Last year I finally cracked my goal to read 100 books. After completing the challenge, I reflected thusly:
So I’m not going to get too hung up on the number this year. My preferred style of reading involves taking copious notes, writing reviews, and scribbling in the margin. I don’t want to feel the slightest pressure to just tag ‘em and bag ‘em.
Sure enough, I dialled it back this year. I only got through 56 books, which feels a little disappointing.
But having looked through my list, I realised that 2019 was still a great year for quake reading.
As always, it was agonising trying to choose between a worthy field, but I’ve winnowed it down to my top 10.
These are the books that blew my mind, made me howl, or filled my notebook to overflowing. In no particular order:
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This is the Malcolm Gladwell-esque airport book of the year. It’s full of catchy case studies on the rambling career paths of generalists—Vincent van Gogh, Johannes Kepler, the guy who invented GameBoy—but the difference is, it doesn’t rely on them. In fact, instead of creating cute narratives from whole cloth, Range unpicks a bunch of myths perpetuated by previous airport book gurus: the 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, the Tiger Mom, the idea that you ought to relentlessly specialise from childhood.
My overwhelming feeling throughout was one of jealousy. This is exactly what I was getting at in Specialisation is for Insects, but Epstein’s book-length treatment is a million miles better (duh). He also touches on the optionality philosophy that I’ve started laying out: we live in an increasingly volatile and ‘wicked’ world which doesn’t conform to a neat set of rules. That makes life much riskier for narrow specialists, while conditions are perfect for curious and flexible generalists.
Finally, it’s more evidence against long-term planning: successful careers, businesses, and interests tend to emerge organically from the bottom-up, rather than being meticulously planned from the top-down.
I think this is a terrific book that deserves its success. You’ll probably have to skim a bunch of ideas you’ve heard before, but there’s a ton of value in the synthesis.
What’s this memoir about? Mostly surfing, with a side order of surfing. Then it moves on to another course—surfing—before finishing up with a generous helping of surfing. Finnegan dissects every wave down to the level of its component molecules. We hear about every feathering crest, every close-out, the interplay of currents and coastlines and endless unexplained jargon and technical details.
The ravings of hobbyists are usually deathly boring, but I loved this book. It might be because I used to be into surfing, and didn’t have to learn a whole new vocabulary just to understand what he was frothing about. But many non-surfers also love this book, to the point where it won the Pulitzer Prize. Why?
Partly it’s the prose. Finnegan is a staff writer at the New Yorker, and he has some serious chops. His writing is so vivid that it feels like you’re right there with him, experiencing the panic of being rag-dolled over a reef, tripping on acid out the back at Honolua Bay, bashing through Fijian jungle looking for uncharted breaks.
But mostly, it’s the sheer fascination of watching an auto-vivisection of a broken brain—of a person so fanatically devoted to a cause that they will risk death and social isolation and financial ruin, entirely decoupled from the benefits of said cause. It’s a glimpse of the singular madness that makes humans so brilliant, and so absurd. Thanks to my two favourite Pauls (Barnes and Graham) for the recommendation.
I’m WEIRD! Chances are, so are you: Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic. As it turns out, the full palate of human morality is much richer than the acquired tastes of our weird little bubble.
Reading this book is like taking an empathy pill. It gets you inside the heads of people from various political tribes, so you can see the world through their eyes. Your opponents are not stupid, or wrong, or evil. They just have a different set of moral taste-buds.
Haidt isn’t a happy-clappy cultural relativist, though. His theory is an explanation of what is—instincts bestowed upon us by the blind idiot god of evolution—not what ought to be.
But even that’s enough to be incredibly useful: first, for understanding the culture wars that are raging right now, and second, for refusing to participate. Political partisanship turns your brain into cabbage, and makes you increasingly incapable of seeing reality as it is.
More jarring for me, on a personal level: Haidt argues that the pursuit of rationality through reasoned argument and logic is largely (but not entirely) futile, which is something I’ve reluctantly come to agree with, having initially been big into the rationalist movement.1
But also uplifting! I read part of this book after I’d eaten some THC-infused ice cream, and had a blazing epiphany: humans are the only ultrasocial primates. The group-level cooperation of the social insects—bees, ants, termites—was such a killer innovation that they now make up the majority, by weight, of all insects on Earth. Similarly, the social primates (us) dominated every other mammal on Earth through the ability to cooperate at scale. This really is unique: it would be unheard of for two chimps to carry a log.2 As Haidt puts it, we’re “10 per cent bee”. I think this is cool.
Thanks to Kate and Jonathan for the recommendation. See also: The Happiness Hypothesis, which was one of my top picks last year.
Remember all the popular behavioural economics research on how we’re all hopelessly biased and irrational? Gerd Gigerenzer is not a fan. He sounds like a fictional villain invented by J.K. Rowling, but he’s the real-life nemesis of Daniel Kahneman and friends.
Gigerenzer argues that our ‘fast and frugal’ heuristics are often superior for decision-making, that intuition serves us very well indeed, and that too much information makes us worse off in conditions of uncertainty.
Risk Savvy is mostly just a solid primer on risk analysis and statistical literacy— which leads to counterintuitive ideas, like why screening for breast or prostate cancer does more harm than good, and terrorism has such an amazing return on investment.
Here’s a taste of some of the heuristics from the book:
- Don’t ask your doctors what they recommend to you— ask them what they would do if it were their mother, brother, or child
- Don’t buy financial products you don’t understand
- If you are highly proficient at a sport, don’t think too long about the next move. If you are a beginner, take your time in deciding what to do
- Try to get the partner that your peers desire
None of this is to say the ‘biases’ crowd are completely wrong. But it’s an important counterpoint to popular books like Thinking Fast and Slow, which definitely overstated the case.
Yes, this is a sociological model built around fictional characters from a popular TV show (The Office). Yes, it feels like Rao is just making shit up from the comfort of his couch: arbitrarily dividing the world into Sociopaths, Clueless, and Losers. But who cares! All models are wrong; at least this is one is entertaining and insightful.
I hadn’t even seen The Office, but I still got a lot out of this
book stitched-together series of blog posts. Rao is brilliant at surfacing subterranean status dynamics and office politics. One section in particular sent shivers down my spine: the hollowness that comes from seeing social reality as theatre, and running out of masks to paper over the void.
This just so happened to be perfect timing for me, which means it’s probably not a great mass-recommendation. But it’s a cheap and quick option to take out, and if you’re a fan of The Office, surely worth a shot.
This unassuming little book was published in 1979, and has since become a cult classic. It’s not really about acting, but breaking down the dynamics of status games. Johnstone, a theatre educator, explains the concepts of ‘space’, status roles, body language, and how to play higher or lower, using examples drawn from his improv practice.
The first 50 pages alone are worth the price of admission—the rest of the book is a little repetitive (pages of students’ writing exercises) and I mostly skimmed it, but it’s mercifully short anyway.
Several years ago, I noticed that after reading a fantastic book or blog post, I’d struggle to remember anything about it. Maybe I’d recall the vague outline, or a snippet. But mostly, all that knowledge slipped out of my colander-brain. So I started a methodical system of note-taking, which I only recently learned has a proper name: Zettelkasten.
Even though I was doing it ‘wrong’, Zettelkasten profoundly changed my life as a reader and as a writer. I now have ~7,500 interconnected notes and ideas, going back six years. This is my single most treasured possession, and my ‘secret sauce’ (to the extent that I have any).
If you’re a writer, researcher, or student, I can’t recommend a practice like this strongly enough. Here’s what you need to get started:
- An explanation of the system and its benefits. I’m planning to write about this next year, but if you want a book-length treatment, Sönke Ahrens nails it.
- A storage system. The classic set-up involves a physical slip-box of index cards. But we can do so much better than that!
My most exciting side-project in recent years has been helping out with a startup called Roam Research, which aims to bring Zettelkasten to the people. If you’ve never used knowledge management tools before, the learning curve will be steep, but it’s worth it.
Roam is now an indispensable part of my life: for time management, note-taking, lists, gratitude journaling, morning pages, structuring writing, and everything in between. Obviously I’m biased, but I think this is something special.3
This collection is bursting with his trademark pith and gleeful savagery, but it’s also unusually dark and thoughtful: delving into the suicide of his sister, Tiffany, the process of aging and mortality, and of course, the backroom surgery performed by a fan so he could feed his tumour to a snapping turtle:
I got into the express line behind a middle-aged man in a T-shirt…the back pictured a Labrador retriever standing on the beach with a bikini top in his mouth. Below him were the words GOOD DOG. Some people, I thought, opening the wet wipes so I could wash the tumor off my hands before I touched my wallet.
Sedaris has a funny high-pitched voice + buckets of charisma, and Caroleen reports that the audio version is fantastic.
This is my go-to example of how New Journalism (creative nonfiction) ought to be done. It’s inspiring to see cultural criticism dished out without going down the route of the sneering, hardened cynic. Instead, Didion is vulnerable about her own rage and doubts and struggles to make it in a man’s world—but she avoids turning it into the narcissistic All-About-Me! gonzo show.
With that being said, my favourites were her personal essays on self-respect—read the 1961 Vogue original here—and on journaling, which could have been written yesterday. I can’t recommend the collection as a whole, because some of it is too specific to the context of the time.
The other unmissable piece is the titular essay on the degeneracy of San Francisco during its countercultural heyday. This was particularly interesting for me to compare and contrast, as I spent the summer in the Bay Area with my own degenerate friends. I think we’re slouching in the right direction, but it’s jarring how little has changed in half a century (and on some dimensions, has gotten worse).
Billed as a ‘feminist retelling’ of the Odyssey from the perspective of the witch-goddess Circe, but not at all heavy-handed: Circe is granted the dignity of being a complex character with all her own flaws and reckonings.
I loved the writing, the expanded universe, and the moral ambiguity: it reminded me how dramatically the notion of godhood and heroism has changed over the millennia. Reading The Odyssey around the same time, I couldn’t get over Odysseus’ rat-bastard nature: he’s a cheating, stealing, hubristic, privileged crybaby, and gets everyone around him killed.
This is the whole point of the story, but man, it makes the Marvel superhero stuff look like tiddlywinks. Thanks to Lindsay for the recommendation.
Some of these could have equally well made it into the top 10, but were narrowly edged out. Briefly:
An argument against top-down design in education, law, markets, etc. There’s only room for a quick dip into each field, but it strengthened my confidence in bottom-up tinkering and trial-and-error exploration, and my suspicion of High Modernism and central planning.
This is far and away the best explanation I’ve come across for unpacking the causes of obesity, calories in calories out, low carb vs low fat, and a bunch of other long-running nutritional debates. The neuroscience stuff is intense, so I skimmed quite a bit. It gets digestible again towards the end, and wraps up with some simple takeaways.
These grimly uplifting short stories are so good that I read the collection twice in three months. Recently found out that George Saunders is a MacArthur fellow (i.e. received a ‘genius’ grant). Story checks out.
Mostly preaching to the choir, but I have a slightly rosier view of social media. See my full review here.
Cute, short pop science book about optimal timing: when to eat, work, sleep, make decisions, etc. Inspired a half-written post that I’ll throw up next year.
Self-published phenomenon, sold a million copies. The anthology drags on (it’s ~80 per cent climbing stairs) but if you stop after Part 1, it makes for a perfect self-contained short story.
I notice that more than half my 2019 favourites were recommended by Deep Dish readers, so please drop a comment below! What’s the best book you read this year?
- Intuitions come first, then we backfill accordingly. With a few important exceptions, it seems like rationality skills mostly just make the conscious part of our minds better at coming up with elaborate stories to explain the movements of the enormous subconscious elephant we’re pretending to pilot.
My guess is that the next big breakthroughs in rationality will come from practices that change the elephant’s course through embodiment and direct experience, rather than reasoned argument—for example, psychedelics, meditation, various forms of therapy, and most importantly, just doing the thing in question, instead of talking about it.
- I didn’t realise this—you might see what looks like cooperation, like chimps hunting together, but they’re really all just going after a monkey that they happen to see at once. There’s no strategy at play, and questionable theory of mind: they can’t really model what their fellow chimps are thinking or planning.
- The beta is open now if you’re interested. Here’s the white paper I co-authored, which lays out some of the underlying philosophy, and here’s a recent interview/debate between Conor and Tiago Forte of Building a Second Brain.