My top books of 2016
I was blessed to grow up in an environment with parents who encouraged me to read. My parents made me save up my money for toys from a young age - I distinctly remember being told to save up my money from the “tooth fairy” so that I could have enough to purchase a $2.50 Lego toy. I never wanted for books, though. We’d go to the library to look for new things to read, and I always got new books for Christmas. Now, at age 28, my parents buy me Legos for Christmas and I buy my own books. Times have changed.
When I first started writing regularly earlier this year, the first comments I received from friends were often about my book lists. Some people picked up a few of the books themselves. Others asked how I picked things to read. I maintain a running list on Goodreads that I sporadically re-populate with recommendations from people I respect. Bill Gates is one of those. Every year he posts his list of favorite books he’s read during the year, and I was inspired to do the same this year.
So, without further ado, the 2016 list, along with some commentary.
American Gods by Neil Gaiman. What if, when immigrants came to America, they brought their gods with them? What if the spirit of Odin still wandered through the colder parts of America - and what if he wasn’t just a spirit, but a walking, breathing man? That’s the premise of American Gods, which follows a recently released prisoner through a road trip to rally the last of the old gods in a battle against the tyranny of the new ones: technology, media, and overspending. It’s an incredibly fun read and it gets you completely lost in a new world. And there’s a bonus: if you read it now, you can be ahead of the TV show coming out.
High Output Management by Andy Grove. I’ve had this book on my list for a while as it comes recommended by most of the tech industry CEOs and venture capitalists who were at the right age to be mentored by Andy Grove. Grove was a engineer at Intel before rising up through the ranks to take the top job, and he had a lot of fantastic lessons about how to manage others. The big eye-opener for me was the thinking that “my work” is no longer what I produce myself, but what I can empower others to do as well - even if they don’t report to me. It’s been a big maturing step for me as I come to the office every day.
Founders at Work by Jessica Livingston. There are two really amazing things about this book. The first is the stories of entrepreneurs who had major roles in products that have now become commonplace: Steve Wozniak with Apple, Paul Buchheit with Gmail, Max Levchin with PayPal. (added feature: you get to learn about how Elon Musk almost accidentally tanked PayPal, which would have made the world a much different place than it is today) You learn that with a few rare exceptions, most of these founders didn’t really know what they were doing at the time, and many of them spent months or years doing the wrong thing. (PayPal was initially going to be a vendor of souped-up VPN tokens) The second wonderful thing about this book is learning about the company founders who aren’t doing something sexy for the news to pick up, just quietly building successful businesses. Stories like Joshua Schachter, who founded Delicious as a pet project while working full-time at Morgan Stanley, or Joel Spolsky, who just wanted to make a software company filled with people he’d like to work with.
Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach. This was the penultimate book in a lot of thinking and practice I’d done in meditation and mindfulness. When I picked up this book, I had been searching for techniques to quiet my mind for some time. My brain ran wild and typically down horrifying paths that were absolutely no good for my well-being. I’d tried the Calm app, the Headspace app, and countless other books and videos to get some control over my mind. Nothing worked. Brach’s book was the turning point for me: it took away the fear and frustration.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. All of the praise for this book - it’s all true. This is a book about a world I didn’t have to grow up in, but my friends did. It’s a book for people who couldn’t get their head around Ferguson or Trayvon Martin because it’s a world I never had to experience. It’s a book for people who only really had racism talked about in the abstract, never as someone who’s experienced it directly walking through their thoughts on the concept and how those thoughts evolved over time. I can’t recommend it enough.
Mastery by Robert Greene. Greene opens the book fairly early on by driving a huge wedge between “financial or business success” with “mastery of an art or craft.” He’s not talking about the former. He’s not talking about the celebrity status now bequeathed to Jiro Ono; he’s talking about the years Ono put into perfecting his craft long before Jiro Dreams of Sushi was filmed. Greene doesn’t promise you’ll be successful, well-liked, or emotionally stable: these things do not concern the people he considers masters. Give it a read. For those of us who think we want to “master” something, Greene has some words on what that really takes.
Honorable mention: Seveneves by Neal Stephenson. First sentence of the book: “The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.” This is the story of how modern-day humans would respond to such a catastrophe. What if we knew a catastrophe was coming, we couldn’t stop it, and we only had two years to prepare? What would happen? Could we survive? I had a great time reading this book, and if you want to learn more than you ever thought you wanted to about orbital mechanics, you’ll have a great time with it too.