Books Read in the First Half of 2019

As a reference, my grading scale is (without any one or two star books this time):

Three Stars: Recommended, may cover too niche a topic to get a stronger recommendation for a broad audience, is only high-level coverage of its theme, or just moderately interesting fiction.

Four Stars: Recommended, well-written, and covers material I think most people would find useful or interesting.

Five Stars: Strongly recommended to everyone.

Additionally, I pick one book every six months as the “best book I’ve read” during that time period.

Themes from these six months:

  • Chuck Klosterman: I’ve completed the Chuck Klosterman collection, including his two novels.
  • Alan Lightman: A physicist-novelist recommended by my good friend Ritoban Thakur has a unique voice which bridges spirituality with science.
  • Technology Company Growth and Management
  • Stripe Press: A new publishing company with the goal of advancing economic and technological ideas also puts great care into their uniquely designed and high quality physical book covers.

Three Stars (Recommended)

Sales Engagement: How the World’s Fastest-Growing Companies are Modernizing Sales Through Humanization at Scale by Manny Medina, Max Altschuler, Mark Kosoglow:

Definitely better than Max Altschuler’s growth hacking because it focuses on tactics over tools. It’s still a not-subtle promotional book to sell their sales tool Outreach. To be fair, it does pretty comprehensively cover modern sales automation challenges and opportunities, so someone who hasn’t done sales beforehand would probably get some value out of this.

Let’s Go (So We Can Go Back): A Memoir of Recording and Discord by Jeff Tweedy (Audiobook):

My favorite childhood teacher got me this as part of an audiobook swap. I had never heard of the band Wilco before. For being a professional singer, Tweedy’s reading of his own biography started off flat until he seemed to audibly ease into it.

He’s got some reflective moments that I haven’t heard enough artists talk about, particularly that later in life he felt maybe he could’ve contributed more to the world, maybe become a scientist, if he had a different upbringing or gone to different schools as a kid. That’s the kind of thing I think non-artists suspect but don’t hear very often.

My favorite segments were near the end when both his wife and son get to read their own chapters about living with a rock-star (and all the drug abuse that comes with it). This audiobook was recorded in Chicago and for that it wins extra brownie points.

Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story by Chuck Klosterman

Killing Yourself to Live tells two stories: A request by his editor at Spin magazine sends Chuck on a road trip in a rented Ford Taurus to places around the country where rock musicians have died (sometimes by their choosing and mostly not) presumably as a way to help readers understand life. Layered on top of this premise is Chuck recounting his love for three women in his life who don’t exactly love him back.

It seems to be divisive among reviewers, depending on which of the two topics (rock ‘n roll or nostalgia for old romance) you care more about. The haters find this book to be a lot of white-dork navel-gazing, and I can’t say they’re wrong. I do wish it had more music history in it myself, although I still learned a fair amount about how many musicians have died in plane crashes and Seattle. I think a lot of those critics aren’t acknowledging a truth: a lot of guys in their late 20s and early 30s (possibly beyond) are probably nostalgic for the women who, five to ten years earlier, got away (probably with good reason). In this regard, Klosterman acknowledges his own narcissism.

If you only want the death-and-music story, there’s his original Spin Magazine story “6,557 Miles to Nowhere”.

Eating the Dinosaur by Chuck Klosterman

The title is probably too obtuse too grab the casual reader (it’s loosely about the idea that time machines are too dangerous for anything more than finding out how dinosaur meat tastes).

However, the theme of this 2009 book is as important as ever. Klosterman himself describes the book as being about “What is reality, maybe? No, that’s not it. Not exactly. I get the sense that most of the core questions dwell on the way media perception constructs a fake reality that ends up becoming more meaningful than whatever actually happened.”

He uses the lenses of Lady Gaga’s award show outfits, the popularity of Mad Men, and the Unabomber’s anti-technology manifesto to view the construction of false realities from a myriad of perspectives. In the decade since this book was first published, this “fake reality” has grown. And it’s not clear if Chuck sees this as a “problem” per se. But it’s certainly the new normal, either for the time being or forever.

Four Stars (Highly recommended for those interested in topic, or generally recommended for anyone)

The Making of a Manager: What to do When Everyone Looks to You by Julie Zhuo

Written by a design director with a decade of experience at Facebook, Making of a Manager provides good comprehensive coverage of management. Filled with examples from her experience, Zhuo discusses delegation, running meetings, and other topics core to the role of “manager”. I strongly agree with her throughline idea of applying the “growth mindset” to her team and surrounding organization. A lot of the material might feel obvious or common-sensical to anyone who has held a management role or put thought into the challenges of the role before. Even in those cases, this is a good book to keep on the shelf as a reference to revisit and make sure your own broader managerial bases are covered in case you are drowned in your day-to-day.

High Growth Handbook: Scaling Startups from 10 to 10,000 People by Elad Gil

Entrepreneur Elad Gil interviewed some of the technology and investment communities sharpest minds to compile this guide to growing a business. Chapters switch between the condensed interviews with experts on each topic with Elad’s own experience. Well-structured by concepts makes it useful for future reference.

Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural Nörth Daköta by Chuck Klosterman

This was Klosterman’s first book, published at the turn of the century, and originally intended as an academic textbook on the history of 80s rock music, specifically heavy metal and hair/glam rock. I’m admittedly biased to liking this book; despite being a generation younger than Chuck, I also grew up on this music, heavily influenced by the music of my mom’s youth.

So as a self-identifying fan of glam-metal (Bon Jovi, Cheap Trick, Motley Crue to name a few), Klosterman does a tremendous job contemplating all the things I love and find fascinating about the genre. Many of the chapters are akin to the debates that high schoolers have about music (I mean this in a good way, as the book’s tone reminds me of youthful energy), including, but not limited to:

  • What’s the difference between “heavy” and “hard” rock?
  • Who is the greatest rock guitarist of all time (and is the typical answer of Jimi Hendrix the correct one)?
  • Does the sexism of 80s rock, with its Cherry Pie music videos and groupie culture, say more about the artists or the rest of American culture?
  • What are the greatest rock albums of the era?

In the end though, Klosterman concludes with the most important reason this book needed to exist and why I’m nostalgic for this material: For a generation of American kids, this was an artform that influenced them and briefly dominated American culture. That time should not be forgotten.

Downtown Owl: A Novel by Chuck Klosterman

Downtown Owl tells the story of the small, fictional North Dakota town Owl, not dissimilar from where Klosterman grew up. Clearly his youth informs his characters. The narrative is told in third-person, but follows three protagonists: an angsty teen who semi-subconsciously wants to escape his small town life, a twenty-something woman with the opposite experience of moving to Owl from the big city to start her teaching career, and an elderly man who has lived his life in a place where everybody knows your name. All three leads, and the surrounding supporting cast, are intimately developed, probably because Klosterman grew up around these archetypes.

More than just sharing the lives of these characters, Klosterman uses them as a vessel for understanding humanity. And this is what Klosterman excels at and has built his career. A lot of intellectuals and pseudo-philosophers take an Ivory Tower approach to thinking about people as aggregate abstractions. Klosterman understands individuals in all their strengths and weaknesses. And that’s how you begin to understand everybody.

An Elegant Puzzle: Systems of Engineering Management by Will Larson

Larson’s experienced a lot in his career across many popular software companies: Yahoo, Digg, Uber, Stripe. His essay collection on managing engineering teams covers so many important, under-analyzed professional issues I’ve encountered in my own career, particularly managing employees of different skill levels and thinking in trade-offs. The book is designed to sit on your desk for reference with its concise, topic-oriented articles.

Trillion Dollar Coach: The Leadership Playbook of Silicon Valley’s Bill Campbell by Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg, and Alan Eagle

Bill Campbell is perhaps, alongside Andy Grove and Ron Conway, as the most important behind-the-scenes person in Silicon Valley history. Having recently passed, his proteges from the Google executive team have written a biography of Campbell’s life (including his former career as a high school football coach before becoming an executive coach) intertwined with stories from other noteworthy tech people (such as Steve Jobs and the Google founders) about how Bill changed their lives. It’s a book filled with love, admiration, and advice, and the kind of book we’d all probably wish someone would write about us once we’re gone.

Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine by Alan Lightman

Lightman has had a unique career as the first professor at MIT to hold a joint position in both the physics and humanities departments at MIT. Searching for Stars merges both of his worlds into a memoir. From his small island off the coast of Maine, this is the story of one thinker’s attempt to reconcile science, religion, and philosophy in his own mind and on the page. He does this by interpreting past prolific thinkers and tracing the history of human thought. This is a great, thoughtful vacation read.

The Visible Man – A Novel by Chuck Klosterman

What would you do if you had invisibility? Probably not exactly what the villain “Y” does in Klosterman’s second novel. But maybe not as differently as you’d think. The Visible Man is the most horrifying story I’ve read since Lolita, and not as long.

A scientist only known to us as “Y” creates an invisibility suit out of the leftovers of an abandoned government project. The story is told by his therapist, who slowly realizes the implications of an invisible person’s capabilities. Most dangerously, the invisible person can know everything about you. Take the way Hannibal Lecter knows everything about Clarice’s life and personality just based on interacting with her, then remove the need for interaction. The story is a unique cross between The Sopranos and Silence of the Lambs. In a classically Klosterman way, it creates more questions, but the implications here are darker.

Five Stars (Highly Recommend to Everyone)

Born a Crime: Stories of a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

Trevor Noah is, other than Dave Chappelle, my favorite comedian working today. Like Chappelle, his mix of wit, wisdom, and life experience gives him a searing insight into humanity. His insight that the language people speak creates more racism than skin color was uniquely educational. Where his stories are different from the typical middle-American life, other are more relatable. Specifically, his retelling of his mother’s relationships with different types of men, some absent and some psychopathically abusive, are universal.

Losing the Nobel Prize: A Story of Cosmology, Ambition, and the Perils of Science’s Highest Honor by Brian Keating

“Another year, another story for humanity” wrote physicist and friend Ritoban Thakur on the Amazon note he paired with this gifted book. Author and cosmologist Keating has written an important memoir on his time in modern academic physics. He explains the history of his research niche (the big bang and cosmic microwave background radiation) while telling his tale of the drama and politics of navigating the science-academia complex. Interspersed throughout the book are three interstitial teardowns of the modern Nobel Prize in Physics: it’s discouragement of collaborative groups, it’s lack of credit sharing across all the grad students and post-docs who contribute to major discoveries, and it’s negatively influential fame and cash incentives. Keating writes with clarity and humor in this teardown of culture’s arguably most famous prize.

Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals by Tyler Cowen

After listening to Cowen for years as a guest on EconTalk and reading his books before it was cool, it’s been fascinating watching him rise in popularity the past couple years as a sort of economist-to-the-technologists. I say this as a compliment, as he deserves all the recognition he’s now receiving.

Stubborn Attachments is Cowen’s collection of loosely related ideas on how humanity should live, framed in the language of economics and philosophy. He presents many ideas that resonated with me and I suspect they would with most smart people: society shouldn’t be discounting the value of humanity’s future as much as it does, there’s more to value than what we currently measure, and we need better frameworks for being able to make any decisions at all under uncertainty. Better yet, he provides his own starting points for solutions to all of these issues. It is the economics book I wish I’d written.

Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science by Carey Gillam

I love a great corporate whistleblower story and this may be the biggest of modern times. Some people have vaguely heard about the company Monsanto and of genetically-modified foods. While this book is not a comprehensive cover of the GMO debate, it may be the best argument against GMOs.

Journalist Carey Gillam uncovers how agriculture technology behemoth Monsanto poisoned the international supply with its bug-killer “Roundup” chemical (scientifically known as glyphosate). The story exploded in the press a couple years ago as farmers who had been in close, consistent contact with the pesticide started developing similar, quickly-moving lethal cancers. Multiple families have successfully sued Monsanto, winning large financial settlements but leaving children without parents.

Gillam digs deeper into how these deaths were allowed to happen and unveils deep corruption at the Environmental Protection Agency, highlighting multiple regulators who had been paid off by Monsanto in the ugliest form of regulatory capture by a corporation. Both the government and company used fraudulent science and the firing of real critical scientists to protect Monsanto’s profitability. Anyone captivated by recent fraud stories such as the Fyre Festival or Theranos will be enthralled by this story. While it’s more technically complex, the stakes are higher as Monsanto and the EPA clearly killed Americans.

Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries by Safi Bahcall

One of the hardest problems for any organization is resolving the tension between creating the “next big idea” and not destroying itself in the process. It’s the kind of problem that I’ve put a lot of thought into but never formalized a solution. Bahcall has done it here. This is the kind of book where I think “he’s articulated my own thoughts better than I could have” on every page.

Without going into the details, Bahcall has created a model for structuring organizations so they can walk the fine line between innovation and sustainability. He explains how he’s come to his conclusions based on historical examples (the history of the American airline industry, Vannevar Bush’s influence on scientific research, and how England quickly surpassed China during the Industrial Revolution, to give a few samples) and by bringing his background in natural sciences to the field of management. This is one of the best books I’ve read for bringing together multiple fields of thought into a cohesive theory tackling one of the toughest problems in people management.

The Best Book I Read in the First Half of 2019

Einstein’s Dreams: A Novel by Alan Lightman

Not exactly a novel, not exactly a collection of essays; Einstein’s Dreams is a unique combination of both. This is a fictional recollection of Einstein’s life during his “miracle year”, with chapters alternating between Einstein discussing his new physics with friends over coffee and his dreams at night.

It’s these dream sequences that make this book memorable. Each dream is a short story of an alternate reality where humanity has a different relationship to time. How would people behave differently if our lives were longer? Were shorter? Were frozen in time? Were based on how much you loved those around you? These original physicist-turned–writer insights are half of the appeal, with the other half being Lightman’s remarkably poetic prose.

It is the ideal coffee shop people-watching book as it will make you think differently about everyone you see.

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