It’s been another self-indulgent year of funemployment for yours truly, which means I’ve had the time to read as much as I want; basically cruising around the library with my mouth open like some sort of bibliophilic basking shark. Since most people don’t have this luxury, I hope I can provide a small public service in filtering out the tastiest morsels that have passed through the bristle-like gill rakers encircling my giant, unhinged jaw.
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These are the books that blew my mind, made me howl, or filled my notebook to overflowing. In no particular order:
If you’re struggling with productivity and need a gigantic kick up the butt, this is the book for you. The main theme is that the ability to perform deep, undistracted work is becoming as rare as hen’s teeth, at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable – which means the few people who cultivate this skill will thrive. Deep Work takes a fascinating dive through the science of productivity and willpower, and ends with lots of practical strategies which I’ve already started putting in practice. Cal Newport is in the interesting position of being both a computer scientist and an advocate for ‘digital minimalism’, and has strongly influenced my growing suspicion that Facebook and Netflix et al are borderline evil.
I also read Flow this year, which makes the much stronger case that deep work and living in the moment are actually crucial to happiness, as well as The Power of Habit, which explains how to rewire your brain. Both are pretty straight presentations of the science, without being all gross and ‘self-helpy’. Round out the productivity binge with Jordan Peterson’s self-authoring course, which was a big help for figuring out my priorities and goals (full review here).
“The things you’re looking for, Montag, are in the world, but the only way the average chap will ever see ninety-nine per cent of them is in a book. Don’t ask for guarantees. And don’t look to be saved in any one thing, person, machine, or library. Do your own bit of saving, and if you drown, at least die knowing you were headed for shore.”
I’m pretty sure Fahrenheit 451 is a staple of high school English classes. Maybe I subconsciously avoided reading it because it’s basically my worst nightmare: A dystopian future where books are illegal, and firemen burn any copies that are found. The prose is stunning, and the prophetic theme is just as relevant 60 years after publication. Each of these factors alone would be enough to recommend it; to have them combined in one book is amazing.
Cialdini is rumoured to be a secret adviser at the very highest levels of American politics, and I can see why. This book contains a fearsome arsenal of weapons for marketers and manipulators, which makes it a must-read for us suckers and consumers (so we can learn how to defend ourselves). This was a topical read, because it helped me realise there might actually be some method in Trump’s apparent madness.
Basically The Catcher in the Rye on steroids. Esther Greenwood – Sylvia Plath’s thinly-veiled alias – could rival Holden Caulfield for brattiness. I’m glad Plath went for unvarnished warts-and-all honesty, because it makes the story feel much more authentic and poignant. Besides the stark depiction of mental illness, The Bell Jar perfectly captures the existential dread and angst young people feel when they’re trying to choose which path to take in life, no matter how smart or talented they might be. So many juicy figs, now rotting on the ground.
Seligman is the granddaddy of ‘positive psychology’, a field born of the realisation that ‘hey, maybe there’s more to this psychology thing than coming up with more disorders to add to the bulging DSM?’
Learned Optimism is all about instilling optimism as a life skill, outlining how it correlates with success in everything from health and the immune system to sales to politics, etc. It’s a bit boring at times, but really useful, especially the techniques for changing your modes of thinking; the foundation of the cognitive behavioural therapy that has swept away most of the Freudian mumbo-jumbo in psychology.
The most fascinating section addresses the question of why there’s an unprecedented epidemic of depression in an age of unrivaled prosperity. Seligman puts it down to the rise of extreme individualism and the simultaneous decline of communal institutions like the patriotic nation-state, God, and the family, which has left people missing the sense of being part of something bigger than themselves. He has some tentative ideas for filling the existential void – gratitude, altruism, self-deprivation – but doesn’t get too deep, which in fairness would require a whole series of books.
Pair Learned Optimism up with some Stoic or Buddhist philosophy, a bit of Viktor Frankl-style existentialism, and a decent grounding in behavioural economics, and I reckon you’ve given yourself the best possible shot of finding happiness and living the good life.
I kept hearing about this strange and beautiful book, but could never seem to find it – until I realised it had been re-published as ‘Arrival’ after the movie adaptation. Ted Chiang isn’t exactly a household name, and has written very little outside this collection, but he’s won almost every science fiction award that exists. He clearly has an amazing understanding of linguistics, psychology, mathematics, and history, and combines it with a literary flair that is unusual in hard sci-fi writers. This is hands-down the best collection of short stories I’ve ever read, of any genre.
An old PDF file containing Ray Dalio’s inner musings has been circulating around entrepreneurial circles for years, taking on a semi-mythical status. Dalio is the founder of the world’s most successful hedge fund, and Principles gives a pretty good insight as to why. I skipped over the management section, but the personal principles he’s developed over the years are alternately brilliant or thought-provoking. While the version I read is repetitive and a bit clunky, there’s good news: Dalio’s released a proper book version in 2017, with the help of an actual writer and editor, which I’m looking forward to reading (if you want the free PDF ‘draft’, it’s here).
It is somewhat painful, as both a journalist and a finance guy, to read a book which shits all over your profession. While Nassim Taleb is an insufferable ass, that doesn’t mean he’s not right. I can’t think of any single author who has taught me more, and not just abstractions (I’ve applied Taleb’s barbell strategy to both my career and my investing portfolio).
Fooled by Randomness outlines all the ways in which life is far more random than we realise, and how our attempts to impose meaning upon uncertainty constantly lead us astray. This was the first of Taleb’s books, but I read it last for some reason. His most famous work, The Black Swan explores the impact of rare and unexpected events, and how to benefit from the good ones while avoiding ruin from the bad ones. Antifragile builds on the previous books, and adds the concept of ‘antifragility’ – systems that actually improve when exposed to stressors, shocks and failures.
All three books overlap in subject and tone, woven together with amusing anecdotes, wild digressions, barbs and vitriol, and obscure classical references. The ideas have all sorts of applications in science, health, wealth and education, and practical uses for your own life. I can’t recommend them highly enough.
I’ve never read a work of fanfiction before, but I couldn’t resist the premise here: Harry Potter is raised by an Oxford professor, and brings Enlightenment values and the scientific method to the world of wizardry. I’m pretty sure this is the most bizarre book I’ve ever read. Harry is portrayed as a sort of sociopathic Ender Wiggins, and pretty much every other beloved character from your childhood is embroiled in creepy Machiavellian schemes that make your head spin.
There are dozens of ‘why didn’t Gandalf just get an eagle to drop the ring right into Mount Doom?” moments that skewer the logical and plot loopholes of the Potterverse, boatloads of sci-fi and fantasy references, and a whole lot of science. While the narrative gets bogged down at times, my sick fascination meant I literally couldn’t stop reading. I got through all 2000 pages in a few days, the sort of uncontrollable binge I haven’t experienced since I was a kid reading the actual Harry Potter books. I have to warn that this really might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I enjoyed it so much it would be dishonest to leave it off the list.
Sometimes when everyone raves about a book, from Bill Gates to the Zuck to Obama, well, they’re probably worth listening to. I’m late to the party, but all I can do is add my voice to the choir: This is without doubt the best book I read this year. It’s an insanely ambitious project – a brief history of humankind, from our earliest ancestors through to our current status as ‘gods’ capable of creating new species (and quite possibly destroying our own). Rather than getting bogged down in minutia, Harari fills the narrative with big, counterintuitive ideas which turn everything you think you know about humankind and culture inside out and upside down. I’m not even going to say more, because it would spoil it. Just go read this book.
My Father’s Island – Adam Dudding: A touching memoir that also presents a fascinating slice of New Zealand history, with all sorts of of literary leviathans casually wandering through the cheerful bohemian squalor of the Dudding household.
Benjamin Franklin – Walter Isaacson: Franklin is one of those annoyingly impressive all-rounders – scientist, writer, inventor, diplomat, persuader, practical joker and philosopher – and his antics are a delight to read about. I skimmed the middle bit, which is boring for non-Americans.
Notes From Underground – Fyodor Dostoevsky: Deeply frustrating neurotic stream-of-consciousness rambling, but worth persevering to the second act, which presents an interesting critique of rationality.
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress – Robert Heinlein: Exploring AI, gender fluidity and polygamy is pretty impressive for 1966, but the libertarian ideological stuff feels a bit hamfisted. Not as elegant as Stranger in a Strange Land.
Superintelligence – Nick Bostrom: Extremely tough going in parts (I skimmed quite a lot) but crucial for understanding why the warnings about AIs destroying us all are nowhere near as loony as they seem.
Their Eyes Were Watching God – Zora Neale Hurston: Gender roles, love and race in early 20th century America. A beautiful short novel that sometimes blurs into poetry.
Elon Musk: Inventing the Future – Ashlee Vance: I used to think Elon Musk was a jerk with questionable business acumen. Now I realise he only seems like a space alien because he’s operating on a totally different level of (Paul Bloom-style) empathy. Am now a card-carrying Muskovite.
Still hungry? Check out the best books I read in 2016 for more recommendations.
What was the best book you read this year? Drop a comment or send me an email, and don’t forget to come add me as a friend on Goodreads so we can share recommendations and reviews!