2016 books

Fourth in a series (2013, 2014, 2015), here’s the books I read in 2016. I particularly recommend those in bold.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
I started this book one Saturday evening and didn’t get up until I was done. Decimating because of the book’s set up — a young, articulate doctor diagnosed with terminal lung cancer — and because Kalanithi comes off as someone you went to school with, a friend-of-a-friend, someone just. like. you.

Sprint by Jake Knapp
How Google Ventures runs their design and product sprints, and how we all might as well. Helpful if you’re going to do one of these, which I was, but skippable otherwise.

How to talk about books you haven’t read by Pierre Bayard
The basis of this book list. (No, just kidding.) I agree with the reviewer who called this book “a work of inspired nonsense.”

Moneyball by Michael Lewis
Finally read it. I suspect this book was better when you’re not already steeped in its references. Lewis’ pacing is always very good.

Close to the Machine by Ellen Ullman
I was mostly bored by this book, and then I felt guilty: this seemed the sort of book I’m supposed to like, one about the meaning and impact of technology in the late 1990s, when things were so new.

The Outsiders by William N. Thorndike
How capital allocation, not management or new ideas, is the key to long-running company growth. Kinda dry, though it’s more interesting if you’re coming from the technology industry, where “strategic capital allocation” isn’t often praised.

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan
This book is supposed to be great — the best modern novel from Singapore, even — but I couldn’t stand the poor writing or kludgy dialogue. I did skip to the end to see what happened to the characters, which is something.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Ferrante’s Neapolitan novel, 1/4. What’s there to say about these that hasn’t been said? I loved these: for the tales from post-war Naples, for the female friendship, for the romantic dreams and escapades.

The Tales of the Beetle Bard by JK Rowling
I hadn’t read this, and it was on the shelf of an Airbnb at which I stayed. Now I’ve read it.

Mislaid by Nell Zink
A bizarre novel featuring unsympathetic, trying-too-hard-to-be-interesting characters… I didn’t like it very much.

The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante
Ferrante’s first published novel, this one about the aftermath of a marriage’s collapse. She writes about unhinged people so beautifully, and here, everyone is sullen, difficult, and unlikable.

The Almost Nearly Perfect People by Michael Booth
A book about Scandinavians. My mom, whose family emigrated from Denmark and Norway, liked it quite a bit. I liked it less, but I might be too New World.

Submission by Michel Houellebecq
To prevent a takeover by the far right, France democratically elects Islamic moderates, and Houellebecq is (surprisingly?) generous in his depiction of an Islamic state. There’s multiple teenage wives (it’s Houellebecq, after all) and headscarves, but there’s also a democratic constitution, support for an inter-country trade and political union, and a focus on higher education. The Islam of this book helped me better understand Turkey’s AKP.

Hickory Dickory Dock by Agatha Christie
I hadn’t read an Agatha Christie novel in forever so figured I’d give this one a try. Was I supposed to have figured out whodunnit? I didn’t.

The Street of Eternal Happiness by Rob Schmitz
Shanghai stories from a not-New Yorker writer. (I’ve exhausted the Peter Hessler and Evan Osnos canons.) It was … okay. If you haven’t read Hessler or Osnos, read them instead.

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante
Ferrante’s Neapolitan novel, 2/4.

Those who leave and those who stay by Elena Ferrante
Ferrante’s Neapolitan novel, 3/4.

The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante
Ferrante’s Neapolitan novel, 4/4.

The New York Nobody Knows by William Helmreich
I really liked this book’s set up — a man walks 6,000 miles across all five boroughs — but found myself unexpectedly bored while reading it. I wouldn’t have found it without McNally Jackson (natch.)

Idea Makers by Stephen Wolfram
If you’re familiar with Wolfram’s blog, you can skip this one. But if you’re not really, like me, this makes for a good collection of his Great Man-focused posts. (And yeah, it’s all men save Ada Lovelace.)

Six Chapters from my Life Downunder by Yang Jiang
A memory of the two years a professor and her husband spent “downunder,” a rural nowhere, during China’s Cultural Revolution. I knew the stats and figures of the Cultural Revolution, but this is its human side. Not published in mainland China.

The End of Average by Todd Rose
A pop science book that makes a grand argument and supports it with anecdata and small-n psych studies. So 2009.

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
The back half of the story didn’t hold together well for me, but David Mitchell writes so well I didn’t mind.

Everyware by Adam Greenfield
I thought this was going to be a high-level explanation of technology, full of vague words like “futurism” and “context.” It wasn’t. It was a clear view of where technology was going, written in 2006. Even more striking: the argument still holds, nearly ten years — and an iPhone! — later.

The Cowshed by Ji Xianlin
Another memoir of the Cultural Revolution, this one written by a Peking professor under house arrest. Still published in mainland China.

High Output Management by Andy Grove
Familiar because it’s become tech-company management canon. Mostly interesting to see how some ideas (OKRs are top of mind) morphed across the intervening decades and companies.

The Emperor Far Away by David Eimer
I so wanted to like this book, about borderland China, but didn’t; it wasn’t very insightful, and it wasn’t particularly well-written beside.

Hypercard Stack Design Guidelines by Apple Computer Inc
A book Amazon recommended to me that’s exactly what it sounds: a manual for putting together effective Hypercard stacks.

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out by Richard Feynman
Collected talks by, essays of, and interviews with Feynman. Not as good as Surely You’re Joking; read that first, if you haven’t yet.

Work Rules by Laslzo Bock
More interesting as a corporate history of Google than for any sort of how-to (despite the book jacket’s claims.) I find this book’s genre more interesting than the book itself; listening to systems-minded people revamp a field that, historically, hasn’t been so systems-y is fun, and I wish I could also read the peanut gallery commentary.

Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis
Oof. Nihilism never seemed less attractive.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne, John Tiffany
The perfect book for an overnight flight, when I “was supposed” to sleep but couldn’t.

Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance
A memoir of a 30-something who grew up in down-and-out southwestern Ohio and then attended Yale and ventured west to Silicon Valley. JD Vance has become the coastal elite’s soothsayer, especially post election, but this book was his debut.

Against the Smart City by Adam Greenfield
Not as great as Everywhere. Read that instead.

The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcom
A discussion of the relationship between a journalist and her subject, which amounts to, in Malcom’s words, “[the journalist] is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.” Controversial when it was first published, in the late 1980s, though now no longer so.

The Master Algorithm by Pedro Domingos
A primer on machine learning; it’s a solid attempt to Explain All The Things, though it falls down when it tries to put forward a grand theory to unify it all.

The Vital Question by Nick Lane
A theory on the origin of life that made me spend a few evenings reading excerpts from biology textbooks online. (My last biology class, in high school, did not cut it.)

Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes
Hitler wakes up in ~2010 Germany and announces himself; everyone believes he’s a (very good) impersonator, and he promptly gets his own reality television show. Pretty great.

Speedboat by Renata Adler
I kinda imagine this is what The Bell Jar would have been, if Plath had been in her early 20s in the 1970s.

The Book of Strange New Things by Michael Faber
Weird novel set in the not-too-distant future, when a preacher takes the mission of a lifetime — converting aliens to Christianity in a distant galaxy! — while his wife stays on quickly-crumbling earth. The novel’s structured as a series of letters between the couple, which works surprisingly well.

Transforming the Twenty-First Century by Vaclav Smil
This book is probably quite good, but I think I’d read too many growth books to see what made this earlier, one unique.

The Making of Australia by David Hill
An easy-to-read history of Australia that presented a neat narrative. Exactly what I wanted.

The Rise and Fall of American Growth by Robert J. Gordon
So many questions about the material covered in this book! (And so many facts, oof.) I could have had dinner after dinner discussing its themes.

Winners by Alastair Campbell
Tony Blair’s chief spokesman and strategist writes about sucessful people. Anna Wintour was the best bit.

Principles by Ray Dalio
I re-read this every year.

The Emperor of Scent by Chandler Burr
A story of Luca Turin, a man who wrote a best-selling perfume guide and then put forward a new theory on the sense of smell. No one in academia believed Turin and, when I googled around, his theory seems not to have gone anywhere. I didn’t like this book.

Humble Masterpieces by Paola Antonelli
This was fun: short vignettes about everyday objects so common I forgot they were designed: Post-its, Band-aids, Chinese take-out boxes, stuff like that.

The Hard Thing about Hard Things by Ben Horowitz
A part of the Silicon Valley startup canon to which I obliged myself. tl;dr: no decision is easy and everything is hard. Keep going.

Monetizing Innovation by Madhavan Ramanujam
The title’s cliche, but some of the information — particularly the parts around pricing questions and experiments — is really quite good. Recommended if you’re thinking through how to price something new.

Red Notice by Bill Browder
Tales by an American of investing in Russia in the 90s (it’s all fun and games and four-digit return) and the 2000s (it’s all misery and sorrow and a murdered accountant.)

City of Thieves by David Benioff
Two men try to save themselves by going on a crazy errand (“find me a dozen eggs in a bombed-out, starving city”) for a Soviet colonel during the siege of Leningrad. Well-written, well-paced, all-around recommended.

Open for Business: Building the new Cuban economy by Richard Feinberg
This reads like a think tank report, which it kindof was. Good if you want a realistic take on the Cuban economy today; it’s definitely not all Airbnbs and educated doctors.

The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee
A history of genetics, and the accompanying ethics, from Mendel to the present. It’s as if it were one, long New Yorker piece. Very good.

The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins
Odd sci-fi/fantasy about the inhabitants of a haunted library. Too many characters and backstories in this novel for me to keep straight.

Sweating Bullets: Notes about Inventing PowerPoint by Robert Gaskins
PowerPoint was, more or less, built to spec and succeeded because Gaskins saw a huge market no one else did: physical slide layout. This is his memoir of PowerPoint’s development and then the company’s sale to Microsoft.

Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet by Lyndal Roper
So much about Martin Luther and sixteenth-century Germany I did not know — I learned something new on nearly every page.

Lifted by Evan Ratliff
True crime about a robbery in Sweden. I’d hoped for something fast-paced, but this is more narrative nonfiction.

Confessions of a ‘Rape Cop’ Juror by Patrick Kirkland
A young woman accuses a member of the NYPD of rape; he’s on tape saying he used a condom, yet the jury acquits. One of the jurors explains “reasonable doubt” and why the jury decided as it did.

The Ghost by Robert Harris
A spy novel with a ghost writer subbed in for the spy. Quite a good escape (geopolitics! espionage!) if you’re looking for such.

The Possessed by Elif Batuman
This book, about Russian literary criticism and written by a then-PhD student, was funnier/wiser/all-around better than it had rights to be. Read this one!

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