2014 Review of Books

Several people I know have asked me for book recommendations recently. Since I track every book I read, I thought people might find this end-of-year review useful. The format is inspired by the late Aaron Swartz’s series. Following his convention, I’ve *bold starred books that I thought were especially great; **two stars means it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read.

Obvious themes: tech, thrillers, Zen. More novels than I thought I’d read. Surprisingly little philosophy or economics – I suspect I get most of this from the internet rather than books now. Overall I got through less than usual this year, but I’m aiming to get to ~60 over the holidays.

1. How Google Works by Eric Schmidt

Bad. Full of woolly platitudes. Apparently now everybody needs to hire ‘smart creatives’ who adapt fast and can learn new things. This is because the pace of change is increasing in the world. Does this surprise anyone?

2. One Way and Another by Adam Phillips

Essays on psychoanalysis and life. Rambling but inspired. I bought this after reading his Paris Review interview, which is excellent.

3. Ending the Pursuit of Happiness by Barry Magid

I liked this as an intro to Zen and as a great perspective on happiness. Worth reading if you want to be a mentally healthy person, or if you suspect there’s something to the view that talk of ‘achieving happiness’ is somehow misguided.

4. The Interior Realisation by Hubert Benoit

Not as good as #39, which is amazing.

5. Born Standing Up by Steve Martin

Marc Andreessen recommends this book to would-be entrepreneurs. A light read but inspiring – years and years of plugging away at comedy before getting any kind of ‘break’, and the famous quote: “Be so good they can’t ignore you.”

*6. On the Shortness of Life by Seneca

We habitually underestimate the value of time and tend to spend a lot of our life on stuff that doesn’t really matter. Seneca makes this point in a particularly brilliant and vivid way. It’s really short, too.

7. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

I really liked this one. Great thriller. Not revealing any spoilers (there is a shocker of a twist). I thought the ending was pretty silly and psychologically unrealistic.

8. The Constant Gardener by John le Carre

Good thriller & typically well-plotted le Carre novel with a moral centre. I find reading le Carre novels oddly peaceful and immersive.

9. Zero to One by Peter Thiel

Worth reading if you work in tech. Like the Blake Masters lectures online but with maybe 20% additional content. I particularly liked the analysis of Tesla at the end.

10. Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes

Surprisingly brilliant. Surfaced a lot of latent feelings/thoughts I had about photography. You have to make allowances for the style (continental philosopher, somewhat pretentious) but it was very good and in parts moving. (It was written after the death of his mother).

11. Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki by Haruki Murakami

Solid Murakami. Nothing spectacular, but a good novel nonetheless. One or two profound passages.

*12. Summertime by J. M. Coetzee

Brilliant novel. Really odd – the idea is that a biographer interviews five people about a man called ‘John Coetzee’ (the name of the author) – the book is a transcript of these interviews. Each person has their own perspective on John, and a hilarious and very realistic voice. They are describing recognisably the same man, and there’s something incredible about how much self-awareness and ability to imagine yourself into other peoples’ souls it takes to write this kind of book.

*13. Where I’m Calling From: Stories by Raymond Carver

One of my favourite short story writers. If you haven’t read him, try ‘Cathedral’ and ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’.

14. Stoner, John Williams

A novel about a university professor, from birth to death. One of the most depressing books I’ve ever read. Not good enough to make it worthwhile.

15. Artful, Ali Smith

*16. On the Genealogy of Morals by Friedrich Nietzsche

I read this after Glenn Greenwald said it was his favourite book. If you get past the semi-historical narratives Nietzsche tells, the concepts are brilliant and disturbing. I’ve never read anyone who can stimulate my own thoughts so much.

17. Call for the Dead by John Le Carre

Solid spy novel. A little archaic.

*18. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

One of the best novels I read this year. It’s going to endure. One of those big, epic novels that draws you into its world. Describes being a young boy, falling in love, and losing one’s mother scarily well.

19. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

Only worth reading if you’re at the intersection of ‘Murakami fan’ and ‘runner’.

20. A Delicate Truth by John Le Carre

Above-average Le Carre. More recent. Good read if you want a first spy novel.

21. Only the Paranoid Survive by Andy Grove

Pretty excellent memoir. Particularly insightful on how to stay alive as a technology company and has great specific tips on spotting the right kind of large-scale strategic decision. Grove is one of tech’s greatest ever CEO’s (“During his tenure as CEO, Grove oversaw a 4,500% increase in Intel’s market capitalization from $4 billion to $197 billion, making it the world’s 7th largest company, with 64,000 employees.” – Wikipedia) so this is how I know he isn’t bullshitting. I would go back to this if I became the CEO of a large tech company, but since I’m not in that position, I haven’t starred this one.

**22. More Than Anyone Can Do: Zen Talks by Ton Lathouwers

Nine talks given at a Zen retreat, all extremely profound. I would read this if you’re interested in Zen and/or have any kind of interest in religion.

23. Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

Good read if you’re an artist/writer or have aspirations in that direction.

24. Collected Stories by Raymond Carver

25. No Place To Hide by Glenn Greenwald

I read everything Greenwald writes and consider him one of the most important journalists of our time. This book is the story of the Snowden leaks from the journalist who broke them as well as an eloquent argument for why citizens should care about being in an era of mass surveillance. Even if you don’t agree with him, it’s useful to get the perspective.

**26. The Nature of Order Book 1: The Phenomenon of Life by Christopher Alexander
**27. The Nature of Order Book 4: The Luminous Ground by Christopher Alexander

A theory of beauty and aesthetics. Programmers may be familiar with Alexander from ‘A Pattern Language’, which helped develop the concept of design patterns in software. The books are stunning physical objects (I don’t normally buy books for this reason, but I was stunned at everything from the type to the photos) and they had a huge impact on me. I would read the Wikipedia page and if it sounds interesting, just order them and take a look.

28. I’m Feeling Lucky by Douglas Edwards

*29. Masters of Doom by David Kushner

Excellent biography of Carmack & Romero and id Software. I got this from Jeff Atwood’s article. Worth reading just for the descriptions of Carmack’s brilliance alone. And quotes like this: “In the information age, the barriers just aren’t there,” [Carmack] said. “The barriers are self-imposed. If you want to set off and go develop some grand new thing, you don’t need millions of dollars of capitalization. You need enough pizza and Diet Coke to stick in your refrigerator, a cheap PC to work on, and the dedication to go through with it. We slept on floors. We waded across rivers.”

30. The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz

I didn’t love this – it felt too specific to Ben’s situation, and the more general advice was largely a duplicate of what’s on his blog already. So if you’ve read his blog, I wouldn’t strongly recommend this.

**31. A Death In The Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard
**32. A Man in Love by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Fairly sure these will sit alongside Proust & Tolstoy as some of the greatest novels ever written. Sold half a million copies in Norway, a country of 6 million people, and supposedly was banned from discussion at workplaces because people were talking about it too much. A good article is here for background but basically, if you’re into novels, I would read these.

33. Essays in Idleness by Kenko

*34. The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson
*35. The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson
*36. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

Surprisingly brilliant thrillers with a feminist theme. I read all three on a single flight and could not stop reading the whole way through, but these novels also stuck with me in a way that most thrillers don’t.

37. Letters to a Young Novelist by Federico Garcia Lorca

38. Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris

Classic, excellent thriller, and great read if you’re not into the genre but want an intelligent page-turner.

**39. Zen and the Psychology of Transformation by Hubert Benoit

Dense but extremely profound, one of the wisest books I’ve read. Benoit was a psychotherapist who became fully paralysed after being injured in WWII and spent several years lying still in bed trying to figure out the nature of life. This book is what he came up with. It’s like Zen explained why a Western philosopher. This book is only worth undertaking if you (a) have an interest in Zen already and (b) have a tolerance for dense, academic prose. I think it’s worth it.

40. The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts

Nice introduction to Zen. Immensely readable like all Alan Watts.

41. Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh

Pretty good memoir and contains some great stories. Maybe I read too much tech press, but a little sick of hearing about how great Zappos’s company culture was. It sounds cultish and creepy to me (how enthusiastic could somebody get about selling shoes before you wonder if they’re deluding themselves? Maybe that’s just me). Still, Hsieh is an extraordinary entrepreneur and clearly super-intelligent, so this is a good read.

42. Dance Dance Dance by Haruki Murakami

Forgettable.

43. After Dark by Haruki Murakami

Good, short read. I liked this and found it memorable.

*44. High Output Management by Andy Grove

The best book on management I’ve read. (Though there are surprisingly few good ones, given how important a subject this is).

*45. Predictable Revenue by Aaron Ross

If you’re in SaaS (particularly as a founder or sales manager), you must read this. It’s the most actionable book on either of those subjects I’ve read.

*46. The Power Broker by Robert Moses [in progress]

Already one of the best non-fiction books I’ve read. I recommend reading Aaron Swartz on this as it was one of his favourite books.

47. Nothing is Hidden by Barry Magid [in progress]

48. In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman [in progress]

Overrated and a little wordy so far. Still, I’m reading it and intrigued to know what happens, so he’s doing something right.

49. Player of Games, Iain Banks [in progress]

50. Permutation City, Greg Egan [in progress]

51. Debt: The First 5,000 Years, David Graeber [in progress]