My books of 2014

As Chartbeat has grown to 95 people, I’ve found it harder and harder to devote significant time to reading. I found more escape than usual in fiction and some months felt very meagre indeed. Still, the 54 books I did make it through in 2014 gave me much to think about. If I had to pick the three that affected me most it would be The Bully Pulpit, The Ascent of Science and The Orphan Master’s Son, but generally if I got through a book I thought it was worthwhile. There were several that were either abandoned or thrown aside with great force. They have not been included in this list. Which I’m sure hurts their authors dreadfully.

Autobiography

Adventures of a Bystander by Peter Drucker

My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Tibetan Peach Pie by Tom Robbins

Adventures of a Bystander was a wonderfully written book on the life of the man every other management thinker plagiarizes. One of many vignettes that stuck with me: “Like all successful activists, she lived the old Irish definition of a peacelover: a person who is willing to listen after having knocked the opponent unconscious”. My Struggle is the first book in an obsessively detailed and candid look at the life of the author. If one were to describe this book it would sound insufferably mundane, but something about the writing meant that I couldn’t put it down. Be wary, this is simply the first of a series and it has obsessed an entire country.

Biography

A Country of Vast Designs by Robert Merry

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meachem

The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammed by Lesley Hazleton

The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

I’ve never heard a single American bring up President James Polk among the great presidents and yet his four year administration must count as one of the most productive and important on record. The man created the central bank and brought Texas, California and Oregon into the Union. Merry brings this to light in a coherent and accessible way.  Meachem’s Jefferson is sympathetic and made me see past the eccentricities that had previously given me a lower opinion of the founding father. Hillenbrand and Hazleton both crafted wonderful narratives of fascinating figures, but it was Doris Kearns Goodwin who taught me the most. Her biography of Roosevelt and Taft spends almost as much time on the investigative journalists of McClure’s and  is all the better for it.

Business

Scaling up Excellence by Robert Sutton and Huggy Rao

The Outsiders by William Thorndike

The Hard thing about Hard Things by Ben Horowitz

Turn the Ship Around! By David Marquet

The Master Switch by Tim Wu

The Advantage by Patrick Lencioni

Creativity Inc. By Ed Catmull

Hope is not a Strategy by Rick Page

Scaling up Excellence and The Advantage were the two books with the most practical tactical advice for business and where I took the most notes. The Master Switch is essential for anyone who wants to understand a historical perspective on the importance of net neutrality and the Outsiders was an excellent catalyst for thinking about my company’s challenges at a far higher level than I had.

Fiction

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

The Gods of Guilt by Michael Connolly

Blott on the Landscape by Tom Sharpe

A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel

Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett

In the Course of Human Events by Mike Harvkey

All you need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka

BBB: What a girl wants by Maya Rodale

Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour bookstore by Robin Sloan

Black Lake by Johanna Lane

Mr Mercedes by Stephen King

The Giver by Lois Lowry

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

Lock In by John Scalzi

The Orphan Masters Son by Adam Johnson

The Laughing Monsters: A Novel by Denis Johnson

The Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson

The best fiction I read all year was the Orphan Master’s Son, a novel set in North Korea that is both riveting and appalling. Mike Harvey’s In the Course of Human Events is this decade’s Fight Club and the poetry of Blood Meridian and Black Lake was a beautiful thing to behold. Honourable mention to the beautiful Maya Rodale who published her first USA Today best seller and stayed married to me despite the severest of provocations.

Philosophy and Psychology

Stoic Spiritual Exercises by Elen Buzare

Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and the Spirit by Daniel Quinn

The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza and the fate of God in the modern world by Mathew Stewart

Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic by Mathew Stewart

The Antidote: Happiness for People who can’t stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman

Wherever you go, There you are by Jon Kabat-Zinn

The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy by Donald Robertson

Punished by Rewards: The trouble with Gold Stars… by Alfie Kohn

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

This was the year I dug into the work of Bento Spinoza with Mathew Stewart as a guide. The Courtier and the Heretic is a great introduction, while Nature’s God connects Spinoza and other Epicurean inspiration to the thoughts and actions of the Founding Fathers. Nature’s God gets a little turgid in its middle section but is worth powering through for a different perspective on the philosophy behind the birth of America. The Philosophy of CBT shows just how much modern cognitive-behavioural therapy owes to stoic philosophy and is a worthwhile read for those who think that philosophy has nothing practical to offer.

Science

The Ascent of Science by Brian Silver

Complexity: The emerging science at the edge of order and chaos by M. Mitchell Waldrop

The Machinery of Life by David Goodsell

Zoom: From Atoms and Galaxies to Blizzards and Bees: How Everything Moves by Bob Berman

Faraday, Maxwell, and the Electromagnetic Field: How two men revolutionised physics by Nancy Forbes and Bruce Mahon

Honorable mention goes to David Goodsell for an extremely accessible introduction to molecular biology, but the tour de force on this list is Brian Silver’s the Ascent of Science. A beast of a book (2.7lbs of science!), it takes you in incredible detail from Pythagoras and the early discoveries, through false hypotheses and debates to the Quantum physics revolution.  If you only read one science book next year, read this one. If you only read two, read this one again.

Miscellaneous

Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar

Flash Boys by Michael Lewis

The Story-telling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall

Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite by William Deresiewicz

The Ape and the Sushi Master by Frans De Wall

The Meaning of Human Existence by Edward O. Wilson

On Writing Well by William Zinsser

Barbarians at the Gate is an essential piece of business history that should act as a caveat for all those whose commitment to winning continues even when the prize is no longer worth the effort. Excellent Sheep reads as very much the polemic, but don’t let that put you off. It is a caustic look at how our elite education system is failing our society.

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