My Year in Reading: 2019

The last thing the world needs is another list of books read, but I’m adding mine, nonetheless.

I enjoy using the quiet time of the holidays to look back at the books I’ve read and identify a few key themes and ideas that are consistent in these books. These books, in turn, provided ideas that propelled me throughout 2019 and beyond.

Some common themes (and books they showed up in) include:

  • Appreciating cultures different from my own (Horizon, Washington Black, Disappearing Earth, How to Be An Anti-Racist, Shadows of Statues)
  • The continuous search for meaning (Man’s Search for Meaning, Sapiens, Desert Solitaire, Washington Black, Grace Will Lead Us Home)
  • The dangers of technology (Super Pumped, Zucked, Recursion)
  • Finding and sustaining innovation (Ride of a Lifetime, That Will Never Work, Creative Selection, Brave New Work).

David Epstein (in his excellent book Range) articulated a key concept that has resonated all year long: Exposure to a wide series of ideas directly impacts my ability to innovate and generate new ideas in work and throughout my life.

I made a goal of reading 40 books, but only made it to 28. I bought many more that I didn’t finish or didn’t get to. This list below are the books that I completed cover to cover. It includes analog books, digital books, a few audio books and a graphic novel.

Below, I’ve organized these books into different categories, and at the end, I’ll share my favorites for year.

Business Books:

Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Yearsas CEO of the Walt Disney Company by Robert Iger. The autobiography of Disney CEO Bob Iger describes how a businessman learns the entertainment business, and in turn, dominates the industry. Iger describes his rise through the ranks of ABC, working for Roone Arledge and ABC Sports, then climbing corporate ladders through multiple acquisitions, eventually becoming CEO after a grueling interview process.

As a part of that process, Iger developed a 3 pronged strategy which continues to provide a foundation for his approach today:

  1. Prioritize high quality, branded content.
  2. Leverage new technology to distribute that content
  3. Share that content globally.

Iger details how he executed that strategy through the acquisition of legendary entertainment brands (Star Wars, Pixar, Marvel), and how he established Disney+ as the new mechanism to distribute globally. The book highlights the importance of establishing a strategy, then how he implemented that strategy to help dominate entertainment today.

Creative Selection: Inside Apple’s Design Process During the Golden Age of Steve Jobs by Ken Kocienda. The keyboard on the iOS. It seemingly has always been there. It’s hard to imagine a time it wasn’t there. It seems to have emerged with the iPhone, magically always working. But it required a tremendous amount of hard work and trial to get it right. Kocienda was in that room. And he was also in the room that created the Safari browser for iOS. The process that Apple took to create these things is not magical. Kocienda shares that iterative process of collaborating, creating and demoing ideas over and over again. The process of creating great things is not waiting for that a-ha moment, but the slow grind to build something that works, then continuing to iterate until you have created something great.

Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber by Mike Isaac. I love stories about how things are built (see That Will Never Work, about Netflix). But I’m also fascinated by stories of innovation’s dark side — where people took ideas too far. Last year, Bad Blood — about the Theranos affair — was a favorite. This year, Super Pumped tells a similar story about Uber’s Travis Kalanick, and his rise and demise. Kalanick’s story is not about fraud (unlike Theranos’) instead it’s about hubris and believing your own press, and having no rules. His mantra, “move fast and break things” proves prophetic, as Uber and Kalanick are revealed as the real broken things.

Zucked: Waking up to the Facebook Catastrophe by Roger McNamee. I saw McNamee speak at a conference this spring in Toronto. His urgency and passion were evident. His book details his own relationship with Facebook — first as an investor and advisor, then as an antagonist. McNamee lays out the story of how Facebook and Zuckerberg lost their way — focusing on revenue, by selling or even giving away our data. Watch Netflix’s The Great Hack as a complement to this book, which also has commentary by McNamee.

That Will Never Work: The Birth of Netflix and the Amazing Life of an Idea by Marc Randolph A breezy book by the founder and first CEO of Netflix. Many of the anecdotes were fascinating: Turning down a low ball offer from Amazon early in both company’s history, Blockbuster naively declining an offer by Netflix to be purchased, launch day for the company, a painful account of layoffs. But I found myself wanting more. I wanted the details of how the company transformed to a streaming provider, how it failed in its effort to split the DVD rental business, how it transitioned to an entertainment creator. These are the more interesting stories that (hopefully) will be chronicled later in another book by current CEO Reed Hastings.

Brave New Work: Are You Ready to Reinvent Your Organization? by Aaron Dignan. I work for a large technology company. Over time we have accumulated a fair amount of “organizational debt,” which is a term I had never heard of before reading this book, but struck me as very true and relevant. Simply — it is any structure or policy that no longer serves the organization. Dignan lays out approaches and concepts that organizations can apply. The goal is to clear this debt to create strong, consistent operating systems of innovation that value and nurtures openness. Dignan provides many tools and approaches that I personally found very useful and relevant in 2019.

Working by Robert A. Caro. I love Caro. This man has spent his entire life chronicling two men, and he’s not done with one of those two (His fifth and final volume on LBJ is due this decade, perhaps?). This man is all about the long take, not the hot take. His takes require decades to get right. His life works provide insights not just on the subject at hand, but into some larger more universal topic. His primary topic of interest is power — how we accumulate, hold and wield it. This book highlights the processes he has taken in his career to accumulate that understanding. It includes moving to the Hill Country of Texas to gain that deep understanding of LBJ’s youth. It includes techniques for interviewing subjects:

“If you talk to people long enough, if you talk to them enough times, you find out things from them that maybe they didn’t even realize they knew.”

Caro’s technique is about finding those illuminating details to give visibility and complexity into these men.

Rule of 24: The Future of B2B Client Engagement This book impacted a lot of my thinking on how we, and in particular my organization, can scale and develop as the needs and demands of our customers rapidly escalate.

Fiction:

Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips. Great fiction transports: to different situations, to different perspectives, to different parts of the Earth, even to different narrative structures. This book does all that. It’s really a collection of short stories, but connected to one horrifying event: the disappearance of two young girls in the Kamchatka peninsula of Russia. The main characters, all impacted by the abduction, are all women, and are all disconnected — from families, from their potential, and from each other. But pay close attention. They are connected in very different ways. This is one of my favorite books of the year.

Rusty Brown by Chris Ware. Ware creates these incredibly detailed graphic novels, with tiny text and rich details. These details highlight the nuances of these ordinary, even pathetic characters, all while highlighting that we are all connected to each other. We are haunted by events that recur and reemerge In our lives.

Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson. A crazy concept: Young twins spontaneously combust when upset. A young aimless woman is now in charge of their care. Senators, long standing grudges and jumpsuits are all involved. With great characterization, hilarious situations and a lot of fire, the story works.

Recursion by Blake Crouch. Such a great summer read. It’s a low-brow time-travel story gussied up with fascinating science and with enough reality to keep you grounded.

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan. The story of young slave, raised in Barbados, who sees and experiences the world, but also discovers who he truly is inside, as he searches for a life of purpose.

Sociology:

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein. An epic quote from this book:

“Where rules are unclear and patterns are not obvious, being a specialist leads to spectacular failure.”

This book is about how not to be a specialist. Many of our problems today are unique and brand new, and in order to solve them we need a wide view of potential solutions. Epstein introduces generalists; individuals who think broadly, and finds success. He argues, convincingly, that by taking a broad view of topics, we expand our range and knowledge. We bring new ideas to our problems, and better position ourselves to thrive.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind by Yuval Noah Harari. So many interesting ideas in here. One that comes up again and again is that humans, Homo Sapiens, are held together by many imaginary things: stories, corporations, beliefs, capitalism. These imaginary things bind and allow us to thrive and dominate as a species.

Grace Will Lead Us Home by Jennifer Berry Hawes. How does someone carry on after a tragedy like the Charleston massacre? There are no easy answers, but Jennifer Berry Hawes takes us close and deep into the lives of survivors and family members from the massacre. Hawes takes care to show how these journeys are complicated, different and always messy. We need to get close to these victims to understand the pain they’ve experienced. Too often we see the headlines, and the body counts. Too often, the coverage focuses on the perpetrator. The real story is on how those left behind struggle to carry on and how they strive find a new place in the world. A beautiful book.

Stillness is the Key by Ryan Holiday. This book reads like a series of blog posts, which is how it originated. The ideas are profound and achingly relevant. Here’s one example: “Routine is ritual. The routines of your life allow you to be creative and to tackle the complexities around you. Create routines to deal with the simple stuff, allowing your mind to focus on the difficult tasks.” Here’s another: “Sometimes you have to disconnect to better connect with those around you.” And another: “Build a life you don’t have to escape from.” After blurbs like this, I wanted more, but the author had already moved on to more wisdom. Fortune cookie literature.

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Frankl was a concentration camp survivor. During his time in captivity in Auschwitz, he came to a realization: those with a higher purpose in life were more likely to make it through the nightmare without falling into despiar. Frankl put it this way: “He who has a Why to live for can bear with almost any How.” Frankl’s own higher purpose was the hope of seeing his wife again, and his passion for his work. For others, it was family or a child that was on the other side. Frankl was in the worst situation imaginable, and he did lose his wife and other family members. Yet, his lesson is still vital. We need that Why to guide us through everyday life, and to propel us through difficult times. “We cannot avoid suffering but we can choose how to cope with it, find meaning in it, and move forward.”

How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. This book is full of so many powerful ideas; ideas that shook me. Here are a couple:

  • Assimilation between races can only come after the racial inequities are removed. It’s the final step, not the first.
  • All racial discrimination is not racist. “It all depends whether or not racism is creating equality or inequality between there races. If the discrimination is creating equality, then it is antiracist.”

Kendi explains these, and many others while build these points around his own powerful life story.

History:

How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States by Daniel Immerwahr. The United States extends far beyond the traditional map we see everyday — the logo map. Immerwahr masterfully tells the story of the American Empire and how it extends to all ends of the Earth, from the Phillipines, to Puerto Rico to Cuba to 800 military bases around the world. Throughout he tells stories that have been forgotten. The stories about Puerto Rico were personally insightful and surprising. My mom was from there and I’ve visited the island my entire life. She grew up near the Ponce Massacre, the largest single police massacre in US history, where 18 demonstrators against the US government were killed, with more than 150 wounded. This episode and so many others have been removed from any remembered history. Immerwahr weaves in these stories, but also the birth control pill, the Beatles, the transitor radio. All of these things emerged from territories of the US and are critical to the culture of US and the world today.

The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England by Dan Jones. We visited England last Christmas, including the Tower of London and Westminster Abbey. I realized I had zero knowledge of English history. This book tells the story of the first family of kings — The Plantagenets. These episodes influence popular media like Game of Thrones. The coup of Edward II, overthrown by his son was a clear inspiration to Tyrion killing his father on the throne (common variety, not royal). There are brutal executions, and wars, and power struggles.

The struggles between Henry II and Thomas Becket are legendary. (And the subject of an excellent movie, Becket, with Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton). These struggles are not just Plantagenet struggles, and not just English struggles, or even European struggles. These are the struggles of Americans and our own government today. An important realization for me was that we will never cease to have these struggles. Hopefully, we will continue to be less violent in our struggles, but the tension between our government and the people will always be there.

Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex and Gender in the Twentieth Century by Charles King. An important book. It’s the story of a German immigrant, Franz Boas, who was the first true anthropologist, and the network he created around him. With Boas and his cadre, including Magaret Mead, Zora Neale Hurston and others, they reinvented the idea of what it means to be a human. Previously, your place in the world was set by your race, your gender, while the entire society supported these castes. Over decades, Boas and his network exposed these bad ideas and the supporting sham science, enabling us to “see each person as a parcel of possibilities that might get expressed in many creative ways.”

Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock by Steven Hyden: The most fun I had with a book this year. It’s the over-analysis of Classic Rock, and how it parallels the Hero’s Journey. Once people lived through Classic Rock and its bands to find their own purpose and mission in life. Classic Rock once exemplified power and vitality. It once told stories about fighting demons (internal and external). And now, as the genre is diminishing, the journey is about age and decline. The end of the book is not an obituary for classic rock, but a call to a new mission. Classic rock is no longer played in arenas, but it’s energy and vitality is to be found in the small venues, if you seek it out.

How Democracies Die: What History Reveals About Our Future by Steven Levitsky. Democracies don’t work with Constitutions alone. They survive through norms, and mutual tolerance. These have been in serious, dangerous decline, especially recently.

In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History by Mitch Landrieu. Mitch Landrieu, former mayor of New Orleans, makes the compelling case for the removal of Confederate War statues in his city, and in every city.

Across the US, and particularly in the South, we have created a false mythology around these memorialized men. In New Orleans, prominent monuments were erected for Robert E. Lee, P.G.T Beauregard and Jefferson Davis. These men fought for slavery. While many of them fought bravely, they fought on the wrong side of history. As Landrieu says in the speech delivered on the day the statues were removed:

“These men did not fight for the United States of America. They fought against it. They may have been warriors, but in this case they were not patriots…These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.”

Many other statues remain in many others cities. In my town, Decatur GA, a prominent statue memorializing the Confederacy, built in 1908, sits on the town square. Landrieu’s book provides a compelling moral rationale to remove the statue and to do so immediately. Without its removal and the removal of other statues across the country, we are not acknowledging the demeaning intentions of the Confederacy. And as a result we are not being honest with ourselves nor with each other. Reconciliation will not come by removing these statues. But true reconciliation can never happen while these statues remain prominently in our towns and cities.

Nature:

Horizon by Barry Lopez: My favorite book of the year. It’s a travel book, an environmental book, even a philosophy book. Lopez has traveled to all ends of the Earth including Kenya, Australia, the Arctic and Antarctica, to the Galapagos. Lopez works to truly understand these places. He works to carefully listen to these cultures, because in doing so he recognizes “the necessity to listen attentively to foundational stories other than our own.” From these stories, and these locations, Lopez learns that travel “releases the mind from the dictatorship of absolute truths about humanity. It helps us understand that all people do not want to be on the same road.”

Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey: For a guy who works in technology, like myself, this is the anti-book; the book that runs counter to everything we preach. While we talk about “moving fast and breaking things,” Abbey encourages us to stay still for a long time, to absorb what is around us. He encourages us to enjoy, appreciate and even revere the natural world, while fighting against growth for the sake of growth, which he calls a “cancerous madness.” By truly stopping, and taking in nature, we can “quiet the febrile buzzing of the cells and circuits, and strive to open [your] consciousness directly, nakedly to the cosmos.”

Top 5

  • Horizon by Barry Lopez
  • How to Hide an Empire by Daniel Immerwahr
  • Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips
  • Range by David Epstein
  • Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey

technologist, cultural omnivore, book nut, father

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