The books I read this year, ranked

One resolution that I only partially succeeded in this past year was reading more and writing more about what I read. I started out strong, wracking up almost 20 books through March and sharing at least a few of my summaries. But then my reading pace slowed, and I stopped writing almost altogether.

Nevertheless, I read some fantastic books this year, including a fiction book that makes me regret more didn’t make the list. Below, I roughly* rank them, eschewing summaries for the occasional short comment. Books that I wrote about in my previous post are often not accompanied with any additional commentary.

Many of the books are political in nature. Though I don’t agree with all (or necessarily most) of their stances, the ones I liked were effective messengers of well thought out positions, and the ones I weren’t were often little more than polemicals. Other books present histories or theories that I have no energy or ability to fact-check, but the ones I liked at least tried to tell a multi-dimensional story. Some of my other favorite books told personal stories or presented perspectives foreign to me.

Without further ado, the list:

  1. Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman. The only book on this list that was a repeat (from several years ago), it’s in my opinion one of the most important books for someone to read. The core idea is that human thinking is full of predictable and exploitable mistakes. Though no one can avoid these mistakes, one can recognize and correct them before they propagate to words or decisions. The Nobel prize winning economist explains many such mistakes and how they intersect with economic decision-making. Note: some of the studies mentioned in this book, especially around priming, were among the casualties of the field’s replication crisis. The core of the book and Kahneman and Tversky’s work in behavioral economics has held up, however. Read some of the gory details here.
  2. Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson. A ‘hard science fiction’ book in 3 parts that explores the aftermath (immediate, 2 years, 5000 years) of the moon mysteriously breaking up and setting up a 2 year clock on the destruction of all life on Earth. Great concept executed well, though the third part wasn’t as good as the first two.
  3. The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander.
  4. Weapons of Math Destruction, by Cathy O’Neil.
  5. Shoe Dog, by Phil Knight.
  6. Elon Musk, by Ashlee Vance.
  7. Rise of the Rocket Girls, by Nathalia Holt.
  8. Conspiracy of Fools: A True Story, by Kurt Eichenwald. An exhaustive history of Houston’s most infamous company, the book chronicles Enron’s rise, hubris, and fall. In the process, it tells chapters of lives of men now prominent for other reasons (UT’s Bill Powers, FBI’s Robert Mueller).
  9. What if?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, by Randall Munroe. Extremely fun read from the creator of XKCD (a fantastic web-comic that should be a part of everyone’s MWF morning routine). This book is a bound version of Monroe’s What If? web series, with a few new question/answers not available online. The title says it all: the book attempts to give serious scientific answers to absurd questions sent in by readers, with Monroe’s typical humor thrown in. My favorite questions and answers: What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90% the speed of light?, What happens if you drain the oceans with a circular portal with a radius of 10 meters? (and its counterpart — what if the other end of the portal was on Mars?), and What if you tried to collect the elements and organize them on an actual table? Turns out that most of the questions are just versions of, “Can I destroy the world by doing X?,” with the answer often, “Yes, but not in the way you expected.” The book, just like his comics, reveal Monroe’s insane breadth of scientific knowledge and creative thinking.
  10. Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande.
  11. Hillbilly Elegy, by JD Vance.
  12. Underground Airlines, by Ben H. Winters.
  13. A People’s History of the United States, by Howard Zinn.
  14. Wright Brothers, by David McCullough.
  15. Hamilton the Revolution, by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Annotations and stories behind the play I still hope to see. I listened to the play’s soundtrack on loop for a few days after reading this.
  16. The Gene: An Intimate History, by Siddhartha Mukherjee. A scientific and cultural history of genetics.
  17. Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama, by David Garrow. A thorough biography of my lifetime’s best president, this book documents the man’s strategic rise. Among its revelations is that he (allegedly, though the case is convincing) didn’t marry at least one non-black girlfriend because he thought it would destroy his political ambitions in Chicago. The author often revels too much in his own brilliance of uncovering things other biographers haven’t, but I wouldn’t characterize the biography as unfair. It also satisfied my inner political-gossip-loving self.
  18. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain. About the only thing I remember from this book is that it calls Harvard Business School “the Mecca of extroversion.”
  19. Bad Feminist: Essays, by Roxane Gay.
  20. Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things, by Jenny Lawson
  21. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin.
  22. Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built, by Duncan Clark. I've been given (rather correct) criticisms of my reading being extremely American and Western centric. My first foray into bridging that gap came with reading this book, about one of China's biggest technology companies and its enigmatic founder, Jack Ma. Ma came from far more humble beginnings than did the leaders of America's most iconic companies. As a schoolboy, he hung out around tourist sites, finding Western tourists and giving them free tours so as to practice his English. Taking to infamous Gaokao three times and always performing poorly in math, he never made it into a prestigious Chinese university and rather studied to be an English teacher at a regional college. Today, he is the founder and leader of Alibaba, the Chinese Amazon-Ebay-Yahoo-Pixar, and one of the world's richest people. This book is the story of how he did it. If you listen to any of Ma’s talks, the connections to Steve Jobs become impossible to miss: Ma is a forward looking, charismatic thinker who has a way with words (in both English and Chinese), someone who cares much more about the story and the customer experience than he does about the technical details. In fact, he rather humbly claims to know “nothing” about the internet, even as he led one of China's first websites and now leads one of the world's most profitable. His vision led him to recognize the Internet's potential in the 1990s when on a business trip in Seattle, and he created a Chinese portal akin to Yahoo when he returned. His business savvy helped him defeat eBay and Yahoo when each made large, expensive plays on the growing Chinese Internet market. His story-telling and connection to Chinese consumers helped him create a Chinese culture in which online retail is far more popular than physical stores, something that the US still has not reached. Catering to a Western audience, the book itself is a good introduction to business in modern China. The author takes his time explaining the major players (government, private business), the relevant business geography, and cultural differences.
  23. Code Warriors: NSA’s Codebreakers and the Secret Intelligence War Against the Soviet Union, by Stephen Budiansky. If I’m being honest, I’ll say I don’t remember reading this book or anything about it. If I’m not being honest, I’ll say I remember this book as somewhere between the previous one and the next one in terms of overall quality. If only I resolved to write about each book after I finished it…
  24. Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, by Daron Acemoglu. A decent book with a single idea (that both political institutions and economic institutions matter) made repetitively across numerous case studies.
  25. Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, by Irin Carmon,‎ Shana Knizhnik.
  26. Scrappy Little Nobody, by Anna Kendrick.
  27. Return of the King: LeBron James, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Greatest Comeback in NBA History, by Brian Windhorst,‎ Dave McMenamin. LeBron’s my favorite athlete (I’m already counting down to when he joins the Rockets next season), and I was looking forward to reading this book quite a bit. However, I’m not sure it told me anything interesting I didn’t already know by following the NBA for the past few years.
  28. The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry by Jon Ronson.
  29. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Harari.
  30. The Sellout: A Novel, by Paul Beatty.
  31. Algorithms to Live By, by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths.
  32. The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters, by Thomas M. Nichols. An important topic that wasn’t given total justice by the book. I think the book didn’t give a convincing picture of why expertise is so mistrusted nowadays, which admittingly is a hard task.
  33. Undoing Project, by Michael Lewis.
  34. Moonwalking with Einstein, by Joshua Foer.
  35. The Kingdom of Speech, by Tom Wolfe. Says little more than, (paraphrased) ‘Noam Chomsky defined several generations of linguistics research. However, it turns out not only that he was wrong but also that he was arrogant about it and hostile to opposing viewpoints.’ As someone with no linguistics training or familiarity with modern research in the field, I have no idea how to evaluate the book’s claims. Not sure the book provides much value besides as something to link to when critiquing Chomsky’s intellectual credentials.
  36. Thinking, ed. John Brockman.
  37. What should we be worried about, ed. John Brockman.
  38. The Tycoons: How Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Jay Gould, and J. P. Morgan Invented the American Supereconomy, by Charles R. Morris. Probably ranked so low because I had such high expectations for it (based on little more than the title).
  39. Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity, by Douglas Rushkoff. Another vitally important topic done grave injustice. I broadly agree with the thesis (platforms and companies such as Amazon/Uber/Facebook/Google have too much wealth and power), but the book doesn’t make the case, and little it says is unique to tech. Its specific charge — that these companies care about growing/gaining power/raising share prices over anything else — isn’t accompanied with any more insight than repeating the phrase “capitalism bad” 1000 times (and I think that’s an OK charge to make, as long as one actually makes it over preaching to those who like such mindless repetition). I hope other books make this case in more convincing ways. I’m especially looking forward to reading Frank Foer’s World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech, which focuses on the speech and power aspect rather than wealth inequality. I recently had a chance to attend a talk by Foer at Stanford, and I think he understands the specific issues at play here.

*Methodology: I keep a running ranking of books as I read them, inserting new books into the order as I go. It’s not a perfect system by any means, but better than others I can think of. A numerical rating score is too prone to rating drift and inflation.

Note: This list isn’t particularly diverse, and I’m not proud of that fact. It also has more duds than I was hoping. Please send me book recommendations so I can do better on both counts next year.

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