My Books of 2016

I fell one short of my book a week goal at 51 books in 2016. This year I’ve excerpted some books where I thought a particular passage was self contained and gave a sense of the whole. However, books that were not excerpted should not be considered less eloquent or inspiring, some of the best defied quotation.

Biography

The biographies were all doorstoppers this year. Manchester’s Churchill trilogy is exceptional. He uses Churchill to shine a light on the period in general and the books are much richer for his breadth of vision. Plutarch was at times heavy going, but contains fabulous characters and political insight that struck remarkably close to home this year.

The Last Lion Vol 1: Winston Churchill, Visions of Glory 1874-1932 by William Manchester

“At the table Winston, cocky as ever, over-rode his host and dominated the conversation. Afterward he put it charmingly: “There were indeed moments when he seemed willing to impart his own views; but I thought it would be ungracious to put him to so much trouble.”

The Last Lion Vol 2: Winston Churchill: Alone, 1932-1940  by  William Manchester

“That same day Leo Amery approached Kingsley Wood and asked if the government was going to help Poland. Amery suggested dropping incendiary bombs on the Black Forest. “Oh, you can’t do that,” the air minister said, “that’s private property. You’ll be asking me to bomb the Ruhr next.”

The Last Lion Vol 3: Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965 by William Manchester, Paul Reid

Plutarch: Lives of the noble Grecians and Romans by Plutarch

“For it was well and truly said that the first destroyer of the liberties of a people is he who first gave them bounties and largesses. At Rome the mischief seems to have stolen secretly in, and by little and little, not being at once discerned and taken notice of.”

Business

Byron Sharp’s How Brands Grow was that rare marketing book that largely avoids the bloviation of its peers and focuses on what we can quantitatively learn about building businesses. Anand’s Content Trap is the best book on media I’ve read in a while, though his attempts to apply his own lessons to Harvard indicate that media’s problems are easier to diagnose than solve.

How Brands Grow by Byron Sharp

“We can see the fickle (actually probabilistic) nature of people’s beliefs if we ask them the same question more than once. This is seldom done in market and social research. Surveys generally ask different people each time, which is why even experienced market researchers are unaware of this phenomenon.

 If on the first survey, 30% of people agreed with the statement ‘Hertz rents attractive cars’, then on any subsequent survey the figure is usually close to 30%. This (misleadingly) suggests a great stability of beliefs. But, if we analyse the answers of each individual we see something startling. Typically only half the people who on the first survey agreed with the statement do so again on the second survey, and an equal number of people who did not agree with the statement the first time now agree with it. So the overall level of agreement remains at 30% but the repeat or stability rate (people say yes both times) is only half.”

Matchmakers: The New Economics of Multi-sided platforms by David Evans and Richard Schmalensee

The Content Trap: A Strategist’s Guide to Digital Change by Bharat Anand

“The Content Trap is a mindset that afflicts nearly every organization struggling to confront the problems of getting noticed and getting paid, from media to finance to education, and whether they’re producing stories or designing phones.

  1. First is the obsession with isolated triggers rather than recognizing the conditions that make them spread. This is akin to believing that product features in isolation drive success or failure rather than what causes users to share and connect. This is an error of misplaced focus, a result of confusing cause and effect.
  1. Second is the effort to preserve content at all costs—rather than seizing the opportunities around it. This is an error of drawing product boundaries too narrowly.
  1. Third is the relentless search for best practices, the belief that there’s one “right approach” to confront digital fires—rather than understanding that the right way to fight fires depends on the context in which they burn. This is an error that mistakes strategy for universal solutions.”

Design

The Timeless Way of Building is a magical book that is ostensibly about architecture but made me look at design and life in general with fresh eyes. It’s written in a zen style and is the book I recommended to the most people this year.

The Timeless Way of Building by Christopher Alexander

“The idea that a building can – and ought – to be made of modular units is one of the most pervasive assumptions of 20th century architecture. Nature is never modular. Nature is full of almost similar units (waves, raindrops, blades of grass) but though the units of one kind are all alike in their broad structure, no two are ever alike in detail.

At each scale there are global invariants and detailed variations. In such a system there is endless variety; and yet at the same time endless sameness. No wonder we can watch the waves for hours; no wonder that a blade of grass is still fascinating, even after we have seen a million of them.

It follows that a building which is whole must always have the character of nature, too. This does not mean that a building or a town which is alive will look like a tree, or like a forest. But it will have the same balance of repetition and variety that nature does.”

Sketching User Experiences by Bill Buxton

Hooked: How to build Habit-forming Products by Nir Eyal

Just Enough Research by Erika Hall

Fiction

The Underground Railroad is as good and harrowing as everyone says it is. It’s less about the banality of evil than the sheer casualness of evil. Anthony Doerr was my favorite new find of the year, I don’t know anyone who writes as beautifully as he does. Robert Harris does an excellent job of fleshing out the life of Cicero in his roman trilogy.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Red Rising by Pierce Brown

Golden Son by Pierce Brown

Morning Star by Pierce Brown

The Shell Collector by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

The Siege by Arturo Perez-Reverte

Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson

Shift by Hugh Howey

Dust by Hugh Howey

The Girl on the Train: A Novel by Paula Hawkins

Lady Claire is All That by Maya Rodale

Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth

The Silent Cry by Kenzaburo Oe

Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome by Robert Harris

Conspirata: A Novel of Ancient Rome by Robert Harris

Dictator: A Novel of Ancient Rome by Robert Harris

Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

History

Tim Wu’s Attention Merchants is excellent and places what’s happening in advertising today in its appropriate context. Mario Calabresi’s book about Italian terrorism is intensely personal (as the son of a policeman murdered by terrorists himself) and shines with humanity, a short, wonderful read. Generals and Generalship was the kind of short common sense book it takes a lifetime to write and should be on the bookshelf of any CEO.

The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads by Tim Wu

“Consequently, AOL would sometimes set up auctions between two dot-coms—say, two online grocery services—to extract the most it could. Using that method, it scored an astonishing $60 million from a start-up named HomeGrocer.com. It all followed from a bracingly direct internal mantra—“Kill ’em.” The team’s goal became taking at least half of the partner’s venture funding in any deal.”

Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World by Tim Whitmarsh

Pushing Past the Night: Coming to terms with Italy’s terrorist past by Mario Calabresi

Generals and Generalship by Field Marshal Earl Wavell

“I will give you two simple rules which every general should observe: first, never to try to do his own staff work; and secondly, never to let his staff get between him and his troops. What a staff appreciates is that it should receive clear and definite instructions, and then be left to work out the details without interference. What troops and subordinate commanders appreciate is that a general should be constantly in personal contact with them, and should not see everything simply through the eyes of his staff.”

Miscellaneous

Clear and Simple as the Truth changed the way I think about writing more than any other book I’ve read. It’s a beautiful and brilliant lesson on classic style.

Rascal by Sterling North

15 Secrets Successful People Know About Time Management by Kevin Kruse

Save the Cat by Blake Snyder

Clear and Simple as the Truth by Francis Noel-Thomas and Mark Turner

“The surface mark of classic style that is most uncongenial to practical style can be picked out by what we call the ‘last-third test’: once you’ve progressed a little way into a piece of writing, block out the last third of the sentence as you come to it, and imagine the standard things you might expect to occupy that position based on what you have already read. If what in fact does occupy that position is routinely one of those standard and expected things, then the piece may be a paragon of practical writing but is unlikely to be classic. This is not because classic sentences reverse themselves at the end: once you see a classic sentence, you will recognize that the sentence was true to its direction, but that does not make the sentence predictable, because it usually contains a conceptual refinement that is clear and simple as the truth but not a cliché and hence not predictable. Examples:

Although a dirty campaign was widely predicted, for the most part politicians contented themselves with insults and lies.

With peer pressure and whippings at school and at home we were soon completely socialized and as happy as children anywhere.

In the same year the UK, Russia and France decided to intervene to enforce an armistice “without however taking any part in the hostilities.” The allied fleet went to parlay with the Turkish fleet anchored in Navarino Bay and ended up destroying it.”

The Paleo Manifesto by Josh Durant

The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture by Ruth Benedict

Philosophy and Psychology

Waking Up is most interesting when it digs into the neuroscience of the self and least interesting when Harris is talking about various acid trips he has taken. The chapters that deal with just what is really going on in our brains and its implications for the notion of a soul are fabulous.

Stoicism and the Art of Happiness – Ancient Tips For Modern Challenges by Donald Robertson

Immortality: the Quest to Live Forever and How it Drives Civilization by Stephen Cave

Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion by Sam Harris

Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson

Science

Gleick’s The Information was occasionally heavy going but worth the persistence. However, the best science book for me was Mukherjee’s The Gene. While it’s a beautifully written history of the last hundred years of biology and its social impact, the mind-blowing part occurs when he digs into the implications of CRISPR, recombinant DNA and embryonic stem cells. You can almost see Gattaca over the horizon. Ellenberg’s book on mathematics was well written and made me want to read more about the topic while Wohlleben’s Hidden Life of Trees is one of those jewels that reframes a world you are barely conscious of into sharp focus.

The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood by James Gleick

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli

The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee

Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics Explained by Richard Feynman

“If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generations of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis (or the atomic fact, or whatever you wish to call it) that all things are made of atoms—little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another. In that one sentence, you will see, there is an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied”

How Not To Be Wrong: the Power of Mathematical Thinking by Jordan Ellenberg

Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology by Johnjoe McFadden, Jim Al-Khalili

The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben

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