Tuesday, December 31, 2019

List: My books of 2019 / Reading Recommendations for 2020

Some of my hard-copy books from this year and my iPad (iBooks and Kindle)
This was a good year for my reading. I read thirty books this year and memorized two poems! Here’s some commentary on my ten favorite books. The full list is available at the end.

10. Dollars and Sense, Dan Ariely. This helped me understand how our psychology leads us to engage poorly with money. It also includes practical advice on spending better. The Richest Man in Babylon (TRMB) is very popular (I even read it again this year), but this book goes many steps deeper and makes it more likely that you can follow George Clason’s advice in TRMB.

9. Hello World: How to be Human in the Age of Machines, Hannah Fry. This book is well-written and I could not stop till I was done! It describes the algorithms that are shaping our age in a manner that is accessible to everyone. Dr. Fry describes applications ranging from predicting which customers are pregnant to neural networks for machine vision. It provides a toolkit for staying informed as AI becomes more integrated into daily life. I believe we’ll ultimately end up with algorithms and humans that work together in partnership, exploiting each other’s strengths and embracing each other’s flaws. In her words, “in the age of the algorithm, humans have never been more important”.


8. Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker. This one was sometimes tedious and finishing it was partly an exercise in self-discipline. However, I admire authors such as Dr. Walker who work hard to popularize the latest science. He summarizes the current knowledge about sleep, argues for more sleep, and provides tips for healthy sleep. Given that we’re asleep roughly a third of our lives, we might as well do it right and ensure it sets us up to succeed during the two-thirds of the time we’re awake. To share one tip, try to follow a sleep schedule in which you go to bed and wake up at the same time each day.

7. Quiet, Susan Cain. Did you know that, on average, we (wrongly) rank fast talkers as more competent and likable than slow ones? Did you know shyness is a fear of social disapproval or humiliation, while introversion is a preference for environments that are not overstimulating? While I have taken more ownership of my introversion as I have grown older, this book gave me a renewed sense of entitlement to be myself. I also came away with tips for handling myself better at work and socially, and for relating with extroverted adults and introverted children. I think of this book as the Introvert Manifesto and I have referred to it a few times since I first read it.

6. Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl. It was surprising that I did not read this book earlier! This book made me think of William Henley’s Invictus often. Dr. Frankl describes how everyday life in a concentration camp is reflected in the mind of an average prisoner and uses that as a springboard to introduce logotherapy. The operating premise is that the primary motivational force of an individual is to find meaning in life. He argues that you can give struggling people strength by pointing them towards future goals to which they can look forward. First published in 1946, it’s the oldest of my top ten and it definitely felt like the wisest.

5. Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, David Epstein. Having noted the increasing trend towards specialization, I have been wondering about the place of generalists such as myself. This was therefore a delightful book to dig into. While there are many areas that require narrow specialization, this book makes a strong case for generalists who can integrate broadly by combining knowledge and insights from different fields.


4. Decisive, Chip and Dan Heath. In this book, the Heath brothers identify four villains of decision-making: narrow framing, confirmation bias, short-term emotion, and overconfidence about the future. These villains besot us all and combine to reduce the quality of our decision making. The book then provides a toolkit for combating these villains. For example, any time you’re tempted to think, “Should I do A or B” (narrow framing), instead ask yourself: “Is there a way I can do A and B?” (change the frame).

3. Factfulness, by Hans Rosling.
“Worldwide, 30-year-old men have spent 10 years in school on average. How many years have women of the same age spent in school?” Answer Options: a) 9 years. b) 6 years. c) 3 years.”
Think about your answer then scroll to the bottom to check if you’re right. Don’t despair if you were wrong. Only 19% of Brits and 26% of Americans got this right.

Factfulness opens with thirteen questions that test how much you know about the world. I read widely and consume the news voraciously; I grew up in a developing country and have visited countries on four continents; I still only got four of these thirteen questions right. Most people get most questions wrong. Dr. Rosling shows that we’re systematically wrong about the world because we think things are worse than they really are. My biggest takeaway is [currently] that bad things are going on in the world, but many things are getting better. He provides a toolkit for being more informed and less panicked about the world. Reading that he worked on this book until his deathbed led me to think of the following lines from Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night:
“Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
because their words had forked no lightning,
they, do not go gentle into that good night”.

2. Deep Work, Cal Newport. This is my second Cal Newport book and definitely not my last. In this book, Dr. Newport distinguishes between deep work and shallow work. Deep work includes professional activities performed in a highly-focused state that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate. Shallow work on the other hand includes non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks that are often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate. His core thesis is that the ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable. As a consequence, people who cultivate this skill and make it the core of their working life will thrive. Enough said – read it if you haven’t already!

1. Atomic Habits, James Clear. While Deep Work is really good, Atomic Habits was a clear winner for me this year! I feel like many people will trace their success back to this book many decades from now. His core thesis is simple: changes that seem small and unimportant at first will compound into remarkable results if you stick with them for years. This makes sense as our outcomes are a lagging measure of our habits. He then introduces his four-step model of habits: cue, craving, response, and reward, and the corresponding laws of behavior change. If you’re looking to change your results sustainably, you should totally read this one!


All 30 books I read this year are listed here. The two poems I memorized are William Henley’s Invictus and Dylan Thomas's Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night. The answer to the quiz from Factfulness is a) 9 years. i.e. thirty-year old women, globally, have spent nine years on average in school, one year less than men.

I am starting 2020 by re-reading three of these books: Atomic Habits, Deep Work, and Dollars and Sense. As in 2019, I will tweet my list of finished books as the year goes by. If you’re interested, you may follow me on Twitter here. (Please note I tweet like a maniac when Real Madrid is playing).

My ranking system meant no memoirs and fiction made it into the top-ten. Shout outs to: That Will Never Work (Marc Randolph), Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber (Mike Isaac), The Education of an Idealist (Samantha Power), A Gentleman in Moscow (Amor Towles), and The Second Sleep (Robert Harris).

Now it’s your turn! Which books did you read and love in 2019?

Oh, and Happy New Year in advance!

1 comment:

  1. Love love love deep work! based on your review, I think I'll read atomic habits next. Thank you

    ReplyDelete