or how to replace it. Highly recommended.
After Europe — This short book presents the case that migration, particularly that precipitated by Libya and Syria, was the European establishment’s kryptonite. Europe’s ideals of human rights and equality put European leaders in an awkward position of either (in the eyes of their critics) ceding national sovereignty or heartlessly turning away from people in need. Europe’s own refugee laws were built for a different era and unequipped to meet the necessary scale. This disruption-by-migration has not yet been settled in Europe and it is unclear how it will be settled, as evidenced by the rise of a variety of populist movements, on both right and left, and no consensus on how to resolve inherent contradictions in the foundation of Europe. A thought-provoking read.
The Jungle Grows Back — This book argues that the postwar order as we know it did not just happen. It was created — deliberately — by the United States and the Allies in an attempt to prevent the horrors of the 20th century from ever recurring. The book briefly surveys the creation of the status quo before turning to look at the beginning of its dissolution, as America turns inward after ill-advised adventures abroad. The implications of what the world could look like, were the postwar order overturned, are harrowing. A dire, but well-written brief.
Skin in the Game — A delightful read, replete with wisdom. This book can be a bit curmudgeonly at times, but overall it’s a enjoyable discourse on the necessity of accounting for downside risks / disincentives — i.e. making sure not only that the people who make a decision can benefit if it goes well, but that they have some downside if goes poorly. And lots of illustrations on what happens if that isn’t the case.
Behave — An incredible read, providing a deep look into human biology and neuroscience as we know it now, viewed through the lens of what makes us behave the way we do when we do. Insightful, humorous … deeply thought-provoking. Be sure to read the delightful footnotes.
Stumbling on Happiness — An entertaining survey of the state of practical cognitive psychology and how we, as humans, routinely mispredict what will actually make us happy, as well as deceive ourselves about ourselves. Recommended.