RECOMMENDED READING 2019
Chernobyl 01:23:40: The Incredible True Story of the World’s Worst Nuclear Disaster — Understanding what happened at Chernobyl is about understanding the Soviet system. This book makes an excellent case that the story of Chernobyl is not a ‘bad guy’ narrative of the type we often tell. The accident was not a result of good people trapped by a few corrupt leaders. The author combines both extensive research and an appreciation for how Soviet Russia functioned to demonstrate that the nuclear catastrophe was a product of a faulty system. This book has a lot to teach about systems, how they work and function, but also reminds us that we can learn a lot more when we try to remove the lens of our own cultural biases.
Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World — While I wish I wrote this book, David Epstein is a much better writer so you should read it from him. The messages in the book will resonate with all FS readers. The book is a compelling argument that generalists, not specialists, are primed to excel. “Generalists often find their path late, and they juggle many interests rather than focusing on one. They’re also more creative, more agile, and able to make connections their more specialized peers can’t see.” Range pulls the plug on the mechanical efficiency toward specialization and reminds us of the value of exploring the entire world, not just parts of it. (Pair with The Great Mental Models)
Love Sense — The follow up book to Hold Me Tight, which is the best relationship book I’ve ever read. As someone who spent time in couples therapy, I find Sue’s approach remarkable. Rather than give you tools to better communicate (which few people ever use in the moment) she shows us how bonds and attachment form and how we subtly push people away or bring them closer. The fight you’re having with your spouse isn’t about emptying the dishwasher, it’s about a longing for connection and not feeling understood. And if you’re one of those couples that never fights, that can be a huge warning sign.
The Story of French — This book is an interesting look at the evolution of a language. The authors explore French by taking it out of the confines of a nation, and in the process give a lot of food for thought about the interplay between geopolitics and language. There are lessons about the tensions between flexibility and adaptability, and the desire to maintain the status quo. The authors also make a very convincing case that language is not a zero sum game, demonstrating the value of diversity (an ongoing theme at FS!)
Trust and Reciprocity: Interdisciplinary Lessons for Experimental Research — Trust is a key component to any relationship. Those who share it reap the benefits of compounding and velocity. Those who lack it design contracts, exploit loopholes, and go slower. Trust then in essential to moving quickly. This book is a window into how we decide to trust. While academic and dense, those of you looking for an interdisciplinary lens into trust will enjoy the book.
The Demon Under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor’s Search for the World’s First Miracle Drug — There is a definite divide in human history between those who came before antibiotics and vaccines, and those who came after. Life was far more precarious before we understood bacteria and viruses, with people dying from what we now consider minor irritations. It still blows my mind to read of someone dying of a broken leg, not on account of the break, but of the resulting infection. Or how many people I know, myself included, would likely already be dead from now preventable childhood illness. This book is great, in part because it reads like a detective novel. Who is this mass killer and how do we stop it? Following the trail reminds us how unique our time period is in terms of medical advancement, and how hard won the knowledge is that we have. But it is also a great book for exploring second order consequences. Antibiotics changed more than our ability to eliminate bad bacteria, and understanding how that web of effects evolved contains many insights that continue to be extremely relevant.
Adventures in Memory — We pay a lot of attention to memory at FS, as remembering is a crucial component of learning. This book covers everything about memory, from its structure to the spectrum of its capabilities, from its role in our evolution to how it shapes our identity. Quite possibly though, my favorite chapter was the one on the value of forgetting. Being better at remembering, according to the authors, is partly about the space we create when we forget.
The Calculus of Friendship — The subtitle of this book is ‘What a Teacher and a Student Learned about Life while Corresponding about Math.’ Intrigued by this, I gave it a go. It’s a lovely story that offers a perspective on how we use the tools at our disposal to communicate who we are — in this case, equations and pictures reflecting the fun and complexity of math. It’s a unique book that can both improve your understanding of math and cause you to reflect on a meaningful life.
Insight: The Surprising Truth About How Others See Us, How We See Ourselves, and Why the Answers Matter More Than We Think — With a title like that, I never would have picked up this book if a friend didn’t directly put it in my lap. A better title would have been Self-Awareness: Tiny Insights, Big Payoffs. While we feel like we know ourselves really well, we can always learn more. These tiny insights produce a remarkable payoff. Self-awareness is the master key that unlocks many doors and this book will show you how to better understand yourself.
The Five Love Languages — Another book continuing our exploration of relationships and how we connect with the ones that matter to us most. While I’m skeptical, the idea behind the book is simple and worth thinking about. We fit into one of 5 categories for the way we like to be loved. Often this is how we express love to our partners. Rarely, however, do they have the same love profile as we do. By learning to love them in a way that they value we can improve our relationships. While I believe things are more complicated, it’s a great conversation starter to explore with your partner. So do the quiz (which you can find online,) open a bottle of wine, and reconnect with each other.
Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error — A re-read for me but an important one. Schulz is lucid and explores “why we find it so gratifying to be right and so maddening to be mistaken.” Our beliefs and perceptions influence us in more ways than we realize.
The Uninhabitable Earth — I don’t know a lot about climate change, but I’m interested in learning more in this big gnarly topic. Wallace-Wells offers a potential portrait of what could happen, using science to show us how our lives will almost inevitably change. He also explores possibilities for what living in this new world could do to politics, our economy, our health, etc. While outcomes are impossible to know with any precision, the path seems clear.
The Great Wall: China Against the World, 1000BC – AD 2000 — The premise of this book is that to understand The Great Wall is to understand China. The author does an excellent job tracing the history of the structure and relating it to the political and cultural changes concurrently happening in country. Eye-opening and relevant beyond the history it chronicles, it teaches a lot about the fluidity of culture, and the realities and limits of borders.
Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward — I had a very strong reaction to this book. I can’t quite tell if it was the positioning of the book itself in terms of gender, if it hit too close to home because I’m an entrepreneur, or perhaps because I’m a single parent and thus have do all of the emotional labor (invisible work) myself. Or maybe it was due to something I haven’t surfaced yet, I’m still mulling it over. I do think the concept of invisible work is real. And in heterosexual relationships women tend to do more of this than men. That’s worth talking to your partner about to make sure whatever your situation is that it works for both of you, (and resentment isn’t silently building). I also thinks this plays out in the workforce where some people do more invisible work than others but we (probably correctly) think of it differently in the workforce than at home. I guess in the end I do all of this stuff anyways so I never really think about it. I just call it life and being Fed Up isn’t an option. This book is not for everyone.
Retail Disruptors: The Spectacular Rise and Impact of the Hard Discounters — This is another book that’s not for everyone but it’s one of the best business books I’ve read in a while. It’s a great read for anyone looking to better understand the retail industry and how it’s evolving.
The Mask of Command — Through the lens of Alexander The Great, the Duke of Wellington, Ulysses S. Grant, and Adolf Hitler, this exceptional book that asks us to consider concepts like leadership, military leadership, and why people follow leaders. Keegan is an exceptional military historian.
Difficult Conversations: How To Discuss What Matters Most — I’ve been doing a lot of self reflection recently on how my conversations go astray and how my unspoken thoughts and feelings derail my best intentions in conversations. Difficult conversations was an eye opener for me, offering a foundation for improving all of my conversations. The most impactful thing for me, which is still a work in progress, is moving away from blame and looking to contribution. A great read with practical insights that you can apply to all of the relationships in your life.
Music as Alchemy — Have you ever wondered how music gets created? That emergent property that is so much more than the sum of its parts? In this book the author dives deep into the experiences of 6 famous orchestras and their conductors to provide incredible insight into how a piece of music is realized. There are many lessons in here for teamwork in general, and the kind of mindset that you need to produce something remarkable.
The Upside of Stress — Highly enjoyable and very informative. This book offers a counter-intuitive look at why stress is good for you and how you can develop the capacity to get better at handling stress. Even if you’re not stressed it will help you develop the skills to change how your friends and family look at stress. The ability to not only embrace stress but learn from it is a powerful combination.
Pride and Prejudice — I thought I’d start the year off with a classic and what better one to start with than a reminder from Jane Austen about the folly of judging things based on first impressions. When I read this book as a teenager in first year English, I gave up out of boredom and watched the movie instead. I will never forget getting a “D” on my final English paper, with the only comments from my professor “Sounds like you watched the movie and didn’t read the book.” Re-reading the book as an adult is a vastly different experience. Not only is the romance more apparent but you start to see that the friendships, gossip, and snobberies of provincial middle-class life exist all around you.
What Smart Students Know — The first thing I did after recording a 4-hour interview with Adam Robinson (part 1 and 2) was order a book he casually mentioned in our conversation that he wrote about learning. Intelligence is often a series of learnable mental disciplines that few people have taught us. You can discover these secrets yourself through trial and error or you can listen to a trusted guide. While Adam covers a lot of this book in our conversation at various point, this book was nonetheless an indispensable addition to my ongoing research on how we learn, where we go astray, and what we can do about it.