The Books I Read in 2017

Keeping with my new tradition of sharing the books I read throughout the prior year, here’s my 2017 list (my 2016 list is here). These are roughly grouped by how much I enjoyed them, with a new section for baby books at the end.

Highly Recommend:

  1. Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari: The best book I read this year. It’s the history of humans, and other now extinct sapien species, covering our evolution, and the related rise of tools, language, culture, agriculture, philosophy, politics, religion, and very interestingly, companies and other non-living entities and institutions we’ve created. I learned quite a bit, and it got me thinking.
  2. Chaos Monkeys by Antonio Garcia Martinez: My father in law was reading this when he visited in August, and after skimming a few pages, I was intrigued and picked it up. It provides a first-person account of starting a tech company in Silicon Valley, struggling to make it work, then selling it in an acqui-hire. It’s filled with interesting anecdotes and commentary. It also provides a great overview of the evolution of online advertising, and contains much inside detail on Y Combinator and Facebook. The best part was probably Martinez’s style, which is unfiltered and fun. The book is filled with his perspectives on the tech sector and entrepreneurship. Many of his underlying ideas may not be original, but he has a unique way of synthesizing a range of ideas into simple points. One (much publicized) example: “Investors are people with more money than time. Employees are people with more time than money. Entrepreneurs are simply the seductive go-betweens.”
  3. Alibaba: The House that Jack Ma Built by Duncan Clark: I didn’t expect to like this one as much as I did. Given Alibaba’s success, I picked it up hoping to learn a bit more about Jack Ma and his company. I found Jack Ma to be a more interesting person than I’d expected, and I enjoyed learning about his personality, management/leadership style, and back story. As I had hoped, the book does a nice job explaining the history of Alibaba, and how it grew to its current dominance. It also provides an informative overview of how many parts of the Chinese tech scene have evolved over the past fifteen years, including detail on Softbank, Baidu, Tencent, Yahoo, and Ebay, who all invested in or competed with Alibaba.
  4. Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson: At 1248 pages, this may be the longest book I’ve read, and it didn’t feel long at all. It was epic, although probably not for everyone. I’ll give a brief pitch. Brandon Sanderson is arguably the best active fantasy writer, with one at least somewhat objective metric being his consistent presence at the top of the NYT best seller list. I’ve read over 10 of his books and enjoyed them all. After he finished Robert Jordan’s nearly 20-year, 14-book fantasy series ‘The Wheel of Time’ (the last three were written by Sanderson following Jordan’s death), Sanderson started his own ambitious project, a planned 10 book series titled ‘The Stormlight Archive.’ This is the third book of that series, with the previous two being ‘The Way of Kings‘, which reached #7 on the NYT bestseller list, and ‘Words of Radiance‘ which reached #1. Oathbringer, which was released in November, started in the #1 spot as well. For anyone who hasn’t tried a series like this, a good analogy might be that it’s a bit like investing time in a story such as ‘Game of Thrones’. Lots of action, hundreds of characters, weaving plots and sub-plots that occasionally cross paths then diverge again, and many layers of thoughtful symbolism. It’s entertaining and fun. I’m already eager to read the fourth book, which probably won’t be published until 2020 or so. This is a multi decade investment.
  5. Decide by Steve McClatchy: A framework for thinking about how to make decisions and prioritize tasks in a way that align with your long-term goals. Sounds boring, but it wasn’t.
  6. Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari: It’s Aziz Ansari sharing his thoughts and experiences on dating and romance. It’s exactly what you’d expect.

Recommend:

  1. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo: I caved and read this on a plane after hearing about it from many people and seeing it consistently in the news. I wasn’t a fan of her style or the anecdotes in the book (I rolled my eyes a lot), but I’m completely sold on her approaches to staying organized and getting rid of clutter. They’re all solid. The book was short, but I would have preferred an even shorter guide without Marie’s backstory. But with that caveat, I’d recommend the full book.
  2. Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg: I knew quite a bit about this one going in from all the media coverage. It’s well written, mixes the right amount of data and anecdotes to make a number of compelling points that are thoughtful and not immediately obvious, and the whole thing is woven into Sheryl’s own personal story, which was interesting and new to me.
  3. Angel by Jason Calacanis: A primer on angel investing, from a very successful angel investor.
  4. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck by Mark Mason: Some guiding principles on how to stop caring about things that don’t matter, and how to push forward with the things that do. Also see #16 below.
  5. Foundation’s Edge by Isaac Asimov: The fourth book in the Foundation Series. It was good, but as I get further into the series, I’m finding them harder to get through. After reading Asimov’s ‘The End of Eternity’ last year, which I loved, this one seemed in bit dull in comparison. That said, I enjoyed it and will pick up the next book at some point.
  6. Nothing Here is Real by Matt Bindig: My high school English teacher wrote a novel! His English class was the only one I enjoyed in high school, as I was more of a math and science person. I remember his enthusiasm for analyzing the underlying meaning in books was almost contagious (i.e., it got me excited in class, and maybe a few things stayed with me). Mr. Bindig was a young teacher, probably in his 20s at the time, and came off as a deep, contemplative, and complex guy, albeit with an optimistic and upbeat attitude. So it was not surprising to find that his first novel tells a dark story that’s thoughtfully layered. The style reminded me a lot of him. It’s very well written, and I flew through it. I suspect I probably missed a few things along the way.

Cautiously Recommend:

  1. The Lean Product Playbook by Dan Olsen: The product management frameworks in this book are good, but nothing thought provoking. It did give me a more structured way to organize my ideas around product design and validation.
  2. Algorithms to Live By by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths: I expected more out of this one. Like economics or business books written for mainstream audiences, this type of writing needs to walk that fine line between interesting/entertaining and technical. I was excited going in, and was intrigued after the first few chapters. But it peaked there for me — I walked away with a better understanding of some CS principles and some good math-based rules of thumb, but was hoping for something more, probably for it to go deeper on the technical side. The book has outstanding reviews though, so maybe it was just me.
  3. All Souls: A Family Story from Southie by Michael Patrick McDonald: Having lived in Southie for over 10 years, I picked this up after a friend recommended it. The first-person accounts of the drugs, violence, and racism throughout the 60s-80s were shocking. Not because I was unaware of the history, but it resonated more when told through specific stories taking place blocks from where I live. If you have no connection to Southie, you may not find it as interesting.
  4. A Guide to the Good Life by William Irvine: I can’t remember how I heard about this book, which is a guide to the principles of stoicism, written by a philosophy professor turned modern day stoic. I bought it before a flight, and read most of it on that flight. It provides a brief history of life philosophies, with a focus on stoicism, and then shifts into a guide on how to apply the teachings of ancient stoics to life today. At times it felt a bit forced. Overall I liked it, but I read it right around the same time I read ‘The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck’ (#10 above) — ironically both advocate for many of the same approaches to living a fulfilling life, and I thought Mark Mason accomplished it in a more entertaining way than this book did (albeit with less structure, research, and history). If stoicism specifically interests you, this is probably a good place to start.

Baby Books:

At this point, my take on books about babies is that they generally aren’t that helpful. I’ve picked up a few good tips and ideas from some of these, but stopped proactively seeking out this type of book soon after Mason was born. I’ve found that for the most part, there are more practical/efficient ways to get parenting guidance. That said, I’d obliviously welcome recommendations.

  1. The Expectant Father by Armin Brott: A friend lent this to me a few months before Mason was born. I flew through it, digging into the sections that seemed helpful and informative, skimming those that didn’t. I’d recommend it if you’re looking for a quick primer on some things you should probably be aware of before becoming a dad.
  2. The Happiest Baby on the Block by Harvey Karp: The 5 S’s to keeping a newborn baby happy work. You just don’t need to read this book to learn them. Skip it and watch the video. I wish that’s what I’d done.
  3. Twelve Hours Sleep by Twelve Weeks by Suzy Giordano and Lisa Abidin: It’s hard to say how helpful this book was. As soon as Mason was born, I wanted to figure out what we could do to maximize our chances to getting him to sleep through the night as quickly as possible. So I immediately read this book. We mostly succeeded, as Mason began sleeping 11-12 hours/night without waking up by 6 weeks. I’m just not convinced the success had anything to do with us or this book, as he just seemed to do it himself. But it’s hard to know…
  4. Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman: Laura and I both read this while she was pregnant. It’s an account of an American/British couple raising their first child in France, and Druckerman compares highly generalized versions of French and American parenting styles. I took the book’s thesis to be that typical American parents could probably learn a few useful things from the French, and after finishing it, I’d agree.
  5. Breastfeeding Made Simple by Nancy Mohrbacher & Kathleen Kendall: I know I read this, but honestly don’t remember a single thing it said. I read it while extremely sleep deprived the week after Mason was born. At the time, we were still worrying about getting into a breastfeeding routine. Laura and Mason eventually did. With hindsight, advice from nurses, family, and friends is probably more helpful than a book like this. I suspect I would have remembered more if it were helpful.

You might also like: