2014 Reading List

I tackled 59 books this year, just over one a week. The themes included science fiction, which I really enjoyed, dog training (we adopted two dogs), and a lot of Stoicism and philosophy. I got through Buckminster Fuller, Jane Jacobs, and Freeman Dyson on the non-fiction side and some great novels, including Lolita, The Name of the Rose, Freedom, and Blood Meridian, on the fiction side. A short description of the best, in my opinion, is below, followed by the remaining titles.

Best Books

Notes on the Synthesis of Form by Christopher Alexander. This is a foundational architecture book written in the 1960s. It was hugely helpful in thinking through design problems—starting from first principles and deconstructing the problem. I appreciate and understand architecture language much more now, including such terms as Subsets, Program, Form, Function, Misfits, and Design.

Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge by Edward O. Wilson. This book draws parallels between and attempts to unify current thinking in the humanities/arts and science. It traces much of what we call culture to its biological and logical beginnings. It is a beautifully written and compelling argument.

Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth by R. Buckminster Fuller. Fuller’s choice of words changes our perspective—suddenly, we’re on a spaceship, passengers in the universe. The book is fifty years old but just as relevant and insightful today. He foreshadowed the impact of the computer, the need for renewables, the rise of cities, and decreasing populating growth rates caused by higher incomes and industrialization.

Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy. This is a dark, bloody, and ugly book that is hard to read. That being said, the language/writing is fantastic. The seemingly civilized judge and his thirst to collect was stuck in my head for days.

A Many-Colored Glass: Reflections on the Place of Life in the Universe by Freeman J. Dyson. A heretic’s view on life, from biotechnology to the search for extraterrestrial forms—provocative at times and always fascinating. One of its conclusions is that if life were to exist in perpetuity, it would have to be analog, and we’d have to live in a linearly expanding universe (i.e., not an accelerating one).

Cities and the Wealth of Nations by Jane Jacobs. This book changed my thinking. It lays out a clear, concise argument for why cities, not nations, are the economic units to build an economy around. The book is relevant to anyone interested in economics (trade, currencies, inflation), entrepreneurship (imports replacing activities), or development (aid, remittances, factories, stimulus).

The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers by Ben Horowitz. This is a great read about being an entrepreneur and a look into the start-up and venture community. One of the best books, if not the best, that I’ve read on entrepreneurship.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. A beautiful, once-banned book about an obsessive predator pedophile. Can the ugly be made beautiful? That is exactly what Nabokov does—his words make a book (at least partially) about pedophilia a true work of art. It is so beautifully written that I understand why they teach entire classes on Nabokov—indeed, classes on just Lolita. It’s said that he worked for days on single sentences and words, and you can hear it in the language. I will tackle Pale Fire next year.

Freedom: A Novel by Jonathan Franzen. I feel like you can tell a good movie or a good book by how much you think about it after you finish, and I thought about this book for weeks after I read it. It’s a biting, depressing-but-true commentary on modern America.

On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft by Stephen King. This book is both a memoir and a how-to on writing. You get to know him as a person: there is a touching scene where King, standing in his kitchen, asks his publisher to repeat the price for the paperback rights to Carrie—$400,000—because he feels it must be a mistake. He was struck by a van in the middle of writing the book, and the end is heartrending in detailing the accident and his recovery. And the writing advice is excellent. The how-to sections are filled with great lines like, “hate and mistrust pronouns, every one of them as slippery as a fly-by-night personal-injury lawyer” and “writing is refined thinking.” My takeaways: no pronouns; the adverb is not your friend; no passive voice; and write with the door closed, but rewrite with the door open—all easier said than done. It has been nearly universally recognized as an indispensable classic on the craft of writing.

Seneca: Letters from a Stoic (and Biography) by Seneca. A classic of Stoic philosophy. It’s amazing to me how something 2,000 years old can seem so modern and relevant. I put this book on my list to re-read again and again.

Gilead: A Novel by Marilyn Robinson. This is a beautifully written book staged as a letter from an Iowa priest to his son. Robinson has written three books (Gilead, Home, and Lila), all taking place in the same town and all telling the same events from three different characters’ perspectives.

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy. I couldn’t put this book down—I read it in two days, and I’m not sure why. It’s violent and depressing, but you are drawn in from the first page. It reminded me of The Road.

The Peripheral by William Gibson. The world is as much a character as anything else in science fiction, and this is certainly true in The Peripheral. The book takes place in two dystopian futures, one near and one far. The beginning is hard, in a good way, as you struggle to understand the two futures and how they operate.

Lexicon: A Novel by Max Barry. A highly original dystopian thriller where words can kill and the powerful are known as poets, this book was a page-turner. It’s a fantastic read for lovers of science fiction or language, as well as those who simply enjoy a good mystery.

Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway. Set in modern-day London, it’s nonetheless kind of science fiction in a steampunk sort of way. This is a funny book with great characters. It’s the only thing that I’ve read that has reminded of A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy—high praise.

The Martian: A Novel by Andy Weir. I couldn’t put this book down. It’s scientific with a lot of specifics—unit conversions, chemistry, physics—but the story is so compelling. Weir self-published the book on his website as a serial novel before getting a deal.

Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think by Peter Diamandis. This is a great summary of where we currently stand from a technology standpoint. It’s a fun and encouraging look at the future.

Remaining Titles

Harvesting the Biosphere: What We Have Taken from Nature, Vaclav Smil

Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era, Amory Lovins

Information Dashboard Design: Displaying Data for At-a-Glance Monitoring, Stephen Few

The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition, William Strunk

Why America Is Not a New Rome, Vaclav Smil

Make Gentle the Life of This World: The Vision of Robert F. Kennedy, Maxwell Taylor Kennedy

Eat to Live: The Amazing Nutrient-Rich Program for Fast and Sustained Weight Loss, Joel Fuhrman

Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt, Michael Lewis

The Effective Executive, Peter Drucker

How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend: A Training Manual for Dog Owners, Of New Skete Monks

Cesar Millan’s Short Guide to a Happy Dog: 98 Essential Tips and Techniques, Cesar Millan

Great Books of the Western World, Mortimer Adler

Utopia or Oblivion: The Prospects for Humanity, Buckminster Fuller

A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, William Irvine

Plato: Five Dialogues: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo, Plato

The Clouds and Lysistrata, Aristophanes

Things a Little Bird Told Me: Confessions of the Creative Mind, Biz Stone

Ethics, Aristotle

The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco

The Cautious Canine: How to Help Dogs Conquer Their Fears, Patricia McConnell

How to be the Leader of the Pack…And have Your Dog Love You For It, Patricia McConnell

Cosmopolis: A Novel, Don DeLillo

The Shipping Man, Mathew Cleery

Orfeo: A Novel, Richard Powers

The Supermodel and the Brillo Box, Don Thompson

Act Accordingly, Colin Wright

Everything That Remains: A Memoir by The Minimalists, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus

The Fault in Our Stars, John Green

Fight Club: A Novel, Chuck Palhniuk

The Devil in the White City: A Saga of Magic and Murder at the Fair that Changed America, Erik Larson

Meditations, Marcus Airelius

The Secret History, Donna Tart

Tending the Epicurean Garden, Hiram Crespon

How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World, Steven Johnson

An Unnecessary Woman, Rabih Alameddine

Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life, Steve Martin

Bag of Bones: A Novel, Stephen King

He Died with His Eyes Open (Factory Book 1), Derek Raymond

The Most Important Thing Illuminated, Howard Marks

Self-Reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson

California: With Classic California Writings, Ansel Adams

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