RECOMMENDED READING 2019
Ten Discoveries That Rewrote History — Archeologist Patrick Hunt walks us through ten archeological discoveries that redefined how we view human history. For each, Hunt succinctly explains the circumstances of its discovery, the process to study or decode it, and how it changed our view of the past. Prior to the 19th century, much of our understanding of history came from surviving written texts. When archeology emerged as a major field of study, we began to recognize how much we can learn from what lies beneath the ground.
The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation — A friend of ours, at the helm of a leading-edge R&D team within a tech giant, first recommended this book to us. As he prepared for his role, this book provided useful examples of how to do innovation well within a large company. For those of us looking for ways to generate creativity and innovation in our teams, turning back to be inspired by the glory years of Bell Labs (1920s-1980s) is highly beneficial. They brought us the transistor, the solar cell, the foundation of modern operating systems, and much more.
The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey — After losing his bid for re-election as President in 1912, Theodore Roosevelt decided to join an expedition to map an uncharted swath of the Amazon rainforest. Millard is a fantastic historical non-fiction writer, who is able to describe the arduous journey with a level of detail that makes you think she was there herself. It is a story of extreme hardship, courage, death, hubris, and a stark reminder of how difficult it was to accurately map most of our planet. If you’re looking for more from Millard, she also wrote a great book about Winston Churchill’s escape from a POW camp during the Boer War.
The Berlin Wall: A World Divided, 1961-1989 — When the Berlin Wall went up on August 13, 1961, it divided all aspects of life, including parents from their children, and employees from their places of work. What started as a barbed wire fence grew into a complex, multi-layered structure that was designed to stop the flow of people, goods, and ideas. Taylor’s exceptional book tells the story of Berlin during the years of the Wall, exploring in fascinating detail why it went up, who tried to cross it, and why it so abruptly came down. There is a lot to learn from this book about geo-political separation, and how bottom-up change can develop and coalesce into actions of significant impact.
Natural Born Heroes — This book explores multiple disciplines to uncover the secrets behind human endurance. McDougall’s investigation into endurance connects World War II history, ancient Greek history, nutrition, genetics, strength and conditioning science, and even parkour. “On the treacherous mountains of Crete, a motley band of World War II Resistance fighters — an artist, a shepherd, and a poet — abducted a German commander from the heart of the Axis occupation. To understand how, McDougall retraces their steps across the island that birthed Herakles and Odysseus, and discovers ancient techniques for endurance, sustenance, and natural movement that have been preserved in unique communities around the world.”
The Odyssey ― If you haven’t tackled reading Homer’s classic, 12,110-line epic poem, this new translation might provide the perfect reason to try. Astonishingly, since its origin nearly three millennia ago, Wilson is the first woman to translate The Odyssey into English. Her effort is perhaps the most contemporary and accessible version yet. The tale of Odysseus and his tumultuous journey touches on war and its impact, family, fatherhood, marriage, and also includes many of the deities and mythical figures from ancient Greek mythology. We also really enjoyed the detailed maps within the book which are useful to reference as the story progresses. For those of us who mostly read modern non-fiction, reading The Odyssey can be a jolt to our system. There can be real value in the process of challenging yourself with this long-form, poetic structure. If you want to learn more, here is a profile on Wilson and her great translation.
Love, War, and Circuses: The Age-Old Relationship Between Elephants and Humans ― Elephants have played a unique role in human history. By some accounts, they may have directed our early migrations and helped shape the landscapes that enabled our evolution. We have by turns worshipped them and killed them for sport, created beautiful artworks depicting them and forced them to dance for us, ridden them into battle and placed children on their backs. Now, as elephant populations around the world stand on a precipice, it is more important than ever to consider just how much we owe to them. If you want to better understand human nature, sometimes looking at the way we interact with other species can be a good place to start.
How to Lie with Maps ― We’ve written previously on the blog and in The Great Mental Models book about the map/territory divide. This book is a concrete explanation of how the representation of a thing can differ wildly from the thing itself. We all use some form of map practically every day, but we can forget that maps are made by fallible humans. As a result, they can be manipulated with ease to create particular impressions of the world. How to Lie with Maps will arm you with the knowledge necessary to recognize the ways in which the maps you use may be distorting your perspective.
The Opium War ― This book describes the mid-19th century conflict between Great Britain and China and the reverberations that remain to this day. From the official summary: “Beginning with the dramas of the war itself, Julia Lovell explores its causes and consequences and, through this larger narrative, interweaves the curious stories of opium’s promoters and attackers. The Opium War is both the story of China’s first conflict with the West and an analysis of the country’s contemporary self-image. It explores how China’s national myths mold its interactions with the outside world, how public memory is spun to serve the present; and how delusion and prejudice have bedeviled its relationship with the modern West.” The history of this conflict is a clear example of how we often use history to justify our present ideas, and how an event can be imbued with different meanings. If you want to gain a different perspective on our current geo-political reality, Lovell’s book on this obscure conflict certainly provides one.
No One Cares About Crazy People: My Family and the Heartbreak of Mental Illness in America — The history of how society treats those with mental health issues is often a shocking story. This book explores the history of mental health treatment, from the institutions and the doctors who helped shape our current sensibilities, to the wider social and economic implications of treatment (or lack thereof). Intertwined is the author’s personal family journey through schizophrenia and the difficult system they had to navigate. Although presented from the American perspective, the book nonetheless covers a lot of territory with global relevance.
Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process — John McPhee is a living legend in the creative nonfiction genre; this is his handbook on writing. He is the author of 33 books. McPhee won the Pulitzer Prize after four nominations, has written for The New Yorker for 53 years, and is in his 45th year teaching creative writing at Princeton University. In a series of short essays, he shares advice, techniques, and weaves in tales from a life spent capturing real stories on paper. The storytelling is equally as powerful as his technical advice on writing. In a masterful chapter on structure, he walks readers through various stories by visually drawing their unique structures. In a chapter on interview techniques, McPhee describes why Jackie Gleason was one of his most difficult subjects. In the final chapter on the power of omission, he recounts an entertaining conversation with President Dwight D. Eisenhower about why he left certain objects out of his paintings. The stories and lessons are fascinating even if becoming a better writer is not your goal. If you liked Stephen King’s On Writing, you’ll enjoy this as well.
Stillness is the Key — The latest book from our former Knowledge Project guest is now available. Here is an overview: “All great leaders, thinkers, artists, athletes, and visionaries share one indelible quality. It enables them to conquer their tempers. To avoid distraction and discover great insights. To achieve happiness and do the right thing. Ryan Holiday calls it stillness — to be steady while the world spins around you. In this book, he outlines a path for achieving this ancient, but urgently necessary way of living. Drawing on a wide range of history’s greatest thinkers, from Confucius to Seneca, Marcus Aurelius to Thich Nhat Hanh, John Stuart Mill to Nietzsche, he argues that stillness is not mere inactivity, but the doorway to self-mastery, discipline, and focus.”
How to Be an Epicurean: The Ancient Art of Living Well — So much of ancient philosophy is timeless, but there is often a gap between the original ideas and modern life. It’s helpful when a knowledgeable guide gives ancient philosophy a practical, modern context, and that is exactly what you find in this book — Epicurean philosophy explained clearly and with a modern interpretation, demonstrating the clear relevance of this often misunderstood ancient philosophy in today’s world. For example, Epicurus discussed at length how to minimize fear of death and maximize appreciation for living life to the fullest. If you are interested in reading more about Epicurus, we also recommend this book as a good summary of source material.
The Sorcerer’s Apprentices: A Season in the Kitchen at Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli — The former Spanish restaurant El Bulli was named the best in the world a record five times between 2002-2009. In 2009, author Lisa Abend went behind the scenes to reveal how it all worked. Abend was given unprecedented access to the restaurant and staff. While she does explore the creative mind of El Bulli’s head chef, Ferran Adrià, she mostly focuses on the junior members of the kitchen, the stagiares, or apprentice chefs who were handpicked each year from 3000 applicants to do the meticulous grunt work. In describing El Bulli through their eyes, Abend highlights many of the areas we are passionate about at Farnam Street: leadership, psychology, decision-making, and the relentless pursuit of learning. El Bulli’s success relied upon rigid discipline and precise repetitive work, but also the softer aspects of teamwork and creativity. This book shows how El Bulli tried to uniquely balance this dichotomy. Some may view the system as exploiting the human capital of these young chefs, while others might see it as an interesting right of passage. Either way, it remains the system many world-class restaurants employ, and learning about it as an outsider is eye opening.
The Snow Leopard – Winner of the National Book Award in 1979 for non-fiction, The Snow Leopard recounts Peter Matthiessen’s epic journey on foot into the Himalayas in 1973. The book is a classic travel memoir (in diary format) that weaves the struggle of the journey with Matthiessen’s mourning for his late wife. It is fascinating to accompany him as he hikes deep into the Inner Dolpo region of Nepal to find the Zen Buddhist Lama of Shey on Crystal Mountain, and to hopefully catch a glimpse of the elusive snow leopard. Along the way, he beautifully describes one of the most inaccessible places on earth. Long before HD travel documentaries, this was the type of timeless writing that could transport the reader fully into another world. Matching his pace on foot, this book is slow, meditative, and deliberate – a true escape.
Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life — Our friend, and previous Learning Community AMA guest, Nir Eyal, who literally wrote the book on how to make technology addictive published the antidote. Nir is a behavioral design expert who taught at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. His perspective in Indistractable is unique since he understands distraction from the inside out.
Islands in the Stream — Like hiking off the beaten path, exploring Hemingway’s lesser known works can be pleasantly surprising. The first of Hemingway’s posthumously published novels (1970), Islands in the Stream was found by Hemingway’s widow after his death. Beautifully descriptive, he weaves together many of his signature narratives – love, loss, longing, adventure, and war. In three stories, Hemingway takes us through decades of the life of artist Thomas Hudson, in a semi-autobiographical depiction that begins with the joys of fatherhood and fishing, and ends with Nazi submarine hunting. This book has something for everyone, and is a worthwhile read for those only familiar with Hemingway’s more popular and earlier works.
The Path of Least Resistance — A deeply insightful book about how to create what you want in life by exploring the hidden structures. Once a structure exists in our lives, energy moves through that structure where there is less resistance. The book argues you are where you are today because of the (hidden) structures in your life. The water in a river flows along the path of least resistance. Most of our attempts we make to change fail because the path of least resistance doesn’t change. If you don’t change the structures, you won’t change the direction of energy. The book is about recognizing the structures at play so you can change them and create the life you want.
Chop Wood, Carry Water — This short story is my favourite read so far in 2019 and perhaps the last few years. The book chronicles a young man on his quest to become a Samurai archer. The timeless ideas will have you looking at life with a new perspective and understanding how we (unintentionally) sabotage our own efforts.
Ultralearning — In an effort to learn, author Scott Young has taken on some remarkable projects including learning three other languages and the entire MIT computer science curriculum in under one year. More than simply chronicling those journeys and the subculture of ultralearners, the book offers a roadmap for learning.
Elastic – Super engaging book about one of the great capacities of the human brain: what the author calls ‘elastic thinking.’ The part of our brain that gives us imagination and the ability to respond to change with new and novel ideas is at the core of our evolution into the unique species that we are. The book explains both how our brains achieve elastic thinking, how we can develop our abilities to think elastically, and why it is both important and interesting to do so.
Learning From the Octopus: How Secrets from Nature Can Help Us Fight Terrorist Attacks, Natural Disasters, and Disease — You know that feeling you get when you read something that’s so amazing you’re not sure you want to share it with people because it’s your own little secret? That’s how I felt with this. Here’s the blurb from Amazon. “Our response to catastrophe remains unchanged: add another step to airport security, another meter to the levee wall. This approach has proved totally ineffective: reacting to past threats and trying to predict future risks will only waste resources in our increasingly unpredictable world. In Learning from the Octopus, ecologist and security expert Rafe Sagarin rethinks the seemingly intractable problem of security by drawing inspiration from a surprising source: nature.”
Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing — Finally, a glimpse into the mind of the great biographer Robert Caro. Caro is prolific. His 1,336 page biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker, was crowned one of the hundred greatest nonfiction books of the twentieth century by the Modern Library. Since 1982 he has devoted his life to completing a five volume biography of President Lyndon Johnson (The Years of Lyndon Johnson series) which he continues to work on today at age 83. What is simultaneously heartening and intimidating to learn is that there are no secrets or hacks to Caro’s methods for writing the world’s most in-depth biographies. It all comes down to years of meticulous research, diligent organizational skills, thousands of hours of interviews, and raw hard work. Caro walks us through his methods in detail. From the strategic silent pauses he uses in interviews, to the painstaking process of scanning hundreds of thousands of documents from Presidential archives. The result is a captivating read.
A Little History of the World — I’m reading this book with the kids this summer on our vacation. While written in 1935, there are many things to like — even love. We choose the illustrated edition, which has pictures on nearly ever page because it helps keeps the kids interested and associate topics to images. The book is gorgeous and having published a well-designed book, I know this isn’t cheap to put together. Full of history, the book makes a great summer read alone or with the entire family. The lessons are timeless. If you don’t have kids, I’d highly recommend The Lessons of History, which is probably the most page for page wisdom you’ll ever find in a single book. The audio version is worth getting just for the interviews with the authors between the chapters (which don’t appear in the print version). If you’re not an audio fan, we’ve condensed and transcribed these for Learning Community members in our knowledge library.
Mind over Machine : The Power of Human Intuition and Expertise in the Era of the Computer — A well-reasoned case that computer intelligence will always fall short of human intelligence. The most interesting part is the preface, which neatly sums up how human associative pattern matching works. While technology has advanced rapidly in the 30 years since the book was written in ways the authors could have never foreseen, and our knowledge of how the human brain works has evolved, the book reads fairly well.
How to Build a Car: The Autobiography of the World’s Greatest Formula 1 Designer — If I told you who gave me this recommendation, you’d buy the book in a heartbeat. But I’m not going to do that. Newey is a genius, and this book goes to show you not only the power of operating as a part of a team but also the value of being able to think in more than one dimension. You don’t need to be a racing fan to appreciate this book or Newey. However, I warn you in advance you might find yourself googling physics terms like “ground effect” to make sure you understand. Highly recommended.
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.