These are the books I read in 2018. These books correlate to places I went, or places my mind went. These books complement my journeys or became the journey themselves. This list is really a summary of the year lived.
Each of the books listed below I read beginning to end. (There is also a great list of 2018 abandoned books I should put together.) There’s a sense of accomplishment in making it through an entire book. I share my list on Goodreads and enjoy measuring my progress against a goal. (In 2018 it was 30 books, which I met with 34).
And I like to make notes about the books I read. My memory isn’t great, so Evernote is an important repository for notes from these books. It helps me recall important quotes and points from books I have.
So here we are. A brief word on these 34 books I read this year, a few big themes of these books fell into, and my favorites at the end.
This summer we took a family RV trip, starting in Denver then heading to Yellowstone, Grand Teton, then back to Colorado to Rocky Mountain National Park concluding with a bluegrass festival in Lyons, CO. The trip gave me a new appreciation for the West and a desire to learn more about the key narratives in this part of the country.
Three of the books below start with the word “American” but they’re really about the West; a part of the country with a different narrative than my home in Atlanta. In the South, it’s about rebuilding or (falsely) reclaiming a culture that may never have really existed. Out West, the narrative is different. It’s loss: Loss of the Indian. Loss of the buffalo and the wolf. And from that loss trying to find a new way of living. Many of these books tackle that loss.
American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West by Nate Blakeslee. One of my favorite books of the year. It’s the story of the wolf in Yellowstone, particularly one named O-Six. Through amazing research, the author tracked O-Six and her pack as they struggled to regain a foothold in the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone after reintroduction. O-Six is real character in this book, and I came to love her grit and leadership. Blakeslee also takes a wider view, describing the dramatic, and miraculous impact of reintroduction of the wolf to the Yellowstone ecosystem. Massive elk herds were reduced, which was expected, but coyote populations also were reduced, while birds of prey, like owl and hawk population soared. Even beavers have come roaring back. Yet the tragedy at the end is devastating, leaving me concerned about the future of this species in Yellowstone.
American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon by Steven Rinella. This is a strange contradiction of a book: a love note to the buffalo, while the author hunts one in the Alaskan wilderness. Rinella is a noted hunter, and he avidly describes every detail of the pursuit. The tracking of the buffalo is thrilling, but the details of the subsequent dressing and prepping the dead buffalo are a little too much detail for me. The hunt is interspersed with the history of the buffalo: it’s peak, it’s near demise, and it’s comeback. Rinella is passionate about the place of the buffalo in American history. Rinella calls the buffalo a mirror.
“At once [the buffalo] is a symbol of the tenacity of wilderness and the destruction of wilderness; it’s a symbol of Native American culture and the death of Native American culture; it’s a symbol of the strength and vitality of America and the pettiness and greed of America; it represents a frontier both forgotten and remembered; it stands for freedom and captivity, extinction and salvation..”
American Serengeti: The Last Big Animals on the Great Plains by Dan Flores. The Great Plains were once populated by amazing beasts, making it one of the most wondrous spots in the world. Flores discusses the beasts that made this space unique: gray wolves, bison, wild horses, grizzly bears, and coyotes. Flores covers their history, and the impact of their loss. One exception: the coyote. While the others vanished, the coyote has flourished, as it was the one beast who improvised and adjusted. Flores makes the argument that we lose these beasts at our own peril. Preserving the beasts of the Great Plains preserves and enhances our own humanity.
The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull and the Battle of Little Bighorn by Nathaniel Philbrick. We visited Custer’s Last Stand this past summer and we were moved by the beauty of the spot, but also by the layers of tragedy there; the loss of Custer and his men, and the final fleeting success of Sitting Bull and the Lakota. This book covers the event, including Custer’s poor decisions and personality flaws, moments of bravery by his men, and the sterling leadership of Sitting Bull.
Last Stand: George Bird Grinnell, the Battle to Save the Buffalo, and the Birth of the New West. One man, George Bird Grinnell, primarily an academic and a newspaper editor, shaped our thinking on conversation in American West and helped put focus and urgency on preserving the buffalo.
Earning the Rockies: How Geography Shapes America’s Role in the World by Robert Kaplan. I read this book way back in January 2018, long before our trip west. Yet it served as a useful prelude to our trip. Kaplan argues that American geography is a gift that has shaped our success as a nation. Our navigable waterways, abundant and diagonal (rather than running north and south, as in most countries), and our huge stretches of open land provide a unique bounty of wealth. This wealth strengthens us internally. We have learned to convert this “landscape power into economic power.” Yet these gifts come with a responsibility to lead. We have a unique responsibility to use these gifts to shape the world in a responsible way. Recently, we’ve failed this responsibility. But Kaplan argues that our potential to shape the world is too important an obligation to ignore. Our ability to shape our frontier taught us to overreach. We must continue to overreach as we work to shape our place in the world.
Reading about innovations and innovators fuels a lot of my day job. I work in the software industry and we work to continuously innovate how we engage, communicate and remain memorable with our customers. None of these books directly impact my work, but they all provide valuable context to fuel my own creativity.
Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most by Steven Johnson. I love Steven Johnson. I love the things he thinks about and the ways he approaches the world. This book discusses ways we should should approach big, complex decisions, and he does it with fascinating stories. Two points resonated. 1) “Homogeneous groups — whether they are united by ethnic backgrounds, gender or some other worldview like politics — tend to come to decisions too quickly.” In other words, diversity leads to better decisions. 2) Johnson points out the necessity for a “full spectrum analysis” to understand the problem from many variables. One of his suggestions for capturing that full spectrum, was surprising and old fashioned. Johnson recommends the novel as the oldest and best way to gain new and unique perspectives and to simulate different/complex experiences.
The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google by Scott Galloway. The story of these four tech giants, how they got where they are and what the future offers. The author, accurately, predicts that Facebook’s future is the most tenuous.
Feynman by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick. A graphic biography of one of America’s greatest scientists and teachers. Feynman reminds us that there is a big risk to continuous oversimplification. Nothing replaces learning your content deeply. He argued that the best way to do so was to teach your content.
Built: The Hidden Stories Behind our Structures by Roma Agrawal. This is a highly readable appreciation of engineers, written for novices by an expert. Agrawal, a highly regarded structural engineer, describes several engineering concepts in layman’s terms. She describes how engineering has created “the fabric of our lives, it has shaped the spaces in which we live, work and exist.”
The Fourth Age: Smart Robots, Conscious Computers, and the Future of Humanity by Byron Reese. Interesting thoughts on the complexities required to build true Artificial Intelligence. It’s not really about the technology. It’s about understanding how people think and make decisions. A little too philosophical, at times.
The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves by Matt Ridley. Ridley has many fascinating anecdotes about the value of exchange in the history of human civilization. He builds a fascinating case for the value of specialization in our society. Unfortunately, the books seems to spin into a justification for a complete market based society.
Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyou. In the innovation and technology world, there’s a lot of hype-talk and mumbo jumbo about this-or-that technology and how it will disrupt everything as we know it. Much of it is hype, but usually the hype is supported by some sliver of interesting technology with potential. This book describes what happens when there is nothing supporting the hype. This is the anti-innovation tale. This is what happens when one company (Theranos) and their CEO (Elizabeth Holmes) create enormous hype about technology that doesn’t work — at all. As Carreyou digs deeper and uncovers more deception, the intensity builds. Carreyou’s reporting eventually leads to the collapse of Theranos. In the end, journalism is the hero here, exposing the deception. Holmes, and it’s board, are the villains; willing to do anything to get their way. Holmes is an incredible villain, exposed as a fraud who sold everything (soul included) to be the next Steve Jobs.
Astroball: The New Way to Win It All by Ben Reiter. From the Moneyball tradition of new thinkers disrupting the status quo in baseball. I know this story, but I always enjoy reading new variations of it. Ben Reiter digs deep into the Astros’ process of completely dismantling the team and rebuilding it with clear, unyielding focus on the process and continuous improvement. A baseball book with great business lessons.
I enjoy reading about smart, creative people. Their successes are great, but it’s their struggles that I find the most fascinating.
Educated by Tara Westover. My favorite book of the year. The author is raised by a fundamentalist family, cut off from the world. The book is about her entry into the world, and the painful cost of that re-entry. Westover sacrifices her family as a result. “You can love someone and still choose to say goodbye to them,” she says. “You can miss a person every day, and still be glad that they are no longer in your life.”
Failing Up: How to Take Risks, Aim Higher and Never Stop Learning by Leslie Odom Jr. Hamilton is a favorite in our house. The musical is a beautiful, inspiring vision of America. It affirms that the ideals of the founding fathers still resonate, but through a lens of issues for today: immigration, diversity, the role of power, etc. Leslie Odom was an important part of that musical and that journey. This is essentially a self-help book. Ordinarily, I prefer my self help content in more subtle forms. Yet, Odom is likable, his story is appealing, and his advice is relatable. His questions resonate:
“What are you ignoring today? What did you do to help yourself today? Who did you call? What did you read? Did you take one step toward something that makes you come alive today?”
Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back) by Jeff Tweedy. Tweedy’s story is not unique: shy, small town kid makes it medium-big, suffers breakups and substance abuse issues along the way. He finds some degree of peace and happiness. Yet Tweedy tells this story with humility and humor. He also injects his techniques for creativity and invention. Here’s one of my favorites: “I had a bone-crushing earnestness, a weaponized sincerity, and I was learning how to put all of those feelings into songs. I was impervious to my peer’s shame. They couldn’t make me recoil with their snickering or judgmental sneers.” That’s a great creativity tip, regardless of what you’re making.
I never regret reading about places far away. So much of my reading to this point has been about the US. I aim to read more about different parts of the world. I only gain appreciation and deeper context when I do so.
The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between by Hisham Matar. The author’s father was a prominent Libyan diplomat who was abducted and murdered by loyalists to Qaddafi in the 1980s. On the surface, this book is about the author’s return to Libya, which a gripping account. But there’s a layer which is more interesting. It’s about the returning to the memory of his father and what his absence means today. “The body of my father is gone, but his place is here and occupied by something that cannot just be called memory. It is alive and current.”
The Age of Wonder: The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes. Holmes builds this book around Joseph Banks, a noted naturalist and proponent of science in Romantic England. As a young botanist, Banks joined Captain James Cook’s voyage on the Endeavor, and documented its findings and exploits upon returning. Afterwards, Banks created and supported a network of scientists which created “the idea of science as a truly shared and international endeavor.” Holmes weaves in the amazing stories of those scientists in Banks’ orbit, who, while mostly forgotten today, still have amazing impacts into how we see the world, particularly in the fields of chemistry, astronomy and natural history. Parallel to these scientists were the critical role of poets, like Byron and Shelley to help us shape how humans place science in the world. We could use smart poets in the mainstream of commentary today, commenting on our world and the pace of innovation. This book is nonfiction at its finest: with great stories and fascinating insights. One of my favorites of the year.
The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers. In this and some of his most recent books (Zeitoun, What is the What) Eggers finds an immigrant on which to focus and to tell a classic American, rags-to-riches story. The immigrant in this book, Mokhtar Alkhanshali, is a Yemeni immigrant with the idea of raising and roasting coffee from his native Yemen and bringing it to the US. I love how Eggers finds these topics that seem to be on the margins, but really tap into what is vital in the American conversation today: immigration, entrepreneurialism, and coffee drinking.
American History, Politics and Current Affairs
These books provide a lens for the world today, and many of its big issues: immigration, polarizing politics, diminished government and poor leadership. But one book, the last one, is more optimistic, painting a vision for how one city can reinvent itself.
Grant by Ron Chernow. You don’t just read a Chernow book. You live with him and his characters for an extended period of time. For about six weeks this past spring, Grant was my commuting partner. I lived with him as he struggled to find his place in the world, until the Civil War gave him direction and a clear mission. Chernow said that some men, like Washington and Hamilton, would have been successful in any age, in any circumstance. Grant needed the specific focus and opportunity of the Civil War to make his mark. I was glad to live with Chernow and Grant through their journey.
These two books are very similar. Both are by popular American presidential historians. Both are sketches from American history where we rose from crisis. From these crisis and from these sketches, the authors hope to provide comparisons to today’s issues. I preferred Goodwin’s book, as it dives deep into four different Presidents . Meacham is more scatter-shot, covering many episodes in US history. Since Goodwin is focusing on just four men and their presidencies (Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, and LBJ) she has more of an opportunity to go deeper and share interesting and even touching anecdotes. In particular, she finds important humbling moments. Lesser men would have struggled moving past these moments. Most moving to me was FDR’s struggle with polio and how that developed his humility. These four men used these moments to find strength and even empathy that served them so well later.
A Stillness at Appomattox by Bruce Catton. This is essentially a management book about the Union generals and soldiers leading to the southern surrender at Appomattox. Clear, timely communication is vital to any large organization. And very little was at display in the last year of Civil War. Catton shares multiple examples where poor, incorrect or slow communication led to losses of thousands of lives. In other cases, generals and soldiers were too slow to react to events. “Over and over the war had been prolonged because of the timid, restrictive caution that could paralyze action — the habit of mind that was always too busy weighing risks to grasp opportunities.” Meanwhile, Catton writes beautifully about these men and these battles.
Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild. A brilliant book. Hochschild aims to understand why so many vote for politicians and policies that undermine their own well being, and in particular, the environment in their own backyards. Hochschild takes time to get to know citizens of rural Louisiana. She tries to understand their fears and concerns driving their anti-governmental stance. Meanwhile, the bayous and rivers they live near are ruined from pollution. Neighbors and family have been ravaged by cancer. Hochschild develops an amazing metaphor which she calls the ‘deep story’ to explain their thought process. It’s a mythology that frames their concerns: Many rural southerners see that they are losing their place in a line they’ve long waited patiently. Rightly or wrongly, they see others passing them in line. These people, whether they’re immigrants, welfare recipients, affirmative action recipients, are all cutting ahead. Hochschild uses the metaphor to gain some understanding for these people, while not apologizing or belittling them.
The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis. Lewis takes the most mundane and makes it urgent. Previously, it was baseball, offensive lineman in football, and the housing bubble. In this case, it’s the Departments of Energy, Agriculture and Commerce in the Trump Administration. These agencies do real things, and really important things. The Trump Administration is dismantling them, not through hatred of governance, but through gross disinterest, and allowing those with profit motives to undermine everything these agencies do. We will be facing implications from this neglect for decades.
Dear America: Notes of An Undocumented Citizen by Jose Antonio Vargas. Vargas is a talented, Pulitzer winning newspaper journalist, but without legal status. By denying legal status to hardworking, talented individuals like Vargas, we deny something from ourselves. We cheapen our own status. We weaken the American ideal. We become mean.
Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company Addicted America by Beth May. I worry for rural America after reading this. Opioids are a scourge which are demolishing lives and hope. Beth May breaks down the origin of the crisis and how Purdue Pharma intentionally targeted rural Appalachia. She keeps it personal, by ensuring the stories of the victims and their families remain in the center. She tells countless stories of how opioids and OxyContin addiction morph into heroin addictions. Pharmaceuticals are not the only villain. May points out others who contribute to this crisis, including treatment and centers that are ineffective, and small town newspapers that are too neutered to report this story. It’s a bleak picture, but an important read.
City of on the Verge: Atlanta and the Fight for America’s Urban Future. This is about Atlanta’s reinvention as it tries, with its BeltLine project, to connect neighborhoods that are separated by old beliefs, race, class, but not distance. It asks the question if the BeltLine can play a role in connecting these pieces to create a newer, more exciting vision of the city. I learned so much about my city from this book and left optimistic for the future ahead. It’s asking if Atlanta can rebuild in an entirely new way. It asks if we can create a new, hopeful vision for my city. After reading about dark topics, this books presents a hopeful vision for what could be. I argue it is must-reading for anyone who lives in Atlanta.
I should take Steven Johnson’s advice and read more fiction. Here’s the fiction I did read this year.
The Power by Naomi Alderman. Here’s what happens when women develop a new superpower to rule over men. Science fiction for the #MeToo age.
There There by Tommy Orange. The life of the modern urban American Indian. Shamefully, I had never known such a thing. It’s an extension of the earlier books about the West. It is about a group of people who are trying to find a new home in Oakland, who have been uprooted from their homes. “We all came to the Big Oakland Powwow for different reasons. The messy dangling strands of our lives got pulled into a braid — tied to the back of everything we’d been doing all along to get us here. We’ve been coming for miles. And we’ve been coming for years, generations, lifetimes, layered in prayer and handwoven regalia, beaded and sewn together, feathered, braided, blessed and cursed” Beautifully written, but with a gripping plot. This is my favorite work of fiction of the year.
Sabrina by Nick Drnaso. A sad, depressing graphic novel about the impacts of a horrific crime in our society today. A downer.
CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders. Saunders’ short stories are twisted amusement parks, dark twisted visions of society today. This collection is his first. Each story has some element of an amusement park: a young man who works at a waterpark and is dealing with the guilt of a drowned guest, invasion by gangs in CivilWarLand, and a young man who escapes a medieval times amusement park and travels across dystopian America. The stories are dark, crazy-creative and mostly brilliant.
Varina by Charles Frazier. In the South, the story here is different. It’s about finding a new way forward. This is the story of Jefferson Davis’ widow and an imagining of how she looked beyond the Civil War, and her husband’s dark legacy to shape a new vision of herself.
Best Books of the Year:
- American Wolf
- Bad Blood
- There There
- Age of Wonder
- Strangers in their Own Land
- City on the Verge