What I learned reading 100 books this year

Nathaniel Dean
Dec 31, 2018 · 8 min read

This year I pursued a goal of reading 100 books, which I achieved by mid-December. Last year I successfully read 50 books and wanted to set my sights higher. I’ve never challenged myself to read in volume but I did so with the deliberate goal to integrate reading as a daily habit and push myself outside my comfort zone. Many have argued that aiming for a volume of books is a fruitless or even counterproductive activity; I understand this argument and largely agree with its tenets — but I did it anyway. Once I set my mind to something I have a way of doggedly following though.

I’ve written some thoughts on the experience below. First, here’s the list:

  1. Nudge: Thaler
  2. 10% Happier: Harris’s
  3. Everybody Lies: Stephens-Davidowitz
  4. Astrophysics for People in a Hurry: Tyson
  5. Thanks, Obama: Litt
  6. The Undoing Project: Lewis
  7. Catching the big fish: Lynch
  8. 12 strong: Stanton
  9. Zero to One: Thiel (reread)
  10. Mindset: Dweck
  11. Life 3.0: Tegmark
  12. Why Buddhism is true: Wright
  13. Designing your life: Burnett
  14. The Four: Galloway
  15. Endurance: Kelly
  16. Start with Why: Simon Sinek
  17. Hacking of the American Mind: Lusting
  18. Troublemakers: Berlin
  19. Way of the Wolf: Belfort
  20. Man’s Search for Meaning: Frankl
  21. Never eat alone: Ferrazzi (reread)
  22. Skin in the Game: Taleb
  23. Superbosses: Finkelstein
  24. Creativity, Inc: Catmull
  25. The Purple Cow: Godin
  26. The Right Stuff: Wolfe
  27. A Higher Loyalty: Comey
  28. Hit refresh: Nadella
  29. Blitzed: Ohler
  30. Originals: Grant
  31. Benjamin Franklin: Isaacson
  32. Trumpocracy: Frum
  33. Failure is Not an Option: Kranz
  34. Different: Escaping the Competitive Crowd: Moon
  35. A Full Life: Carter
  36. Turtles all the Way Down: Green
  37. Russian Roulette: Isikoff, Corn
  38. The Rational Optimist: Ridley (Reread)
  39. How to turn down a Billion Dollars: Gallager
  40. To Sell is Human: Pink
  41. How to change your Mind: Pollan
  42. When: the Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing: Pink
  43. The 4-Hour Workweek: Ferriss (reread)
  44. War on Peace: Farrow
  45. South: the Endurance Expedition: Shackleton
  46. American Kingpin: Bilton
  47. Valley of the Gods: Wolfe
  48. Brotopia: Chang
  49. Bad Blood: Carreyrou
  50. The Science of Success: Koch
  51. Sapiens: Harari (reread)
  52. Operation Paperclip: Jacobsen
  53. The Assault on Intelligence: Hayden
  54. The Pentagon’s Brain: Jacobsen
  55. Facts and Fears: Clapper
  56. The New Strategic Selling: Miller & Heiman
  57. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Postman
  58. The President is Missing: Patterson/Clinton
  59. With the Old Breed: Sledge
  60. Kitchen Confidential: Bourdain
  61. Radical Candor: Scott
  62. Measure What Matters: Doerr
  63. Robin: Itzkoff
  64. Yes We (Still) Can: Pfeiffer
  65. The Like Switch: Schafer
  66. Medium Raw: Bourdain
  67. The Red Queen: Ridley
  68. 12 Rules for life: Peterson
  69. Survival to Thrival: Building the enterprise startup: Tinker, Nahm
  70. Behave: Sapolsky
  71. Principles: Dalio
  72. The World As It Is: Rhodes
  73. Dealers of Lightning: Hiltzik
  74. Average is Over: Cowen
  75. Fear: Woodward
  76. Getting things done: Allen
  77. Crossing the Chasm: Moore
  78. Stiff; The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers: Roach
  79. The General vs. the President: Brands
  80. Blue Ocean Shift; Beyond Competing: Kim
  81. Fear City: Phillips-Fein
  82. The View From Flyover Country: Kendzior
  83. Blitzscaling: Hoffman, Yeh
  84. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century: Harari
  85. Fooled by Randomness: Taleb (reread)
  86. Black Edge: Kolhatkar
  87. Yeager: Yeager, Janos
  88. The Messy Middle: Belsky
  89. Great at Work: Hansen
  90. American Lion: Meacham
  91. A Crack in Creation: Doudna, Sternberg
  92. The Rise of Andrew Jackson: Heidler
  93. Fascism: Albright
  94. Red Notice: Browder
  95. American Gods: Gaiman
  96. The 50th Law: Green, 50 Cent
  97. Why We Sleep: Walker
  98. All the Gallant Men: Stratton
  99. Who is Michael Ovitz: Ovitz
  100. Educated, A Memoir: Westover

You may notice there’s nearly no fiction here–only two books if I’m counting correctly. This isn’t by accident; I intentionally read to learn. My interests, as evidenced by this list, cluster around history, politics, behavioral economics, and technology, particularly the future of technology.

Some takeaways

It is probably too much. One key goal was to reintegrate reading as a daily habit, which through the course of this year I’ve done successfully. As has been said by others, I do not believe that reading alone is enough. Understanding, synthesizing, and thinking critically about the ideas covered in a book is as important as the actual consumption of content. When one increases the volume consumed this task becomes more difficult. I’m deeply curious and do want to consistently increase my mental dexterity, but in this case, I may have pushed the limits. I’ll discuss more downsides later.

Participating in a reading group or book club to aid in the deep understanding and discussion of material and the best books to consume may prove to be quite beneficial. I’ve got some ideas on how one might manage this (either in person or virtually). If anyone has overlapping interests and is willing to assist in forming a group, please do reach out to me.

Reading makes your mind work better. This is scientifically documented as well as quite apparent over time. Like a vitamin (vs. a drug) the difference will not be immediate but noticed instead subtly and over a longer period. I’ve found an easier recall of memories, the ability to draw correlations between abstract information or events, even an internal monologue as I move through the day. There’s evidence that reading creates more neurological connections which fit logically with the effect I’ve seen. There’s more anecdotal evidence that reading prevents cognitive decline into old age and may stave off the onset of brain diseases like Alzheimer’s or dementia.

Regardless, I’m pleased with the effect on my mind; not just for neurological impact but the variety of new information. I’ve always enjoyed the cognitive diversity and intellectual dexterity that reading provides. I don’t want to be monodimensional. Instead of focusing on any particular discipline, I’m able to bring a breadth of frameworks to any particular decision or problem in day to day life. I’m able to seamlessly jump from an informed conversation about an ever-widening bevy of topics.

Good habits beget good habits. This one was more of a happy surprise. As I commonly read before bed I all but quit drinking alcohol (my retention drops perceptibly after even one glass of wine). As a result, I got better sleep: unsurprisingly the unhappy relationship between REM sleep and alcohol is detailed in #97, ‘Why We Sleep’. While this wasn’t an express goal, I also found it was far easier to lose weight when you stop drinking.

On Audiobooks vs Paper/Kindle: Saying I read 100 books is a bit disingenuous as probably ~30% of these books were consumed via audio. I still prefer to read a paper book — I have a very visual memory and tend to remember passages based on where they are on the page and through the book. Kindle has the obvious advantage of being extremely portable and storing a nearly infinite number of books. I’ve taken kindles to the beach, on planes, spilled water on them — they’ve made it through everything. While I prefer a paper book, I tend to take a Kindle while traveling as I can carry as many books as I please and easily slip the thing in my pocket.

Audio fills an important niche. The confluence of high-quality audio content and listening devices (iPhones, etc), have in themselves massively expanded the access to high-quality information. It’s the one medium that you can consume while you do other activities: while at the gym, driving, walking. Audio does have downsides: we tend to retain less & for a shorter amount of time from audiobooks, and it’s more appropriate for some books over others. It’s great for most fiction, for biographies and memoirs, for historical non-fiction. It’s a bad medium for most intellectually complex books including most business books. There’s another category where I use audio strategically: these are books which (if I’m being honest with myself) I probably will not read. In this case, I’m comfortable with absorbing or retaining less as that is more than zero.

The San Francisco Public Library provides an amazing public service. As does, presumably, the public library in your hometown. Though an app (OverDrive), library card holders can download free kindle books, ebooks, and audiobooks. Within some limitations, this is a free Amazon and everyone should take advantage.

Audible provides an excellent service as well. The library does not have every title and Audible typically has new releases available before other sellers and has higher quality content (audiobooks lack interruptions that you’ll find from other providers).

The Negative

When you are consuming you are not creating. This is a clear downside as when I set a goal based on consuming information I find myself not creating. For me, reading is a great primer for writing — however, the year I’ve done not nearly enough writing, building or creative expression. In the coming year, I plan on creating much, much more.

Not all books are created equally. Some should be PR releases; this is common of politicians who are about to run for something. Some should be long blog posts. Some are written to boost the social credibility of the author. Some are simply not worth reading — I need to get better at just putting these ones down. This conversation dove-tails with one about picking the right books to read, which I am no expert at. For me, much of this decision is guided by both my interests the advice of trusted sources; Farnam Street’s various book lists, tech luminaries, or thoughtful podcasts.

Common questions

Some questions I tend to get when I’ve told friends about this goal and my progress: Which are your favorites? Taleb’s books, the most recent is Skin in the Game, are superb and have informed my view of the nature of risk substantially. His first of the Incerto series though, Fooled by Randomness, provided me with the greatest change in my knowledge and understanding. I recommend starting there. Life 3.0 is an excellent and realistic view of the future potential of AI, understanding exactly what is likely and what is not, and separating out the hyperbole you’re likely to see in movies (or the nightly news for that matter). Bad Blood is entertaining, informative, and eerily similar to a place I once found employment. I endorse reading it but it’s been so well reviewed elsewhere that I won’t focus on it too much. I highly recommend Yeager; the autobiography by General Yeager. A legend of the 20th century, Yeager found fame as a WWII fighter pilot, a US Air Force test pilot, then, most famously the first man to break the sound barrier. This is the true story of a full-throttle American hero which probably could not be recreated at any other time in history. Finally, while I don’t read much fiction, The President is Missing is authentically a can’t-put-it-down exciting story, if you can excuse the lax rendition of presidential security measures.

There’s a select list of books which I plan on re-reading on an annual basis because they so inform other aspects of life. Previously I’ve included Sapiens and Zero to One on that list — I may add Principles because the mental models that Dalio maps out are excellent.

How do you find time to read? We all have exactly the same amount of time in the day: it’s not about time, it’s about priorities. Make reading one and you will find the time. More tactically, I carry a kindle nearly everywhere I go. I read on my commute every day (30 min each direction, for an extra hour every day), I read before bed. I don’t listen to music; walking down the street, at the gym, or while driving, I’m listening to an audiobook or podcast. I guess I’m addicted to learning.

To close

We live in an amazing time for learning and availability of high-quality information. Never before in history has this much information been this accessible by so many people. This is true of online learning but here, of course, we’re focused on books: physical books, ebooks, and audiobooks (particularly through the library) are free, ubiquitous, and high quality. Literally, all that one needs is a curious mind.

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