My Books of 2018

2018 was a year that unconsciously revolved around power and entropy. The 48 books were dominated by Robert Caro’s incredible LBJ series, a late fascination with the physics and neuroscience of time and a renewed love of sci-fi and fantasy heralded by N. K. Jemisin, Cixin Liu, Ted Chiang and Naomi Alderman.

History and Biography

The four existing books of Caro’s LBJ series are quite simply the best biographies I’ve ever read. Good enough that I happily read more than 3,000 pages on a single president and can’t wait for the last book to be published. Caro’s LBJ is the lighthouse of this series, but he illuminates his time and the political and power structures of the United States like nothing I’ve ever read.

Chernow’s Grant would have been a top read in any year that didn’t contain Caro. I found the years focusing on Reconstruction more revelatory than those of the civil war itself. The Silk Roads was also a wonderful reframing of history away from the European-centric perspective I grew up with.

The Path to Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro
Means of Ascent: The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro
Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro

“Making a speech on economics is a lot like pissing down your leg. It may seem hot to you, but it never does to anyone else.”

“Eisenhower was a fine general and a good, decent man; but if he had fought World War II the way he fought for civil rights, we would all be speaking German today.”

The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro
Grant by Ron Chernow
Napoleon: A Life by Andrew Roberts
Gates: How Microsoft’s Mogul Reinvented an Industry and Made Himself the Richest Man in America by Stephen Manes and Paul Andrews

“Announcing a product that didn’t exist, developing it on the model of the best version available elsewhere, demonstrating an edition that didn’t fully work, and finally releasing the product in rather buggy form after a lengthy delay: The history of BASIC was one that would repeat itself at Microsoft again and again.“

The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan
Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche by James Miller

Business

Austin’s book on performance measurement could be considered dry but its grounding in 30 years of industry research acts as a valuable antidote to business books that mandate one-size-fits-all solutions without real understanding (ahem, Traction). Laszlo Bock and Patty McCord gave good insight into the People practices at Google and Netflix respectively while Bad Blood was as riveting as everyone said it was.

Measuring and Managing Performance in Organizations by Robert D. Austin

“When a measurement system is put in place, performance measures begin to increase. At first, the true value of an organization’s output may also increase…because early targets are modest and do not drive workers into taking severe shortcuts.

Over time, however, as the organization demands ever greater performance measurements, by increasing explicit quotas or inducing competition between coworkers, ways of increasing measures that are not consistent with the spirit of intentions are used. Once one group of workers sees another group cutting corners, the “slower” group feels pressure to imitate. Gradually, measures fall ..out of synchronization with true performance, as workers succumb to pressures to take shortcuts. Measured performance trends upward; true performance declines sharply. In this way, the measurement system becomes dysfunctional.”

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou
Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box by The Arbinger Institute
Setting the Table: The transforming power of hospitality in business by Danny Meyer
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon by Brad Stone
The Hero and the Outlaw: Building Extraordinary Brands Through the Power of Archetypes by Margaret Mark and Carol S. Pearson
Radical Focus: Achieving Your Most Important Goals with Objectives and Key Results by Christina Wodtke
Traction: Get a Grip on Your Business by Gino Wickman
Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity by Kim Scott
Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking when stakes are high by Kerry Patterson
Powerful: Building a culture of freedom and responsibility by Patty McCord
Work Rules! by Laszlo Bock
The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters by Priya Parker

Science

Miodownik’s book on materials was an excellently readable introduction to the chemistry of the objects around us, while Geoffrey West’s book on Scale taught me to see patterns and scaling laws everywhere. Pedro Ferreira’s history of the development of General Relativity reminded my how confused I am about the notion of Spacetime and so I followed it with Dean Buonmano’s excellent introduction to the interplay of physics and neuroscience as we seek to understand time and Carlos Rovelli’s Order of Time, which might be the most beautifully written science book I’ve ever read.

Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies by Geoffrey West

“large animals live long lives slowly, whereas small ones live short lives fast, but in such a way that their biomarkers such as the total number of times their hearts beat remain approximately the same. When rescaled according to ¼ power scaling the life-history events of all mammals collapse to the same trajectory…Maybe all mammals experience the sequence, pace, and longevity of life as being pretty much the same? A lovely thought.”

“anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”

Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World by Mark Miodownik
Life’s Ratchet: How Molecular Machines Extract Order from Chaos by Peter M. Hoffmann
The Perfect Theory: A Century of Geniuses and the Battle over General Relativity by Pedro G. Ferreira
The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli

“We can think of the world as made up of things. Of substances. Of entities. Of something that is. Or we can think of it as made up of events. Of happenings. Of processes. Of something that occurs. Something that does not last, and that undergoes continual transformation, that is not permanent in time. The destruction of the notion of time in fundamental physics is the crumbling of the first of these two perspectives, not of the second. It is the realization of the ubiquity of impermanence, not of stasis in a motionless time. …

The difference between things and events is that things persist in time; events have a limited duration. A stone is a prototypical “thing”: we can ask ourselves where it will be tomorrow. Conversely, a kiss is an “event.” It makes no sense to ask where the kiss will be tomorrow. The world is made up of networks of kisses, not of stones.”

Your brain is a time machine: The neuroscience and physics of Time by Dean Buonmano

Fiction

I’d almost recommend reading Naomi Alderman’s superb The Power as a complement to Caro’s LBJ series. Both deal with the impact of power on people and what it reveals, albeit in vastly different ways. After much urging, I finally read Gone with the Wind and the power of that story is an interesting contrast with the execrable perspectives on race it espouses. Cixin Liu made me want to rush out into the street and tell everyone to stop broadcasting radio, TV, everything while N. K Jemisin repeatedly rocked my world with her Broken Earth series. Sidenote: don’t read her How long til Black Future Month before bed, your mind will not be able to switch off.

Finally, I’ve read every book by this author and Maya Rodale’s Duchess by Design is far and away her best work. Boldly set in the Gilded Age, this novel eerily reflects our own time, and is as much a romance to women helping women (and pockets) as it is a traditional love story.

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

“Every returning New Yorker asks the question: Is this still my city? I have a ready answer, cloaked in obstinate despair: It is. And if it’s not, I will love it all the more. I will love it to the point where it becomes mine again.”

How to Stop Time by Matt Haig
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
Stories of your life and others by Ted Chiang
The Power by Naomi Alderman
The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu
The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu
Death’s End by Cixin Liu
The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin
The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin
Less: A novel by Andrew Sean Greer
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Duchess By Design: The Gilded Age Girls Club by Maya Rodale
How Long ’til Black Future Month? by N.K. Jemisin
Tinkers by Paul Harding

Miscellaneous

Everything in its place: the power of mise-en-place to organize your life, work and mind by Dan Charnas

Ruhlman asked Keller: What did it take to become great?
“Make sure your station is clean” Keller said.
Ruhlman paused, thrown off by the simplicity of the statement. “And?”
“And everything that follows from that” Keller replied.

The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar