Books Read in the Second Half of 2019

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

Two Stars: Not recommended, except for those very interested in the subject.

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:

  • “Gig Economy” and Temporary Work: Since I’ve started working at Y Combinator alum Bluecrew moving industrial temp staffing to a tech platform, I’ve dived into the industry’s literature.
  • Accounting: Brushing up my knowledge on the field in which I’ve occasionally worked.
  • The Legal System: Between the current state of our politics and an increase in my own experiences with lawyers over the past year, both personally and professionally, I’ve got multiple books which cover how our legal system works.
  • Japanese Culture: Three books spent time covering Japan, two for a couple chapters and one entirely.
  • Books from Mad Men: The show is my favorite drama and features multiple books from the shows time period. I’ve now read a couple of them.

Two Stars (Not Recommended)

A Warning by Anonymous, A Senior Trump Administration Official

All the President’s Men this is not. Allegedly written by a member of the Trump administration, this insider account doesn’t really say anything new. The main news that came from Anonymous’s leaks was the idea of the “Steady State”, those in Trump’s team who stayed to work in the White House because they felt the world would be better with them filtering Trump than if they weren’t there. But, you know, anyone paying attention would’ve guessed this was happening. It’s short, but only worth reading if you can’t help your addiction to Trump stories.

Three Stars (Recommended)

Meditations in an Emergency by Frank O’Hara

“I am quietly waiting for the catastrophe of my personality to seem beautiful again.” – Don Draper quoting Frank O’Hara in Season 2

I don’t read a lot of poetry, but since this collection was featured in Mad Men season two and I’m dedicated in my fandom for the things I like, I picked this up. It’s a lot thinner than I expected. O’Hara has a sense of seriousness yet levity, so I can see why he was both popular and influential to Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner.

Poems I liked: “To the Film Industry in Crisis”, “Les Etiquettes Jaunes”, and the final poem also featured in Mad Men, “Mayakovsky”.

Gigged – The End of the Job and the Future of Work by Sarah Kessler

The rise of Uber, Doordash, Instacart, Etsy, and the rest of the tech platforms of the past decade have created what’s commonly called the “gig economy”: what used to be called “temporary work” rebranded for the modern digital, app-driven world.

Specifically, Kessler tells stories from both sides of the “Gig economy”: the employers Uber, Gigster, Managed by Q, and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, and then people (not employees) who work for these services. She’s sympathetic to both sides without being preachy about perceived slights against workers that can be popular in the media.

Kessler concludes this compact book with an overview of the challenges and opportunities ahead: How can society ensure health benefits for these contractors? And a chance at retirement or support in old age? It’s still too early for anyone to know how it’ll play out.

Attempting Normal by Marc Maron (Audiobook):

I like Maron’s comedy and podcast, so I bought his audiobook. It delivered exactly what I expected. This biography covers the almost-cliched stories one would expect from a middle-aged standup comic: a dysfunctional childhood with borderline deadbeat parents leads to a quasi-directionless life and broken relationships. Some of the stories (such as The Legend of Frankie Bastille) have been retold by Maron elsewhere, yet he’s such an entertaining speaker that he really sells his own audiobook in a way no other author has. I’m not sure if Attempting Normal would be more or less funny if I didn’t find it so relatable.

On the Future – Prospects for Humanity by Martin Rees

Rees, the Astronomer Royal of the British Royal household, provides an overview of both ends of the spectrum on humanity’s prospects, contemplating our existential risks (such as our reliance on everything being a fragile electronically networked system and nuclear threats) through the opportunities of biotech and artificial intelligence to expand our capabilities. This segues nicely into projecting about a post-human future (which seems inevitable the way he describes it). Also unexpected is a section where Rees very seriously discusses how we might find alien life, which may seem unrelated to the book’s title if except that the collision of aliens and human descendants may be likelier on the cosmological timeline than people intuitively understand. He brings this short book back to Earth by recommending that the scientific establishment today could let loose a little by losing its ivory tower-ness and welcoming the amateurs, a message I support.

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

What You Do is Who You Are – How to Create Your Business Culture by Ben Horowitz

Horowitz’s last book (The Hard Thing About Hard Things) is one of the best management and leadership books of the past decade. His latest books is shorter and is more focused on a specific organizational problem: culture.

It’s a slippery subject that Horowitz pins down with one overarching theme: culture is your “virtues” (what you’re willing to do) rather than your “values” (what you believe). It’s an applied stance on an old philosophical debate; what’s more important, intentions or actions?

He illustrates this idea with four historical, non-business examples: the Japanese samurai, the Genghis Khan military, the slave revolution of Haiti, and Detroit prisons. They may seem extreme, but often you’ve got to give extreme examples to get a point across.

The only passage I disliked is when Horowitz listed Google ex-Chief Lawyer as an example of someone who can thrive in a company as culture changes over time and called himself a “chameleon”. Drummond is a pretty well-known psychopath who was finally forced to resign a couple weeks ago after news of Drummond’s multiple affairs with employees, including having a kid with a staffer and then firing the mother, came to light. This had been industry news for a while before the recent firing and I found it odd that Horowitz would choose to leave the Drummond reference in the book.

Financial Shenanigans – How to Detect Accounting Gimmicks and Fraud in Financial Reports, Third Edition by Howard Schilit and Jeremy Perler

I am occasionally known for my intense dislike of fraud and white-collar crime. For this reason, it’s surprising it took me this long to read the definitive book on the methods for identifying corporate malfeasance. The authors go into gritty detail about the various nefarious methods used by immoral managers to deceive the public, investors, and media about how well (or not) their businesses are doing. This is a must-read for any investor.

My favorite fun fact learned from this book: recipients of Chief Financial Officer Magazine’s annual Excellence Award from 1998, 1999, and 2000 are all in jail (WorldCom’s Scott Sullivan, Enron’s Andy Fastow, and Tyco’s Mark Swartz, respectively) . Let this be a reminder to all that just because someone is rewarded for their work doesn’t mean they earned it.

I Like to Watch – Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution by Emily Nussbaum (Audiobook)

“How to write about a divisive show? Wait a decade.” – Nussbaum in her defense of Sex and the City

If all my Chuck Klosterman reading wasn’t a giveaway, I love following pop-culture. And especially television, as it’s an art form I’ve spent more time with and thought more about (than music or movies). Here, Emily Nussbaum, a Pulitzer Prize winner, has compiled an anthology of her TV criticism for The New Yorker (and reads them for her audiobook).

She has a bunch of pieces I love, opening with a comparison between TV and Poetry which explains why she focused her career on TV because, while she was working on her PhD in Literature, TV was not taken seriously as an art form until The Sopranos. This segues into my favorite analysis of The Sopranos, written by her immediately following its controversial finale aired. Following the Sopranos piece, she steps back and reflects on the origins of the TV anti-hero, tracing it back to the 70s Norman Lear-dominated era and (as she calls him) the original anti-hero Archie Bunker.

I won’t review every essay in this hefty collection, but a couple of the feminist essays I really enjoyed was her analysis of Sex and the City (a show I did binge from start-to-finish) where she gives it the commemoration it deserves for its role in history, and a two-hour epic speech on the Bill Cosby, Louis CK, and the arguments around separating art from artists. Her dissection of this complex issue is the most thorough I’ve heard.

Alchemy – The Dark Art and Curious Science of Creating Magic in Brands, Business, and Life by Rory Sutherland

Ever since David Ogilvy made it popular, every advertising executive writes a book. Sutherland, now the Vice Chairman of Ogilvy UK, has published his compendium of marketing ideas and lessons learned from his career in advertising.

Taking ideas from behavioral economics and Nassim Taleb, what Rory calls “alchemy” is really an arbitrage on the gap between what mid-century economics and business schools taught businesspeople to think about human behavior versus what people actually do.

Part philosophy and part sharp observations, I’d recommend this as a palatable way for practicing marketers or executives to think differently about how they approach problem-solving.

The End of Accounting – And the Path Forward for Investors and Managers by Baruch Lev and Feng Gu

The accounting industry has a problem: no one seems to care about accounting paperwork anymore!

The title is purposefully hyperbolic as a physical-world equivalent to clickbait so people will read something much more subtle than they expect. The main argument of the book: the three major accounting statements (cash flow statement, balance sheet, income statement) are no longer used by investors (who use other data sources to make decisions) and is therefore a huge waste of time and money for the companies that have to produce all this paperwork. These professors have their own prescription.

Drs. Lev and Gu have published a unique book. It’s got the rigor and gravitas of an academic paper, sprinkled with the humor and levity of a couple of guys who feel like they’re tired of this shit.

I won’t give a full recount of their arguments and the subject matter because it would sound dense. But as good academics should, they’re trying to bring light to problems that are bigger and more systemic than they seem. Or, in the authors’ own words: “Our nightmare: that a student will ask us what this means and who cares about it.”

Temp – How American Work, American Business, and the American Dream Became Temporary by Louis Hyman

Temp work has been around a whole lot longer than what people think of as the modern “gig economy”, and it’s a whole lot more pervasive. Louis Hyman’s history of temporary work in America is a comprehensive retelling of the 20th century through the lens of increasing economic instability.

Starting from the decline of the pre-industrial revolution agricultural economy, Temp tells the story of three major types of temporary work: consultants (primarily of the white-collar, McKinsey type), industrial and office (the decline of unions and their on-call replacements), and immigrants (and how changes in legislation have paradoxically encouraged and discouraged migrants from working in agriculture and Silicon Valley factories).

Though Temp leans slightly liberal in framing increased liquidity in the labor market as a negative, he gives fair shake to the benefits it has for companies and the greater economy. He ends the book with optimism for a future where everyone can survive the automation age, earn a living wage by contributing their unique skills and passions into the economy, and receive the security of housing and healthcare. If the history he recounts is any indication, it will be easier written than done.

Double Entry – How the Merchants of Venice Created Modern Finance by Jane Gleeson-White

Simultaneously concise and artistic, Gleeson-White has written a consumable history of accounting. With her unique background, having studied economics in undergrad before getting a Phd in Literature, she does a tremendous job intertwining the two subjects, starting with the role counting had in the creation of writing (early humans used speech and writing as much for quantifying as they did for other communications).

From there, she tells the story of renaissance Venice (with due credit to the numerical advances of Eastern societies) and Luca Pacioli, credited as the founder of accounting for his work standardizing the bookkeeping methods used throughout industrial Italy into the first accounting textbook. Accounting as a profession grows from there as a key component of capitalism and the modern world. A well-executed book that’s as informative as it is easy to read.

Raised in Captivity – Fictional Nonfiction by Chuck Klosterman

Do animals eat healthy? Would you still be friends with someone if they swore they only accidentally killed someone? What’s the greatest thing you could ever see, and how would your life change if you saw it?

Klosterman’s newest book is another experiment in form for the author known for his celebrity journalism, nonfictional music and sport criticism, and a couple long-form novels. Captivity is a fictional short story collection unlike anything I’ve read. The closest comparisons are The Twilight Zone and Black Mirror, with premises are more grounded in the current state of the world. How you feel thinking about this review’s opening questions probably reflects on how you’ll like Raised in Captivity.

Permanent Record by Edward Snowden

Whether you agree or disagree with Snowden’s actions, he’s got an unbelievable and unusual story to tell.

What really strikes me is that this is the first millennial memoir I’ve read. I can relate to his early life spent playing videogames and learning computer programming when parents aren’t around.

From there the story forks into the distinctly Snowden life. Things I did not know going in: he came from a military family, decided to go into Army because of 9/11, eventually ends up back in military technology after an injury during Army training, and the rest is history as his information technology works leads him to discover the government capabilities the public was unaware of. If you’re reading this review and haven’t heard of this guy, google him. He leaked a lot of classified government documents on how they surveil citizens. The government was not thrilled.

He’s clearly a thoughtful, ideological guy. Although the book is a bit of a hagiography, he’s been so persecuted by the government you understand why he wants to defend himself.

This story ends with a final chapter published from his girlfriend’s diary about how she learned Snowden’s story. It’s a scenario no one can relate to, and her diary does its best to convey how utterly insane the story you just read is.

Five Stars (Highly Recommend to Everyone)

The Chrysanthemum and the Sword – Patterns of Japanese Culture by Ruth Benedict

I picked this book because it was used for the title of a Mad Men episode.

Published in 1946 (a mere five years after Pearl Harbor), Benedict explains Japanese culture to the Western world in the aftermath of World War Two. I imagine that what she accomplished here is what all aspiring anthropologists hope to achieve in their careers.

Since, for a modern reader, this may be more of a reflection on times past than on the Japan of today, I won’t try to summarize the book or the Japanese culture, except to say it was a revelatory contrast to America in the 1940s.

Fundamentally, the reason this will stick with me is because it’s probably the best book on how to appreciate and interpret alternative perspectives. That is a lesson everyone needs to learn.

The Billion Dollar Molecule: One Company’s Quest for the Perfect Drug by Barry Werth

Josh Boger is just barely on the right-side of crazy.

In the 1980s, the founder of a new biotech/pharmaceutical startup agreed to let journalist Barry Werth inside his nascent company and document its story. Having been an early employee at venture capital-backed companies, this is not something I would recommend.

The company is Vertex Pharmaceuticals, and its goal was to revolutionize the drug discovery process. Boger, a rising star at pharmaceutical powerhouse Merck, leaves to accomplish what he feels he cannot inside the corporate bureaucracy: build drugs atom-by-atom, a quantum leap from the Merck method of scouring nature for undiscovered molecules in plants and animals.

What ensues is the stuff of startup lore: Boger uses his power of persuasion and industry reputation to recruit a tight-knit team he can barely afford, fundraise from anyone who will write a decent check from Wall Street to Japanese ramen conglomerates, and race against time and science to revolutionize an industry.

Werth’s writing is phenomenal, knowing how to get just the right quotes from this set of brilliant minds. The emotional highs and lows of startup life may have never been depicted better, with chemists living in freezing labs, hoping to find the compounds that will make them legends of their field, and the executives feeling the strain where scientific excellence and capitalistic realities intersect.

It is nice to read such a stressful story (which concludes still early in the company’s life with its fate still uncertain), look up where Vertex is today, and see that it’s a $50 billion publicly traded company leading the world in the application of CRISPR. And presumably most of the early people who gave their sweat and blood to the business are now reasonably rich.

The Best Book I Read in the Second Half of 2019

The Lawyer Bubble – A Profession in Crisis by Steven Harper

All of the socioeconomic bubbles (college, corruption, and concentration of wealth) people are worried about are alive and well in the legal industry. Harper, now a law professor at Northwestern, does a precise job deconstructing his own profession and its constituents.

The law schools are charging too much and caring too little about students future career prospects. The media is using phony, game-able ranking systems to sell subscriptions and keep themselves relevant. The government continues to underwrite some of its largest student loans to prospective students who will never repay or discharge them, trapping them for life. And the big law firms exploit cheap recent-grad labor to generate profits for elderly owners who founded a firm forty years ago in simpler times and now sit atop empires.

Harper offers his solutions, attempting to stay pragmatic as opposed to idealistic, and he is optimistic that change is already underway as news of the industry’s unsustainability spreads. But this is another entry into the increasingly-long list of tear-downs of society where the allegedly-intelligent are making a lot of dumb decisions and refuse to act against their own interests.