These are 40 of the 130 books from last year, in reverse chronological order of reading. In the next posts, I will include the rest of the books, plus the various lists and top titles: best overall, most important, most mind-blowing, most useful, and some special categories. The first three are Great Courses, which are like long audiobooks. All are nonfiction. Enjoy!
Everyday Engineering: Understanding the Marvels of Daily Life (2015) by Prof Stephen Ressler (Great Courses). This 36-lecture course was one of the meatiest, most useful I’ve ever taken from The Teaching Company/Great Courses. Ressler is a superb instructor who has the gift of explaining everything with instantly graspable lucidity. His handcrafted demonstrations bring the concepts to life and burn them in your visual memory. How do they build dams? How is electrical power generated, transported and distributed? How does your POTS (plain old telephone service) work, and why is it so damn indestructibly reliable?
This was my long-overdue education in how the modern world functions — the 7 engineering systems houses comprise, water use and disposal, power, trash, the combustion engine, transportation engineering, traffic, railroads and sustainability. For me, this was a massive unraveling of the mysteries of the built environment. I watched it at 2x speed on my iPad (the desktop interface won’t let you change speeds), making it a supremely worthwhile 9-hour investment. Amongst millions of titles on Goodreads, this has one of the highest ratings. 10/10
Plant Science: An Introduction to Botany (2016) by Prof Catherine Kleier (Great Courses). I knew next to nothing about botany, so I dug up this course. So much fun! Kleier is an energetic teacher who does not shy away from the occasional atrocious pun. Her style is a bit discursive. Instead of a strict top-down or bottom-up approach, she uses a well-known plant (e.g. ferns) as a lead-off point to a more general topic (e.g. vascular plants), thus keeping the lessons engaging. 24 lectures of 30 min each. 8.5/10
The Science of Energy: Resources and Power Explained (2015) by Prof Michael Wysession (Great Courses). How is power generated from coal, hydro, natural gas, fracking, tar sands, solar, wind? How is that power then stored and distributed? How does the smart grid work? Wysession explains everything with great clarity, laying out the tradeoffs each form of energy creates, and the solutions humans have come up with. I listened to the audio version; the video version is probably richer. 9.5/10
The Achievement Habit: Stop Wishing, Start Doing, and Take Command of Your Life (2015) by Bernard Roth (ebook and print). Roth is one of the co-founders of the Stanford d.school, one of the originators of design thinking, and a professor of mechanical engineering for 40 years. His book is, indeed, partly about achievement. More than that, it’s a collection of life wisdom from a very smart, accomplished, empathetic doer, maker, and teacher who has figured out how to get results from himself and students.
Foremost in Roth’s teachings is bias towards action. Instead of waffling and ruminating, “don’t get caught up in how you’re going to get it just right. That’s what causes people to shut down and never get started. Avoid the desire for perfection right out of the gate. Instead, tell yourself that you’re prototyping your screenplay or your dress. The final version can come later.”
Some of his suggestions may seem radical, but they’re just part of standard d.school curriculum, e.g. getting rid of reasons for doing things. You don’t need them, and they’re all bogus anyway: “Many reasons are simply excuses to hide the fact that we are not willing to give something a high enough priority in our lives.” Substitute all manifestations of “but” with “and.” When you gather up your intention and concentrate your attention, you will move mountains.
There’s a ton of actionable advice here, such as a list of 22 ways to get unstuck (e.g. lists, idea logs, humor, conversation, exercise, compressed conflict, mind maps, working backward), and the “Your Turn” exercises at the end of each section. This is a tremendously useful and encouraging book for anyone whose creative endeavors could use some more bias towards action. 9.5/10
The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative (2017) by Florence Williams (ebook & print). “We don’t experience natural environments enough to realize how restored they can make us feel, nor are we aware that studies also show they make us healthier, more creative, more empathetic and more apt to engage with the world and with each other. Nature, it turns out, is good for civilization.” Williams gamely camps with neuroscientists in Colorado, experiences shinrin yoku (“forest bathing”) in Japan, straps on a portable aethelometer (soot-measurer) in DC, rambles in Scotland, hikes in Finland, and visits a Korean “healing forest.”
Through her chatty anecdotes, she presents the evidence that nature strengthens your immune system, lowers stress, increases creativity, decreases rumination, and calms down hyperactive kids. I appreciated her exposition of the great E.O. Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis, which “posits that peaceful or nurturing elements of nature helped us regain equanimity, cognitive clarity, empathy and hope.” Minimum recommended dose of nature: 5 hrs/month. An excellent and persuasive popular science book. 8/10
The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It (2015) by Jane McGonigal (ebook and print). “The latest science reveals that stress can make you smarter, stronger, and more successful. It helps you learn and grow. It can even inspire courage and compassion.” A popular lecturer in psychology at Stanford, McGonigal provides ample evidence to support the radical thesis that stress can be good for you, provided that you think of it as friend rather than foe. You can do this by reframing anxiety about an upcoming performance as excitement, which is physiologically identical. Or by re-thinking threats as challenges. Or by watching a video about “how stress can increase physical resilience, enhance focus, deepen relationships, and strengthen personal values.” Or by just telling someone “You’re the kind of person whose performance improves under pressure”, which increases their actual performance by 33%. Or taking 10 minutes to write down your core values.
Some of these interventions continue to work months and even years after they have occurred. “The things that protect us from the dreaded dangers of stress are all attainable”, and McGonigal eloquently conveys the science and practical steps to attain them. This is a potentially life-changing book that can positively affect your health, success and relationships for years. 8.5/10
Bringing Home the Birkin: My Life in Hot Pursuit of the World’s Most Coveted Handbag (2008) by Michael Tonello (ebook and print). After uprooting his comfortable life in Provincetown for a promising job offer in Barcelona, Tonello finds himself stranded in a strange city without the means to support himself when the job falls through. He happens upon the online world of Hermès aficionados, and quickly finds himself making a mint selling scarves and then handbags of the luxury marque on Ebay. His discoveries of the tricks for acquiring dozens of Birkin handbags (price tag: $7000-$100,000) around the world, for which there is supposedly a 2-year waitlist, and the sale of his goods to obsessively acquisitive clients, is entertaining, insightful, and dishy. Tonello’s knowingness, candor, and humor keep the book from becoming just a chronicle of human vanity — I laughed out loud several times. That said, there’s only so deep one can go with a tale of luxury consumption, and immersion in that world even for a few hours can cause a craving for status trinkets even in the most austere of us. 7.5/10
The Power of Persuasion: How We’re Bought and Sold (2005) by Robert A. Levine, Ph.D. “The psychology of persuasion emanates from three directions: the characteristics of the source, the mind-set of the target person, and the psychological context within which the communication takes place.” Thus begins this revelatory and sobering treatise on the ways humans fool themselves and others. A professor and practicing psychologist for 40+ years, Levine signed up to experience firsthand the persuasive techniques of people like car dealers, door-to-door salesmen (Cutco knives), and cult leaders (the Moonies). One of his key insights: no one is impervious, not even you. The persuasiveness triad: “perceived authority, honesty, and likability.” Americans are particularly susceptible to the authority symbols of titles, clothing, and luxury cars (see: current US president). Decisive, swift talkers are no more sure of their facts than more hesitant counterparts, but they create an impression of confidence that audiences perceive as more expert and intelligent. The more jargon you use and the less a jury understands a witness, the more convincing she appears.
Aside from the dismaying news that we’re all patsies waiting to be taken, the book is full of entertaining, insightful stories on scoundrels ranging from psychics to gurus. Moonies recruit in a trademark sequence of “pickup, first date, love bomb”, creeping up on victims with imperceptible subtlety that ultimately ensnares them. Levine’s account of the 10-step method of car salesmen was particularly revelatory and unsettling in the frankness of its manipulation.
The most gripping part of the book was Levine’s depiction of the final hours of the Jonestown cult of Rev. Jim Jones, during which 900 members committed suicide by drinking cyanide-laced Flavorade, even after witnessing their own infants’ agonizing death throes. To read the transcript of the recording of those hours, and how people just like you and me were rooting for their own demise out of loyalty to a demented and malevolent leader, is to understand how tyranny works, and how it is happening right here, right now.
Disrupt You!: Master Personal Transformation, Seize Opportunity, and Thrive in the Era of Endless Innovation (2015), by Jay Samit (ebook & print). “You have a choice: pursue your dreams or be hired by someone else to help them fulfill their dreams. The great disruptors constantly reinvent themselves and their careers. They never fear losing their jobs, because they create jobs. They control their own destinies. This book is written to answer two very basic questions: How did they do it? How can I do it? The third question is entirely up to you: Will you do it?” I knew Jay from our Los Angeles networking group. I respected the clarity of his thinking and a communication style that cut through bullshit like an argon laser. His book does not disappoint. “Being a disruptor is simply a state of mind. It is the ability to look for opportunity in every obstacle, to respond to every setback as a new beginning.” Equal parts about both personal and industry disruption, it’s one of the best books on entrepreneurship I’ve read in recent memory.
Whether as a self-employed entrepreneur or top executive in companies like Sony and EMI Music, Samit is a master of taking calculated risks. His anecdotes about creating technologies slightly ahead of their time, reinventing himself multiple times, and accomplishing the seemingly impossible are bold, instructive and inspiring. Read it for a potent shot in the arm that just might awaken the entrepreneurial spirit in you. 9/10
Just Kids (2010) by Patti Smith (ebook and print). Winner of the National Book Award. “My small torrent of words dissipated into an elaborate sense of expanding and receding. It was my entrance into the radiance of imagination.” Smith’s description of her long, improvised childhood prayers to God is also an apt initiation into her hardscrabble beginnings in New York City. Hunger, homelessness, chance meetings with Robert Mapplethorpe that bloom into a union, and their insistence on being artists in spite of having neither a path nor the means to tread it — this is as good as origin stories get. The prose has earnestness and poetry, as well as a vivid portrayal of an epoch of creativity and turmoil. A touching book. 9/10
Eat & Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness (2012), by Scott Jurek & Steve Friedman (ebook & print). Chris McDougall’s fantastic Born to Run piqued my interest about Jurek, so I was curious to know more. This is a fun and easy read about Jurek’s start in the sport and the races he’s run. It’s also about his gradual journey from the standard American junk food diet to one that is wholly plant-based. Every chapter ends in a vegan recipe that is easy to make and delicious-sounding.
Lest his self-effacing voice fool you, please remember that Jurek is a total badass who has won the grueling Western States 100-miler seven times (and the murderous Badwater 135, and dozens more). That’s 100 miles of non-stop running, folks. What I could not fathom was how he could go ahead and not only start a 100-mile race with a sprained ankle swollen to the size of a melon, not only finish that race, not only win it, but also set a course record. This is the kind of madness that strips me of rational powers, leaving me with jaw agape at what humans are capable of doing. Read it to be inspired and bewildered, especially if you’re a runner. 8.5/10
On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (2014 revised edition), by Lt Col Dave Grossman (ebook & print). My friend who’s a prison educator and eloquent speaker on violence and restorative justice turned me on to this book. Since its initial publication in 1995, this book has become required reading at the FBI Academy, DEA Academy, West Point, US Marine Corps, and US Air Force — and for good reason. Main thesis: killing comes unnaturally even to soldiers whose own lives are at stake, as evidenced by the low shooting rates (15-20%) in the Civil War, WW I and WW II. This changed with Vietnam, where extensive training in desensitization and reflexive shooting got the rates up to 95%.
What did not change, however, was the traumatic effects the killings had on the soldiers committing them. Grossman — Army Ranger and psychology professor, amongst many other credentials — is about as omnicompetent and thoughtful as humans come. He places much of the blame for our cultural desensitization to killing on violent entertainment. The depictions of battle experiences can be gut-wrenching, and yet the glimmers of nobility amongst the obedient carnage is cause for hope. Required reading for understanding modern civilization and the warfare that supports it.
Learn Better: Mastering the Skills for Success in Life, Business, and School, or, How to Become an Expert in Just About Anything (2017) by Ulrich Boser (ebook & print). This is the first time I ignored the warning of reviewers about a book and got it anyway because it happened to be the Amazon Editor’s Pick for Best Science Book of the Year. Well, it’s actually kinda mediocre, especially compared to such powerhouses as Magness & Stulberg’s Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success, Benedict Carey’s How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens, Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How and the magisterial Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson. Sure, it contains lots of stories, which is one of the oft-discussed learning tools. But the stories don’t really make strong, memorable points.
The unfortunate fact is that this book contains a lot of mistakes — sloppy, avoidable ones. The phalanx of writers and editors going through this book misspell “gaffe” as “gaff” a dozen times — funny if it were intentional. Mistakes like these diminish my trust in the source.
I appreciated the very useful 10-page “Took Kit” summary at the end of the book. If you have no exposure to the science of learning, you will pick up some interesting and actionable information from Learn Better. Otherwise, I refer you to the other books mentioned above. 7/10
The Heart to Start: Win the Inner War and Let Your Art Show (2017) by David Kadavy (ebook & print). “The same way a rocket needs to escape the gravitational pull of Earth to get into space, your art needs to escape the pull of ego to get into the world. You’re going to need some serious fuel to make that happen.” I’m a perennial fan of punchy, exhortative get-off-your-ass books such as Stephen Pressfield’s classics The War of Art and Turning Pro, Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist, and Seth Godin’s entire oeuvre. This book by the creator of the Love Your Work podcast is a welcome addition to the genre. I’ll be rereading its 140 pages often for rocket fuel. 8.5/10
SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (2015) by Mary Beard (ebook and print). Superb revisionist history of Rome. Beard writes with one eye on historiography: Where did the story come from? How reliable are the sources? What’s the most plausible interpretation? As such, she compels us to reconsider many tropes of Roman history we have come to accept as fact (e.g. Caesar was great, Caligula was awful), and to have a relationship with it that informs modern manifestations of power, tyranny, wealth, war, governance, corruption, and civic life. 9/10
The Art of Doing: How Superachievers Do What They Do and How They Do It So Well (2013) by Camille Sweeney and Josh Gosfield (ebook & print). Fun vignettes of 36 highly accomplished individuals of eclectic talent: athlete (Martina Navratilova), chef (David Chang), teacher (Erin Gruwell), neuropyschologist (Richard Restak), erotic film maker (Candida Royalle), activist (Constance Rice, who’s totally unlike her sister Condi), entrepreneurs (Tony Hsieh of Zappos and Bill Gross of Idealab) and many more. I felt as if the book did not hold together as a whole, since the path to success is always meandering and the 36 people dispense contradictory advice.
That said, these people are doers par excellence, and reading their accounts is a shot in the arm for those who could use a dose of inspiration. Also, the short interviews contain a lot of condensed wisdom from world-class performers. The one from Richard Restak on brain science was particularly good, as was the one on hostage negotiation.
If you’re hungering for exposure to a pleasant potpourri of fascinating information that you may not have otherwise sought on your own, this is a fun book to read. But if you are looking to improve your performance, the two indispensable books are Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by K. Anders Ericsson and Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness. 7/10
The Psychopath Whisperer: The Science of Those Without Conscience (2014) by Kent Kiehl, Ph.D. (ebook & print). Kiehl has is one of the few scientists in the world to take a mobile MRI unit into maximum-security prisons to scan the brains of dozens of remorseless criminals. Whereas the average North American male’s score on the Hare Psychopathy Checklist is 4, these serial rapists and murderers score 30 or above. “Lack of empathy, guilt or remorse; glibness; superficiality; parasitic orientation; flat affect; irresponsibility; and impulsivity” characterize psychopaths.
There are some fascinating facts here. The triad of bed-wetting, fire-setting and animal cruelty “predict a child who is on a trajectory toward future severe antisocial behavior as a teenager and adult.” Psychopaths cannot grasp abstract concepts, rarely know details about their children, are hard to startle, and do not get distressed by being in prison. Case histories of inmates like “Gordon” with his attempted artful long con on a still-green Kiehl, and the utterly vicious “Shock Richie”, are sobering and instructive. Presidential assassin Charles Guiteau was a psychopath while John Wilkes Booth was not, making for an interesting historical comparison.
About half the book is a mildly self-congratulatory memoir of Kiehl’s illustrious scientific career; less of that may have made for a stronger book. Otherwise, this is very useful stuff. Read this to sharpen your detectors for the 1 in 150 people who fit the psychopath profile so you can protect yourself from them. 8/10
The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest (2012), by Dan Buettner (ebook & print). Dan Buettner’s fantastic 2012 New York Times Magazine Article, “The Island Where People Forgot to Die”, was my introduction to Blue Zones. Are there places in the world where people disproportionately live to be 100 or more? And if so, what’s their secret?
With the backing of National Geographic, Buettner and his crack team of top-notch scientists went around the world and found 5 places that fit the strict Blue Zones criteria: Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica; the Seventh-Day Adventist community of Loma Linda, California; and the Greek island of Ikaria. These regions have a disproportionately high population of centenarians, up to 50 times the US average. But even more remarkable, their centenarians are independent at a rate far higher than in the US and Europe: 90% vs 15%. What’s going on?
Having gone to medical school and read the NYT Magazine article, I thought I knew what was in the book and thus postponed reading it. Big mistake. Buettner and team are incredibly thorough in their approach, uncovering details about living a good life that casual observation would miss. And they back every one of their conclusions with as much data as they can.
Definite patterns emerge amongst the various groups. All of them foster a strong sense of community and intergenerational cohesiveness. In Costa Rica, there’s a 99-person village all descended from one person, and there’s a touching picture of a blissed-out 104-year old lady holding her great-great-granddaughter. People hang out with family and friends every day, and the elderly live with their offspring.
All the communities eat a mostly plant-based diet. Exercise is also built into their daily activity. Although it’s safe to say that none of these people have ever stepped into a gym, every day they till fields, work gardens, tend sheep over hilly terrain, and walk around.
Some other data points also emerge. Several of the communities incorporate goat milk products in their diet, which is more nutritious than cow’s milk. Red wine features prominently in the two Mediterranean communities, with Sardinian Cannonau offering an extra dose of antioxidants. Almost all the communities eat diets rich in beans.
There are several reasons I urge you to read the book in its entirety. First, there are a lot of practices worth incorporating into your own life that I don’t have room to mention in detail, e.g. “ikigai”, your reason to get up in the morning; “moai”, a group of friends who meet regularly; and turmeric.
Second, by reading the stories of all five communities, you not only get the details but also the gestalt of living a long and fruitful life. Is there a worldview that predisposes to healthy longevity?
Third, the healthy, functioning centenarians profiled will turn your preconceptions of aging upside down. They also have sterling advice to offer: “Eat your vegetables, have a positive outlook, be kind to people, and smile.”
Fourth and most important: do you really have something better to do than learning how to live a long, productive and healthy life? If so, I’d like to know what that is. In the meantime, I also got the book for my parents, and would encourage you to do the same. Its life-affirming message is invigorating and wise for all future centenarians. 10/10
The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia (2017), by Masha Gessen (ebook & print). I just knew this book had to be dangerously good when I saw all the 1-star reviews by trolls on Amazon. So I bought it immediately. I had read several of Gessen’s meticulous and eye-opening New Yorker pieces, but this book takes it to a whole new level. And happy to report that it has since won the National Book Award, haters be damned.
Gessen tells the story through seven dramatis personae, each “both ‘regular’, in that their experiences exemplified the experiences of millions of others, and extraordinary: intelligent, passionate, introspective, able to tell their stories vividly.” They give first-person accounts of the everyday ordeal of surviving in Russia while staying true to oneself. Like Zhanna, daughter of popular opposition politician Boris Nemtsov and activist in her own right, whose life demonstrates some of the consequences of opposing the regime: exile, incarceration and murder. The story of Masha the journalist illustrates the perils of truth-telling. Pioneering psychotherapist Marina Arutyunyan tries to shepherd modern mental health to Russia through lacerating thickets of state-mandated ideology. Openly gay Lyosha tries to advocate for oppressed minorities without getting fired from his precarious university post.
Through the lives of the protagonists, Gessen weaves the last century of Russian history. Stalin’s self-cannibalizing reign of terror is particularly chilling: “Stalin’s terror machine executed its executioners at regular intervals. In 1938 alone, forty-two thousand investigators who had taken part in the great industrial-scale purges were executed, as was the chief of the secret police, Nikolai Yezhov.” Stalin once invited an old friend from Georgia to Moscow for a reunion, and after lavishly wining and dining him, had him executed before dawn: “This could not be explained with any words or ideas available to man.”
And that is the most astonishing aspect of this book: it is not fiction. The protagonists’ experiences are so logic-defying, so disheartening, and such violations of basic human decency as to exist in a separate universe that no novelist could concoct. And yet, this universe has its own internal logic. Perhaps it’s best explained through Hannah Arendt, whose three-volume “Origins of Totalitarianism” Gessen deftly scrunches down to a few essential paragraphs: “What distinguishes a totalitarian ideology is its utterly insular quality. It purports to explain the entire world and everything in it. There is no gap between totalitarian ideology and reality because totalitarian ideology contains all of reality within itself.”
And yet, the book reads like a novel, which is why I don’t want to give away too much. Who is Homo sovieticus? For whom do Russians vote in the “Greatest Russian Ever” (aka “Name of Russia”) contest year after year? What’s going to happen to Boris Nemtsov after he defies Putin? Do our heroes avoid getting beat up and arrested at the demonstrations? Why is Putin so popular in Russia?
One pervasive theme of the book is the hegemony of doublethink over the Russian psyche. Coined by Orwell in 1984, doublethink is the necessity of maintaining two contradictory beliefs for survival, e.g. publicly supporting the government ideology while knowing that it oppresses your very existence.
This is some crazy-making stuff that Russians have had to endure for over a century. And still, there are people who fight for truth, healing, and freedom. Over and over, they rise to attend banned protests very likely to land them in jail (or worse). Their stories of stupendous bravery and selflessness consistently inspire.
And lest you as a Westerner think that you’re somehow safe because, oh, this is something happening elsewhere, please note that the recent rise of authoritarianism in countries like America takes its playbook straight out of Russia. Attacks on the press, construction of alternate realities, propagation of disinformation, persecution of minorities, and the shameless grabbing of executive power: it’s all happening right now.
And you know what else? We’ve seen it all before: Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Mao. So don’t read this book just because it’s a riveting account of life in what’s still an undiscovered continent for most Westerners. Don’t read it just because it’s a tour de force of journalistic craft and bravery. Read it because it also informs your life as an American, German, Frenchman, Hungarian, or anyone who values the freedom of human life and ideas, and so that you may be impelled to action. 10/10
The Sky Below: A True Story of Summits, Space, and Speed (2017), by Scott Parazynski and Susy Flory (ebook & print). Emergency physician, world-class mountaineer, Space Shuttle astronaut, International Space Station repairman, inventor, pilot, explorer, scientist, entrepreneur – these are just some of the lives Scott Parazynski has lived so far. With an exuberant yet gentle voice, he takes us along some extraordinary experiences, like a spacewalk repair of a billion-dollar solar panel, an Antarctic sojourn, and his second life-threatening attempt at the Mt Everest summit.
I particularly appreciate the book’s Kindle in Motion format, allowing me to enjoy the vivid photos, animated diagrams, and full-motion video from the Shuttle, ISS and outer space on my iPad. It enhanced the experience of reading the book, making it even more visceral. Thanks to these, never again will I mistake the Northern approach to Everest with the Southern one, or forget to wear my tactical galoshes to the mouth of a live volcano. Click to see the cover image on Amazon – it’s trippy.
Well-written and fun to read, this is the kind of book that leaves a smile on your face and inspires you to do even more daring things with your time on Earth. 8.5/10
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (1970), by Dee Brown (ebook, print & audio). The United States of America is a nation founded on genocide. The continental US was the ancestral homeland of millions of natives inhabiting it continuously for 40,000 years. Somehow, this vast territory became the domain of white settlers. How? During the massive westward expansion of the US all the way to the Pacific coast in the years 1840-1890, this was the general procedure:
1) Invade Native American (aka Indian) territory by making trails, building railroads, staking land claims, stealing livestock, or just attacking them without warning.
2) Provoked Native American tribes fight back to reclaim their hunting grounds, get back their livestock or their captives, or take revenge for the murders white people committed.
3) Settlers complain to the US Government, which now sends overwhelming force to attack the tribe.
4) Even though massively outnumbered and only possessing primitive weapons, the tribes inflict huge casualties on the US Military or outright defeat them.
5) The US Government makes a treaty with the tribes, granting them rights to a diminished, marginally livable territory, supposedly in perpetuity, and forbidding trespassing upon Indian hunting grounds and pastures. In the meantime, they forcibly march the Indians on foot to their new territory hundreds of miles away. Many Natives perish in the marches.
6) The Native Americans do not read or write English, so with each treaty, the US routinely swindles Natives out of vast swathes of their territories. Many are confined to restrictive, barely habitable reservations. Their government-issued food rations are meager, or stolen, or of inedible quality provided by profiteers. Widespread disease and death ensues.
7) Within 1-5 years, the treaty is violated by white settlers who want to mine gold, raise cattle, build railroads or make trails through the supposedly sacrosanct Native American territory. The US Government fails to enforce its own treaties. The tribes have no choice but to undertake the defense of their lands.
8) Completely ignoring their own treaties, the US Army takes this as justification to exterminate the Native Americans. Their usual modus operandi is to attack unarmed villages without notice, moving down everyone, including women and children. They all fervently believed in Gen. Sheridan’s maxim, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”
9) The few surviving Native Americans are confined to unlivable reservations far away from their homelands. Most die of disease, malnutrition, or broken hearts.
10) Repeat cycle for any remaining tribes until all are exterminated or confined to reservations.
The pattern of genocide is similar to how the Nazis exterminated Jews. First, Native Americans were declared subhuman, and therefore worthy of slaughter. This was completely accepted public opinion amongst white Americans.
Second, the Americans controlled all the means of creating and disseminating information, which they used to create outright lies and propaganda to further demonize Natives.
Third, once the tribes were overpowered and captured, they were confined to reservations, which functioned just like concentration camps.
Fourth, whites used manufactured, quasi-religious doctrine such as “Manifest Destiny” to justify breaking the treaties they themselves had written up, then invade more territory. America’s destiny was to go from sea to shining sea. The Natives just had bad luck to be in the way, and had to be removed.
Before reading the book, I knew that non-Indo-European place names in the US were of Native American origin. Twenty-six of US States have Indian names, as do hundreds of cities, counties, lakes, mountains and rivers. And you know what? 99.9% of the owners of those names were murdered by the US Government.
If everyone knew about the atrocities committed against the indigenous people, seeing these names – like Nantucket, Seminole, Tuskegee, Massachusetts, Algonquin, Alabama, Tennessee – would have the same emotional valence as signs saying “Auschwitz”, “Buchenwald” and “Treblinka.”
But most people don’t know, because history is written by the victors. And when I was a kid, we watched Westerns and played Cowboys and Indians, and everyone knew that the Indians were the bad guys.
Except that we were wrong. The Indians were the good guys. They were peaceful animists with venerable cultures who had figured out how to live in balance with their environment for 40,000 years. They had a real sense of honor and right and wrong. They were tremendously brave, in a way that astonished their white assailants. They were not afraid of death. And every white person who got to know them well became convinced of their nobility of spirit.
If it weren’t for the Indians teaching the Mayflower pilgrims how to hunt, build homes and farm, all those white people would have died in their first winter, and there would be no Thanksgiving holiday. Instead, the white people grew in number, overtook and massacred the peaceful Indians who just wanted to be left free to live like they had for the 40,000 years prior. The Native American culture was a humanistic, just and ecologically sound one, and the Western world is impoverished for having destroyed it.
Most Indian tribes did not have a written language. Dee Brown’s detective work to find these stories told from the Indian side, dig up government archives, and come up with a cohesive narrative, is nothing short of Herculean. The details of the battles, the marches and councils are alive — and heartbreaking. Americans may want to think about how reflexively proud they want to be of a military that has been a force for genocide and imperialism whose last just war was WWII. 10/10
American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (2007) by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin (ebook, print & audio). This is an extraordinary book about a singular human. J. Robert Oppenheimer (“Oppie” to his friends) is perhaps best remembered for being the father of the atomic bomb. But he also had outsize talents in almost every department of human endeavor, from literature to oratory to horseback riding to sheer charisma — a true 20th century genius. His movements at the highest level of science and politics define an era: the development of quantum mechanics, WWII, nuclear physics, the Cold War, the Red Scare, McCarthyism, and much more.
Bird and Sherwin took 15 years to write this book, and you can tell: the amount of detail is astonishing (and perhaps excessive). They take pains to provide a comprehensive picture of a stupendously talented and driven man whose flaws and powerful enemies turned him into a tragic figure. Read it for a deep understanding of the advent of modern physics, the characters in it, the making of the atomic bomb, the genesis of the Cold War, and the world it created. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize. 10/10
Entrepreneurial You: Monetize Your Expertise, Create Multiple Income Streams, and Thrive (2017) by Dorie Clark (ebook & print). Solo entrepreneurs, small business owners, domain experts, location-independent knowledge workers, or those who aspire to work for themselves instead of being a corporate cog, take notice: “Becoming a recognized expert these days doesn’t always lead to money. The elephant in the room of modern entrepreneurship is that even people who seem to be at the top of their game aren’t always monetizing successfully. Learning to make money from your expertise is a different skill set from what’s needed to become excellent at your work or well-known in your field.”
What I like about it:
1) It’s concise, well-researched and inspiring. Dorie is not only a first-rate chronicler of the rapid changes in modern work (through the other books in the trilogy, Reinventing You and Stand Out), but she’s also lived at the forefront of these changes. She’s held jobs all the way from stringer for a local newspaper, to political campaign staffer, to corporate consultant. If she’s a sought-after speaker and independent consultant now, it’s all via bootstrapping and sheer hustle. Her story and that of other successful entrepreneurs gives you a roadmap for us to follow.
2) Radical transparency. Dorie provides dollar figures for how much more (or less) money she made as a result of certain changes, as well as those from such luminaries as Pat Flynn. Most books shy away from such disclosures. EY openly features this information crucial to setting realistic goals and expectations.
3) Practicality. Dorie provides concrete actions for the three steps to sustainable monetization: building your brand; monetizing your expertise; extending your reach and impact online. And then, she gives us seven golden tactics for accomplishing those three steps: coaching/consulting; public speaking; podcasting; blogging; live conferences; online communities; and selling products.
Dorie illustrates each of these tactics with real-life examples from top-flight practitioners. For example, for podcasting, there’s Jordan Harbinger (The Art of Charm) and John Lee Dumas (Entrepreneur on Fire). For blogging and email list-building, there’s James Clear (400,000 emails!). For conferences, Jayson Gaignard of Mastermind Talks; for community building, Ryan Levesque. The stories of their process to success are very motivating.
Although the strategies and tactics Dorie enumerates are accessible to all, you should know that every one of these profiled people has an exceptional work ethic, starting with Dorie herself. These are elite hustlers at the top 0.1% of the population. Are you willing to commit to the work?
If so, then Entrepreneurial You provides a fantastic framework that will not only save you years of wasted effort but also provide you with ample yes-you-can motivation ammunition. Dorie Clark has written the go-to reference for prosperity, impact and fulfillment in the internet age. Get it to go big. 9/10
Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World (2015) by Matthieu Ricard (ebook, print and audio). I picked up Altruism at Matthieu Ricard’s reading in San Francisco two years ago. Ricard is a remarkable man: Tibetan Buddhist monk with over 30,000 hours of meditation under his belt; French translator to the Dalai Lama; PhD from Institut Pasteur under Nobelist François Jacob; and current title-holder for “world’s happiest man”, according to brain scans done at Richard Davidson’s lab.
This kind of book is required reading in my line of work, especially when written with the rigor and depth that Ricard brings. At 43 chapters and 849 pages, it’s has the heft of a brick, and the density, too, with tangled sentences like this: “It now had to be demonstrated that people don’t act solely in order to avoid having to justify their non-intervention to themselves either.”
A magnum opus like this takes 5-10x longer to read than the average book. But the rewards can be immense. Ricard brings massive evidence arguing for altruism as an essential part of our human and animal makeup, even beyond the genetic arguments of kin selection. This has far-reaching consequences in how we run our lives, interact with others, and treat the planet. 9.5/10
The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World (2017), by Anthony Brandt & David Eagleman (ebook & print). How do exceptionally creative people — like Leonardo da Vinci, Bach, Chopin, Einstein, Edison, Picasso, Steve Jobs — come up with and execute their ideas? What makes the book special are vignettes of 200+ artists, scientists, composers and engineers you haven’t heard of yet, and all the cool ideas they’ve come up with as they “bend, break and blend” old ideas to create new ones. The book’s fluid writing style and 200 illustrations make for fun, fast reading. Some essential new concepts I learned:
- “Skeuomorphs” are “features that imitate the design of what has come before.” Nothing is 100% new.
- Every emerging billion-dollar industry is already 10 yrs old
- To come up with great ideas, embrace error so you can proliferate lots of options
- The 20% Rule: the brain seems to prefer visual stimulus of 20% complexity
- The greatest creators (eg Picasso, Edison) were just insanely prolific. The more stuff you make, the more likely that some of it will be great.
- Let young minds embrace the arts: “This is because the arts, due to their overtness, are the most accessible way to teach the basic tools of innovation.”
- Although it can teach you much about the process of innovation, this book’s not a creativity how-to book per se. For that, I recommend Edward de Bono’s classic Lateral Thinking: Creativity Step by Step.
This is a great read for scientists, writers, inventors, artists, musicians, and eternally curious folks who could use an extra shot of creativity. Dozens of fascinating stories of perseverance, ingenuity, and breakthrough – e.g. self-healing concrete, carbon-fiber violins, or James Dyson’s 5,127 vacuum prototypes (!) – demystify innovation, humanize it, and just might catalyze a world-changing story of your own. 8.5/10
Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers (2016) by Tim Ferriss (ebook & print). This is quite possibly the most useful single book I’ve ever read. It’s a collection of interview highlights from Tim’s podcast, so there’s no central theme to it other than Doing Things Better. If you don’t mind the inferiority complex you’ll develop from hearing about all of these world-changing folks, you stand to learn a lot. It’s a hefty beast, best read piecemeal as a book of reference rather than something to finish in one weeklong sitting. 9/10
The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How (2009) by Daniel Coyle (ebook & print). The information in this book has kept well even though it’s 8 years old. How does the tiny island of Curaçao produce a hugely disproportionate number of world-class Little Leaguer baseball players? What’s the secret to Moscow’s run-down Spartak Tennis Club suddenly churning out Grand Slam winners? Where did all these South Korean female golf champions come from?
Coyle travels to hotbeds of talent all over the world to distill the essence of exceptional performance. Deep practice (aka “deliberate practice”) is essential, involving practicing to the edge of one’s ability while getting timely feedback. Some kind of spark seems to be necessary to fuel the “rage to mastery.” It’s interesting that a disproportionate number of historical figures — Caesar, Napoleon, Washington, Jefferson, Newton, Michelangelo, da Vinci, Twain — were orphans. And finally, having a master coach definitely helps. There are priceless insights into the slow, attentive, straightforward ways legends like John Wooden got results. Coyle’s odd obsession with myelin as the alpha and omega of learning and mastery is misplaced. Otherwise, the book has a ton of actionable information for creatives and teachers. It’s also fun to read. For just the usable facts and none of the stories, I refer you to Coyle’s The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Skills. 8/10
Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death and Redemption in an American Prison (2016) by Shaka Senghor (ebook & print). The author committed an impulsive drug-related murder at 19, for which he was incarcerated for 17 years. In a chronologically discursive narrative, Senghor recounts how his impoverished Detroit childhood and broken family led to involvement with drugs, violence—and prison, when the story really begins. Senghor’s violent ways land him in successively harsher prisons, including three years in solitary confinement. His stories of prison life are candid, bleak, gritty, and harrowing, sparing us no detail when it comes to “shitcake” attacks, gratuitous rape, and improvised shivs put to vengeful use. With time, Senghor sees the futility of his anger, finding a way to reconfigure his injured heart and mind towards compassion. Read it to understand life in American inner cities, the street drug trade, the justice system and the current prison crisis. Hell of a story. 8.5/10
The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1987, revised 2012) by Richard Rhodes (ebook, print & audio). This is the greatest nonfiction book I’ve ever read. It won the Pulitzer, National Book Award, and National Book Critics Circle Award, so others seem to like it, too. It’s really more magic trick than book. It was not enough to write mini-biographies of 30+ towering figures—Oppenheimer, Einstein, Bohr, Fermi, Szilard, Teller, Rutherford, Leslie Groves, Roosevelt, and that’s just in the first quarter of the book. It was not enough to track down all the letters they wrote to one another, and the declassified records of confidential conversations and surveillance. It was not enough to explain the rise of modern physics — quantum mechanics, nuclear physics, radiation — in lucid prose accessible to the layman and accurate for the scientists. It was not enough to chronicle the advent of WW I, Hitler, anti-semitism, Fascism, and WW II, and place them all in their historical context.
Rhodes’ magic trick is to put you at the very edge of history, when the likes of Niels Bohr and Erwin Schrödinger are trying to explain the unexplainable by creating a whole new field of science, bizarre and counterintuitive, as if you’re there, and it’s all new — like being at the world premier of Beethoven’s 9th. As a former physics student who studied this stuff in textbooks long taking the science for granted, I felt like Rhodes gave me access to that primal mind searching in the dark for answers to the mysteries the universe. Exhilarating stuff.
The story of humans cracking the atom and harnessing nuclear energy is arguably The Greatest Story Ever Told (sorry, JC), and nobody tells it better than Richard Rhodes. Tuck in for a fun, mind-expanding ride. 10/10
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (2012) by Susan Cain (ebook & print). I had successfully avoided reading this for 5 years, confident in the assumption that it was not written for raging extroverts like yours truly. But the ebook was on sale, so I had to find out what the fuss was about. How does the other half live? Cain points out that introversion is not a choice, and that states of quiet contemplation are responsible for a disproportionate amount of humanity’s greatest hits. I particularly appreciate her takedown of the bloviating loudmouth, an archetype that has enjoyed far too much success in US business and politics (see: presidency).
That said, I do not buy the main premise of the book: that introverts and extroverts are constructed from completely different blueprints. Why? Because everything she says about extroverts is true of me, as well as everything she says about introverts, depending on context. Do I appreciate moments of intimacy? Why yes. Do I enjoy raging parties? Absolutely. “Highly sensitive”? Yup. Blabbermouth? You bet. All depends on when and where. This kind of monism — the One Thing to Explain It All — seems to characterize a lot of science writing done by non-scientists (also see: Malcolm Gladwell, Daniel Coyle). Real science is far messier than that.
There is some evidence that one side of the amygdala is slightly larger in introverts. Aside from that, there is scant hard data behind the “introvert” designation. Until there is some kind of genetic marker that not only tests for introversion but also shows it’s mutually exclusive from extroversion, I will continue to assume it’s a context-dependent tendency rather than a hardwired trait.
Even so, it’s a worthwhile book. There’s a tremendous amount of useful advice on how to handle the loudmouths, pick a suitable career, and navigate introvert-extrovert relationships. If you happen to classify yourself as an introvert, I can imagine this being a very empowering read. 8/10
The Blue Zones of Happiness: Lessons from the World’s Happiest People (2017) by Dan Buettner (ebook & print). A National Geographic cover story hooked me into this book, and happiness is my beat anyway, so there really was no avoiding this one. The central idea: if you set up a framework for a more satisfying life, you’re more likely to have one.
Pleasure, purpose, pride: these are the three intertwining strands constituting the robust rope of happiness. The Danes, perennially at the top of world happiness surveys, have a lot of their basic needs met by their generous government services. Danes also have a strong community ethos, so they join lots of clubs and engage in purposeful activities. Costa Ricans, who may have an even stronger community ethos, have lives full of pleasurable moments or “positive affect”: walking to work, joking with friends, playing with their kids. Singaporeans work 60hr weeks to get the 5 C’s: car, condominium, cash, credit card, and club membership. They take pride in their accomplishments, and that supposedly makes them happy. The description of their harried, materialistic, cramped lives seemed the antipodes of happiness, but for now, I’ll take Dan’s word for it.
What I really appreciate about Buettner’s work is his thoroughness. He goes into the field with a bunch of scientists, gathers the data, crunches the numbers, and presents us with the best practices. That’s why this book led me to his first Blue Zones book (on longevity) which I consider definitive (also reviewed here). He’s particularly clear-eyed on the benefits of positive psychology hacks: “They may work in the short run, but they almost always fail over time. They’re quick fixes that may evaporate before you know it.” To be happy in the long run, structure a happy life.
I read this book in a day and highlighted 240 passages. It’s fantastic, and should be required reading for all bipeds. As a bonus, the appendix has a collection of Top 10 happiness practices from top experts for individuals and countries. 9.5/10
The 7 Secrets of the Prolific: The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism, and Writer’s Block (2011) by Hillary Rettig (ebook). Artists, especially writers, who would like to overcome procrastination and produce more, take notice. Rettig decriminalizes procrastination and prohibits self-shaming: “The use of shame and coercion as motivational tools, even on yourself, is not just immoral, but futile. They yield not growth and evolution, but, at best, short-term compliance. They also sabotage the creative process.” Instead, she identifies perfectionism as the real culprit and Compassionate Objectivity as its antidote. She offers six more solutions, as well as how to implement them, such as:
• Develop the Habit of Abundant Rewards and No Punishments: rewards yourself a lot for getting stuff done
• Build Your Capacity for Fearless Writing via Timed Writing Exercises: I’ve found setting a timer to be miraculously effective. Get it get stuff done.
I’m also a huge fan of her Three Productivity Behaviors: “(1) showing up exactly on time, (2) doing exactly what you are supposed to be doing, and (3) doing it uninterruptedly (except for small breaks) for long periods of time.”
I particularly appreciate Rettig’s unequivocal advice to self-publish your books, entirely bypassing the sclerotic traditional publishing industry. She validates the suffering of authors at the hands of prima donna agents and capricious publishers who aren’t really invested in your career. Taking control is the best decision you can make, and more profitable to boot.
In its 182 pages, this book contains zero padding and more actionable wisdom than books three times the length, all coming from a well of deep compassion. I’ll be referring to this one for a long time to come. 9/10