Here’s what I read in 2018. It’s in order of the stuff I liked the best, to the stuff I liked the least.
Uneasy Street by Rachel Sherman
I have an uneasy relationship with this book, which is why it’s the best book I read in 2018.
Sherman interviews super-high net worth families (think: $50M+ net worth) and then writes about how they see the world. It is horrible and fascinating and relatable and ridiculous and unconscionable and humanizing and disgusting and humbling all at the same time.
You think you have nothing in common with these people, then you find out they are just like you.
You think they are normal, then you hear them talk about some small aspect of their lives (like how they spent $30,000 on a desk. I didn’t even know you COULD do that), and you are filled with incredulous rage.
Then you seethe, reading about how these people feel oddly conflicted about their wealth. You seethe, yet you feel impotent, knowing that you could not change their perspective about their life in the slightest.
And then, they tell you they feel the exact same way. They also feel impotent. They believe that capitalism is inherently unjust, yet also see that even if they gave away everything they have, it would not make any real difference to anyone except making themselves worse off.
And then you find yourself asking Sherman what in the world she was thinking trying to get these people to talk. And then she tells you she wondered the same thing!
This is one of the most important books I have ever read about money. Mostly because Sherman found a way to get rich people to talk about what’s really going on for them. This is not some over-the-top Robin Leach and Donald Trump-inspired behind the scenes hack job of how the wealthy live. It’s a thoughtful and shockingly bias-minimal look at how money affects our values and beliefs (and, also, how it doesn’t).
This book should come for free with every winning lottery ticket.
The Innovators by Walter Isaacson
This is like a James Michener novel about the history of technology. Except it’s all true. Incredibly vast in scope, richly detailed and nuanced, and full of little rabbit trails and asides that make the characters pop and crackle.
Isaacson recounts the various characters and themes who made the “digital revolution” possible, retracing steps all the way back to 19th century Britain (giving me an even deeper appreciation for Ada Lovelace, that brilliant and egomaniacal dreamer).
It skips along the surface of all of the names you have heard of in building the computer age (Turing, Hewlett, Kleiner, Berner-Lee, Jobs, Gates, etc.), while fleshing out many of the important researchers, government leaders, hardware hackers, and financiers along the way.
It shows the truly global nature of the technology industry, even from its earliest days, and also contextualizes how the right mix of ingredients propagated in the specific location of Silicon Valley to spark so much rapid change.
If you think about the future of technology – as a medium, an industry, an ecosystem, and a force for change in the world – it is absolutely required reading.
Evicted by Matt Desmond
Maslow identified physiological needs as primary to human survival. Physiological needs are the most basic things we need to stay alive, like air and food. And shelter.
Shelter is the focus of Desmond’s intense exploration of the poorest neighborhoods of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the aftermath of the 2008 Great Recession. And what an exploration it is. Desmond went into do urban anthropology, moving into the apartments and trailers of the subjects he was studying to understand the complicated and intersectional nature of how stable (or, in many of these cases, unstable) housing impacts people’s lives.
This book won the 2017 Nonfiction Pulitzer and it’s easy to see why. Populated by colorful characters and common scenarios, the book is highly entertaining to read. Yet, the issues discussed are nuanced and complicated. it’s social analysis wrapped in an easy-to-digest package.
Desmond’s conclusions are as fundamental as they are profound – that stable affordable housing underpins stability in almost every other aspect of our lives; and that when that stability is threatened or removed, people’s lives decline precipitously and immediately. Their recovery is protracted, if it happens at all, and the intergenerational dynamics of unstable housing compound, exacerbating poverty in almost every way imaginable.
As a landlord serving working class and middle class families, I see the impact in myriad ways. And this book is actually quite inspirational for me from the perspective of wanting to expand the business model in order to expand the impact.
Full of instructive insights, as well as a solid set of policy recommendations to advocate into existence, this book has an extraordinary impact on my outlook this year.
Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance
This is just one guy’s story, but it hit at just the right time to be so completely resonant for the moment. Published a few months before the 2016 election, it serves as a tight encapsulation of the history and mindset of Trump voters. Told from the perspective of a guy who grew up in a broken hillbilly home; joined the army because of a commitment to country and a lack of any idea what else to go; then parlayed that into a Yale law education and entree into the east coast elite.
He translates between these worlds as an effective interlocutor.
This is no hagiography. He is remarkably realistic about the flaws of even his most positive of adult role models and caretakers. His clan is full of brawlers, cursers, drug abusers, boozers, back-stabbers, and every other type of poor decision makers. He looks at them all unflinchingly.
Even still, he contextualizes the violence, explains the deeper codes that they abide by, and, most importantly, marvels over and over at the odd sequence of lucky breaks and intensity of personal investment from certain key figures in his life.
And, in his marveling, he outlines the complicated, conflicting and overlapping issues that create a sense of society failing an entire population – rejecting long-held values and beliefs; belittling their pride and history; and offering useless platitudes and dangerous chemical escape hatches.
A compelling accounting of the moment.
Janesville by Amy Goldstein
What is it about my home state inspiring such incredible long-form journalism books of the ravages of the Great Recession (see Evicted, above)? There is something important going on in the Badger State. Perhaps it has something to do with Scott Walker, the erstwhile governor in office during the time of the ravaging.
Ten years after the Great Recession, I can feel my memory of those moments fading already. This book brought everything into sharp focus once again.
Goldstein spends years getting to know the families of Janesville, Wisconsin, home of a General Motors plant that closes down when demand for new cars craters in the 2008 recession. Remember the auto industry bailouts (Thanks, Obama)? G.M. took the money and still had to close plants.
The Janesville plant was the economic engine for the whole city. The city that former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan calls home, incidentally. But neither he nor the unions nor the city’s economic incentive package could persuade G.M.
For half a decade, Goldstein gets to know the individuals and families affected by the plant closure. They follow every conceivable path to stay in the community, from hellish week-long commutes to other plant locations, to re-educating into the workforce, to falling down the rabbit hole of depression and medication. All while civic leaders scramble to reinvent the town for a post-modern future of uncertain fortunes.
Economic dynamism at its most granular and human, these accounts show the human toll of creative destruction wrought by the market’s invisible hands.
Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
I did not expect to like this book because I am a grumpy Gen-Xer who didn’t believe that anyone could replace Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, and certainly not some young know-nothing comedian with barely any standup experience and only a few jokes.
I was so so wrong.
Noah’s autobiography is not really that funny. I mean, there are some jokes and stuff, but it’s not really a humorous account at all. It’s a pretty even-handed description of how he grew up as a mixed race teenager in apartheid South Africa. It’s about how he had to learn to code switch to fit in and not get beat up or arrested; how he had to build his quick wit to get out of sticky situations; how he had to hustle to make it.
It’s not really a rags-to-riches story because he doesn’t spend any time on how he got famous, made it to the US, got a TV show, etc. It’s a touching homage to his mom, who raised him as a single parent in a community that was so stratified and insulated that he literally did not fit in anywhere.
And when you don’t fit in anywhere, you have to figure out how to fit in everywhere.
Noah has his fair share of platitudes and simple lessons, but they accumulate into something much bigger – a lesson on how we can all listen better, learn from each other, and come together.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I hope this book never gets adapted into a movie, and instead becomes a series. Because there is so much here, so many incredible characters, so much richness of internal and external conflict, so many issues worth discussing, that it would be a terrible shame to try to distill the intoxicating mix into the boring narrative structure of the megaplex movie.
Ostensibly a love story, this book is really what it’s like to be an immigrant to the US in the 21st century. And about what it means to be black in America. And what it means to leave your home, and come back changed. And what it meant to be an early 2000s personal narrative blogger. And how to be rich in Nigeria. And how so many things that happen to us randomly end up making our whole lives, especially in those orange-hued years of late adolescence.
It’s about all of these things and much more, wrapped in a protagonist who is lovely and loveable and heartbreaking and warm and so relatable, even though you have almost nothing in common with her.
Like if Bridget Jones were smarter, less savvy, and from Nigeria.
White Working Class by Joan C. Williams
After Donald Trump was elected, the two most common touchpoints to explain his narrow victory in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin were Hillbilly Elegy (discussed above) and an HBR article written by Joan Williams, entitled, “What So Many People Don’t Get About the U.S. Working Class.”
I read the HBR article in the immediate aftermath of the election, when I was working hard to understand the layered motivations that might factor into a vote for Trump.
This book is an expansion of the themes, and much more useful than the original article. It’s the book that you should give your eye-rolling, condescending, dismissive, better-than-you, city slicker cousin when you see them at Thanksgiving. Especially if you didn’t vote for Trump.
The entire book is an exercise in empathy for our fellow citizens, our compatriots. And, for many of us, for our actual family members.
It’s an examination of what it feels like to have a dominant culture act like your values are “cute” and “quaint” but not reasonable or worthy of prioritizing.
The actual text of the book is pretty short, too. It’s punchy and distilled. I read it on my Kindle, and when I was done with the book, I had reached 43% complete in the file. That’s right, more than half of the book is footnotes and citations. Williams doesn’t bog you down with the science and research that support all of her conclusions and prescriptions, she just focuses on the narrative to get you the information as fast as possible.
The thing that I found most surprising was that I still personally embody a lot of working class values. Partly this is because of my family history and upbringing, and partly it is because of my experience in the professional-managerial class (a term coined by John and Barbara Ehrenreich – yes, the Nickel and Dimed Barbara Ehrenreich; and morphed into the “creative class” moniker by Richard Florida).
Maybe it’s easy to return to your old-fashioned values when you feel like you have extracted what you need from the system; or maybe there are some values that just never go out of style.
Either way, this book hit home.
Origin by Dan Brown
OK, this is maybe the best Dan Brown book yet. Here’s a fiction thriller writer who is actually getting better as he gets more famous and popular.
Brown has exhausted the religious sexcapades of The Da Vinci Code and its echoes, and good riddance. We have graduated from self-flagellating albinos to deeper and creepier zealots. The primary plotline is techno-futurist in nature, and there are lots of meaty and interesting themes here. The packaging is also slick and fun and it moves fast.
Our hero, Robert Langdon, still gets a lot of mileage out of his fake academic field of “symbology;” the female protagonist is wonderfully free of romantic interest in him; and the set pieces are a love song to Barcelona.
If fact, after we went to France in the fall, my father-in-law and aunt actually went to Barcelona partly inspired by the loving treatment Brown gives the city in this book.
This is the only book I managed to have the energy to read while on my Appalachian Trail hike. I thought I would spend hours reading, but instead I spent hours walking, then stumbled exhausted into my sleeping bag each night. Visions of wiling away hours in the forest solitude, with just me and an author’s ideas were vanquished in the first forth eight hours.
And yet, this was the best possible book I could have brought on my journey.
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
I hiked a chunk of the Appalachian Trail in the spring, and as I was training for the hike, everyone asked me if I had read this book. I had not. Not for any particular reason, I had just never gotten around to it.
My favorite Bryson book is In A Sunburned Country, which I read while I was in high school and not traveling anywhere at the time. I had wanderlust, and wanted to explore all of the adventurous places – The Jungles of Peru! The Temples of India! The Savannahs of Kenya!
IASC made Australia seem as exotic and interesting and full of possibility as those other places. It made it seem foreign and exciting.
It was also hilarious.
Since then, I have read several other Bryson books, but just never had the itch for his most famous book. It seemed, well, pedestrian.
But, in anticipation of my own hike, I had a renewed interest in his experience, which was actually helpful as a sort of beginners manual for what not to do in many regards. It was entertaining and enjoyable and fun. After I read it, I watched the Ken Kwapis-directed movie, starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte. In many ways, I liked the movie better than the book – the themes of aging and needing to challenge yourself and facing your own mortality were more present, even if more fictionalized.
The movie was less real, yet more true.
Artemis by Andy Weir
Weir is the fiction writer version of the IFLS blog. This guy is obsessed with getting the science right. Every ten pages or so, you get another hit of, “woah I didn’t know science could do that!” inventiveness.
The science propels the plot forward for this novel set in the future on a city on the moon. Is it science fiction? I would rather call it science-inspired fiction. It feels so grounded in reality, so current, that I would believe that it was 2040, not 2080 as it’s actually set.
Weir is an OCD author, which serves the genre well. The pacing is tight, the action fast, and Jazz Bashara, the protagonist, is wonderfully scrappy.
The Intelligent Investor by Ben Graham
The first book that I re-read this year, it continues to be an important framing tool when thinking through the goals and objectives of your investing; and also for developing an emotional distance from your investments. I read this in the first half of the year, when the stock market was hunky dory and was reminded of it frequently in Q4 as the market became more and more volatile.
The Outsider by Stephen King
King is so great at the little details that make you really know who a character is. You get all of that goodness in spades in The Outsider. You know where this book is going just by reading the jacket lining. It’s basically IT all over again.
But, as with almost every King book, it’s not where you’re going, but how you get there.
This time you get there riding alongside the steely-eyed knowingness of Detective Ralph Anderson and the little league and lemonade American Dad Terry Maitland.
The final hundred pages are pure horror writing at its squirmy hard-charging best.
Rework by Jason Fried
I re-read this book this year, and found new resonance in it. In a moment where being a unicorn is not enough for large startups, and deca-corn ($10B valuation) is the new target, Fried’s quick pithy lessons on building companies are even more important to remind ourselves.
Most businesses don’t need to be big to be great. And, in a world where 1,500 companies have graduated from Y Combinator, and even hugely successful companies get acquired instead of IPOing, the Basecamp model deserves more credit and emulation.
Who cares if VCs think “lifestyle business” is a dirty word? The people living the lifestyle of their business are the ones who benefit.
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami
This is the first Murakami book that I have read, and I actually think it is the one most likely to get me to read a more substantial Murakami book. I don’t think of myself as a runner, but I do like to run. Murakami talks about a lot of the reasons he likes to run, and I related to him strongly.
He also goes into some depth on this biography, in particular how he came to be an author. It’s compelling because I have only ever know of Murakami as MURAKAMI THE FAMOUS AUTHOR. Seeing his history as a bartender humanized him, and actually made me more interested in his fiction.
I Thought It Was Just Me by Brené Brown
I felt like I was spying on a women’s empowerment workshop reading this book. This book is written for women, consciously and specifically, and I felt like an interloper at times. Like maybe I shouldn’t read it, I was dabbling in something I had no right to, especially when I could just close the book and go back to my man-life, while the women who are the intended audience could only close the book and feel the sisterhood all around them.
But, the book is not pitched as a women’s book at all. It’s a book about shame. How damaging it is, how unproductive it is, and how we become our own worst detractors through our shame. How we carry the weight of our shame with us wherever we go, and how no one can take our shame away from us.
There was so much that I identified with, and probably more than anything, the fact that we just don’t really talk about our shame at all. If anything, we all walk around thinking our shame is well-deserved and a clear indicator of our constant and persistent failings; while the rest of the world pretty much doesn’t care one way or another.
There are great personal anecdotes, and there are great strategies for stopping the cycle of shame. Brown gets props for everything she writes, and this is actually the crux of her work – shame research – so she knows of which she writes.
Camino Island by John Grisham
Once in a while, you need a palette cleanser. And this is a pretty fun beach read. Grisham, having fully and completely reached the bottom of the legal thriller barrel (see below) finds stronger footing writing about something that is maybe a bit closer to his current experience – a struggling novelist and a rare books dealer.
As every Grisham novel is just a screenplay audition, this one would do well as a movie (not a series). It’s got a killer location, some fun character archetypes, and just enough intrigue to move the plot forward briskly. The main character is enough of a blank slate that someone like Olivia Munn could turn this into a solidly successful movie.
This is a fun heist movie masquerading as a book.
The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
There was a time in my life where a business book like this would have shot dopamine into my cerebral cortex, and I would walk around for a few weeks thinking that this new Unifying Theory of Everything was the key to unlocking the next level of success in my life.
That is not a criticism of this book at all, moreso a self-reflection on what I expect out of business books now. I feel like if I can get 3 concrete takeaways from a business book, that will make an incremental difference in my work life, then they are a success.
And, by all accounts, this book is successful.
Duhigg spends a lot of energy going through the importance of personal habits, how habits are formed and how they unconsciously control a lot of our decision making. The science is pretty interesting, and he goes into some detail here, which is the best part of the first and second section.
The third section, though, is the most interesting and impactful. It discusses the habits of organizations, and how informal culture and process actually drives a lot of the productivity and forward momentum of most organizations. And how to grab hold of those habits and reshape them. This is the meat of the book and where you should spend your energy if you pick up this title.
Talent is Overrated by Geoffrey Colvin
Reading a business book from 2008 is an odd time capsule, that shows you what was happening in the zeitgeist at the moment. The early stages of the tech recovery, post-dotcom bust, were ripening and business leaders were thinking about how they would expand.
This book was probably supposed to give them the solution, which is that hard work will get you everywhere, and that innate talent is a myth. It was published in October 2008, as the economy entered its freefall. Then Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers came out in November, covering much of the same ground.
But, this book was surprisingly interesting, even though it covered well-worn ground. The most interesting part was the extended dish-y history of Mozart. The common story is that he was a musical genius from an early age, but actually his dad wrote most of his early scores, and even then they were just OK derivatives. The thing that made them interesting was that they were supposedly written by a young genius.
I love it when an author surprises you with the rest of the story.
The Coldest City by Antony Johnson and Sam Hart
This graphic novel was the basis for the Atomic Blonde movie starring Charlize Theron and James McAvoy. I heard about the movie in an NPR interview with the director, David Leitch, who went into excruciating detail about how he wanted to shoot the fight scenes in the film. He was going for an intense realism, where Theron’s character would not be able to physically overpower her attackers because she is physically smaller than them. So, she could only best them by using tools to crack their skulls and smash their legs.
The movie delivered on that front.
I was surprised, though, when my friend Brooke told me she had seen the movie three times in the theater. Until I saw it myself, and realized that if I were into women, I would shell out good money to watch Theron make out with Sofia Boutella a few times too.
Brooke lent me her copy of the graphic novel, which she picked up after becoming obsessed with the movie (and it’s excellent soundtrack).
Unfortunately for both of us, this was one of those situations where the movie is better than the source material. The GN isn’t bad. It’s just a bit….muted. It does not come across as kinetic, it’s mostly spies talking to each other and looking around furtively. The plot is the same, except Lorraine Broughton (Theron’s character in the film) is completely asexual.
So this is like watching Atomic Blonde, with the sound off, in black and white, edited for television. What is the point?
Rooster Bar by John Grisham
You know those books that are supposed to be “about” something, and work really hard to get you to “care?”
This is one of those books.
It’s “about” how horrible the for-profit higher education market is, which is true, but it’s a really hard idea to write a novel about. The characters are students in a for-profit law school, so already they are hard to sympathize with. They want to be lawyers (WHY?), but they know they can’t get jobs because of their crappy school (DUH!), so they are up to their eyeballs in debt (OF COURSE), so they decide to start practicing law without a license (WHA???).
Somehow, in the last five pages, a bad guy finally comes into focus and the whole thing gets tidied up so no one really gets hurt.
There are no stakes at all in this book. For anyone. Well, except the one interesting character, a woman who wants to become a lawyer to help the rest of her family to immigrate to America. She should be the focus of the (inevitable) TV series version of this story.
The Phoenix Project by Gene Kim, George Spafford, and Kevin Behr
Do you like doing homework for your job? If so, then you might like this book. It’s a novelization of a company under a huge IT infrastructure shift in support of digital transformation. Basically, its The Five Dysfunctions of a Team for non-technical F500 companies.
I am sure that there are some people who will find this book interesting and full of valuable insights about how hard it is to be in DevOps, but if you have lived it already, then it’s kind of like being a native English speaker and reading an ESL schoolbook for fun. It’s not entertaining or enjoyable, but it does remind you of the perspective of the intended audience.
This would be a good recommendation if you are technical and get acquired by a non-technical business, and want to bring them along to your worldview.
Everybody Lies by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz
This is one of those books that shows just how fast the world is moving. It was published in May of 2017, which means that most of the writing probably happened in the second half of 2016. And, by Q1 2018, it felt incredibly dated and archaic.
The basic premise is that the vast quantities of anonymous and pseudonymous data that Google, Facebook, Amazon et. al. collect are far more accurate and complete a picture of humanity than the narratives we tell each other in the light of day.
This book would have been so interesting in 2006, but now feels so underwhelming and underdeveloped. Stephens-Davidowitz rehashes blog posts from five years ago without adding anything new to the discussion. And, especially in light of the ongoing analysis into the 2016 election, this book just has no staying power.