pragmatist
Patrick Joyce

March 17, 2020

What I Read in 2019

A little later than usual getting this up, but particularly given that everyone is staying at home with a little extra reading time—I thought I’d get my act together and share what I read last year (with my favorites in bold):

January

  • Superforecasting - Disciplined, probabalistic thinking can lead to consistent outperformance in predictions.
  • Creative Quest - Questlove writing about the creative process. There was a workmanlike nature to discussing the process of creating someting I found really comforting. The story of how D’Angelo was creatively spent after Voodoo and writing new songs seemed too daunting so he worked on covers, but on really making the covers his stuck with me. Plus, I really love a bunch of those covers.
  • Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World There is a strong argument to be made that no individual was as influential in creating the modern world than Genghis Khan. Massive improvements in trade, administration, technology, and communication. The stories of his early life are insane but seem grounded in the best available historical information.
  • The Wizard and the Prophet this traces two opposing world views thorough the lives of two men: Norman Borlaug and William Vogt. Borlaug is the technocratic optimist who believed that humanity can innovate out of our problems and pioneered high intensity high yield architecture. Vogt was arguably the father of modern environmentalism and argued that humanity needed to dramatically reduce our footprint on the planet our suffer famines of apocalyptic proportions. The competing philosophies they espoused remain central to current debates over genetic engineering and climate change.
  • 10% Happier - Memoir of a person discovering meditation.

February

  • Walt Disney Read this in preparation for our first trip to Disneyland. I was struck by how the story of the founding and growth of Disney the company resembled the growth of every modern tech company.
  • Measure What Matters Objectives and Key Results are a very good system for structured goal setting. If you are interested this is a very good introduction. One interesting thing is how some of the examples prove that OKRs—like any goal setting framework—aren’t a panacea. Specifically, youtube’s focus on total time viewing videos drove amazing engagement and built a great business. It also incentivized promoting conspiracy theories and misinformation to extremely negative societal impact. Also, one of the examples was Zume, and no execution framework can save you if your fundamental thesis is “robot pizza vans!”

March

  • Designing Your Life How to apply design principles like research and prototyping to create a satisfying life. I’m quite happy with my life but feel like this should be a required read for everyone in their late teens / early 20s.
  • Crack in Creation CRISPR could be one of the most important discoveries in human history. This is a good primer for a layperson on how it was discovered, why it matters, and how it could change the world.

April

  • Good to Go Most everything that is done for recovery is a placebo (no good evidence for stretching or icing) but compression can reduce soreness (although reducing inflammation may also reduce adaptation)
  • Uberland - I found this very underwhelming.

May

June

  • Oil Fall - I read this after seeing Tim Bray mention it. Data driven argument that improvements in solar and electric vehicles will create a feedback loop that accelerates the move away from fossil fuels and that it has already started.
  • Thanks, Obama - Memoir of an Obama speech writer. Funny if overly self-important.
  • Bad Blood - I’d only tangentially paid attention to Theranos. This story is insane. The complete failure of oversight of the board is pretty staggering. Theranos keeps getting pushed as a parable of startup excess. In one sense it definitely is. In another sense I was struck by how few experienced tech people were involved and how obvious many of the red flags would be to anyone experienced in growth companies.
  • Homo Deus
  • The Fifth Risk - Michael Lewis can write. Not a ton new here, but I just love his prose.
  • 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

July

  • How to Be a Stoic
  • American Gods - This was great. Listened to the audiobook while driving to and from Yosemite. Highly original. I’m told the Starz series is quite good as well.

August

  • Moonwalking with Einstein - A reporter’s personal account of becoming the 2006 US Memory champion. The author gave a talk at LivingSocial years ago that I missed but my brother said was very impressed. This book made me hopeful I could begin remembering people’s names better. (I have not)

September

  • Getting to Yes - Realized 50 pages in that I’d already read this. Worth a refresher.
  • Talking to Strangers - Gladwell is a great writer. This isn’t his best work, but the production quality on the audiobook was amazing.
  • Ultralearning - Learning how to learn is one of the most important skills. Not everyone needs to take quite this extreme of an approach but I wish this book had existed when I was a teenager or young adult.
  • The Mixer - It was amazing to be reminded how primitive the early premier league was.

October

  • The Years That Matter Most - Average is Over in colleges leads to insanity and inequity in admissions prep. I don’t think the current path of higher education is sustainable, but I’m also not sure what replaces it.
  • Fentanyl, Inc. - The story of novel psychoactive substaces, synthetic opioids, and our complete lack of societal preparation for them.
  • Endure - Wide ranging examination of the interplay of mental and physical limits at the bounds of human endurance.

November

December

  • Complications
  • Better - I love the clarity of Atul Gawande’s writing and this fit solidly into my meta-learning kick along with “Ultralearning”
  • We Need to Talk By an NPR reporter about how to be a better conversationalist. I feel it did a good job of naming mistakes people make in conversations. I’m not sure I’m better at talking to people now, but I’m now more aware of when I’m doing things that aren’t effective (for instance, immediately relating someone else’s story to my own experience or including irrelevant detains in a story I’m telling)
  • Things Fall Apart There is a reason this is in the 20th century canon. A shame that I hadn’t read it until now. Possibly the best last paragraph of a novel I’ve ever read. It is blistering.
  • Being Mortal - We spend most of our lives pretending death doesn’t exist. That isn’t an option for a surgeon. As mentioned before I love Dr. Gawande’s writing and he weaves the professional, personal, and historical to highlight that how our aversion to facing death gets in the way of living the life we would want.
  • More from Less A compelling data-driven case for capitalism, technological progress, and liberalism as the best path to better stewardship of the planet. Not pollyanish but not apocalyptic.
  • Movies (And Other Things) Shea Serrano’s writing feels like shooting the shit with my college friends over a beer. My brother got me a signed copy of this with the best author’s inscription ever1
  1. “Pat, Merry Christmas! Farts will always be funny, Shea” 

More Year End Book Lists

What I Read in 2018
I read 28 books in 2018.
What I Read in 2017
I finished 14 books in 2017.
What I Read in 2016
I finished 18 books in 2016.
Looking Back at 2015
I finished 14 books in 2015.