Books Read in the Second Half of 2020

As a reference, my grading scale is:

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:

  • Comedians: I love sitcoms and standup comedy, and I’ve included stories from stars of both related worlds.
  • Netflix: A new set of separate books by the Netflix co-founders teach the lessons learned from launching an entertainment revolution.
  • Mad Men: Two books analyzing my favorite televised drama.
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey: Also two books telling the stories around the making of the classic Stanley Kubrick film.
  • Business of Biotech: Continuing my education in the natural sciences, I focused on learning the histories of Vertex Pharma, Genentech, Amgen, and the broader drug business.

Two Stars

The Biotech Trader’s Handbook – By Tony Ayers Pelz

More focused on options trading and finance 101 than the biotech industry specifically. Pelz recommends some questionable technical analysis as well, but doesn’t dwell on it. I did gleam one memorable non-obvious observation from Pelz’s experience: that biotech call options may lose value as price increases from major news as volatility decreases with future certainty. Other than that, readers who are aspiring traders are better off, and those interested in biotech have better books to read.

Mad Men and Philosophy: Nothing Is as it Seems – Edited by William Irwin, Rod Carveth, and James South

As a Mad Men devotee, I felt compelled to pick this up. However, the scope and audience for this is limited. The series of essays by philosophers only covers the first three seasons, requires too much recounting of the scenes from the show (making half the text redundant for those who have seen it) in order to support the points, and the philosophy is introductory. This is for Mad Men fans or Philosophy 101 students only.

Three Stars:

True Story: A Novel – by Bill Maher (Audiobook)

Aptly titled, this fiction feels like Maher’s memoirs as a poor traveling standup in the 80s. The story is split in two halves: first, biographies of four degenerate friends stuck somewhere between the bottom and second-to-bottom rungs of the entertainment industry ladder; second, a series of their antics on a gig trip out of town, hassling waitresses and wrecking night clubs. It’s a quick two hour listen that’s darkly funny in the way that rings true to those poor souls who hustle but haven’t quite made it.

The Actor’s Life: A Survival Guide – by Jenna Fischer

Jenna Fischer, one of the most recognizable faces in America since The Office became a hit, has assembled a very practical guide to becoming a working actor/actress. She weaves her personal story into the structured progression from “girl next door moves out to LA” to “struggling to build a resume and get a SAG card” to “finding representation who will get you the legitimate auditions”. For those thinking of going into acting, this strikes me as a handy, no-bullshit manual, and it’s still a fun, informative autobiography for the rest of us.

Zenobia: The Curious Book of Business – by Matthew Emmens and Beth Kephart

This truly is a curious, little book. Emmens had an illustrious career in the biotech industry spanning Merck and the CEO position at both Shire and Vertex Pharmaceuticals. He partnered with Beth Kephart to write this 100-page-double-spaced-with-big-font fable about the foibles of big businesses. Avoiding spoilers, it’s written like a kids book about a young woman applying for a job at Zenobia, a generic large corporation. In order to even find her interviewer’s office, she must navigate treacherous obstacles such as office gossipers, naysayers, and Powerpoint presentations. It was not at all what I expected, however, it works in its quirkiness and, due to the illustrations, I imagined it as an animated short film while reading.

Is This Anything? – by Jerry Seinfeld

This gives a strong “concluding my career” vibe and yet is not what I expected. Specifically, I thought this would be more of a memoir. Instead, this is a compilation of most of Jerry’s jokes since the 1970s in written form (akin to how a poetry collection is structured with a lot of whitespace and only one or two jokes per page).

So, it loses points for originality, as a Seinfeld comedy fan will have already encountered the material before, save for a handful of biographical essays interspersed between the decade-by-decade chapters. The value here is in the fact that Seinfeld’s patented observational comedy works better in writing than probably any other comedian. The simplistic style of the cover and typesetting makes this a “coffee table book” where anyone can flip to any page for a couple of minutes to chuckle.

No One Asked for This: Essays – by Cazzie David

Upfront disclaimer: I bought this book because her dad is Larry David (co-creator of Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm). Luckily, Cazzie is self-aware enough to know this is probably a pretty popular reason people picked up her book.

Even more luckily for us readers, she takes after her father in the best possible ways: A dark, ironic sensibility with stinging observations seen through a woman’s lens.

She tackles the obvious head-on: she’s a child of privilege who should be really thankful for all she has. And yet she makes you sympathize with her plight, understanding that everyone has their demons. In her case, these include fighting the perception of nepotism regarding any accomplishments of her own, and having famous boyfriends (Pete Davidson) leave you for even more famous women (Ariana Grande). 

Potentially the best compliment I could pay her is that I had read her essay “Too Full to Fuck” online before learning she was related to Larry. Her humorous insights hold up on their own.

Mad Men Carousel: The Complete Critical Companion – by Matt Zoller Seitz

This compilation of reviews for every individual Mad Men episode is an impressive feat. Zoller Seitz, who is the Editor-in-Chief of Roger Ebert’s website, is clearly a devout fan of the show (my favorite) to devote this much ink to every detail of it.

He’s not afraid to question the show as any rational critic and devoted fan should: the cliched writing in season one, the arguable under-utilization of non-white characters. The risk Seitz’s reviews sometimes run is in trying to over-explain a show whose meaning is in the unspoken. Regardless, if you’re a fan of the show, Carousel is the definitive Mad Men companion.

Are We Alone? The Stanley Kubrick Extra-Terrestrial Interviews – Interviews by Roger Caras, Edited by Anthony Frewin

The film 2001: A Space Odyssey was originally going to have a different opening. To ground the fantastical elements viewers were about to see, Kubrick was going to start the movie with five minutes of extra-terrestrial punditry by leading thinkers of the day. These interviews were conducted and recorded by his product Roger Caras, but were ultimately cut from the final film.

Are We Alone, now one of the rarer books in my collection, is a collection of the interview transcripts published by Frewin, Kubrick’s former personal assistant. Caras traveled worldwide to meet the likes of Isaac Asimov, Freeman Dyson, and 19 other diverse voices across academic borders (philosophers and theologists among the scientists).

There are common themes, driven by Caras asking many of the interviewees similar questions: What are the chances aliens exist? What are the implications for aliens to the concept of God and our Earthly religions? Will the budding field of artificial intelligence help us contact alien? Are the aliens going to be AI? Will humans evolve into an AI-machine-based entity ourselves?

While the minds at work are fascinating, Are We Alone is held back from a higher rating due to the level of repetition in the questions and answers (with some chapters such as the rabbi interview an exception to this pattern).

That Will Never Work: The Birth of Netflix and the Amazing Life of an Idea – by Marc Randolph

Randolph, Netflix’s co-founder and first CEO, has written his memoir of the first few years of Netflix’s life. Despite being pushed out by co-founder/lead investor/current-CEO Reed Hastings, he seemingly holds no ill will (the millions he’s made from stock surely helps) and tells his story with nostalgic glee. The business lessons taken away are mostly a reminder of what innovation looks like when there are few precedents; Netflix had to be a pioneer in the online subscription business model, online-to-offline logistics, and what we now think of as online multivariate testing. Most importantly, Randolph comes across as a really fun, nice guy who you root for throughout the story.

Four Stars

Pharmaplasia – by Michael Wokasch

Wokasch worked for decades in the pharmaceutical industry’s marketing machine. His review of the industry, now out of print since it was published in 2010, was incredibly prescient (or perhaps obvious to those on the inside). He accurately predicts the industry would run into trouble (which it did a mere five years later with the collapse of Valeant Pharma and Martin Shkreli) as it continued to consolidate and the new drug conglomerates could only grow earnings through higher prices, shady sales tactics, and debt-laden corporate acquisitions driven more by executive greed than the desire to discover new drugs.

A couple of the middle chapters are a little too “introduction to business”, but that hardly detracts from this sharp analysis of why the drug companies either underperformed or“outperformed” through financial schemes, none of which helped patients.

How to American: An Immigrant’s Guide to Disappointing Your Parents – by Jimmy O Yang (Audiobook)

Jimmy O Yang has been on a hot streak with his one-two punch of starring in HBO’s Silicon Valley and Crazy Rich Asians. In his memoir, he tells his incredible life story of growing up as an immigrant, pot-smoking his way through an economics degree, and continuing to disappoint his parents by working as a strip club DJ in between practicing his standup comedy. It may be my favorite audiobook, as his entertainment experience explodes through the earbuds.

No Rules Rules – Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention by Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer

This guidebook to business comes from the cofounder and current CEO of Netflix (Reed) and a management professor (Meyer). It takes an interesting approach by integrating each of their experiences and perspectives into cohesive chapters, each with a unique lesson. Reed will lead with his theme, give the practical direct advice on how he applies his ideas at Netflix, and Meyer (in clearly delineated sections) gives additional context to the ideas by interviewing Netflix employees or comparing Netflix’s practices to other companies. It is not just a rehash of the infamous Netflix Culture Deck and does a great job of explaining, in very plain language, the insights of business Netflix has learned and most other companies are still trying to catch up.

Netflixed: The Epic Battle for America’s Eyeballs – by Gina Keating

This was a real treat and fantastic journalism. Keating writes the history of Netflix, from founding to 2013, with quick pacing while maintaining key plot points and developing the business personalities.

Where this really shines is that it spends as much time telling Blockbuster’s story as Netflix’s, something that is probably overlooked by most people who see the cover, and is the more interesting story.

Blockbuster gets dogged on nowadays for blowing its opportunity to shift from retail stores to digital streaming. That popular narrative is oversimplified. Netflix CEO Reed Hasting admits at one point that Blockbuster’s Total Access program was on the path to destroying Netflix, had Blockbuster not shut it down.

It’s internal political power struggles at Blockbuster that prevented them from finishing Netflix. Without spoiling the meat of the book, it’s a textbook example of out-of-touch old business executives investors misunderstanding a disruptive technology shift, despite the young talent inside Blockbuster who did have a plan to beat Netflix and were ultimately proved correct.

The Antidote: Inside the World of New Pharma – by Barry Werth

A sequel to one of my favorite books read in 2019, The Antidote picks up the story of Vertex Pharmaceuticals where Werth left off in The Billion Dollar Molecule.

This is no longer a startup story. It’s not really a spoiler to say that Vertex has succeeded (anyone can look up the public stock price). Here, Werth documents the transition from an unprofitable, scrappy biotech startup into a pharmaceutical powerhouse. Replacing the story of all-nighters and founders is the high stakes game of moving science out of the laboratory and into pill bottles in hospitals, doctor’s offices, and people’s homes. In this regard, it works as a fantastic traditional business book; the lessons are in recruiting experienced expensive executives, building global supply chains, and competing directly with existing multi-hundred billion dollar drug companies in the marketplace.

Although this phase of Vertex’s life doesn’t have the same verve, the stakes are higher and the evolution of America’s drug industry through the 90-2010s still contained a lot of surprises.

Five Stars

Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece – by Michael Benson

2020 has gotten a lot of comparisons to 1968 for being the two most tumultuous years in American history since World War II. Nineteen sixty eight included the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. in April, Robert Kennedy in June, and the Vietnam war all throughout.

Amidst 1968’s chaos was the release of arguably the best film ever made: Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Fifty years later, Michael Benson published his own masterful history of the film’s making.

The achievement here is in exploring the realities of creating lasting art. It’s not purely luck, although Kubrick clearly had a unique genius. It’s the culmination of talent and effort and coincidence all brought together through shared desire to pursue excellence. This cultural thread ran through the crew, and hundreds of people played their part in bringing art to life. Benson provides numerous examples of ideas coming from everywhere, like the college-aged assistant who finds the perfect scene location in one of his school textbooks. Part of Kubrick’s gift, more than coming up with ideas himself, was identifying the genius in others.

And even geniuses have their moments of weakness. A constantly shifting script and the film’s shaky reception stand out as near-breaking points for Kubrick, a man burdened with his reputation for brilliance and doubting he can deliver external and internal standards.

Personally, 2001 and The Godfather are the two greatest films. The Godfather adapts the best of literature, history, and theater into film as an artistic medium. 2001: A Space Odyssey is the highest representation of science and philosophy as cinema. And only 2001 made Roger Ebert’s final list of the top ten films.

No doubt I am biasing my review of Benson’s book because of the movie. And obviously, you’ll get a lot more out of this if you’ve seen the movie, which is something you should have done already anyway. When the film is this legendary, and the biography does it justice, there’s little harm in conflating feelings for the two.

There have been many other biographies on both this film and Kubrick’s life. Benson draws upon all of them without turning this book into an encyclopedia. He does what skilled biographers do, weaving a story from the facts collected while drawing wisdom from them when possible. This biography in particular is unique in that it’s not of a person, or even of just one movie. It’s a testament to the creative process. Or dare I say, with the jacket cover removed, its black hardcover stands as a monolith to greatness.

Genentech: The Beginnings of Biotech – by Sally Smith Hughes

When I asked a handful of my natural science acquaintances for the “one book” they would recommend to someone new to the industry, the answers were frequently this one.

The reasons are quickly obvious: It’s a lot shorter than I expected, which is a plus. Sally Smith Hughes’s storytelling pace is brisk, constantly moving the story forward (much like how I assume it must have felt to work at the young startup) without feeling like you’re missing important details.

Then the details themselves are extraordinary: Genentech was the first biotech company (at least the first successful one). Through its groundbreaking genetic engineering discoveries and technology, it exploded onto the business scene with its new lab-manufactured drugs for insulin and human growth hormones.

Hughes traces this groundbreaking story back to the roots of its two unexpected co-founders: An unemployed ex-venture capitalist (Robert Swanson) who convinces chemistry professor Herbert Boyer to start a company with him after reading about the budding, but not yet economical, field of genetics.

The rest, as they say, is history, captured concisely here by Hughes.

Science Lessons: What the Business of Biotech Taught Me About Management – by Gordon Binder and Philip Bashe

Gordon Binder found himself on an odd route to the CEO job at Amgen, a biotech company. He had no biology or chemistry background as an electrical engineer-turned-CFO at a government software contractor. But as tends to be the case in the startup world, opportunity took precedence over experience as he was recruited to be the CFO of a business with no product, no revenue, and just a couple dozen scientist employees. Eight years later, he became CEO, and by the time he stepped down in 2000, Amgen was valued around $60 billion based on its successfully commercialized kidney failure drug treatment Epogen and its broadening portfolio of drugs tackling truly terrible, tough problems (i.e. cancer).

Science Lessons is the kind of business book I like, which is a melding of a memoir with the business advice sprinkled between the personal stories. Straight memoirs tend to be hagiographic and straight advice tends to sound contrived without real-world applied context.

Binder provides both with candor and the right amount of self-deprecation. The science content is educational, the business stories are thrilling, and as a package it really inspires the reader that business can be conducted for societal good, a sentiment that sometimes feels hard to find.

The Psychology of Money: Timeless Lessons on Wealth, Greed, and Happiness – by Morgan Housel

The premise is simple. Housel, a venture capitalist, has written nearly two dozen essays on how to think about money: how to make it, how to keep it, and how to value it in relation to the happiness in your life. The stories and advice inside are so short, simple, and well-written that there is no point in me summarizing here.

It’s in the rare class of “books I should have and wish I’d written first” (alongside Klosterman’s “But What If We’re Wrong”). This is primarily because the lessons, told in an almost fable-like fashion, are the ideas that have been obvious to me from my own extensive reading, and yet are not taught in school or mainstream resources. 

I bought a copy for my brother as a Christmas present, and it is my new go-to pick when a friend asks me for a book recommendation about money.

Animal Farm by George Orwell

One of those books I’d heard quoted, but never knew the whole plot. It’s an allegorical fable for Stalinist Russia, incredibly effective at explaining how normalcy can devolve into tyranny, and should be taught in all schools as it’s written in a readable language for all ages. This makes it particularly relevant for today’s youth to read, as a warning against the overly-communistic tendencies of a generation who haven’t seen it. Otherwise, I have little to add that hasn’t probably already been written elsewhere, except this short story scores high on my value-per-word ratio.

Best Book Read in the Second Half of 2020

The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong – by David Orr

A former colleague once asked me, in one of those cheesy get-to-know-you moments, if I had a favorite poem. If I had to pick an intellectual realm I’m least informed on, it’s possibly some sort of three-way tie between poetry, Mayan temples, and Medieval theology. So I gave the answer that, while true to myself, is also the most cliche: Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken.

Orr opens the book upfront with the poem itself, in case you haven’t read it in full since grade school. But it’s surely recognizable, as he establishes early on how modern Google data provides a strong argument for this poem being one of the most popular pieces in American pop culture history (greater than, say, Alfred Hitchock or Bob Dylan). The rest of the chapters, each succinct, cover angles to interpret the poem’s oft-misunderstood aspects: “The Poet”, “The Poem”, “The Choice”, and “The Chooser”.

Ultimately, this book is a manifestation of what great criticism is supposed to be. Thoughtfulness without pretentiousness; contextualizing without stretching too far for meaning. Orr does for poetry what Roger Ebert did for films: tackling the quintessential American poem and manages to elevate the material with his lens.