Reading in 2019: ‘Summary Notes’ > ‘Lecture Notes’
In 2018, I read 11 books. At least, that’s how many I took any notes about. It’s less than half the number I finished in 2017. I’m not sure how that happened: maybe I wasn’t spending quite as much time on planes. (Before 2017, I used to open my laptop on planes. 2017 was when I began studying crypto assets, blockchains and decentralized systems.)
It’s also possible my book-reading suffered because I was reading more of other things, like white papers, essays and blog posts. (This was in addition to a daily or weekly diet of _The Wall Street Journal_, _The Economist_ and a handful of email newsletters, including _Token Daily_, _CoinDesk_, _Axios Pro Rata_, _BostInno_ and _Talking Points_.) I’m also listening to a lot more podcasts. I used to eschew podcasts, because I figure I have my nose in printed material during basically 100 percent of downtime. In October, I figured out after a conversation with the podfather of Boston VC, Mike Troiano, that listening is something I can do while walking to the train or between meetings. And there are lots of good podcasts in crypto. Here’s the home screen of my podcast player.
I went back through my notes on non-book reading & listening, and here’s what I counted for 2018:
- Podcasts: 24
- Videos: 2
- Essays, blog posts, articles & open letters: 23
- Tweetstorms: 1
- SEC orders: 1
- White papers: 8
- Slide decks: 5
I know I read more than that, especially white papers, tweetstorms, slide decks and SEC orders. But these are the pieces I kept notes on. When I read or hear a fact or an idea that makes an impression, I jot a note — the same way a college student might take notes on the salient facts in a lecture. The books and articles I value most will generate the longest note files. If I don’t think much of a piece, it’s rare I write down anything at all. That’s something I’d like to change in 2019: instead of just noting one-offs as I find them, I’d like to write a few sentences in summary of my takeaways from each thing I read — whether it made a strong impression, or not. Summary notes > lecture notes.
One of the things that kept me listening to podcasts (besides the large number of high-quality podcasts in crypto) is the queue. When one episode ends, I usually have another picked out, downloaded and ready to go. As I’d like to return to reading about two books a week, I’ve set up a book queue: here are the books I’m planning to read in the first quarter of 2019.
Measuring reading progress by counting books isn’t great, when of the books on the list range from 54 pages to more than 500. I’ve tried to get a mix of longer and shorter books and not include more than two that are longer than 300 pages. I’ve set a goal of eight books, figuring if I aim for eight I might read six.
2019 Q1 Reading List
- Casey, Michael and Paul Vigna. _The Truth Machine_. 267 pages
- Sharma, Ruchir. _Breakout Nations: in Pursuit of the Next Economic Miracles_. 258 pages
- Hammond, Zaretta. _Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain_. 154 pages
- Desan, Christine. _Making Money_. 512 pages
- Tanizaki, Junichiro. _In Praise of Shadows_. 56 pages
- Schulman, Sarah. _Maggie Terry_. 265 pages
- Liu, Cixin. _The Dark Forest_. 512 pages
- Walker, Alice. _Good Night Willie Lee I’ll See You in the Morning_
2018 Book Notes
With my summary notetaking approach in mind, I’ve gone through my 2018 lecture notes on the few books I did read, and pulled them together into summaries. Here they are, in reverse chronological order of the dates I finished reading them.
Stephenson, Neal. _Cryptonomicon_
Alongside Stephenson’s _Snowcrash_, this title comes up again and again when you ask what books are important in cryptocurrency and decentralized systems. I almost put it down about a quarter of the way through, but stuck with it and was basically glad I did. My favorite impression from it was the sense of place it gave to Manila, a place I’ve never been. It’s too bad Stephenson couldn’t muster a single female character with greater than zero agency. That plus peppering his prose with racist and sexist witticisms (one in particular stands out, about Asian airlines defenestrating female flight attendants on their 28th birthdays), makes this a fine book for an otaku, but one to avoid citing as a foundational text of an industry.
Ito, Joi and Jeff Howe. _Whiplash_
I picked this one up browsing in my local library. It’s organized into a set of well-conceived rubrics for thinking about changes in not just technology, but industrial paradigm: “pull over push,” “risk over safety,” “practice over theory,” etc. Good, but it could have been a long essay, rather than a book. Some of the examples lacked rigor and left the aftertaste of a recruiting brochure for MIT.
Ammous, Saifedean. _The Bitcoin Standard_
Reading _The Bitcoin Standard_ was like taking an Uber with a talkative conspiracy theorist behind the wheel: I got where I wanted to go, but left the vehicle shaking my head. (Ammous’ tangents on art and popular music were particularly unwelcome.) Despite that, I think I took more notes on this than any other book I read in 2018, which was surprising because in the first chapters it felt like a simplified and less thoroughly researched version of _Debt: The First 5,000 Years_. In total, it was far more pointed on reasons to question textbook economics than _Debt_. I’m looking forward to coming back to my notes on it in 2019.
Hazleton, Lesley. _After the Prophet_
This book taught me so much about the history of religious and political conflict in the Mid-East. It’s also a fascinating tale of succession and governance from a culture in which seemingly everyone read, thought, spoke and wrote copiously about every significant political event.
Burniske, Chris and Jack Tatar. _Crypto Assets_
The authors apply traditional investing concepts like Sharpe ratios to crypto assets and find many reasons for the Intelligent Investor and others to buy into this asset class. Much of it was written before the run-up of 2017, but as an investor’s introduction to crypto assets I still can’t think of a better one I’ve read, today.
Chekhov, Anton. _The Island: a Journey to Sakhalin_
We spent the summer in Seattle, where I was working on integrating the _Token Report_ team and technology into its acquirer, New Alchemy. I wanted a good travel book, and this fit the bill. Chekhov’s eye for the human condition didn’t fail him late in his short life, and here he finds plenty of material for it in people living at the limits of human society and endurance.
Higashida, Naoki. _Fall Down 7 Times Get up 8_
A non-verbal autistic man’s first-person account, written using an alphabet pad, provides some powerful insights into how the human mind works. “There’s a world of difference between merely seeing a thing and knowing what it is.”
Perez, Carlota. _Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital_
Alongside _Debt: The First 5,0000 Years_, _Technological Revolutions_ has been the most influential book in terms of the way I think about crypto assets and decentralized systems. Long-wave historical patterns can be reductionist, but Perez’s important contribution is to expand them beyond technology and into the very ways we organize people, capital and information. Her theories provide a key to decode events in society and industry over a long view of changes that may come.
Murakami, Haruki. _1Q84_
I re-read this book in the spring for either the third or the fourth time. Along with _Windup Bird_, it’s become a comfort-food novel that I pick up in times of transition and tumult in my own life, and in the world at large.
Karsten, Karl. _Scientific Forecasting_
It was wonderful to imbibe the deep-seated skepticism and rationality of Karsten, who was one of the first to apply scientific method to economic forecasts, writing just after the stock market crash of 1929. Truly, there are few clearly isolated effects in economic statistics. Instead, Karsten describes a system of compound resultants and intricately interacting social force. He likens forecasters to engineers tasked with mapping interconnecting underground rivers, using nothing more than flow meters plunged into the ground at intervals.
Kamiya, Gary. _Cool, Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco_
A co-founder of Salon.com offers a flaneur’s history, neighborhood-by-neighborhood, of the city across the bay from my hometown. It includes a look at the 1870s stock market manipulation that I used as an analogy for what’s happening in crypto markets today. This book was a gift from my mother.