Favorite Reads of 2019

Over the past few years, reading has evolved from a dedicated goal to a true hobby of mine. I still use “number of books” as a metric to ensure I’m actively reading because there’s so much I’ve built up in my backlog. In 2019, I set a goal of reading 36 books which works itself out to three books a month. Below are my ten favorite things I read, listed in chronological order, last year.

Ten Reads of 2019

The Beach, Alex Garland. Alex Garland’s debut novel covers many themes he explores in his later works: escapism, isolation, utopia. Garland masterfully paces the action, and you’ll feel the tension build even as you spend short chapters on quiet evenings by the water. The Beach reads timelessly while weaving in symbolism involving a GameBoy. Garland went on to write a couple more works before finding even more success in film and TV; if you’ve seen Ex Machina, Annihilation or Devs, you’re familiar with his work. Read his debut and then continue exploring his multi-medium oeuvre.

The Score Takes Care of Itself, Bill Walsh. Every year, I read at least one book that becomes so critical to the way that I think about management that I buy a copy for my desk. The Score Takes Care of Itself joins The Manager’s Path, High Output Management, and Difficult Conversations, and it earns its place. Legendary football coach Bill Walsh describes his leadership philosophies most of which can be summed up by the title: all of the little things add up, so all of the little things matter. Control what’s in your control. The tech industry could pull a lot from Walsh’s tail of burning out. While I agree with the warning, I disagree with his conclusion that passionate, high-performers have ten years before they burn out and need to find a new challenge. It’s painful to think through what Walsh could have accomplished if he had meted out his genius appropriately.

From the start, my prime directive, the fundamental goal, was the full and total implementation throughout the organization of the actions and attitudes of the Standard of Performance… This was radical in the sense that winning is the usual prime directive in professional football and most businesses.

Please Kill Me, Legs McNeil, Gillian McCain. Please Kill Me covers the birth of punk focusing on the New York scene – with a brief reprieve in Michigan to pick up Iggy Pop – from the late 1960s through to the early 1980s. The oral history interviews pretty much everyone from the scene that was still alive as of the turn of the century, and in spite of the alcohol and the drugs, the memories are rich. Every story seems to overlap so that the history feels natural and apparent as the scene evolves from The Stooges to The Ramones, from Lou Reed to Patti Smith. Everything feels serendipitous in chronological order, but everything makes sense when you play the record backward. If you love punk and you love history, you have to read this book.

On Writing Well, William Zissner. Somewhere in 2018, I realized that to be a good manager, to be a good leader, I had to improve as a writer. I wanted to be able to scale myself up by writing once and allowing N folks to read it X times. Having read Strunk and White in college, this was the next classic to read, the perfectly titled On Writing. I’ve taken a number of bite-sized lessons from Zissner’s book, namely, cutting many of my adverbs and finding the precise word to match my meaning. I’ve also taken some holistic lessons from the book, such as, just write all the time and don’t write differently than you speak.

Ultimately the product that any writer has to sell is not the subject being written about, but who he or she is.

Scaling Teams, Alexander Grosse, David Loftesness. Every now and then I’m lucky enough to find a book about management or engineering management that causes me to nod along as I read it. The book is either describing the world I live in or the org I want to create, but the writing exists in the world that somehow mirrors my now and my ambition. The last book to do this was The Manager’s Path. And now Scaling Teams. If you have or will be thinking about how engineering teams can be set up to do great work, I can’t recommend this book enough.

Give and Take, Adam Grant. I somehow danced around a lot of Adam Grant’s crew without ever really hearing about him. Adam Grant is an organizational psychologist who is doing the deep work to understand how people act when they come together. Give and Take is all about the transactions we make in the workplace and the different paths we take when we give more than we get and vice versa. If you have someone on your team that’s a giver, I recommend the recommendation.

When takers win, there’s usually someone else who loses. Research shows that people tend to envy successful takers and look for ways to knock them down a notch. … Givers succeed in a way that creates a ripple effect, enhancing the success of people around them.

Conversations with Friends, Sally Rooney. This might be my favorite piece of fiction I read in 2019. The characters are rich. I felt like I knew people like them but never as intimately as Rooney portrays them. Unsurprisingly with a title such as this, the dialogue is magnificient. Rooney finds the jazz in our conversations and puts them to page. The pauses carry meaning, and I found myself leaping and cringing with each word that was and wasn’t said. I am saving Normal People and desperate for Rooney to write a third novel.

Boys of Summer, Roger Kahn. The story of a boy, the Brooklyn Dodgers, and time, Boys of Summer presents Roger Kahn’s stories of growing up in Brooklyn, spending two summers covering the team for a local paper, and eventually, catching up with each member of the team two decades later. The book is a diptych with the first part chronicling Kahn’s time as a sportswriter and the second part covering his quest to catch up with the team after years passed. Each part stands on its own with the second part enriched from the 250+ pages you spent with the team in the 50s. Sports Illustrated called it the second best sports book of all-time. I’d like to read number one.

“I always knew,” Robert Frost said one day in his cabin at Ripton. He had been talking about obscure years and how he had held on.

I could give all to Time except—except
What I myself have held. But why declare
The things forbidden that while the Customs slept
I have crossed to Safety with? For I am There,
And what I would not part with I have kept.

I wonder if anyone always knows—you, me, Jackie Robinson, even Robert Frost—that we will cross to Safety. Or is it rather that when we are There, we think we always knew?

Games People Play, Eric Berne. This book first came to me a decade ago. I remember somebody tweeting about sociological books that changed their outlook on interactions and interpersonal communications. Game People Play came out in the 60s, and it entered the zeitgeist along with the psychoanalytic theory of Transactional Analysis. Transactional Analysis, or TA, supposes that in any interaction, people are playing a game. People will assume one of three parts: parent, adult or child. The book goes on to lay out various examples with titles such as “Why Don’t You - Yes, But”. After reading the book, it became fascinating to pause conversations asking myself, “What game are we playing?” and “What role does the other person in this game want me to play?” While a few of the games Berne’s describes are relics of the era, there is a lot that has carried on over two generations.

A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan. The Goon Squad comes for us all as it does for the small handful of characters that Egan brings to life over vignettes. Each chapter encompasses a character at a different point in their life, and the chapter usually begins away from the characters we already know. You find yourself reading a few paragraphs wondering with which character this chapter will be grounded and when. Egan’s writing is lively and jaunty at all the right points, and maybe that’s why it’s the depiction of a death that has haunted me ever since I read Goon Squad. We are ourselves and those we want to be just not all at once.

“Poets claim that we recapture for a moment the self that we were long ago when we enter some house or garden in which we used to live in our youth. But these are most hazardous pilgrimages, which end as often in disappointment as in success. It is in ourselves that we should rather seek to find those fixed places, contemporaneous with different years.”

Dan Ubilla is obsessed with the craft of engineering management

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