114 Books Reviewed in (About) One Paragraph
I read lots of books. My readers know I read lots of books. Ergo: I get asked for book recommendations all the damn time.
You can find my recommendation of the best books to read by category here and my all-time recommended books plus what I’m reading now here.
In this post, rather than compiling a “Best Of,” I want to share my review of 114 books I’ve read in recent years and let you be the judge of whether you want to read them.
Get stuck into it, you may find your next favorite read.
1. Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang
Most sci-fi geeks out about the science of the thing. It’s all about how a warp drive could potentially be possible and how that would affect planetary politics and so on. It’s science first. Fiction second.
Chiang is the opposite. His stories are strictly driven by character arcs and stories. The off-beat science is just the backdrop that lets us get to know these characters in completely unique and unexpected ways. There’s a story that follows the arc of passionate AI pet owners as the progress of technology renders their AI pet software obsolete. There’s a story demonstrating the ethical quagmire of being able to speak to yourself in alternate dimensions. There are time travel mishaps. And the title story, “Exhalation,” is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read.
2. Stillness Is the Key by Ryan Holiday
Of my pal Ryan’s three self-help books, I thought this was his best. Which is funny, because when he initially told me he was working on a book about “stillness” I kind of thought to myself, “Uh oh, is he running out of ideas or something?” It just didn’t sound fun and sexy.
But the book was great, the best out of all his stoicism books, in my opinion. I think writing Conspiracy the year before improved his storytelling chops, and the advice here is deeper and more nuanced than in his previous books. If you liked his previous work, then this is highly recommended.
3. Indistractable by Nir Eyal
Another friend’s book. This book is notable for two reasons. 1) Nir and I co-write together here in New York—so much of this book was written in the same room and at the same time while I wrote my book and I gave many notes on an early draft. And 2) it’s a topic that I have been focusing on a lot this year in my own thinking. It’s hard to know how much we influenced each other, but undoubtedly, spending many mornings talking about these subjects and looking at each other’s work influenced my thinking. I’ve become particularly focused on technology and media and how we manage our relationships with them. A lot of that is due to Nir’s influence.
4. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding by David Hume
Pretty incredible how much Hume got right in the 1730s (evolution, free will, moral psychology, the impossibility of knowledge, etc.) But reading it in 2018 presents one with a lot of, “Well, yeah, we know that…” moments. Must have been revelatory at the time. Not to mention scandalous—the fact that Hume can only criticize religion in the form of hypotheticals involving his “friend” is telling.
5. The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich
Oral history of female Soviet fighters in World War II. Pretty much any book about the Eastern Front in WW2 is harrowing and jaw-dropping. This one is no different.
6. The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis
Perhaps the most readable nonfiction author since Malcolm Gladwell, Michael Lewis returned with a biography on the superheroes of psychology and behavioral economics researchers: Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. These two guys are the brilliant minds that shook up all of psychology and economics and are behind a lot of the ideas that show up on this blog. As always, it was a real treat to let Lewis’ storytelling magic take me through their careers together and how they arrived at their conclusions.
7. Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff
It seems everyone had to read a Trump book in 2018. This was mine. Though pretty much everything in here was horrifying, none of it really surprised me. We always knew what he was.
8. The Time of Contempt, Baptism of Fire, The Tower of Swallows, and The Lady of the Lake (Witcher Series Books 4-7) by Andrzej Sapkowski
I love the Witcher video game series, so last year, I started reading the books. Finished them off early this year. Books four and five dragged a lot and felt like a chore at times. The last two books were great though, particularly The Lady of the Lake.
9. The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt
I read (or re-read) all of his books this year. This is the only one I’m not crazy about. My academic BS detector got tripped a few times while reading it, and it turns out that there are a number of better measurements emerging in moral psychology. I love his other work, but I wouldn’t take the data here as gospel.
10. Lying by Sam Harris
Don’t remember what inspired me to read this but it’s short and mildly interesting.
11. Payback by Margaret Atwood
Fascinating look at the idea of debt in human relationships, society, economics, and so on. Brilliant for stretches but also kind of weird and rambly for stretches as well. A very uneven book, but the great moments make the others worth it (har har, get it?)
12. Obliquity by John Kay
One of those business books (and there are many) that you can get the main idea within the first 20 pages and can stop reading there. I skimmed through most of it. Clever branding.
13. Twilight of the Idols/The Anti-Christ by Friedrich Nietzsche
Late Nietzsche, when he was becoming particularly angry and a little bit crazy. Some real gems. Also, some long diatribes about German culture, Wagner, etc., that I didn’t fully grasp until I read his biographies.
14. Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker
Optimism porn. I’m a bona fide Pinker fanboy, but was disappointed with this, for a few reasons. It’s not that Pinker’s data is wrong, it’s just that it’s incomplete. Pinker has been criticized for years for cherry-picking his data and using bad studies to overwhelm his readers with just massive amounts of graphs and charts. I never gave those criticisms much credence until I hit the “Happiness” chapter in this book. And yeah, there might be something to it. The repeated anti-Trump diatribes were also distracting and unnecessary.
15. Descartes’ Error by Antonio Damasio
It’s neuroscience. I, maybe, understood ⅓ of this book. But the ⅓ I understood was fascinating. Why emotions are necessary for reasoning and decision-making.
16. Barking Up the Wrong Tree by Eric Barker
A fun romp through a lot of counter-intuitive studies and data on success, happiness, relationships, etc. Eric is like an endless stream of interesting factoids.
17. Isaac Newton by James Gleick
Just a really, really well-written biography. And of arguably the most important man in history. Is that an overstatement? I kind of feel like it’s not. A page-turner. I read it in a few days.
18. Lost Connections by Johann Hari
I really wanted to get on-board with this book, especially because I loved his book about drug addiction. But there’s definitely a lot of personal bias going on in the research he shares here. Depression is a complicated and highly personal issue. Everyone is affected differently, therefore they must be treated differently. The criticisms of pharmaceutical companies and over-diagnosis and stuff is definitely legit. But sometimes those criticisms go too far into “throw the baby out with the bath water” territory. Useful and interesting read. Touching at times. But as an academic work, it’s flawed. I’d recommend The Noonday Demon over this.
19. Skin in the Game by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Strangely, it’s in maybe Taleb’s worst book that I found him the most tolerable? Taleb usually blows one’s mind, and is completely insufferable while doing it. Here, he didn’t blow my mind (the whole “skin in the game” thing is kind of common sense, and not argued thoroughly), nor was he unbearably condescending. What’s the world coming to?
20. The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts
I reread this for book research. Watts grabs me less and less the older I get. I’m not sure why that is. Beautiful writing though. And still a great book.
21. Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick Deneen
Brilliant but flawed. Deneen tried to argue that the ideals of the western enlightenment are ultimately self-defeating. I think he was onto something, but I don’t think he totally got his argument straightened out. Some of his logic doesn’t make sense, and his definition of “liberalism” moves all over the place, depending on what chapter you’re in. This book actually inspired me to attempt to tackle the same argument in my new book. So, there’s that.
22. Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
It had been a long time and I wanted to reread it for research for my own book. Still the definitive book on cognitive biases and behavioral economics. Also has a bit of a “laundry list” feel though, as you get further into it, so I ended up skimming a lot of sections.
23. The Three-Body Problem (Trilogy) by Cixin Liu
It’s hard to describe this trilogy without giving anything away. It’s about Chinese scientists, and… well, I’ll stop there. Instead, I’ll describe its scope: the psychology and political movements that would result from extraterrestrial contact. The game theory of galactic warfare. The philosophy of death. Experiments in trans-dimensional exploration. What is a universe?
And much, much more. Honestly, there’s nothing I could write here to do it justice. It’s one of the best fiction experiences I’ve ever had in my life. A stunning achievement. And a must-read for anyone who is even remotely into sci-fi or nerdy space science stuff.
24. The Republic by Plato
I had to read part of this in college and got little from it. Read the whole thing this year and loved it. Very illuminating. Like Hume, it’s just amazing to see how many of the ideas we worry about today were already being discussed 2,400 years ago. Particularly interesting given all of the political turmoil the “free world” is experiencing at the moment with democracy. If there’s ever a time to go back and read this, it’s now.
25. The Rise of Victimhood Culture by Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning
A self-published academic book that tries to analyze the rise of radical politics on the right and left (mostly left) through the lens of sociology. Victimhood culture literally means that: a culture that values and rewards victimhood. The authors then look at how this affects communities and environments, how to counteract it, etc. I think The Coddling of the American Mind hits a lot of the same notes, but in a better and more accessible way. But this is still interesting and worth a read if you’re concerned about this.
26. The Square and the Tower by Niall Ferguson
This book had so much potential. I feel like it just didn’t know what it wanted to be. It starts out making the argument that the hierarchical nature of social networks—“towers” that are tall and authoritative vs “squares” where large amounts of people are connected on equal footing—largely determine the contours of history. Ferguson’s motivation, I think, is to show that social media’s effects on the world are neither new nor unexpected. That this stuff has happened a number of times throughout history, usually when new communications technologies (phone, telegram, printing press) reconfigured how communities organized. Unfortunately, I think Ferguson gets lost in the weeds of network theory and nerding out by applying it to a vast array of historical anecdotes. As a result, I think his larger points get lost about halfway through the book. There were many chapters where I had no idea why I was reading what I was reading.
27. Average Is Over by Tyler Cowen
This is one of those books I meant to read for years but never got around to it. In 2018, a lot of it strikes me as obvious. Although, in 2013, it probably wasn’t at all. If you’re new to thinking about how technology and automation is reshaping society–and not always in good ways–then it’s a nice primer.
28. Stalingrad by Anthony Beevor
One of the best narrative history books I’ve ever read. I read it in Russia. Couldn’t put it down. If you love WW2 history, it’s a must-read.
29. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
My struggle to enjoy Dostoevsky continues. Every year or two, I try him again. And each time, something doesn’t quite click. I don’t know why. (I’m a Tolstoy man, I guess.) Fun fact: I sat down and read this for about an hour in Dostoevsky’s house in St. Petersburg while I was there.
30. Stalin by Oleg Khlevniuk
A fairly new biography of Stalin. It utilizes all of the Soviet archives which weren’t opened up until the 90s. Interesting but also a little dry at times. One of those biographies that ends up telling you more than you probably wanted to know. Still, though: fucked up dude; fucked up political system.
31. The Sovereignty of Good by Iris Murdoch
I grabbed this short book because when I googled modern arguments for virtue ethics it was one of the only ones that came up. Bonus points for it being written by a prominent woman philosopher in a time when there basically were no women philosophers. Unfortunately, I didn’t really grok it. She ultimately argues that love is the root of virtue. And while that feels really nice to play around with in one’s head, I could never totally buy it.
32. The Coming Storm by Michael Lewis
A short Audible-only book. Interesting look at the history of weather forecasting that kind of doubles as a criticism of the Trump administration. Mildly interesting. Worth it if you’ve got a long commute or road trip coming up. Otherwise, skip it.
33. The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene
Another “great” author that I try again every couple years and just don’t get. I admire Greene’s work but I don’t enjoy it or get much out of it. I think I’ve just come to accept that.
34. Atomic Habits by James Clear
James’ super power is boiling down research and complex topics into something that’s extremely practical and immediately usable. Atomic Habits is the pinnacle of that, and therefore, kind of the pinnacle of his work. I know he busted his ass on this book for years, and it shows. One of the best guides to actually changing your behaviors I’ve ever come across.
35. The True Believer by Eric Hoffer
Reread it for research. Still baller as fuck.
36. The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind by Gustave Le Bon
This is apparently the “OG” group psychology book about crowds and why they do awful shit. Written in the late 1800s by an incredibly racist Frenchman. Kind of interesting, but not much was said that isn’t said better in later books (and without racism).
37. The Power of Meaning by Emily Esfahani Smith
Saw this in a bookstore and had to grab it. Meaning is a central theme of my next book, so it was a compulsory purchase. Turns out she’s a site reader! Very cool. Good book. Well researched and easy to read. Similar arguments I’ve been making for years, so nothing revelatory, but I discovered a lot of useful research that I wasn’t aware of. Definitely recommended if you’re on the whole “meaning over happiness” bandwagon. (Welcome aboard, by the way.)
38. The Three Languages of Politics by Arnold Kling
Short. A bunch of smart people said it was important. I don’t know. Maybe I’m just really jaded from political stuff right now. But a lot of it struck me as obvious. It’s just differing moral values as expressed by language.
39. Identity by Francis Fukuyama
As a card-carrying member of the Fukuyama fan club, I was a bit disappointed with this book. Most of it is pretty common knowledge stuff that rests on a fairly flimsy argument about human identity and dignity. I don’t know if I disagree with his conclusions as much as I just expected more of him.
40. Essays and Aphorisms by Arthur Schopenhauer
Hit and miss. But when it hits, it really fucking hits. Inspired me to want to read his 700-page magnum opus The World as Will and Representation one day… when I’m feeling particularly masochistic.
41. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari
Another for the “disappointed” pile. Like everyone, I loved Harari’s first two books. But this smelled of a cash grab. Lots of recycled material. Lots of ideas that were already covered in his previous work or covered better by other authors. Wasn’t crazy about it. Skimmed much of it.
42. Fear and Trembling by Soren Kierkegaard
Philosophy as literary art. My first introduction to Kierkegaard, and while it certainly wasn’t always easy or pleasant, it did leave me wanting more.
43. Stubborn Attachments by Tyler Cowen
An odd book for me, and I have no idea why. Incredibly short, yet it felt long, like it was somehow not getting to the point. Basically, Cowen argues that everything that anyone could reasonably define as “good” stems from economic growth. Therefore, we should be more conscious about our decisions in those terms. I agree with him. But for some reason I found myself resisting a lot of arguments in this book. And I have no idea why. He’s vague and hazy at times when he probably shouldn’t be (i.e., human rights) and supremely analytical at times when maybe it doesn’t make sense (calculating compounding value of future lives versus the present). I don’t know. I read his blog every day, but reading this book was… weird. Even though the ideas aren’t that weird at all.
44. The Death of Expertise by Tom Nichols
A nice, straightforward take-down of the culture of anti-intellectualism, its causes and consequences. It gets angry at times. Which I liked. More academic non-fiction should be emotional. Nichols is a long-time professor who has a bone to pick with… well, everybody. Nobody is safe in this book. Media, internet, universities, parents, government. Throw a rock, and it’ll hit somebody who is partially guilty. Now that I think about it, this is a good companion book to The Coddling of the American Mind. Whereas Haidt and Lukianoff focus on our stunted emotional development, Nichols covers the same ground but in terms of intellectual development.
45. 10 Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now by Jaron Lanier
A little over-the-top, but his points are well-taken. Kind of a watered down and easier version of his book Who Owns the Future? below.
46. A Natural History of Morality by Michael Tomasello
Research. A bit dry, but useful. If you’re into game theory and evolutionary psychology and that sort of thing.
47. Almost Everything: Notes on Hope by Anne Lamott
Beautifully written. But not my cup of tea, I guess.
48. Who Owns the Future? by Jaron Lanier
The ideas in it are pretty profound. It’s basically one of the original architects of the internet, criticizing what the internet’s become. And doing it in brilliant and creative ways. I just think it should have been shorter. He repeats himself a lot and goes on some tangents. It’s maybe 100-150 pages of brilliance stuffed inside a 400-page book. And as an author, I have trouble not being annoyed by that.
49. Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil
I get the point but found it less-than-convincing. Highly political. And it’s unnecessary, I think. I think Lanier’s book Who Owns the Future? accomplishes the same thing, but better.
50. Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche
Probably the best “first Nietzsche book” of the ones I’ve read. Most of his other books require you to have some context or to have read his previous work to fully appreciate them. But this one is a great starting point.
51. Plato at the Googleplex by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein
Beautifully inventive and endlessly clever. A bit self-indulgent at times, too. But that comes with the territory of getting crazy like this. Examines the importance of philosophy in the modern world by imagining what would happen if Plato visited Google.
52. Circe by Madeline Miller
My favorite fiction book of 2019. A great spin on Greek mythology. It’s a self-discovery book… except the character discovering herself is a literal goddess and it takes place over the course of centuries.
53. Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
One of the most fun and shocking memoirs I’ve ever read. Trevor Noah is a world-famous comedian who grew up in poverty in apartheid South Africa. A mixed race child, his existence was literally illegal at the time. Hence: born a crime. The intensity of Noah’s childhood, married with his inimitable sense of humor, makes this a page turner, a tear jerker, a belly laugh—pretty much every other cliché you can think of. An incredibly fun read.
54. Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala
Absolutely jaw-dropping in its horror and pain. Sonali was with her family on the beach in Sri Lanka during the tsunami of 2004. The tsunami took the lives of her husband, her children and her parents. But she survived. The book is the story of her recovery from this unimaginable trauma.
55. Shoe Dog by Phil Knight
A must-read for anyone who wants to start a business, has started a business, wishes they started a business or has ever thought about starting a business. Shoe Dog is about the founding and first seven years of one of the world’s largest and most successful companies. It is also a catalog of failures, mistakes, almost misses, and moments of great fortune. It’s the best book I’ve ever come across at showing that great success isn’t so much pre-meditated and executed, as it is stumbling along until you find something that works and then run with it.
56. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby
OK, yet another incredible memoir (you can see a theme here). In the mid-90s, Bauby suffered a stroke and fell into a coma. During the coma, he became conscious and suffered “locked-in syndrome” which is when someone “wakes up” in their coma and is conscious, but is unable to move. Eventually, family members figured out that he was conscious, and with the help of his daughter, he devised a lettering system to communicate by moving his left eyelid. This entire book was written through a slow, painstaking process of a completely paralyzed man moving his left eyelid in various sequences. And somehow, the prose manages to be beautiful. Another fascinating read into one man’s unimaginable pain.
57. Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker
A flawed but really useful book. Some of the data here is exaggerated, it appears. Regardless, it gave me a great respect for sleep and I’ve since quit caffeine and put way more emphasis on my sleep habits. As a result, I’m feeling much healthier and more productive.
58. The Mosquito by Timothy C. Winegard
Another flawed non-fiction book. This time, history is overstated. But still, I loved this book. It’s a book that describes the significant impact malaria and other mosquito-borne illnesses have had throughout history. They’ve greatly affected every war going back to Alexander the Great (who apparently probably died early from malaria). Mosquitos affected the colonization of the New World and Africa. They affected the British control of India and the opium wars in China. They affected the American Revolution. Seriously… mosquitoes affected everything. Very fun book.
59. The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir
The book that defined the modern feminist movement. I decided, since my focus this year was on women authors, why not go to Mama Bear herself? To be honest, I was surprised how much I enjoyed parts of this. Granted, it’s 830 pages and long stretches of it are outdated, so there was a lot of skimming involved, but still, when de Beauvoir is on, she’s on. It’s hard to recommend this book to anyone who isn’t serious about studying feminist thought and philosophy. But what I found most fascinating is that, although completely radical for her time, if de Beauvoir lived and wrote today, she would be considered too moderate and/or conservative for most of today’s leftist movements. Much of what passes for gender theory today would be unrecognizable to her.
60. Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell
Though controversial when released, I thought this was Gladwell’s best book. Historically, Gladwell’s formula was to take fun and useful ideas, dress them up in cool narratives and write them so well that you forgot you were reading them. This book is no different, minus one little change. The “fun and useful ideas” were replaced with some of the most contentious and upsetting issues in current society: torture, campus rape, police violence, suicide, etc. Kudos to Gladwell for wading into such difficult territory and, for the most part, treating all sides respectfully. And kudos to him for teaching such difficult and important lessons.
61. Transcend by Scott Barry Kaufman
Scott’s book is a paean to the famous psychologist, Abraham Maslow. You probably know of Maslow as the hierarchy-of-needs guy who introduced the concept of self-actualization to the world.
Kaufman reimagines Maslow’s theory and updates it with the most recent scientific research on happiness and well-being. For me, the value of the book is two-fold: 1) an excellent introduction and overview of Maslow’s work, and 2) a comprehensive summary of much of what we know about human well-being right now. As a psychology nerd, I enjoyed all of the great research that was collected and well-organized. As a writer, I’ll probably use the book for references in the future.
62. Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott
This book has become a bit of a cult classic among libertarian-minded people online and I can see why. Scott’s analysis of government intervention looks at a concept he calls “legibility”—i.e., the ability to accurately decipher what a large chunk of reality looks like and then respond accordingly. Scott’s argument is that no matter how sophisticated our technology, reality is never entirely legible, therefore we are doomed to enact failed policies based on false perceptions.
To put it another way, even the best maps do not fully reflect their territories. Because policy is always based on maps, those policies will inevitably fail.
It’s kind of nerdy, but enjoyable if you’re into that kind of thing. Great vignettes and examples of Prussia, the Soviet Union, China, and Africa throughout.
63. How Emotions Are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett
Many readers recommended this book to me and it definitely made me aware of a perspective on emotions that I was not previously aware of. It turns out, the nature versus nurture argument has invaded the field of emotional psychology, as well.
Whereas most research I was aware of suggested that emotions are innate and universal, Feldman argues that most emotions are culturally constructed and determined by the contexts and experiences of the people experiencing them. Anger in the US is not the same as anger in Indonesia or China. People react differently and even understand their sensations differently. It’s an interesting argument and I learned a lot from the book. I’m not sure where I fall on the issue, but it has certainly opened up my mind and I’d like to study the subject further.
64. Breath by James Nestor
Last year, I read Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker and discovered the 38 ways I’ve been sleeping wrong my whole life and why it’s probably killing me. This year, this book taught me the 43 ways I’m breathing wrong and why it’s probably killing me. Enjoy.
65. How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan
I have a strange personal history with psychedelics. I did them frequently as a teenager and in college. I later disavowed them (and pretty much all other drugs). Don’t get me wrong. I had a blast. I goofed off with friends, became one with the universe, giggled myself breathless. But I was done. For the many years since, as they slowly crept back in popularity, I held a, “been there, done that” attitude about them.
Well, I’m slowly coming to the realization that I have to check my ego at the door and get over myself, because books like Pollan’s show that they could be hugely important for psychiatric and medical purposes, not to mention enriching for human well-being. The new research happening in this space is exciting and can potentially do a lot of good in the world.
66. Rites of Spring by Modris Eksteins
I read a lot of history this year but no book quite like this one. Instead of following the lives and events of the people around World War I, Eksteins instead follows the movements and changes in art of the period. Beginning with the premiere of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” in 1913 and concluding with the German architecture of the late 20s, Eksteins manages to somehow trace the birth of modernity and all of its horrors with the shifting artistic sensibilities in a way that somehow makes Nazism and the rise of Hitler feel completely logical and inevitable. Maybe not the best or most accurate history book I’ve ever read, but certainly the most interesting.
67. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
This has been the big breakout fiction book of the past couple years. A wonderful read. Especially if you’re a bit of a russophile. It’s about a count who is stuck in Russia after the Bolsheviks take over. His life is spared but he’s confined to live the rest of his days inside a hotel.
68. Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey
I was impressed with the depth and insight in this memoir. I hate to say it, but you rarely expect much from celebrity books. This one delivered though. McConaughey is quirky and thoughtful as ever. He comes from a crazy family in a small Texas town and unlike many actors who spend their lives dreaming of stardom, he kinda stumbled his way into it. An interesting and unconventional look at the traditional Hollywood career. Candid and thoughtful throughout. Recommended.
69. Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson
Aside from making an interesting argument about the stability of governments, this book is one great history lesson after another. Whether it’s discovering why the industrial revolution began in England or how the Ottoman Empire collapsed or why civil strife is so much worse in the Congo than other African nations or why Mexico and the United States experienced such different economic development, this book’s got you covered. Come for the history lessons, stay to learn why some countries are rich and some are poor.
70. Becoming by Michelle Obama
Former first lady. Well written. Some really interesting parts. Some not-so-interesting parts. What else is there to say?
71. Can’t Hurt Me by David Goggins
Goggins is an absurd human being—and I mean that in the best way possible. His story is quite crazy, and he might be quite crazy. But a powerful memoir, if anything, for simply showing that our limits are far further than we tend to think.
72. Living With a SEAL by Jesse Itzler
Read this mostly out of curiosity because the Navy Seal in this was David Goggins, author of the book above. Hilarious at times. Fun and easy read. Similar utility as Goggins’ book though—realization that we’re capable of so much more than we think.
73. The Conscious Mind by David J. Chalmers
Classic philosophy book on consciousness where Chalmers proposes his famous theory of “the hard problem of consciousness” as well as his argument about “philosophical zombies.” I struggled to get through it, one because it’s hard as fuck to read, but two, because I just don’t buy his argument. It’s an argument famous within philosophy for being one of those things that either feels intuitively true or intuitively false. For me, it feels false.
74. I Will Teach You to Be Rich (2nd Edition) by Ramit Sethi
I read the first edition ten years ago. Still probably the best book on personal finance I’ve read.
75. Dreyer’s English by Benjamin Dreyer
Lots of hoopla in the publishing industry when this came out, as it was the first “definitive” writing/grammar/usage book in a long time. I struggled through it as I found the author’s condescension and satisfaction with his own cleverness to be tiring. But there were some interesting tidbits.
76. Bad Blood by Jon Carreyrou
Great story of the Theranos debacle. Not the best-written book in the world, but the story is so “holy shit” that it’s hard to put down.
77. On Freedom by Cass Sunstein
Interesting applications of Nobel-Prize winner Cass Sunstein’s “nudge” theories to the idea of personal freedom. It’s clear here that Sunstein is rebutting many of his critics. He argues that nudging people grants more freedom and personal agency and not less. Makes sense to me. A quick but academic read.
78. Being Mortal by Atul Gawande
Another book where there was a lot of fanfare but I didn’t totally “get.” The primary point—that much of what we’ve gained in longevity has been at the cost of a very poor quality of life—is important and something I had been exposed to a number of times. I was already convinced of the author’s arguments going into it, particularly about euthanasia, so I didn’t find it nearly as controversial as many people probably would.
79. The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr
Karr wrote one of the most celebrated memoirs of the 20th century and teaches memoir writing professionally. Heading into working on Will’s book, I grabbed this in hopes it’d be helpful. Instead, I found it to be meandering and self-indulgent at times. One thing I found this year was that there are two different styles of memoirs. The first style is, “This is what happened.” The second style is, “This is how it felt.” I love the former and loathe the latter. Mary Karr seems to be firmly entrenched in the latter camp.
80. Upheaval by Jared Diamond
Half-baked theories, at best. I like a lot of Diamond’s work, but sometimes it feels like he’s grasping at straws. I only finished this because it summarized the history of a number of countries that was interesting to learn about.
81. Educated by Tara Westover
Probably the most celebrated memoir of the past couple years. Don’t get me wrong, it’s very good and a great story. But much like Hillbilly Elegy a few years ago, I was left wondering, “What’s everyone going on about?” Maybe it’s because I grew up in Texas around a bunch of religious loons, too, but I think what strikes most people as incredible and unthinkable in this book, I just see as sad and common.
82. Why Are Prices so Damn High? by Alex Tabarrok and Eric Helland
Self-published ebook by two economists arguing that the growth in cost of education and health care across the world is due to something called the Baumol Effect. Interesting argument. Very academic. It seems there’s something to their theory, although it seems unlikely the Baumol Effect explains everything. It’s free, if you care to read it.
83. The Great Successor by Anna Fifield
Biography of Kim Jong Un, or at least as much as we know about him. Fascinating read.
84. Conscious by Annaka Harris
Short and small book summarizing the current philosophical debate around consciousness, what it is, why we have it, can it be reproduced, and so on. Great primer. Well written.
85. City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert
I love Gilbert, but I struggled to get through this one and skimmed through some chapters. I felt like a lot of the appeal was the sassy tone of the narrator. If you’re into the style, then the book could be a fun time. For me, it started to get old after a hundred pages or so.
86. Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt
Maybe Arendt’s most famous work and my favorite of the books I’ve read of hers. It’s a profile of Adolph Eichmann, the architect of the holocaust and his trial in Israel about ten years later. Arendt proposes her famous “banality of evil” thesis—i.e., that evil mostly happens due to boring, daily ignorance, rather than some masterminded hate-filled plan. Great read.
87. The History of Philosophy by A. C. Grayling
I loved this. Great summaries of the thoughts of every significant philosopher… ever. Plato, Aristotle, and my homeboy Kant get the longest treatments. But almost every entry is worth reading.
88. Range by David Epstein
Lots of fanfare around this one in the non-fiction world when it came out. It was well organized and well-written. I enjoyed it, although funnily, I didn’t see how much of it is related to the book’s thesis. More accurate title would probably be “counterintuitive conclusions to becoming more successful.” But hey, that’s not as catchy.
89. Hold Me Tight by Dr. Sue Johnson
Founder of EFT, famous relationship therapy practice. I was familiar with EFT but bought the book just because I felt like I should read it and hadn’t yet. It’s good.
90. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by Ludwig Wittgenstein
Seminal philosophical work by Wittgenstein. I get the appeal. I get why it was a big deal in the mid-20th century (back when the idea that everything could be quantified and measured was all the rage). Also get why Wittgenstein later disavowed it and called it naive. It was a nice little mental gym workout.
91. Existentialism Is a Humanism by Jean-Paul Sartre
Great primer to existentialist philosophy. Anyone who wants to know what existentialism is, this should be the first thing they read.
92. A Very Easy Death by Simone de Beauvoir
Memoir of Beauvoir’s mother dying and the aftermath. Touching. Beautiful. Very honest.
93. Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
Probably the most successful fiction book of the year. Going to be honest, I didn’t see what all the fuss was about. I found the story to be hardly believable. And, I don’t know, something about southern accents in books just rubs me the wrong way. Yeah, I got baggage, what do you want?
94. Option B by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant
Half memoir of Sandberg discussing her husband’s sudden and tragic death, and half career/professional advice for dealing with setbacks and adversity. Ironically, I thought the memoir about the husband’s death was by far the most interesting and useful part of the book. Not that the advice was bad, but it just felt hollow and lifeless in comparison to such an emotionally charged event. This could have and probably should have been two separate books.
95. A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami
I was in Japan and wanted to read some Japanese fiction. Murakami is one strange dude. Fun read though.
96. Life 3.0 by Max Tegmark
Was recommended this because of my AI chapter at the end of my new book. A lot of it was stuff I was familiar with. Sometimes I felt the author wandered into trying to explain too much. Probably needed to be edited more. My favorite parts were actually the short science fiction vignettes. I was kind of bummed he didn’t follow through on them until the end. But if you want a nice introduction to AI and the moral issues surrounding it, then this isn’t a bad place to start.
97. The Ethics of Ambiguity by Simone de Beauvoir
I struggled to find Beauvoir’s point in this one. Which is a shame because I was really looking forward to it. I greatly enjoyed her other work I read this year, and I generally love ethical philosophy.
98. Swing Time by Zadie Smith
Not her best work (that’s still White Teeth), but there were stretches of fantastic prose. She continues to be one of my favorite fiction authors.
99. Feeding Your Demons by Tsultrim Allione
Fun self-help book based on an obscure Buddhist practice. Very Negative Self Help-y.
100. Conscience by Patricia Churchland
A summary of the science behind where our sense of morality comes from. Much of this was rehash for me, but it was well-organized and well-written. Good starting point for those who care.
101. I Remember Nothing by Nora Ephron
Hilarious short book written by the screenwriter and director Nora Ephron towards the end of her life. It’s kind of about aging, kind of about Hollywood and making movies, kind of about her life being a female journalist in the 1960s. Is it weird that I kind of had a crush on her by the end? I know she’s old enough to be my mother, but there’s a real joy that comes out in her writing.
102. Big Business by Tyler Cowen
Cowen takes the contrarian position of arguing why a) corporations are great, and b) they deserve all the money they have. Not always convincing, but it’s convincing enough that it definitely softened my political views a bit. Definitely an important read in this day and age.
103. Permanent Record by Edward Snowden
Huge disappointment. The first half of the book is a tedious and overly-long description of a very average white middle-class childhood and adolescence. The second half is pretty much all of the stuff you’ve heard him say in interviews a dozen times, plus some technical details. Felt like a cash grab to me. As time goes on, I become less and less sympathetic towards this guy.
104. The Greatest Empire: A Life of Seneca by Emily Wilson
Interesting biography of one of the most interesting ancient philosophers. Seneca was not just a great writer and thinker in his time, but he was the advisor to emperors. He enjoyed great political power, wealth, and influence. Odd for a philosopher who wrote that we shouldn’t pursue any of those things. Wilson doesn’t solve this paradox of Seneca’s life and work. She just lays it all out for you and lets you decide for yourself.
105. Thinking in Bets by Annie Duke
Not written that well but these ideas are so important, I feel like everyone should be aware of them. Studying poker and playing it seriously for a year in my 20s was one of the most important educational experiences I’ve ever had in my life. The style of thinking I learned from poker applies to everything. Poker made me a better thinker and a better person. That may sound extreme, but other poker players will understand. If this was written really well, it’d probably be one of my most often recommended books.
106. The Burnout Generation by Anne Helen Peterson
Audiobook follow-up to the famous Buzzfeed article. I’m not sold on this whole “Burn Out Generation” thing.
107. We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Short, simple read. Uses anecdotes from being a professional woman in Nigeria and in the US to make the simple argument that the gains we’ve made in women’s rights are a good thing. And should continue. Easy argument. Easy book.
108. Man’s Search for Himself by Rollo May
My first discovery of May, somehow this late in my life. Enjoyable experience in that I saw a lot of my own ideas reflected back to me, which is always nice.
109. Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood
Incredible writer but… well, if I’m being blunt, I think she tries too hard. I get it, you’re quirky and funny. I also get it, your writing is brilliant and prose is gorgeous. But 200 pages in, nothing happened. Lockwood’s brilliant language seems a means to conceal herself, not reveal herself… which is ironic, since this is supposedly a tell-all about her early adult life.
110. The Upside of Stress by Kelly McGonigal
Great research in this book. You’ll probably see some of it show up on the site in the coming years.
111. The Man Who Solved the Market by Gregory Zuckerman
Biography of Jim Simons and the formation of Renaissance Technologies, the most successful hedge fund in known history. Interesting read if you’re into finance at all.
112. Between Past and Future by Hannah Arendt
I struggled to get through this and skipped some chunks of it. See my criticism of Arendt’s philosophical work below.
113. The Life of the Mind by Hannah Arendt
OK, I loved Arendt’s political writing but really struggled to get through her philosophical writing. I don’t want to presume too much, but she relies on referencing so much that I lose track of what her ideas actually are. I plowed through this book and the other one above because I kept assuming that I must be missing the thread here. It took me about 400 pages to finally admit that I just think she’s a convoluted thinker when it comes to philosophy. Reading this book, I feel like I learned far more about the beliefs of Nietzsche, Freud, Marx, and Heidegger than what Arendt believed.
114. The Will to Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl
About once a year, I have the experience of stumbling across someone who wrote about what I thought was my original and brilliant idea—and they wrote about it in a much better way than I ever could. This book was that experience for me this year. A lot of the thinking I’ve been doing around meaning, hope and reason in Everything Is Fucked: A Book About Hope is, in many ways, summarized and explained better in this book.