What I’ve Been Reading in 2015

This post is as much selfish as it is altruistic. Some of the books listed in this post changed my life this year, and I’d love to share with you the insights I gained. But it is equally an exercise to help me recall and comprehend what I learned.

To think you understand something is one thing. To truly do so quite another. Anyone who has ever tried to teach something to another person knows this, and something similar occurs while writing; it’s easy to trick your own mind into believing you totally understand a concept, but only when you try to put those thoughts to paper will you know for sure whether you really got it.

Before we start that process by summarizing some of the best books I came across in 2015, let me first briefly explain how I approach reading, and in particular how I determine what to read.

Deciding what to read

There are three leading “rules” for which book I pick up next:

  1. I can only read one nonfiction and one fiction book simultaneously.
  2. If there is a specific problem I’m facing in my work or life, books around a topic that might solve that issue get priority over anything else.
  3. If there’s no specific topic I’m interested in at the moment of picking a new book, I’ll go over my books tickler file in Evernote and pick a title from there.

What has become especially clear to me in this past year, is that reading is akin to traveling in at least one regard: the more you travel, the more you realize you will never be able to see it all. A similar thing goes on while reading.

Few (good) writers arrive at their ideas in complete isolation. Each at least starts off from existing ideas from other authors, scientists, philosophers and so on. With every book I read, I run into at least two or three other books being quoted I might be interested in. This is why my tickler file is growing exponentially the more I read, and I have to accept I’ll never be able to read it all, meaning proper selection of what to pick next becomes even more important.

Once I’ve pre-selected a few books, I go through the Table of Contents (a strategy I learned from Farnam Street Blog). This gives me a good sense about which of those is the right book for me at this moment. In addition, these days, I increasingly use Amazon’s Send a free sample option, so I can read the first chapter(s) on my Kindle, before committing to the full book.

More info on how I read here.

Honorable mentions

Let’s start with some non-book reading sources that were on high rotation for me this year:

  • Wait But Why: this blog has been one of my best reading discoveries this year (I know, I’m late to the party; judging by Facebook likes, at least 150,000 other people discovered this before me). I especially enjoyed the articles on Artificial Intelligence, The Fermi Paradox, and part 1 and 2 of the Elon Musk Series.
  • News and current affairs: I’ve stuck to a strict current events news diet, with only the weekly edition of The Economist and whatever I see via other (social) channels to keep me up-to-date.
  • Newsletters: other regular sources I enjoy are the email newsletters of Farnam Street Blog, Aeon, The New Yorker, as well as the curated list I get from Pocket every week (even though I don’t use Pocket…).

My Five of 2015

You’ll find the entire list of everything I read this year at the end of this article, but I’ve picked out and summarized the “five” books that did the most for me this year.

5. The latecomers: Destiny Disrupted, The Impulse Society and Mastery
I’m reluctant to add books I’ve read in the past few weeks; they’re still so fresh in my mind, I’m probably giving them more weight than those from earlier in the year. Nevertheless, I happen to have read three amazing books in the last weeks of 2015, therefore I’m giving these three a shared fifth spot on this list.

Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes

It’s easy to call someone “evil,” “the enemy” or “terrorist” and leave it at that. Hardly ever can a situation be explained in such black and white terms, and trying to judge the world by today’s headlines is like interpreting a movie based on only one scene; there is much more to the story.

I was already aware the history of the world doesn’t match up with what I was taught during my Western (Dutch) education; I knew the West had played a role in “messing up” the Middle-East over the past centuries. Seeing it all laid out chronologically in one place in this book, along with much additional stuff I had no clue about, this title was both an eye-opener as well as a source of deep shame for being Dutch, European, “Western.”

If you’re truly interested in what’s currently happening in the world, and especially if you want to have an informed opinion on current events, this book should be required reading. Added bonus: it reads extremely well and is funny at the right moments too.

The Impulse Society
Author Paul Roberts does the impossible: he combines all the current problems American individuals, society and politics face, dissects them, provides possible solutions and does it all in a compelling and relatively easy to read narrative.

This title is definitely not for everyone. It’s heavy on politics, economics and sociology. For me, it was almost a perfect read as it touches on so many topics I’m interested in; why we’re driven to distraction and over-consumption. How American politics has come to such a gridlock. Why inequality is rising to extreme levels in an advanced society such as the USA. Why corporations and their CEOs are driven to extreme greed and shortism. Why most of us don’t seem to care, or at least not take any action, while all of this is happening in front of our eyes. And, perhaps most importantly, why it’s all interrelated.

I’m not well-versed enough in any of these topics to judge how accurate and realistic the assessment and proposed solutions are. But either way, it’s a fascinating read that gets your brain fired up to look at the workings of modern day (American) society with different eyes.

Mastery
While another book by the same author will feature prominently on this list later on, I feel compelled to add this one too. Perhaps it’s because I’m a sucker for his writing style; deeply researched stories with compelling and inspirational personalities from both classic times and the modern day. Or perhaps it’s the clear structure and grand, venerable tone of voice. Whatever it is, I find Robert Greene’s books fascinating and impossible to put down.

While his other title on this list dissects the inner workings of power mechanisms and social relations, Mastery is a handbook for finding your life’s calling and becoming a Master at it. While the book approaches this in clear steps and guidelines for what to do, it’s by no means a typical self-improvement book. Everything is backed up with inspirational and colorful stories, providing a backdrop of timeless examples to make his points.

A lot of what Greene says isn’t backed up with facts and figures, but supported by anecdotal evidence and personal stories. Of course not everything in life can be explained away by science and math, and, like when learning from a true Master, sometimes you should just heed his advice and not question why.

4. Remember Me This Way
A novel. Different in that regard from all the other titles on this list. Sometimes one needs to relax the mind and read a good story, especially before going to sleep.

Remember Me This Way is one of those books with two separate storylines, running on different timescales, but clearly interrelated and slowly catching up with each other. This brings a feeling of curiosity, excitement and an unstoppable drumbeat rising to a grand climax. In other words; it’s impossible to put down.

It’s about love, murder, madness, lust and unsolved mysteries, themes that have been explored by others so many times before. But this story grabs you, it sucks you into the characters’ heads and you will surely go to sleep later than planned at least a few times when this is the book on your bedside table.

3. Meditations
This book, by the former Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, is one of the classics of Stoicism. Written as a personal diary, it provides amazing insights into the pondering and motivations of a man in such a position in ancient times.

The reason his book is still around today is because of the timelessness of his thoughts. In fact, his ideas might be more relevant than ever; Aurelius teaches us to live in the moment, not seek applause, and to accept whatever happens to us (amor fati). He suggests to learn to control your emotions and your own thoughts. That most of our troubles come from unnecessary qualifications and opinions we attach to events that happen to us.

If you’re new to Stoicism, Ryan Holiday’s The Obstacle is The Way (one of my favorite books of 2014) is perhaps a better and easier starting point. If that one sizzles your bacon, Meditations is a great follow-up to hear things from the horse’s mouth.

2. Reinventing Organizations
You might not have heard of Teal, but you probably have heard of Holacracy. It’s a self-management framework (or “operating system”) for organizations, which truly allows individual employees to make their own decisions by taking most power away from the middle and top management layers.

This book explains the principles of Teal, a new organizational paradigm on which Holacracy is based. It’s therefore possible to implement Teal, without having to implement Holacracy. The premise of the book is that modern day, hierarchical organizations face two main problems:

  1. Not agile: the top down model is not well-suited to quickly adapt to changing environments. In the current (business) environment, being able to adapt to changes is more important than ever.
  2. Illusion of control: most of the traditional structure of organizations is meant to give a feeling of control (to the top), but this is mostly an illusion (or at the very least the advantages don’t outweigh the disadvantages in the modern day context).

Because of the these issues, and the way traditional management methodologies try to solve them, all sense of purpose and pleasure is sucked out of work for almost everyone involved in such an organization, especially as it grows bigger.

While this book doesn’t provide a clear and readymade framework for running your organization (that’s what Holacracy attempts to do, for example), it is the source of the Teal movement, the underlying philosophy, if you will. And since this is still such a new model, starting off by understanding the core ideas is probably more important than immediately choosing for a specific system. There is still plenty of room and time for other pioneers to define their own ways of implementing and running Teal in their organizations; maybe you will be one of them?

1. The 48 Laws of Power
Once I finished this book, I swore to myself I wouldn’t tell anyone I read it. But I couldn’t compile this list and look at myself in the mirror with a straight face without putting this book at number one.

This work will corrupt your mind and soul. It’s a clear case of innocence lost: once you enter here there is no way back. It’s deceptive, brutal, perhaps even evil, but also deeply fascinating, all at the same time. This book describes in honest detail how much of the world works, whether it’s in business, politics or the game of seduction.

While some of the laws described were intuitively already known in my subconscious, having it all spelled out and described so extensively filled in all the pieces of the puzzle of power games and strategy for me.

There’s no point to go into any of the laws in detail here; what it comes down to is that you will either eat or be eaten. You play the game or you get played. This is not how I viewed the world before reading this book, and by no means have I become a ruthless asshole (I hope!). But once you’ve read this title, you realize you can’t walk around naively, expecting nobody else is operating according to the Laws of Power.

Once you’ve read this book, you’ll fear anyone who is familiar with this work, which is why I didn’t want to put it on this list in the first place… beware!

The Full Monty

Those titles did the most for me in the past year. But there were many more great reads, below an overview with a one sentence recommendation for each (or not).

Business (management, strategy, productivity)

  • Good Strategy/Bad Strategy - Good read on the fundamentals of strategy; especially good if you happen to be writing a business plan at the time…
  • Holacracy - Useful if you’re considering implementing Holacracy, else read Reinventing Organizations first.
  • Manage your day-to-day - If you like articles from a variety of authors bundled as a book and you want to learn more about creativity and productivity, then this is a suitable title for you to pick up.
  • Problem Solving 101 - A handful of cute ideas on solving basic problems, but generally not worth the read in my opinion.
  • Reinventing Organizations - See my top five earlier in this article.
  • Remote: Office Not Required - Really basic book on remote working, for those who are not familiar with the concept at all and might need to convince a boss or themselves of the benefits.
  • Simple Rules: How to Thrive in a Complex World - The same could have probably been told with less, but generally a good read that gets you thinking on how to simplify things.
  • The Hard Thing About Hard Things - Great insights into what a mindf*ck it can be to be a boss, though a bit too much on the macho, hard-driving leadership-style side for me.
  • The Laws of Subtraction - The concept is nice, but the book is mainly a collection of other people’s thoughts and ideas; didn’t find it worth the read.
  • Thinking Strategically - Great, sometimes slightly complicated, read on game theory, with clear examples and applicable insights for business and life in general.

Business (product & marketing)

Future and technology

  • A Deadly Wandering - Great and touching story of the power of distraction by technology (read my full review here) .
  • Superintelligence - This is a highly interesting dive into the philosophical and ethical implications of the artificial creation of superintelligence; very complex at points and definitely not for everyone, but if you’re very interested in AI, you can definitely not skip this title.
  • The Second Machine Age - Another artificial intelligence title, this one more focused on the potential effects of AI on society and the workplace, and how you might cope with these coming changes.

Philosophy and the mind

  • Meditations - See my top five earlier in this article.
  • The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking - Inspirational read with lots of interesting suggestions and ideas you can apply to problem solving and life in general.
  • The 48 Laws of Power - See my top five earlier in this article.
  • The Obstacle is The Way (second time) - This book introduced me to Stoicism and is one of the most motivational books I’ve come across so far (more background in my blog post Calm Your Mind and Overcome Almost Any Challenge) .
  • The Organized Mind - Not an easy read, but required for anyone interested in the working of the brain and its relation to information (incoming data, if you will) .
  • The Rise of Superman - Brilliant combination of awe-inspiring stories of outdoor sports heroes and the relation of flow to their performance and achievements.
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow - The insights from this book are extremely valuable, but it’s incredibly hard to get through; I’m about two-thirds of the way there, have again put it aside, and am plotting an attempt on the last third in 2016.
  • Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind - If you want to bring a Zen Master into your house without physically doing so, this book is the solution; I tend to read one chapter of this before I start meditating, which puts me in an excellent and relaxed mood to get going.

History and biographies

  • Becoming Steve Jobs - Lots has been written about mr. Jobs, and I’ve read most of it; this book provides a refreshing and thoughtful perspective from a journalist who followed Jobs closely over several decades.
  • Destiny Disrupted - See my top five earlier in this article.
  • Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes - Fascinating read about the Pirahã people, who live deep inside the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, by an American linguist who spent decades living amongst them.
  • Kissinger - This was intriguing and shocking at the same time; a rare glimpse into the inner workings of the highest realms of modern (political) power.

Fiction

  • A Sport and a Pastime - I would lie if I said I completely comprehended and enjoyed this book, but it was an interesting read nevertheless; sex, jealousy, travel, passion, psychology would be the keywords to sum it up.
  • Ajax Penumbra 1969 - Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore was definitely one of my favorite fiction reads of 2014; this short story by the same author is prequel to that book and a fun read.
  • Caleb - Excellent novel about an American plantation owner and his slave Caleb, set in the Civil War in the USA.
  • Confession of the Lioness - One of the many Economist book recommendations I followed but didn’t enjoy too much; put this book down about halfway through.
  • Everything I Never Told You - Intriguing family drama revolving around death, adultery, a search for meaning, alienation, race and jealousy.
  • Gone Girl - Great read, with a similar structure to Everything I Never Told You (see above); we switch between husband’s and wife’s perspective, slowly learning whether or not he killed his wife.
  • Influx - Entertaining sci-fi read about a revolutionary scientist and the secret plot by the government to slow down and obstruct all scientific progress on earth.
  • Less Than Zero — While I loved Glamorama when I read it many, many years ago, this book by Bret Easton Ellis didn’t do it for me; it is a good account of the superficiality of the lives of rich and spoiled kids in LA in the 80s, but then that’s also exactly the problem, it’s all rather superficial and boring.
  • Nexus (The Nexus Trilogy Book 1) - Pretty entertaining sci-fi read on a neuro-enhancing drug and a young scientist’s involvement in it and subsequent adventures.
  • Red Rising Trilogy, part 1 - While the quality of the writing was mediocre, the storyline of a human elite who enjoy playing wicked war games on Mars, until things spiral out of control because of a lower class imposter.
  • Remember Me This Way - See my top five earlier in this article.
  • Speak - Intriguing novel jumping across different time eras to show the story of Artificial Intelligence and where it might be headed.
  • The Sunday Philosophy Club - Psychological thriller that kept me reading along and slowly builds up the tension, though never entirely climaxes, but a good read nevertheless.
  • The Widow’s Husband - This novel, from the same author as Destiny Disrupted listed above in my top five list, takes us back to village life in Afghanistan in the 1800s and the clash of cultures occurring between the locals and colonial British forces.
  • We Were Liars - A seemingly perfect and very wealthy family turns out not to be so perfect after all, a story cleverly woven around a crucial missing memory to continuously build up tension.

That’s it, my entire list of reads in 2015. If you enjoyed it, or if you have any reading tips for me, please hit recommend and share your favorite books!


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