2016 Reading Recap and Book Recommendations


Here is a list of every book I read in 2016 in reverse chronological order. Each book includes a brief comment or two; I’ll also indicate whether it’s something I recommend.

I occasionally send out an email recommending a few of the best books I read. The emails are short and easy to digest—you’ll learn something new in every email. Best of all, you’ll find out about some amazing books you might not hear about anywhere else.

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Now, on to the books…

Robert Tombs, The English and Their History

An excellent introduction. This book tied it all together–and served as a primer on a history of Europe as well. The only downside was the disproportionate amount spent on the twentieth century.

Some things I learned from this book:

  • After the Norman Conquest in 1066, a group of English elite fled the country and set up a colony along the coast of the Black Sea.
  • “For some hundred years, from around 1660 to 1760, the King James Bible (like Shakespeare) was considered barbarous and archaic.”
  • “God was not portrayed on stage in England between 1570 and 1951.”
  • Immediately prior to the War of Independence, “the Americans were among the most lightly taxed people in the world, paying on average 1 shilling per head annually compared with 26 shillings in England.”
  • “In the 1880s the English each used over fourteen pounds of soap per year, and the French only six.”
  • “The thick curling moustache [was] an Indian virility symbol made compulsory for European officers in the East India Company’s army, and thence the badge of the English gentleman in the early twentieth century.”
  • Britain paid off its debt from Lend-Lease in December, 2006.
  • British athletes cry twice as often as American athletes.

Geoffrey G. Parker, Platform Revolution: How Networked Markets Are Transforming the Economy–and How to Make Them Work for You

Tackles the economics of platform businesses. I’ve spent most of my professional life in this space, so I didn’t find anything new or shocking here. This book did, however, help me organize my thoughts on the subject, and provided helpful framework/context.

Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity

I’ve heard nothing but good about this book, but it just didn’t hit me the same way it seems to have hit everyone else. If you’re comparing it to an objective quality of what makes a book good, then you’ll be satisfied with this book.

William Manchester, The Last Lion, vol. 2: Winston Spencer Churchill Alone, 1932–1940

This is the second in Manchester’s three-volume biography of Churchill. In addition to covering Winston’s years in political exile, this book also chronicles Europe’s descent toward war and the deterioration of British politics in the thirties. Like the first volume, I highly recommend it.

(Quick note: volume three of Manchester’s biography didn’t quite make the list of books I finished in 2016, but as of December 31 I’ve read enough of it to know that it’s the best volume of the three. The bottom line is that the entire series is fantastic.)

Henry F. May, The Enlightenment in America

An excellent introduction to how Enlightenment thought spread through America–and how it died. I enjoy books that connect history-of-ideas with boots-on-the-ground. In other words, the kinds of books that ask the question: what is the accepted intellectual framework that makes an outcome or event more likely in one era and not another? Henry May’s book answers this question well. Although this book is not exactly beach reading, I learned a great deal, and if you’re willing to put in the work, you will, too.

Imre Kertész, Fatelessness

This book was incredible. Kertész tells the story of a boy in Hungary who is captured by Germans and taken to Auschwitz. In addition to the usual things you expect from a book in this genre, you’ll also find some profound reflections on fate, free will, and happiness. It’s a mixture of Victor Frankl and Corrie Ten Boom (except fiction).

Bottom line: probably the best novel I read in 2016. I intend to read more Kertész in 2017 and maybe one or two other Hungarian novels.

James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

This is the previous generation’s iteration of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me (which I haven’t yet read). Although what the book describes is nothing like my own experience of the world, it’s an incredibly important book, and highly relevant for contemporary discussions about race.


Richard S. Tedlow, Andy Grove: The Life and Times of an American

I really enjoy business biography—especially businesses in the tech sector. Reading more about Andy Grove has been on my to-do list for awhile now.

Although this book was not bad, I’d consider it only slightly above average.

I couldn’t figure out if Tedlow was trying to write a biography of Grove the businessman (i.e. on leadership, management, growth, etc.) or Grove the person (Hungarian emigre, scientist, WWII survivor, etc.). What made this book above average instead of below average is that I happen to enjoy both kinds of books. Your preferences may differ.

William Manchester, The Last Lion, vol. 1: Visions of Glory

This is the first of a three-volume biography of Winston Churchill. It’s the kind of book I love reading: Manchester not only tells the story masterfully, but he also provides just the right amount of context. In fact, because Churchill so dominates his era, this book doubles as a history of Britain from the Victorian period through the Great War. When you read this book, you’re not only reading a biography of Churchill, you’re also getting a basic introduction to the peerage system, how Parliament works, military strategy, nineteenth century journalism, British imperialism, the Boer War, the Great War–and that’s just the start.

On top of that, Manchester is a master storyteller. I love reading books that make arcane subjects interesting, and this book does it well (e.g. the section on fashion in Victorian England).

(If you’re familiar with Robert Caro’s style in his multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, then you’ll be right at home reading Manchester.)

John Taliaferro, All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay from Lincoln to Roosevelt

This is a good biography for those already interested in the subject.

John Hay was the kind of person who seemed to be in the room during every major historical event from the Civil War through the early years of the Progressive Era. He was in the room when Lincoln died, served as a writer, cabinet member, and political negotiator to several presidents.

I’d recommend reading biographies of Lincoln and Roosevelt first, along with one or two general histories of the era; once you’ve done this, you’ll have the adequate context to enjoy Taliaferro’s biography of Hay.

Andrew Grove, High Output Management

This was the best business book I read this year, and possibly the best business book I’ve ever read. Andy Grove was one of the founders of Intel. He is a brilliant practitioner of his craft, and his advice is incredibly relevant more than thirty years later.

Some excerpts:

“When products and services become largely indistinguishable from each other, all there is by the way of competitive advantage is time.”

“In the work of soft professions [administrative, professional, and managerial work], it becomes very difficult to distinguish between output and activity. . . . Stressing output is the key to improving productivity, while looking to increase activity can result in just the opposite.”

“A manager can do his ‘own’ job, his individual work, and do it well, but that does not constitute his output. If the manager has a group of people reporting to him or a circle of people influenced by him, the manager’s output must be measured by the output created by his subordinates and associates.” [In most cases, managerial output is a form of production output. In a crude sense, your employees are your products.]

“The single most important resource that we allocate from one day to the next is our own time. In principle, more money, more manpower, or more capital can always be made available, but our own time is the the one absolutely finite resource we each have. . . . How you handle your own time is, in my view, the single most important aspect of being a role model and a leader.”

“It is important to say ‘no’ earlier rather than later because we’ve learned that to wait until something reaches a higher value stage and then abort due to lack of capacity means losing more money and time. You can obviously say ‘no’ either explicitly or implicitly, because by not delivering you end up saying what amounts to ‘no.’”

“Motivation has to come from within somebody. Accordingly, all a manager can do is create an environment in which motivated people can flourish.”

And here are some of my (dozens of) notes from the chapter on meetings:

“Meetings provide an occasion for managerial activities. Getting together with others, of course, is not an activity—it is a medium.”

“Remember, you are being paid to attend the meeting.”

“A meeting involving ten managers for two hours costs the company $2,000. Most expenditures of $2,000 have to be approved in advance by senior people–like buying a copy machine or making a transatlantic trip–yet a manager can call a meeting and commit $2,000 worth of managerial resources on a whim.”

“Keep in mind that a meeting called to make a specific decision is hard to keep moving if more than six or seven people attend. Eight people should be the absolute cutoff. Decision-making is not a spectator sport, because onlookers get in the way of what needs to be done.”

Jeffrey Burton Russell, The Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity

This book isn’t for everyone, but it was one of the most thought-provoking books I read this year.

I first learned about this book a couple years ago from a footnote in a book written by Robert Karl Gnuse, titled No Other Gods: Emergent Monotheism in Israel. In that book, Gnuse argued that monotheism first emerged during the exile in Babylon from an amalgamation of cultural understandings of evil. The point he made was that early Judaism and later Christianity aren’t true monotheistic religions, because they have personified evil.

The idea intrigued me, so I followed the footnote to Russell’s book.

Russell traces how ancient cultures grappled and coped with evil in a variety of religious settings. This book is part history of religion, part intro to mythology, and part philosophy. Although I don’t agree with all (most?) of Russell’s conclusions, this book had some profound reflections on how humans have thought about and continue to think about evil in the world–and what can (or can’t) be done about it. And I still continue to ponder the ideas in this book several months later–which is usually the mark of a good book, even when I don’t agree with much of it.

Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death

Becker argues that most of human existence is indirectly related to our suppressed fear of dying. I was disappointed in how Freudian this book was.

I’d love to read a great book on the topic, but Becker’s book wasn’t it.

C. Northcote Parkinson, Parkinson’s Law

You’re probably already familiar with Parkinson’s Law, which states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

The book, in which the law was first stated, is a well-written and enjoyable commentary on bureaucracy in early/mid-twentieth century Britain. (You’re thinking: boring! You’re wrong.)

He covers this adage, plus several others. This book falls into the two categories of 1) great books about business, and 2) still will be relevant 100 years after first published. I loved it, although you might not.

Plato, The Republic

This was another re-read. Really enjoyed it (again), and learned even more the second time. (Tip: Plato’s not just writing about government. He’s writing about the soul. Yours, specifically.)

Adrian Goldsworthy, Augustus: First Emperor of Rome

After reading Goldworthy’s Caesar (see below—remember, this list is in reverse chronological order), I knew I wanted to read more of his books. This was another fantastic read about a subject I knew so little about. The sections about pre-Roman Europe were particularly interesting.

Robin Seager, Pompey the Great

After reading about Caesar, I had to read about his arch-rival. After reading Goldworthy’s biography of Caesar, Seagar’s biography on Pompey was a bit of a let-down. It was dry, and it seemed to skip over some key parts of Pompey’s life. When I finished, I felt like I didn’t understand Pompey or his world.

Adrian Goldsworthy, Caesar: Life of a Colossus

I’m not sure how I got this far in life knowing so little about the life of Caesar and the end of the Roman republic in the first century B.C.. Goldworthy is an excellent writer, and this book is a great introduction. I found the sections on pre-Roman Europe incredibly fascinating, and hope to learn more about this in 2017.

Thomas Evan, Being Nixon: A Man Divided

This is a decent biography. I’ve heard most biographies of Nixon aren’t very charitable or sympathetic—for obvious reasons—but this one claims to be more so than most. I read this as the 2016 presidential race neared its end; it’s amazing to me how what’s acceptable in politics has changed in the forty years since Nixon. Could Trump have gotten away with a Watergate-like scandal?

Mary Beard, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome

Writing a one-volume history of Rome is probably impossible, but Mary Beard comes closer to pulling it off than anyone else I’ve read. (Disclaimer: I’ve now read a total of two. The other was Rome: An Empire’s Story, by Greg Woolf.)

One way to judge a book’s quality is the number of follow-up reads it prompts in related literature, and by that measure, this book was a success: I read biographies of Caesar, Augustus, and Pompey to learn more about the events described in Beard’s book.

Barbara W. Tuchman, The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914

Tuchman is most known for The Guns of August, widely regarded as one of the best books written about World War I (I haven’t read it yet). So I expected The Proud Tower to be a great book about the decades leading up to the war.

Specifically, I had assumed the book would follow the following pattern:

  • Part One: the state of the world in 1890
  • Part Two: a bunch of stuff that happened between 1890 and 1914 that makes sense when you consider A, B, and C in light of X, Y, and Z.
  • Part Three: we have possibly all made a serious mistake
  • Part Four: consequences of parts one through three

I know it’s wrong to, in the words of John Updike, “blame the author for something they didn’t intend to do.” But what this book was—a series of unrelated vignettes of important people and social movements in the decades leading up to the war—just didn’t meet my expectation of a book by Barbara Tuchman. It’s possible my disappointment was related more to the point of comparison and related less to the actual quality of the book.

Either way, Tuchman is an incredible writer, so if you start reading this book with the right expectations, you’ll probably enjoy it.

James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit

If you’ve read Smith’s other works—particularly Desiring the Kingdom—then you won’t find much new here. What you will find is a more concise, distilled version of his thesis on the power of habit to shape belief designed for a less academic audience.

The ideas in both Desiring the Kingdom and in You Are What You Love have had a transformative impact on my own life. If you’re not familiar with Smith, then this is a great place to start.

Daniel E. Lieberman, The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease

I really like books about the human body—the evolution of homo sapiens, the functions of the body, etc. I often reflect that I know almost nothing about the human body, even though I posses one. The first part of the book was great, but the second part felt a bit repetitive and diagnostic. If this book were 50% shorter, it would have been 150% better. (Better books on this subject are Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens and Nicholas Wade’s Before the Dawn, in that order.)

Aristotle, Ethics

I read this back in college and decided to give it another try. There’s always much to learn from Aristotle, and this time was no exception. This isn’t a page-turner, but it’s not supposed to be.

Here’s a passage from Ethics I’ve been pondering:

“Again, in whatever cases we get things by nature, we get the faculties first and perform the acts of working afterwards; an illustration of which is afforded by the case of our bodily senses, for it was not from having often seen or heard that we got these senses, but just the reverse: we had them and so exercised them, but did not have them because we had exercised them. But the Virtues we get by first performing single acts of working, which, again, is the case of other things, as the arts for instance; for what we have to make when we have learned how, these we learn how to make by making: men come to be builders, for instance, by building; harp-players, by playing on the harp: exactly so, by doing just actions we come to be just; by doing the actions of self-mastery we come to be perfected in self-mastery; and by doing brave actions brave. Or, in one word, the habits are produced from the acts of working like to them: and so what we have to do is to give a certain character to these particular acts, because the habits formed correspond to the differences of these.

David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861

I have not read many books on American politics in the 1850s, but this certainly must be one of the best. It provides important political, social, and intellectual context for the war. It won’t give you the play-by-play narrative you might find in a book covering Civil War battles, but it will give you a framework for understanding why the war happened when it did.

Marc Levinson, The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger

Although at a basic level it’s about the history of shipping containers, it’s really a book about the development of the global economy in the past fifty years. This book isn’t for everyone, but I enjoyed it.

Ian W. Toll, The Conquering Tide: War in the Pacific Islands, 1942-1944

This is the second book in a projected three-volume series on the Pacific War. I read Toll’s first volume, Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941–1942, a few years ago, and was pleased to see the second book has come out.

This isn’t a thorough, scholarly book on the Pacific war: Toll slows down the narrative and focuses on only the key events during these years–but it is a page-turner. If you’re a World War II geek or you really like solid historical narrative, this is the book for you.

(I still think the best book on the Pacific War is Ronald Spector’s Eagle Against the Sun.)

Robert McKee, Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting

I’ve always been intrigued by the ability of story to captivate, but I’ve never really understood the mechanics of how this is accomplished.

Why do we feel suspense while watching a movie about a historical event, even when we know how it ends? That’s the power of story–the ability to introduce tension, resolve tension, develop characters, write scenes, and move an audience without manipulating emotions.

Although on the surface this book is about screenwriting, it’s really about story at a deep level. I can’t recommend this highly enough.

Randall E. Stross, The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World

This book is less about Edison the man and more about Edison the marketer: how he managed his public persona, interacted with the press, and worried about the perception of himself and his company. This book accomplishes its goal, but it wasn’t quite was I was looking for at the time. (Also: electricity is really dangerous!)

Jean Edward Smith, FDR

I feel like I’ve been reading around FDR for years: I’ve read lots of books on FDR’s era—books about the World War, the Great Depression, biographies of Truman, LBJ, and Teddy Roosevelt, books about the New Deal, etc.—but never actually tackled a full-length of FDR himself.

I enjoyed Smith’s biographies of Ulysses S. Grant and John Marshall, and this one did not disappoint, either. (I got about ten pages into his biography of George W. Bush before putting it down.)

John Vaillant, The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival

What a book! This book tells the true story of the hunt for a man-eating tiger in the Russian Far East. It’s part social/environmental commentary, part history of Siberia, part edge-of-your-seat storytelling. Read it!

David Brooks, The Road to Character

A few years ago Brooks’ column in the New York Times outlined the difference between resume virtues and eulogy virtues.

It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?

We all know that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé ones. But our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light. Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.

But if you live for external achievement, years pass and the deepest parts of you go unexplored and unstructured. You lack a moral vocabulary. It is easy to slip into a self-satisfied moral mediocrity. You grade yourself on a forgiving curve. You figure as long as you are not obviously hurting anybody and people seem to like you, you must be O.K. But you live with an unconscious boredom, separated from the deepest meaning of life and the highest moral joys. Gradually, a humiliating gap opens between your actual self and your desired self, between you and those incandescent souls you sometimes meet.

The Road to Character, tries to explain what real virtue looks like by telling the stories of people whose lives have exemplified virtue.

My only critique with the genre is that it seems to tend toward selection bias. If you’re trying to make a point, and you decide to use only biographical vignettes to back up that point, what about some vignettes that disprove it?

So: read the book for the introduction. If you’re looking to really understand the people Brooks describes, you’ll need to look elsewhere to find out what makes them tick.

Robert Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York

This was the best book I read in 2016.

In it, Caro tells the story of Robert Moses, who reshaped the urban landscape of New York City, and, by extension, almost every other major urban area in the United States. I read somewhere (I can’t remember where, exactly) that be built everything in New York City except the subway and the Brooklyn Bridge. Freeways, bridges, parks, and every prominent urban space.

Although this is a biography, what Robert Caro has really written is an exploration of power—how to get it, how to keep it, how to use it.

From the Wikipedia entry on this book:

As a reporter for Newsday in the early 1960s, Caro wrote a long series about why a proposed bridge across Long Island Sound from Rye to Oyster Bay, championed by Robert Moses, would have been inadvisable, requiring piers so large it would disrupt tidal flows in the sound, among other problems. Caro believed that his work had influenced even the state’s powerful governor Nelson Rockefeller to reconsider the idea, until he saw the state’s Assembly vote overwhelmingly to pass a preliminary measure for the bridge.

“That was one of the transformational moments of my life,” Caro said years later. It led him to think about Moses for the first time. “I got in the car and drove home to Long Island, and I kept thinking to myself: ‘Everything you’ve been doing is baloney. You’ve been writing under the belief that power in a democracy comes from the ballot box. But here’s a guy who has never been elected to anything, who has enough power to turn the entire state around, and you don’t have the slightest idea how he got it.‘”

This book, and Caro’s subsequent books, answer this question. (I also highly recommend his series on Lyndon Johnson.)

Marilynne Robinson, The Givenness of Things: Essays

Although I am a big fan of Marilynne Robinson, I didn’t find myself having the same number of I-never-thought-of-that-before moments as I’ve had with her other books.

This book was a little heavy on Calvinism, which would have appealed to me in a different time of my life; I’ve worked through most of my thinking on the subject already, so this book provided many helpful answers to the questions I’m no longer asking.

Although I would rank this among Robinson’s worst collection of essays, that still puts it in the top 5% of essay collections I’ve ever read.

(If you’re looking to read her essays, the best collection to start with is When I Was A Child I Read Books. And her best novel is Gilead.)

Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel

This was another book I wanted to like, but just couldn’t get into it. I know Wolfe is a great author and this is great literature, etc. etc., but it seems like everything I read from Wolfe is too meandering.

Michael Lewis, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine

This was my first Michael Lewis book; I plan to read more (all of them?) in 2017. It’s about a few people who correctly predicted the demise of the housing market in 2008—and got rich by shorting it. Lewis has taken an incredibly complex story and told it brilliantly.

(The movie is excellent, too.)

Robert Jackall, Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers

This is a book about how corporate managers think the world works. It’s the most helpful business book I’ve read that isn’t actually a business book. It reads more like sociology, or perhaps what a historian of corporate America might write in a hundred years were he or she given access to all the primary source material.

From the introduction:

“What if . . . men and women in the corporate no longer see success as necessarily connected to hard work? What becomes of the social morality of the corporation–the every rules-in-use that people play by [which usually differ from the stated mission or values]–when there is thought to be no fixed or, one might say, objective standard of excellence to explain how and why winners are separated from also-rans, how and why some people succeed and others fail? What rules do people fashion to interact with one another when they feel that, instead of ability, talent, and dedicated service to an organization, politics, adroit talk, luck, connections, and self-promotion are the real sorters of people into sheep and goats?”

I found it somewhat interesting, but it won’t appeal to you if you’re not into business history.

Peter Frankopan, The Silk Roads: A New History of the World

This is a readable book that covers the history of the Middle East and Central Asia, beginning with the invasion of Alexander the Great and working to the present in only 672 pages, minus footnotes.

Also, the footnotes are really interesting. I paged through them at random and immediately caught references to Hindu texts, Viking histories, and Henry Kissinger’s memoirs all in the span of a few pages. These are reading habits I can get behind.

And here is one of my favorite sentences from the book:

“Recent research suggests that a permanent Viking colony may even have been established in the Persian Gulf in this period.”

The only downside was that the book spent a disproportionate amount of time on the twentieth century (i.e. the same critique I have of Robert Toombs’ The English and Their History, listed above).

Charles C. Mann, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

In this book, Mann tells the story of everything that happened after Columbus arrived in the Americas, or tries to in 720 pages.

Here is one example of the kind of thing Mann writes:

“The celebrated historian William H. McNeill has argued, S. tuberosum [i.e., potatoes] led to empire: ‘[P]otatoes, by feeding rapidly growing populations, permitted a handful of European nations to assert dominion over most of the world between 1750 and 1950.’ Hunger’s end helped create the political stability that allowed European nations to take advantage of American silver. The potato fueled the rise of the West.”

I love reading books about stuff like this–but how could you possibly prove or disprove this statement? In some ways, it doesn’t matter: it’s fun to think about, and even more fun to read about.

Ned Sublette and Constance Sublette, The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry

This is a horrifying but important look at the history of slavery in the United States from start to finish. It’s really well-written and I couldn’t put it down. If you’re interested in the history of the South, or you’ve read every book there is to read about the Civil War, then you’ll enjoy this book.

While this book attempts to be a revisionist history, it doesn’t quite succeed. It does, however, take a good first step toward dismantling the dominant narrative about slavery I learned growing up. It’s worth your time to read it.

Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead

I first heard about this book in January of 2015. It took me seventeen months to get around to reading it. I wish I hadn’t waited so long.

Most of Daring Greatly works out how shame is manifested in the workplace, in marriage, in parenting, and in other contexts. This may sound like a typical self-help book, but it’s much more than that. In other words: if you like self-help books, then you’ll probably hate Daring Greatly. Highly recommended.

Victor Hugo, The Toilers of the Sea

I had high hopes for this one after reading Les Misérables, but just couldn’t get into it.

Randall Munroe, What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

I’ve enjoyed Munroe’s What If series on xkcd. What If mostly repurposes this material in book form. If you’ve not read the website, do check it out. And even if you have, this book is worth reading anyway. You will LOL.

Here are the kinds of questions Munroe answers in this book:

  • What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90% the speed of light?
  • What if a rainstorm dropped all of its water in a single giant drop?
  • What would happen if a hair dryer with continuous power was turned on and put in an airtight 1x1x1 meter box?
  • How quickly would the oceans drain if a circular portal 10 meters in radius leading into space was created at the bottom of Challenger Deep, the deepest spot in the ocean? How would the Earth change as the water is being drained?
  • If you call a random phone number and say “God bless you”, what are the chances that the person who answers just sneezed?
  • And more…

Carmine Gallo, Talk Like TED: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds

This was interesting, but there are much better books on the topic.

Ed Catmull, Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration

Excellent, excellent book. This book covers the history of animation–particularly digital animation–and the growth of Pixar from an idea to the most successful animation studio in the world. In addition to this history, I learned a lot about the overlapping space between creative design and good business sense. Lots of practical stuff, too.

Niall Ferguson, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World

Niall Ferguson is a great writer—and this is a well-written general history—but I didn’t learn much new here. The chapter on the American Revolution in the larger context of the British Empire was interesting, though.

Andrew Roberts, Napoleon: A Life

This is an incredibly well-written biography. It’s a long read, but the writing is excellent. In addition to the life of Napoleon, I also learned a lot about the French Revolution, the history of France, and the state of Europe in the early nineteenth century. (Also: don’t invade Russia!)

George Packer, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America

This book tries to tell the story of the decline of America in the past few decades through a handful of individuals who experienced it first hand. In the end, it seemed like George Packer combined a bunch of anecdotal evidence to try to prove a point (i.e. the same critique I have of David Brooks’ The Road to Character, above). And while Packer is an excellent writer and he is probably right, this isn’t the kind of history book I enjoyed reading.

Lois Lowry, The Giver

This was the third time I read this book. (The first was in high school; the second for a children’s lit class in college taught by Gary Schmidt, which, if you’re a student at Calvin College and don’t take this class, it’s likely it will be in the bottom 1% of decisions you will ever make.) A beautiful story.

Gillen D’Arcy Wood, Tambora: The Eruption That Changed the World

I really like books that deal with geology, history, and unexpected cause-and-effect relationships. This wasn’t one of the those books, unfortunately. The story of the eruption didn’t have the page-turning character I was hoping for, and the author’s argument about the effects of Tambora’s eruption are a bit of a stretch. Not a bad book, but not a great book.

Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

I’ve seen the musical, watched the movie, and read excerpts of it for high school and college literature classes—but never sat down to actually read this thing cover to cover.

Then, sometime in mid-February my library fines had gotten to the point that my account was locked, and I was looking for a long, free book to read on my Kindle while I procrastinated paying them.

Les Misérables was a great choice. You already know the story; I did, too. What made reading it so different for me this time was thinking about my own daughters every time I read about Cossette.

I also loved Hugo’s digressions—which you won’t find in the musical or the abridged versions. The section on the history of Parisian sewers was worth the price of the book.

If you have read this before, it’s worth reading again. I’m glad I did. (Did I mention the Kindle version is free?)

Neil Rackham, Spin Selling: Situation Problem Implication Need-payoff

I’ve read a handful of books on sales, and this is one of the better ones in the category. Well-written, meticulously researched, and incredibly practical. I apply something from this book almost every day.

Hampton Sides, Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West

This book got great reviews, but I wasn’t blown away by it.

Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History

In the history-of-a-thing genre, this is well above average. It’s part economic history, part fall-of-the west, part history-of-the-world. And if you’re into Civil War history, this book provides some helpful economic context.

(By the way, my favorite book in the history-of-a-thing genre is Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World.)

Jon Meacham, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power

This is about what I expected it to be: well-written, nothing earth shattering, middle-of-the-road presidential biography.

I still haven’t found a biography of Jefferson that I loved. My sense is that is no single writer’s fault; it’s more that Jefferson is simply really difficult to understand. I’ve had the Dumas Malone biography on my to-do list for a few years now. Maybe 2017 is the year to tackle it.

Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again

This is not a terrible book, but it is not in the top 90% of books I read in 2016.

David Wootton, The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution

This books is absolutely brilliant, although beware that it’s a bit dense. The transition from the Aristotelian/medieval worldview and the modern, scientific worldview made sense after this book. If you’re into the history of the scientific revolution or you like reading about the history of ideas (or how people change their mind) this is not a bad introduction.

Epictetus, The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness and Effectiveness

Although I can’t recommend Epictetus highly enough, it turns out this is an abridged and edited version. If you’re into this kind of thing (which I am), you’ll want to get the full version (as I do).

But if this is your first time reading the classics in general or Stoicism more specifically, this is a great place to start. (Make sure you also read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.)

Carl J. Ekberg, French Roots in the Illinois Country: The Mississippi Frontier in Colonial Times

I thought this book was interesting, but it’s unlikely you will. In fact, of all my books in Goodreads, this is the least read and most poorly reviewed.

This book explores seventeenth and eighteenth century colonies on the upper-Mississippi. Worth reading for the survey maps alone, if that’s your thing.

Blake J. Harris, Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation

The author tries to blend reality with fiction to tell the story as he imagines it. It doesn’t quite work. And this book is about 30% longer than it needs to be.

John Seabrook, The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory

There’s a very small group of people who have written most of the pop songs from the past twenty years, starting with “I Saw the Sign,” by Ace of Bass. This is a book about music, marketing, and an industry you’ll never view in the same way.


Remember, I occasionally send out an email recommending a few of the best books I read. The emails are short and easy to digest—you’ll learn something new in every email. Best of all, you’ll find out about some amazing books you might not hear about anywhere else.

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