A couple of years ago, I made it a goal to read more. I had been reading lots of blog posts, which counts in some ways, and Twitter, which counts in no ways, but I wanted to start focused on reading the list of books that were piling up on my proverbial nightstand. In 2018, I upped my goal to read three books a month. Below are my ten favorite things I read, listed in chronological order, last year.
Ten Reads of 2018
I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Iain Reid. A short, unsettling read, I’m Thinking of Ending Things takes the reader through a breakup that’s on the precipice of taking place. The narrator is taking one last trip with her boyfriend, reminiscing on how they started, and contemplating breaking things off. Through the book, Reid plays with time and narration style at just the right pace to build tension throughout. Pick this one up before Charlie Kauffman’s Netflix adaptation comes out.
Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman. It’s rare for a book to incept my day-to-day so often, but “Thinking, Fast and Slow” accomplishes just that. The book explores the idea that we have two modes of thinking: System I and System II. System I is our autopilot and it mostly runs our decision-making. System II is our critical thinking, and when we are consciously making critical decisions, we are usually switching it on. The book goes on to explore the biases that derive from living in System I at the wrong times, it labels and describes in wonderfully approachable language the biases that pervade our everyday life, and it even offers some helpful tips for avoiding easy bias pitfalls. The book is a fairly dense read, so don’t plan on binging it, but do give it the time if you’re interested in learning more about how you make decisions.
The most coherent stories are not necessarily the most probable, but they are plausible, and the notions of coherence, plausibility, and probability are easily confused by the unwary.
Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone, Joe Hagan. As a music fan and a history buff, I was surprised I had never heard the name Jann Wenner before I had the book recommended to me. Wenner is the founder of Rolling Stone magazine. His biography acts as a Forrest Gump-ian tour of rock and roll: from the magazine’s start in San Francisco in the late ‘60s to the slow and steady commercialization of the format mirroring the publication’s move to New York. You will appreciate and detest Hunter S. Thompson more for reading this one.
Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Neil Postman. Postman explores how the infinite variety of entertainment choices has reached a critical mass and blinds us from important truths. He also posits that the entertainment-ization of news is leading to a blurring of lines where celebrities and politicians become one and the same. He wrote the book in 1985. It’s a jarring, prescient read. In some ways, it’s oddly soothing to know we survived 30 years after the warning siren; in other ways, it’s sad that we still haven’t been able to stem the tide. It reads like the companion non-fiction piece to David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest”.
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.
The Universal Baseball Association, Robert Coover. “The Universal Baseball Association” is a book about fantasy baseball that came out twelve years before fantasy baseball was invented. The main character, Henry, works a mediocre job, and besides his one long-time friend, he lives to play a tabletop baseball game of his own creation. The book bounces back-and-forth between the real world and the fantasy world as the roll of Henry’s dice determine the fate of his made-up players. Dark and philosophical, the novel explodes with life in the most unexpected of ways. I recommend it if you enjoy baseball, fantasy baseball or if you want to remember what it was like to really, truly have an imagination.
Never Split the Difference, Chris Voss. This non-fiction book about how to be a better negotiator made the rounds last year, and it does not disappoint. In each of eleven chapters, Voss tells a story of his days as an FBI negotiator and pulls a negotiation tactic he applied or learned from each one. Voss counters the idea that negotiation is about beating the person across the table, and in doing so, he brings a humanity to a practice that makes quite a few people nervous from the start. Entertaining and memorable, “Never Split the Difference” is the rare business book that can be finished in a sitting or two.
It all starts with the universally applicable premise that people want to be understood and accepted. Listening is the cheapest, yet most effective concession we can make to get there. By listening intensely, a negotiator demonstrates empathy and shows a sincere desire to better understand what the other side is experiencing.
Kafka on the Shore, Haruki Murakami. “Kafka” was my second Murakami, and when I finished I was more eager to go through the rest of his catalog. The novel reads like prose. Dreamlike, you follow two seemingly unconnected stories across Japan and the fifty years following World War II. In alternating chapters you follow a teenage boy running away from home to escape a past and an elderly recluse leaving home to follow a destiny. Along the way, you grow an appreciation for Beethoven.
Shoe Dog, Phil Knight. I read Andre Agassi’s memoir, “Open”, in 2017. The language, narrative, and self-awareness were awesome. When I found the book’s ghost writer was tapped to write the Nike founder’s memoir, it quickly made its way to the top of my list. It reads like “Open” only about somebody building a company. It curiously only encompasses the years from Nike’s inception to the early 1980s, and while I understand the initial bookend, I’m not sure I fully buy into the closing one. This minor flaw aside, the book exudes humility and uncertainty that gives you a clear sightline to the effort that was keeping the company in existence in the early years.
In his heart of hearts Johnson believed that runners are God’s chosen, that running, done right, in the correct spirit and with the proper form, is a mystical exercise, no less than meditation or prayer,
The Wright Brothers, David McCullough. This was my first McCullough biography, and it wasn’t long after finishing it that I began reading up on his other subjects. “The Wright Brothers” never slows down and yet never creates unearned drama. McCullough finds and effortlessly weaves themes from the brothers’ lives. The great story of innovation parallels the tech scene today in a number of ways. The book should probably be handed out at Y Combinator.
Bad Blood, John Carreyou. A strong contrast to the book above, “Bad Blood” tells the story of Elizabeth Holmes and her startup, Theranos Carreyou highlights the many ethical and legal transgressions of the medical device startup. These failings pile up, and early on its almost difficult to comprehend that this was all centered on one company. Carreyou creates miniature drama around each one, and the tension mounts as you wait for the fatal blow to make itself known. The author takes an interesting narrative approach three quarters through the book, but the strength of the preceding pages carry the book through.
Elizabeth had wanted all those sweeping claims to be true, but just because you badly wanted something to be real didn’t make it so.
Just One More
Bright Lights, Big City, Jay McInerney. The last book I read in the year was Jay McInerney’s seminal 1980s novel. The book reads as a critique of the excess lifestyle of the 80s, and it would not be out of place in Brett Easton Ellis’ oeuvre. In fact, on the surface, the book could be considered a combination of “American Psycho” and “Less Than Zero”. The thing that sets “Bright Lights: apart is that it’s written in the second person. You are the protagonist making bad decisions as the novel slowly reveals your own motivations. Stunning, moving, special. I couldn’t keep it off the list.