The Common Threads Year in Books

My wife has yelled at me for years for the pile of unread books on my nightstand. But reading more still makes it onto my annual “do more” list. So I asked a handful of leaders for their favorite books from 2017 to help keep us all moving as we start 2018.

Here’s what they said.

  • Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi. “A multi-generational account of the slave trade and its consequences on Africans and African Americans, that illustrates how the present state of struggle and suffering experienced by many African-Americans is directly tied to the undoing of self, family, and community during slavery and Jim Crow. Without saying so it makes a case not only for compassion but for reparations. And yet it’s just a novel, asking us to do nothing but read it, feel, and weep.” — Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of Real American: A Memoir and How to Raise and Adult.
  • Signal and the Noise, by Nate Silver. “In a year marked by events many thought impossible, Nate Silver’s book on predicting future events seems entirely appropriate and useful. We live in a world where we like to extrapolate based on previous data, but the reality of the world is that it’s more chaotic than we give it credit for and we’ve yet to fully internalize this fact.” — Kevin Systrom, CEO and co-founder, Instagram.
  • Let my People go Surfing, by Yvon Chouinard. “An oldie but a goodie. Why did I like it? Perspective.” — Mark Gainey, Chairman and co-founder, Strava.
  • Creativity, Inc., by Ed Catmull. “Ed’s story and lessons learned about starting and leading Pixar make this my favorite leadership book, period.” — Dick Costolo, co-founder and CEO, Chorus.
  • Reading with Patrick, by Michelle Kuo. “This book imbues readers with the devotion of one teacher to one student, casting the challenges of our criminal justice and education system into deeply personal and thoughtfully nuanced terms. These days it can feel like so much is in flux and out of our control, but Michelle’s experience reminds me that at the end of the day, we choose what and who we care about.” — Sandra Liu Huang, head of product and engineering, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.
  • Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi. “The story winds through 300 years of history — starting on the Gold Coast of Ghana where humans are being sold as cargo. From there, it travels across the Atlantic, through the cotton fields of Mississippi, into the coal mines of Alabama, and around the port of Baltimore and the jazz clubs of Harlem. Each chapter is a part of a history of race in America that we may want to forget, but that we can’t. Turning the last page was difficult — not just because the story was over, but because the chapter that we are currently living in is so deeply imperfect. This book will stay with me for a long time, and it will remind me that it’s on each one of us to change the plot line of our time.” — Marne Levine, COO, Instagram.
  • Vanity Fair Diaries, by Tina Brown. “Because she throws everyone under the bus elegantly.” — Kara Swisher, executive editor, Recode.

Bill Gates came out with his annual list. Here’s his top 5 from December:

  • The Best We Could Do, by Thi Bui. This gorgeous graphic novel is a deeply personal memoir that explores what it means to be a parent and a refugee. The author’s family fled Vietnam in 1978. After giving birth to her own child, she decides to learn more about her parents’ experiences growing up in a country torn apart by foreign occupiers.
  • Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond. If you want a good understanding of how the issues that cause poverty are intertwined, you should read this book about the eviction crisis in Milwaukee. Desmond has written a brilliant portrait of Americans living in poverty. He gave me a better sense of what it is like to be poor in this country than anything else I have read.
  • Believe Me: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Jazz Chickens, by Eddie Izzard. Izzard’s personal story is fascinating: he survived a difficult childhood and worked relentlessly to overcome his lack of natural talent and become an international star. If you’re a huge fan of him like I am, you’ll love this book. His written voice is very similar to his stage voice, and I found myself laughing out loud several times while reading it.
  • The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen. Most of the books I’ve read and movies I’ve seen about the Vietnam War focused on the American perspective. Nguyen’s award-winning novel offers much-needed insight into what it was like to be Vietnamese and caught between both sides. Despite how dark it is, The Sympathizer is a gripping story about a double agent and the trouble he gets himself into.
  • Energy and Civilization: A History, by Vaclav Smil. Smil is one of my favorite authors, and this is his masterpiece. He lays out how our need for energy has shaped human history — from the era of donkey-powered mills to today’s quest for renewable energy. It’s not the easiest book to read, but at the end you’ll feel smarter and better informed about how energy innovation alters the course of civilizations.

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and author of Lean-In and Option B, named her all-time favorite book in an August 2017 Facebook post.

  • A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle. Meg Murry was one of the first female heroes in child science fiction. She was a believer — and triumphed due to perseverance and determination. She was able to build relationships with one unlikely character after another — and brought all of them together with love.

My two favorites from 2017:

  • Shoe Dog, by Phil Knight. Nike’s founder takes you inside the makings of one of the most iconic brands of the past hundred years. You feel like you’re sitting alongside the founding team through the intense ups and downs of their early years. You don’t have to have any interest in business to love this book.
  • Real American: A Memoir, by Julie Lythcott-Haims. You go on an almost poetic journey through the stages of Julie’s life. It’s a story about self-discovery, perseverance and acceptance, where Julie boldly uses her life story to put you in the shoes of what life is like as “the other.” I’ve rarely seen someone build empathy and understanding around topics like race in the way Julie does through her vivid personal accounts, struggles and triumphs.

Originally published at Common Threads Media.

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