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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

Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think

ISIS! Ebola!

Fear sells—it’s an evolutionary selection bias we all have and probably for good reason—better to be safe and all.

But the fact is that the world is safer and more prosperous today than it has ever been. Violence per capita is falling, income per capita is on the rise globally. In 10 years, it will be better; in 50, even better. There have been world wars and pandemics, to be sure, but if you step back and look at the trends, they all continue climbing up and to the right with only small dips for what we perceive to be large events. This will continue as we are more connected, more dependent, and hopefully, more empathetic.

Abundance, written by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler, outlines these biases and trends and gives us a peak into what our future may look like. Diamandis runs the X-Prize Foundation, which grants cash awards for scientific achievement, such as private space flight and cleaning up oil spills.

The book is the best summary of the not-too-distant technological future I’ve come across. It covers genetics, healthcare, robotics, driverless cars, and myriad other technologies that will be here sooner than we think. It’s an uplifting summary of our future, or better yet, the adjacent possible.

The book can be found here, and the website for Abundance here.

2013 Reading List—Art, Entrepreneurship, Finance, and France

I am always looking for a good book and find it interesting what people read. I’ve kept a reading list by year, which is a good habit for me as I enjoy adding a book to it each time I finish one. In 2013, I had a good year of reading, tackling just shy of 40 books. I had gotten out of the habit the last couple of years, and it feels good to be be back. My reading was centered around art, finance, start-ups, France, and just some good page turners.

Picasso at the Lapin Agile, Steve Martin — A smart, witty play that takes place in a bar in Montmartre; largely a dialogue between Picasso and Einstein about art and science.

Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, Pierre Cabanne — Good overview and biography on Duchamp. I’ve gone from not understanding Duchamp to thinking he’s the most influential artist of the last 100 years.

The Essays of Warren Buffett, Lawrence A. Cunningham and Warren Buffett — My second read through Buffett’s letters to shareholders. As always, it was a good read, and the thematic grouping was helpful.

The Crossing, Cormac McCarthy — The second book in the Border Trilogy. I found the story of the wolf heartbreaking. Nobody writes like McCarthy, but I liked All the Pretty Horses and The Road better.

Startup Life, Brad Feld and Amy Batchelor — Great book on relationships and life with an entrepreneur. Kris read it as well, and we’ll be implementing some of the suggestions.

What Are People For?, Wendell Berry — Good essays and intro to Wendell Berry. I often largely agree with the ideas but struggle to see how returning people to the land is feasible mechanically or economically — we’re going to be a planet of cities.

City 2.0, TED Books — Quick read, good overview on trends in urbanization and how to better design our cities.

The Lost Estate, Henri Alain-Fournier — Beautiful book about chasing the past. The original is in French, and it is routinely on the list of top French novels. I really enjoyed it.

A Year in Provence, Peter Mayle — Structured by month, a look into living in the French countryside; sounds rewarding but difficult.

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald — I read this again this year, triggered by the movie coming out. It’s always named as one of the best novels, but I have to be honest: I still don’t get it. No one is likable, though maybe that is the point.

Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn — Great page turner.

Present Shock, Douglus Rushkoff — What happens when everything happens in the present?

Inferno, Dan Brown — A fun look at Venice and Florence framed by Dante with science woven throughout. I had read Angel and Demons and the Da Vinci Code but skipped Lost Symbols. Inferno has an absurdly impossible plot, but I found it to be a fun read.

World War Z, Max Brooks — The book has a much more interesting structure than the movie and is told through a series of interviews with survivors around the world. The movie could have been done this way, and I think psychologically it would have been much scarier. Max Brooks is the son of Mel Brooks—who knew?

How Will You Measure Your Life, Clayton M. Christensen — Wise thoughts from Clayton Christensen (The Innovator’s Dilema) on how to live your life and what to focus on.

Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson — I previously started this a couple times and couldn’t get into it. Once I did, though, it became a page turner. It reads like a great novel — the rise, fall, and rebirth of a brilliant, important, and tragic character.

Sacre Bleu, Christopher Moore — Classic Christopher Moore. I enjoyed the art angle and will never look at blue in a painting the same way again. It was fun to walk around Montmartre this fall having read this.

Doctor Sleep, Stephen King — A sequel to the Shining. I grew up reading everything Stephen King wrote but haven’t read anything since the Dark Tower series. This is a great story — I forgot just how good King’s books are.

Average is Over, Tyler Cowen — I have read much of Cowen’s work, along with his blog (Marginal Revolution). This is a sharp book. One may not like the end result, but I think it’s pretty spot on. This along with Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants changed my thinking the most this year.

11/22/63, Stephen King — At 800 pages, it’s a long book, but I tore through it once I started. The premise is fascinating— what would happen if Kennedy hadn’t been assassinated? It’s an exhaustively researched look at history mixed with a bit of the supernatural, as one would expect with King. Highly entertaining.

Tap Dancing to Work, Carol J. Loomis — Nice collection of writings from Forbes on Buffett over the last couple of decades.

Quantitative Value, Wes Gray and Tobias Carlisle — More of a textbook, it’s a good audit of various value-based strategies and what you can do to add alpha. At the end of the day, it is amazing how successful EBIT/EV is as a metric—a company is the sum of its cash flows. It’s that simple.

Remote: Office Not Required, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hanssan — Amen. The timing of this book was perfect with the announcement from Yahoo prohibiting telecommuting. Could not agree with Jason and David more.

Cities of the Plain, Cormac McCarthy — Final installment of the Border Trilogy. It was nice to have both characters back, but it was tragic, though I’m not sure what else I was expecting. Moving onto Blood Meridian now.

The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert — I had not read Gilbert before, but I really enjoyed this book. It has a strong lead character set against the backdrop of historic Philadelphia interwoven the theory of evolution. I read this at the same time as Craig Venter’s book and was then inspired to finally start the Origin of Species.

The Icarus Deception, Seth Godin — I read this throughout the year a bit at a time. I have read just about everything Seth has written —as always, he is inspiring and encouraging.

Minimalism, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus — A short read on creating a simpler life. In a world of what feels like excess everything, editing may be the most important skill set.

Benjamin Franklin, An American Life, Walter Isaacson — After reading the Jobs biography and hearing Isaacson talk (which was fantastic), I decided to tackle this book. Franklin was really unbelievable in his breadth of accomplishments, and I enjoyed the look at London and Paris as well.

Breakfast at Sotheby’s, Philip Hook — A fun collection of vignettes from decades in the art market.

Life at the Speed of Light, J. Craig Venter — Based on a lecture he gave in Dublin. The promise of personalized synthetic genomics is enormous, and the magnitude of what we are on the verge of feels underreported.

Daily Rituals, How Artists Work — A collection of original blog posts on how artists work—schedule, process, etc. The big take away is process—dedicated time each day, above all else. On one hand, it’s that simple.

The Greater Journey, Americans in Paris — A look at a group of Americans who came to Paris at the turn of the century. I couldn’t get through it.

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt — Beautifully written. The first half reminds me of Dickens, and the second half of Dostoyevksy. Tartt’s writing is beautiful, and I loved the descriptions of New York, Vegas, and Amsterdam.

Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon — A very short, fun read.

The Enchantress of Florence, Salman Rushdie — I read The Moore’s Last Sigh and liked it, and Kris says that the Satanic Verses is one of her favorite books ever, so I tried to tackle this but never really got into it. Rushdie’s depth of reference is both amazing and overwhelming. I do still want to read Midnight’s Children and the Satanic Verses though.

Startup Communities, Brad Feld — The second book I read in the Startup series. I liked the Boulder thesis, and some important takeaways for me are that it takes a long commitment to build a community, and it has to be lead by the entrepreneurs.

What Technology Wants, Kevin Kelly — Kevin Kelly is an oracle. I think you could take any random paragraph out of this book and find it fascinating. His views are totally unique and thought-provoking. It’s hard to argue with his thesis that technology is a natural system.