The 10 best books I read in 2018 (out of 308)
In 2014 I started to count and keep a list the books I read. I set a goal that year of 100 books. I am not really sure how much I would have read in previous years, but I know it would be considerably less; maybe 50 a year. I have long believed, as you probably do, that the choice to read is linked to the choice to learn. If you want to grow intellectually, philosophically, or even emotionally, you really shouldn’t neglect this discipline. Still, it was the simple act of setting that goal that has accelerated this discipline into a habit and this habit into a way of living.
I don’t want to exaggerate the importance of something like this simply because I am writing about it now, but in a world where complexity is routinely reduced to 140 characters, short news/blog posts and where overconfidence is at epidemic levels, I can not help but feel that the long form argument that books provide is quickly becoming essential not only to personal growth but civility. Reading doesn’t just fill my mind with knowledge, it stretches me to see the world through someone else’s eyes. To consider their point of view, more than that, to ascend to their point of view, at least for a few hours. And the older I get the more I aspire to be someone who can perceive and appreciate paradox, and value the point of view of others (especially when I disagree).
I read and listen to books now as a way of life. And I have finished more than 1000 books in 5 years. For those that know me, or who have followed my reading saga, you know that I like to read as broadly as possible. I am not looking for my own point of view in the books I take on. On the contrary, I find books that hold my own worldview often difficult to get through. It’s boring. I am a deeply committed Christian, but as I look at my list this year less than 10% (25 to be exact) are written for a Christian audience. I want to know how other people think, to care about their view of the world as I mean to care about them. I also want to hold on to enough humility to say that I am full of misunderstanding and that there are more gaps in my knowledge than there are answers.
So I read biographies, autobiographies, histories, hard science, social science, business, leadership, self help, and memoirs because they are all full of light. I do also read fiction (21 books this year), but typically only on days I am off. I start a book because I am looking for that killer idea, but in the end I am changed, not so much by one book but by the expansion of my heart and mind that they all seem to collaborate to deliver.
And so, I read or listen to audiobooks every day. In most cases about 1–2 hours a day. Of course, some days more, but very rarely less than an hour. I read in the morning and before bed. I have a single bluetooth earbud that is always in my pocket and I am listening to an audiobook every chance I get. If I am driving or working in the yard, or exercising, or building something there is a book (on 3x speed) playing in my ear.
As usual I have read some excellent books this year, but also plenty of duds too. Sadly, most books (of the books I finished) I wouldn’t recommend. Some books are so poorly constructed, or self congratulating or just banal that I find them excruciating to finish, but I usually try to finish as a matter of principle. However an equal number are worth recommending. I wish this list could grow, but I know its value is in the curation, so I am going to try and stick to 10 (with another 5 in my honorable mention category :))
Here is the top 10 for this year:
Lotto deftly brings together neuroscience research, perception and the implications of seeing the world in a new way. I loved this book not just because of its content but because of what it might mean for the person who reads it. I recommend books not just because I like them but because I think reading them might make us better, if only a little. The end result of a work like this is illuminating, fascinating and humbling. Innovation and growth are on offer here
There is a lot being written about diversity, its value and its philosophical importance in our world. But very little of what is written, seems to me, to take into consideration psychological disorders as a possible feature of beauty in diversity. As someone who is interested in the complexity of teams who hold the belief that every person has something remarkable to offer, the connection between certain disorders and genius is particularly interesting. This fascinating book considers diversity from a completely novel angel. I was both moved and inspired by it.
I had not read David Brooks before this year, but after devouring this book, I dove into his other stuff as well. I found him to be a refreshing, thoughtful counterpoint to some of my own leanings. While I could not come to agree with all of his conclusions, I loved the journey, the unusual suspects that he chose to highlight, and the eloquence with which he calls the reader to understand that character is an inner journey that requires an understanding of our limitations.
Vulnerability is en vogue right now, even as a leadership tool (which I find a little strange). In other words, people can talk about the importance of vulnerability but still rarely show it. Small embarrassing anecdotes aside, few authors are willing to be as raw and stripped down as Deere is here. This book makes my list if only for the sheer force of stark vulnerability on display. He does not come off heroic, In many ways it was hard to read, as I found myself relating to parts of his story and pain, but also strangely healing and confirming of the doctrine of sin and the hope of grace.
I have myself written about “the great man myth” and how it has inhibited leadership in the church (my area of leadership interest). This book was a historical case study, looking at leadership over the last 100 years and peeling away the veneer of that same mythology. If you can make it through the historical writing, I would want every leader to read this book, and to consider again what real leadership should look like.
With the tone of a retrospective and the vision of a prophet Albright seems to be able to deliver some salient lessons of the 20th century’s struggle against a certain kind of toxic leadership. Her own storied career is blended with insights that gives her point of view a kind of sage quality. But writing aside, the reflections become what the subtitle teases; a warning. Fascism is not, in fact dead, and it is something that might just be a clear and present danger to our own intellectual, political and spiritual context. This book isn’t just good, it is important.
Self awareness is the metaskill of the 21st century. This idea alone was worth the price of the book and Eurich takes great care to help the reader learn this very skill. It is a secret of healthy and successful people that can go unnoticed; they know themselves. But part of getting there is admitting our own self awareness is both limited and requires work. Because I am so enamored with the idea/value/virtue of humility, books like this fascinate me. I am always looking for something that will help people practice humility, and have the courage to really look at themselves (warts and all). This is one of the best books I have read to that end.
There are so many things about Pinkers underlying worldview that I think are wrong (I am a Christian after all). If you are looking for a meta narrative I would not recommend his, but for its sheer sweeping presentation of truth, what a blinding light this book is. In a world of doomsday prophets, claiming that nothing has really changed or that the world is getting worse (pinning for the good old days) this is a tour de force for optimism. He makes a compelling and ultimately satisfying case that the enlightenment experiment is working, and that we should all be pretty stoked to live in the time we do. This is a phenomenal piece of work with a thesis that could not have come at a better time. For everyone who thinks the world is going to hell in a handbasket, I recommend this books as a contrary theory.
I found Naim’s ideas so intriguing. He is not just arguing here for the shift of power in our time or even a dispersing of power into the hands of the people, but his claim is that power is actually being destroyed. There is increasingly less to go around. Of course, I was especially drawn to his notion of micro powers as a modern phenomenon of power and its use, as I read this while working on my next book about micro churches. I did not mind the occasional tediousness of the book because the thesis itself is so breathtaking. If he is right, it changes so much about the way we understand and work with power.
Because of the recent documentary on his life, there is a new found appreciation for Fred Rogers. I think it is the study in contrast, the juxtaposition of his seemingly naive way that is so captivating. Reading a biography like his takes the reader into a world of make believe, where a great and privileged man’s only ambition is to serve children and love people. It stuns in its simplicity and the sheer strength necessary to stay that course for the whole of his life. Reading this book felt like being inside for a year and finally walking outside to breath real air and feel the warmth of the sun on your skin.
Okay, 308 books is too many to reduce to only 10 suggestions so here is the honorable mention category.
Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup
A chilling tale of corporate malfeasance and how it gestates and grows in the power hungry. The book is riveting as a study in character flaws. Namely overconfidence and self deception. If you are willing to be professionally ambitious and personally dishonest you can go far. Until it all catches up with you.
The Courage to Be Disliked: The Japanese Phenomenon That Shows You How to Change Your Life and Achieve Real Happiness
A clever presentation of the ideology of Alfred Adler, the perfect foil (in my opinion) to the shortcomings of our obsession with Freudian psychology. You don’t realize just how Freudian you are until you consider Adler (as contemporary of Freud) and feel the dissonance. I think it is time for us to critique Freud’s conclusions and their ubiquity, and this is a great place to start.
The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos
I like books about innovation. I like stories of hard, preserving work. I like astrophysics and the vast frontier of space. I like science fiction and the joy of imagining the world beyond the way it is now. Perhaps for all of those reasons, I really liked this book, because it brought together all of those things.
Everybody, Always: Becoming Love in a World Full of Setbacks and Difficult People
A little like Fred Rogers, reading Bob Goff is just good for the soul. In an age of cynicism and frustration it is nice to be mentored and influenced by someone who genuinely believes love can change the world.
How to Have a Good Day: Harness the Power of Behavioral Science to Transform Your Working Life
I read a lot of workplace books and this is one of the best. It was so close to making my top 10. Whether you love your job or hate it, Webb leads us into the critical question, what would make the perfect day for you?
In case you are interested in the full list, here is my evernote (chronological list):
/JAN/ deviate, change or die, the island of Dr Moreau, Dreamland, the power of different, the year of living danishly, blue ocean strategy, raising kids that thrive, make your bed, the hero with a thousand faces, so good they can’t ignore you, principles, abaddons gate, what I talk about when I talk about running, cibola burn, how to live a good life, Matisse and picasso, wild at heart, the upstarts, 48 laws of power, whipping girl, nemesis games, how to lead when you are not in charge, the liar in your life. 24
/FEB/ the body keeps the score, the river of consciousness, ceasers last breath, find your why, sending well, tribe, Shakespeare, eat fat get thin, how to be here, church of the small things, scream free parenting, the dream of you, one day we will all be dead and none of this will matter, the punch escrow, the industry of the future, four seasons of marriage, team of rivals, drop the ball, ikigai, chaos, attached, raising grateful kids. 22
/MAR/ finish, the road to character, the elements of style, lost connections, the four tendencies, the power of moments, skin in the game, you’re never weird on the internet, paradox bound, the social animal, Wonder woman unbound, resisting happiness, the culture code, Julius ceaser, living with a seal, art and physics, thank you for being late, even in our darkness, 12 rules for life, introverts in the church, the immortal life of Henrietta lacks, what it’s like to be a dog, alone britain Churchill and Dunkirk, the light is winning, shrill. 25
/APL/ I’m fine and other lies, the telomere effect, recovery, the myth of the strong leader, one blood, brave, homo deus, yawn, infinite, your inner critic, bored and brilliant, black against empire, the death of expertise, gospel fluency, the radical king, the four, how to have a good day, illuminae, designing your life, stress and your body, own the moment. 21
/MAY/ the myth of equality, the beekeepers lament, emotionally healthy spirituality, side hustle, iron gold, soonish, how the Irish saved civilization, silence, the signal and the noise, who thought this was a good idea, anthem, sister citizen, three cups of tea, pathologies of power, when breath becomes air, french kids eat everything, it’s messy, next, when, a portrait of the artist as a young man, the art of influence, girl logic, wait what, the sun off small things, replay, the happiness project, let’s pretend this never happened, assassination generation, the science of likeability, lion, adult children of emotionally immature parents. 31
/JUNE/ a higher loyalty, the search for God and Guinness, building a story brand, Norse mythology, how music works, sapiens, bluefishing, you do you, natural disaster, the elephant in the boardroom, deep freediving, the start up way, 15 things you should give up, the stars my destination, Giovanni’s room, relentless, no one cares about crazy people, as you wish, the honest spy, the perfectionists, why suffering, one of these things first. 22
/JUL/ Pre-suasion, the introverts edge, edgedancer, Canada, Snoop, put your.dream to the test, how to lose a marathon, the testament of Mary, the space barons, famous father girl, everybody always, knights in training, the feather their, the financial diet, faith, hagakure, the content code, the effective executive, red sister, the creative curve, when you need a miracle, beneath a scarlet sky, emotional success, age of myth, well sent, how hard can it be, the first time manager, the year of less, world without mind, virtual freedom. 30
/AUG/ fascism, going to Pieces without falling apart, how not to get shot, the dark net, no time to spare, living with the monks, waking up white, killing kryptonite, sex Jesus and the conversation the church forgot, I’m still here, less, a theology of biblical counseling, the triumph of Christianity, Springfield confidential, fail until you don’t, I feel bad about my neck, the square and the tower, who rules the world, the last lecture, how to raise an adult, how to walk away, blue ocean shift, Florida, mastering civility, fantasyland, insight, the gaslight effect, endure, how successful people think, the checklist manifesto. 30
/SEP/ everything happens for a reason, vacationland, English history made brief, the motivation myth, measure what matters, luck of the Irish, the organized mind, at home, Genesis, life 3.0, a river in darkness, you need a budget, how to stop feeling like, Robin, what truth sounds like, in defense of food, rocket man, the theater of war, turn your pain into art, the great divorce, us vs them, the power of little ideas, the burning bridge, clockwork, the road back to you, braving the wilderness, the leadership gap, the art of rest, the fifth season, keep Christianity weird. 30
/OCT/ enlightenment now, straight talk for startups, the outsiders, Jesus behaving badly, bad blood, three signs of a miserable job, the sun does shine, without saying a word, I hate you don’t leave me, a generation of sociopaths, every little step, skunk works, creative confidence, mere Christianity, shame off you, the 1 page marketing plan, how to change your mind, farsighted, stitches, the rag and bone shop, Hodgkin lymphoma, the chocolate war, own the day, imperfect courage, unashamed, it starts with food, what the dog saw, the tipping point, blue dreams. 29
/NOV/ enough, didn’t see it coming, suicide of the west, the end of power, how will you measure your life, the soul of a new machine, take control of your cancer, dare, the courage to be disliked, the 4% universe, the war on normal people, microtrends, she begat this, on intelligence, small fry, traction, beautiful boy, small victories, 21 lessons for the 21st century, life out loud, the lathe of heaven, the power of when, Beastie boys book, no apparent distress. 24
/DEC/ 21 laws of leadership, ask an astronaut, underground airlines, the grace of dogs, to bless the space between us, the noonday demon, can’t hurt me, the truth about cancer, good boss bad boss, the future is history, the good neighbor, storm glass, fear, mirror gate, iron Garland, born with teeth, skyward, the art of thinking clearly, American kingpin, earth bound. 20