My favorite books out of the 70 books (~31,000 pages) that I read in 2019:
Sci-Fi and Fantasy
Exhalation — Another collection of wonderfully crafted sci-fi short stories from a master of the genre.
Mars Trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars) — I remember trying to read Red Mars as a kid when I was 10 or 11 years old. Needless to say it sailed entirely over my head and abandoned it unfinished. Returning now some decades later, the series as a whole is an incredible exploration of the human aspects of space colonization. The trilogy begins with a narrow focus on the initial set of colonists and their initial travails and then gradually widens the lens to ultimately encompass the entire planet, its transformation, and relationship with Earth.
The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer — As someone who enjoys an occasional costume drama miniseries or a novel by Jane Austen, this was an enjoyable tale set in a neo-Victorian future. Hard to believe it was written in 2003 as it correctly anticipated many of the aspects of an always-on, digitally connected world where people can work from anywhere.
Anathem — Perhaps one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve ever read, mediating on the nature of knowledge and knowing itself. A beautiful blend of math, philosophy, and sci-fi/fantasy.
Fiction and Classics
Circe — A suspenseful tale that imagines Circe on her own terms while staying true to the mythology.
Wolf Hall Trilogy (Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies) — The prose, the prose, the prose. The prose, the prose: the prose! The prose; the prose, the prose… the prose. The prose! The prose in this book is phenomenal. Amazing. The author does incredible things with the English language; English sings, it leaps off the page, it delights the ear and the eye.
The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 — Sobering, accessible tale of exactly how things went off the rails in the lead up to World War I.
“The outbreak of war in 1914 is not an Agatha Christie drama at the end of which we will discover the culprit standing over a corpse in the conservatory with a smoking pistol. There is no smoking gun in this story; or, rather, there is one in the hands of every major character. Viewed in this light, the outbreak of war was a tragedy, not a crime.”
The Death and Life of Great American Cities — As a new resident in the West Village, this surprisingly timeless tract on the nature of American cities struck home. It teaches how to perceive the order in what would otherwise appear to be chaotic, disorganized completely. Many of its lessons appear to have gone unheeded in the decades since its publication. Reflective study of this book could lend insights for the cities of the future.
The book grapples with deep questions: What is the nature of community? Who is part of the community? Who decides for the community? How is a community to live (in the dynamic, ever-changing sense of the word?)
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln — A deep portrait of Lincoln’s leadership style and his genius for bringing together people and bringing forth the best from them. If only we had politicians of his stature today.
The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914 — Before reading this book, I had no idea France had first tried to construct a canal across the isthmus of Panama. An entertaining tale, skillfully told, takes the reader from those initial French attempts to the eventual American effort that culminated, through political and engineering challenges, into the canal that now exists.
The Pursuit of Glory: Europe 1648-1815 — A sweeping survey of a turbulent time in the history of Europe, leading up to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. As a fan of the Europa Universalis IV grand strategy game, this book was a great complement to the game by providing deep historical background for the various nations and kingdoms that play a part.
The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century — Incredibly rich, even to the point of denseness. Lays out data and fact, country by country, continent by continent, but doesn’t always weave a story, often deliberately leaving interpretation to the reader. There’s no unifying narrative, no simple explanations: the raw complexity of the 19th century is laid bare and examined, meticulously, from almost every angle.
As a lay American reader who was not intimately familiar with every major event of the 19th century, it was more than a little startling to discover how little I knew. This is a challenging but ultimately rewarding read that takes a truly global look at a pivotal century in our planet’s history.
Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. — A compelling and powerful portrait of Rockefeller and, by extension, Standard Oil. Much more than one-dimensional robber baron caricature.
Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood — A heartfelt, honest, and at times, humorous, portrayal of what it was like growing up as a mixed race child in apartheid South Africa. Self-reflective and insightful.
Economics and Politics
Moneyland: Why Thieves and Crooks Now Rule the World and How To Take It Back — A fascinating read on how money moves around the world (both offshore and onshore) and how interwoven it is with politics and power.
Jump-Starting America: How Breakthrough Science Can Revive Economic Growth and the American Dream — Thoughtful, informative, detailed, data-backed. Makes a persuasive case for targeted public investment to spur private development.
Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty — Highly readable, with ample helpings of fascinating historical vignettes, this book looks at nations through the lens of their institutions. Specifically, their economic and political institutions, and whether each of these are inclusive (economic growth or political power has a broad base and percolate within the system) or extractive (economic growth or political power drain out of the system). A valuable lens of looking at the world, of looking at political and economic decisions (does this increase inclusivity? is there an appropriate level of centralization?)
One might also speculate, as we look at the world of 2019 and the “nations” of the Internet, whether we are seeing similar patterns develop of inclusivity and extraction – platforms that enable participants to have a stake in governance and benefit from growth vs. those that extract value from participants without affording them any power or granting any benefits.
More from Less: The Surprising Story of How We Learned to Prosper Using Fewer Resources—and What Happens Next — An insightful read about how well-managed markets can lead to increased prosperity while, at the same time, reducing resource usage. Argues that environmental improvements have not solely been a product of regulatory initiatives but also, and importantly, are what people want. No one wants pollution: people want prosperity. If there’s a way to prosperity without pollution, that’s preferable to a polluted pathway. Technological innovation and development has carved and can continue to carve those pathways in the future.
Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration — An evocative graphic nonfiction read that persuasively argues that the world’s present orientation toward immigration is not only unjust but also counterproductive and ultimately self-defeating.
Radical Markets: Uprooting Capitalism and Democracy for a Just Society —A thought-provoking read. Honest and humble, with creative new ideas (some of which may work, some of which may not, but all of which deserve consideration and additional thought). I learned about quadratic voting thanks to this book, which I have to admit is a pretty cool concept.
Business and Leadership
The Making of a Manager: What to Do When Everyone Looks to You — A valuable introduction to the art of management, written for someone who’s managing for the first time, but informed by the perspective of the trajectory of what it means to be a manager. Clear, accessible prose that leaps off the page. A pleasure to read.
An Elegant Puzzle: Systems of Engineering Management — An insightful analysis on how to be an effective engineering manager. Though I’m not an engineering manager, I still found this book contained a multitude of valuable insights in terms of how to communicate upwards to leadership, how to organize and orient teams, and how to think about scaling and growth (both of product and of the team itself).
Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know— Written in the classic Gladwell style, this is an intriguing and thought-provoking read about why we trust strangers (and some of the consequences therein).
Philosophy and Humanities
Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing — An insightful peek into the process behind the incredible works of Robert Caro and why those works are so compelling.
The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World — A powerful juxtaposition of two different, even opposed, perspectives of approaching technology and the future, set alongside the history of two men you’ve probably never heard of (though you should know about them!). Should we aim to seek technical solutions to our challenges (as wizards propose) or should we instead change our behavior to prevent or eliminate those challenges in the first place (as prophets propose)?
The Body: A Guide for Occupants — Delightful. Educational and full of wonder.
Duped: Truth-Default Theory and the Social Science of Lying and Deception — I picked up this book because, as I was reading Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers, I kept seeing this book mentioned in the footnotes. The academic underpinnings behind some of Gladwell’s theses, this book explains how deception detection happens (or doesn’t). Notably, it’s not because liars look like they’re lying.
SprawlBall: A Visual Tour of the New Era of the NBA — A beautiful collection of charts and illustrations of how the NBA has evolved over the past decade. As a graph nerd and basketball fan, this book continually brought a smile to my face.