Here’s my list from last year, roughly grouped by how much I enjoyed them (as I did in 2016, 2017, and 2018). With two kids under two, it was tough to find as much time as I’d like to read. But I had the opportunity to re-read a few of my favorites, and I found some great new ones. Special thanks to Danielle P. for a couple spot on recommendations.
- 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Harari: I loved Sapiens and was excited to jump into a new Harari book. I found this one to be fun, relevant, and thought provoking. He covers a range of technological, political, and social topics, all with a helpful macro perspective on (1) how current trends could evolve as the century progresses, and (2) the biggest opportunities, risks, challenges we will likely face.
- The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams: I used to read this every 2-3 years, and it had been 6 or 7. A classic for obvious reasons.
- Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams: I decided to continue revisiting Douglas Adams, as I’d last read this one about 10 years ago. If you liked The Hitchhiker’s Guide, and are interested in trying another Douglas Adams book, this is a good place to start.
- Bad Blood by John Carreyrou: This is the story of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos. I hadn’t fully appreciated the extent of her deception/fraud, and this book tells it well. Lots of lessons to be learned from this one about business culture and integrity more generally.
- Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb: This was recommended to me, and I enjoyed it much more than expected. Gottlieb’s a therapist, and the book alternates between accounts of her client sessions and those with her own therapist. The format worked well, and it felt a bit like a bunch of short stories loosely connected by some common themes and Gottlieb’s own personal and professional journey. As a bonus, my wife’s a therapist, and it gave me some interesting new perspectives on what that’s like.
- Brief Answers to the Big Questions by Stephen Hawking: I’d read and enjoyed ‘A Brief History of Time’ nearly 20 years ago. A friend mentioned this one to me, and I decided to jump in. It’s actually a re-edited collection of many of Hawking’s more recent writings, organized around a series of “big picture” questions (e.g., is there a god?, is time travel possible?, should we colonize space?). Hawking basically just gives his opinions on each, pulling in lots of science. It’s a quick one, and I enjoyed both his perspectives and the opportunity to brush up on some basic physics concepts.
- What You Do is Who You Are by Ben Horowitz: This one is awesome. It’s a book about the importance of culture in companies, and uses several historical and current case studies to highlight different approaches/tactics to building effective cultures that get big things done. I found it interesting, insightful, and useful/practical. Not your typical business book.
- The Odyssey by Homer, Translation by Emily Wilson: I hadn’t read this since 9th grade, and Tyler Cowen recommended this translation in his ‘Best Fiction of 2018‘ post. I expected it to be a bit of a slog (it’s a 12k line poem), but not at all. It’s a colorful, approachable translation, and made me consider revisiting some of the other classics I haven’t read since high school.
- Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Harari: I was hoping to love this one after reading ‘Sapiens’ and ’21 Lessons for the 21st Century’, but I just didn’t find it to be as good. Overall it’s well structured and interesting, but a tier below the others. Start with those.
- The 100 Page Machine Learning Book by Andriy Burkov: I picked this up for a quick scan of the landscape to stay up to date on recent developments/practices. The author does a nice job of concisely organizing the content, while maintaining modeling/math details where needed. It strikes a nice balance – not quite a textbook, but technical enough to be useful for practitioners.
- Measure What Matters by John Doerr: OKRs as a management tool seem to be gaining a new burst of popularity, and I read this to learn a bit more about their history and best practices for implementation. Parts were interesting and useful, but overall the book felt a bit repetitive and tedious as times.
- Factfullness by Hans Rosling: I’ve previously read and enjoyed a few books from Bill Gates’ reading list. He’s been a huge advocate of this one, to the point where he’s given many copies away for free. So I was eager to see what it was all about. The premise is that most people don’t understand how much better the world has gotten over the past hundred or so years, and specifically aren’t aware of the substantial improvements in health, literacy/education, and poverty outcomes that have been achieved. This is a good message to share, and Rosling makes a strong case that most people aren’t aware of the real progress in these areas. But the format just didn’t work for me – he assumes the reader is somewhat ignorant – and the whole thing felt repetitive. I wondered whether Gates actually enjoyed reading it, or just felt strongly that the average person who may not be knowledgeable in development progress should read it.
- It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work by David Hansson and James Fried: This is a short book about how to avoid crazy work cultures, with “crazy” basically defined as intense, demanding, and a lacking a work-life balance. I didn’t find any of the content to be particularly insightful, and at times it felt like a bit of a marketing/recruiting tool for the company run by the authors. While some of the advice is good (e.g., stop spending time on things that don’t matter, find time to focus on big challenges), these aren’t particularly revolutionary ideas and they weren’t presented in a unique way. In some respects, the authors seemed to be advocating for building lifestyle businesses over growth-focused startups, which is probably good advice for some entrepreneurs, but not the goal for many.
- Blueprint by Nicholas Christakis: This one just wasn’t for me. A former colleague raved about it, and I gave it a shot without much research. The basic thesis is that humans are inherently cooperative and good natured, and he supports it with a mix of science and case studies. While I don’t necessarily disagree with aspects of the thesis, I didn’t find his arguments to be very compelling. It got great reviews, so I could be an outlier here.