2019 was a banner reading year for me. I completed 76 books on topics ranging from psychology to finance to the military, fitness, and US history. In July I decided to start reading biographies of every US president, and that was when the reading really kicked up to another level (January through June I read only 14 books totaling about 800,000 words, which is less than my monthly average for the second half of the year). It helped that I began listening to audiobooks while I drove, adding 14 titles to the list thanks to some long road trips. But more importantly I committed to reading several hours per day.
Below are the best and most useful books I read this year. If you want to see everything I’m reading, you can connect with me on Goodreads.
Technically this isn’t a book (although it is more than long enough to be one), but this blog series on Wait But Why was easily my favorite thing I read all year. With the ambitious goal of eventually defining what is wrong with American politics, it doesn’t get to that subject for quite a few chapters. It starts with an in depth look at how our brains work individually and as a society, and how societies have advanced over the centuries through more intelligent thought processes.
The real value in this series is in articles 7, 8 and 9. The Thinking Ladder explains the critical difference between focusing on HOW people think instead of WHAT they think (easily the best and most important article in the series). Idea Labs and Echo Chambers then looks at that same distinction, but how it relates to groups of people. And then Political Disney World takes the concepts from the preceding 8 articles and applies them to what is happening in American politics today. I think about this article series constantly, especially when political or any other controversial subject comes up, and the next chapters will definitely be at the top of my reading list when they come out.
To say this book was hyped up would be an understatement. My sister suggested I read it. Then I saw Bill Gates’s review of it. Then it came up at a Venture College reunion. And of course since the story takes place in Idaho, it’s been especially hard for me to avoid here in Boise. I initially resisted reading it because it doesn’t fit into any of my usual genres. When I finally caved and picked it up, I didn’t think it could possibly be as good as everyone said it was. I was wrong.
There isn’t much I can say about this book that hasn’t been said a thousand times, except possibly as to how it relates to the above blog series. At its core, this story is about the Thinking Ladder, and the way the author moves from thinking like a zealot (taught that way by her parents) to like a scientist (learned through self education).
I read biographies of the first 25 US Presidents this year. I would say it was hard to choose my favorite since they were almost all great, but in the end it wasn’t. This biography of Abraham Lincoln is nothing short of a masterpiece. Similarly, Lincoln is head and shoulders above every other President I’ve read about, and I have no reason to suspect that that standing will be challenged as I finish the rest of the list in 2020. Everyone knows that Lincoln was President during the Civil War, abolished slavery, and his nickname was “Honest Abe”. But there is more to the story than that. His impeccable character was backed up by shrewd political skill and intelligence, allowing him to accomplish things that shouldn’t have been possible and navigate the single biggest crisis point in our nation’s history. He was the best of us.
What role has luck played in your life? I’ve always known that I’ve been fortunate in innumerable ways, but this book really helped me understand where luck and randomness occur. How do we disseminate between the lucky fool who made it big and the one who got there through something other than luck? And what about all the people who do the right things but poor luck ruins their results? This book is an in depth study of luck and how it shapes the world, particularly financial markets. But even if you don’t have any interest in finance, this book is worth the read simply for understanding the difference between when things are random and when they are not.
Living With a Seal had intrigued me and been on my list for years. I finally listened to it on Audiobook last month and I’m very glad I chose that format. It’s simultaneously hilarious and inspiring, and it’s way easier to imagine having a drill sergeant following your every move if you listen to the story. After finishing Itzler’s story, I did some Googling and discovered the anonymous SEAL from his story is David Goggins, who had recently published his own book, Can’t Hurt Me, which I also listened to on Audiobook. I’ve read many military books and lots of fitness stories, but none is as hardcore and inspiring as Goggins’s. He is an unstoppable force of willpower who has completely mastered his own mind, and it’s incredibly inspiring to hear how he did it.
If you’re searching for wisdom, there is no better place to find it than Charlie Munger. Munger is the (even more so) reclusive business partner of Warren Buffett, one of my biggest personal heroes. A collection of, among other things, 11 speeches Munger has given on various topics, this books enormous physical size and unique layouts make it feel like a textbook. However, it is shockingly fun and easy to read. It’s a treasure trove of advice on how to learn, and includes dozens of recommendations on books and all of Munger’s greatest bits of witty wisdom.
The Goal: The Process of Ongoing Improvement – A fantastic parable that teaches some of the biggest keys to business.
The Outsiders – Excellent stories about companies that did unconventional things and achieved extraordinary results.
Talking To Strangers – Although I don’t tend to agree with Gladwell on all the conclusions he comes to, this is probably my favorite of his books I’ve read and covers some of the most important issues in our culture today.
Thinking, Fast and Slow – I’ve read a lot of books about psychology and behavioral economics, and almost every one of them has mentioned Daniel Kahneman and his research. Why I had never read this before is beyond me, it’s great.
Grant – This Pulitzer Prize winner is a fantastic read and provides a unique take on man who is looked at very differently by almost every historian who has written about him.