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.
I’ve also started marking themes of my reading for the time period. In these six months, some commonalities:
- The Oil Industry: Three books on the history of the Oil industry, spanning from the early 1900s at Spindleto to the future of fracking.
- Chuck Klosterman: In this period of time I read two books by Chuck Klosterman, who is now my second-most read author since 2012 (only behind Michael Lewis who also shows up in this post). And not just any two books, but compilations of his articles for other outlets. The two compilations were published a decade apart, giving insight into how Klosterman’s own focus has changed in the 2000s.
- Physicist Carlo Rovelli: I randomly discovered this physicist in 2016 when I found his “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics” in a New Orleans bookstore and spent this time period reading two more of his fantastic works.
- Neuroscience and Psychopathy: Following up from my genetics research the prior six months, I’ve worked my way up from the foundations of biology to neuroscience and understanding the disorders that create so much destruction in society.
- Jon Ronson: I followed up his first book on psychopathy with two more, including an exclusive audiobook he did for Audible.
- Audiobooks: In a futile attempt to save bookshelf space, I coughed up for a paid Audible account. I was already an avid podcast listener and this isn’t much different.
Three Stars (Recommended)
The Last Days of August by Jon Ronson (Audiobook):
From the author of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed comes this deep dive into the porn industry and the death of actress Mercedes “August Ames” Grabowski. What was a seven-episode podcast has been compiled into an audiobook. Ronson and his colleagues go to great lengths to get to the bottom of the question “Why was August hung from a tree in a public park?”
It’s an unexpected detective story which tackles every angle: Was it due to Twitter bullying from jealous actresses? Was she killed by her potentially abusive husband? Was it due to a broken childhood and being abandoned by her parents?
Regardless of what you think the answer is, it’s a grim story where everyone is an unreliable source. Despite the darkness, it’s well-told and is (of what I’ve heard and read thus far) Ronson’s best journalistic work.
I’ll Be There for You – The One About Friends by Kelsey Miller (Audiobook):
Friends has played an important part in my life. It was always on during dinner when I was a kid, my college friends had the DVDs playing in the background after classes in their apartment, and it’s 2010 Netflix debut put all that nostalgia back at our fingertips.
Kelsey Miller’s history and analysis of the show does a solid job chronologically retelling the show’s creation, starting with the friendship of creators David Crane and Marta Kauffman and running through biographies of the six ensemble members. From there, she traces the show’s growth season-by-season, pausing to cover the host of controversies along the way: backlash following Season Two’s over-exposure and media blitz, the progressively higher-stakes contract negotiations pitting the six friends against the network, September 11’s impact of extending the show’s run by serving as the country’s leading comedy after its period of grief, and its eventual conclusion, passing the baton to reality TV and HBO dramas as the top television shows.
Although there are some parts of Friends history that isn’t covered much (such as Matthew Perry’s widely-known substance problems), Miller provides a fair retrospective on the parts of Friends that modern woke bloggers tend to knock the show for: the homophobia, lack of ethnic diversity, and the sexual harassment lawsuit from a female writer regarding her time in the mostly-male writers room. All these subjects are used by Miller not to tear down the show, but to show Friends as a reflection of its time, yet its themes and warmth are timeless.
The Sociopath Next Door – The Ruthless Versus the Rest of Us by Martha Stout, Ph.D.:
Unique from other books on psychopathy, Dr. Stout, formerly of the Harvard Medical School prior to going into private practice, brings a psychologists perspective to the subject. The book contains a compilation of anonymized stories from her clients who are mostly victims of psychopaths. The most memorable example for me was a woman whose father was a well-respected high school principal until he shot a drug dealer on their front lawn and it was revealed that her father, now in prison, had been hardcore drug-dealing in his evenings.
The analysis doesn’t seem as scientific as Professor Hare or Professor Kent Kiehl’s work, and the last chapter leaves the book on an oddly spiritual note. However, if your life has been impacted by psychopaths, it will feel good to know others have lived through the same experiences.
Without Conscience – The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us by Robert D. Hare, Phd.:
Professor Hare was the worldwide leader in psychopath research. Hare got his start studying prison inmates in Canada as the sole psychologist at the British Columbia Penitentiary. His work there landed him a role as a Professor of Psychology at the University of British Columna.
Without Conscience is his guidebook to the subject, covering the range of violent serial killers to white-collar-criminal psychopaths he’s interviewed with his methods that became the industry standard (prior to wider proliferation of MRI machines).
Written in 1993, it’s more psychology than neuroscience since the latter field was still nascent compared to Hare’s experience speaking to psychopaths in prisons. The subtitle is accurate in labeling much of the content “disturbing”, but a must-read for anyone interested in the subject matter.
Blitzscaling – The Lightning-Fast Path to Building Massively Valuable Businesses by Reid Hoffman and Chris Yeh:
As defined by the authors, Blitzscaling is “a strategy and set of techniques for driving and managing extremely rapid growth that prioritize speed over efficiency in an environment of uncertainty.”
For the laymen, this book is about the shared strategies Facebook, Uber, LinkedIn, and other big tech company brands used to take over the world in the past decade. One of the major themes being that these companies prioritize speed and experimentation over worrying about costs, with the idea that customer growth and the future monopoly position overcompensate for the losses along the way.
The danger of a book like this is that, misinterpreted by the wrong founders and an issue I’ve seen first-hand at startups, it could encourage a lack of financial discipline, and its strategies only work for business or products that can inherently affect a lot of people; otherwise you’ll be burning money. But for anyone who wants to understand more about how big tech companies got to where they are, or aspire to build on themselves, Blitzscaling is a framework worth thinking about.
The Psychopath Test – A Journey Through the Madness Industry by Jon Ronson:
The first book I’ve read by Ronson, it’s more storytelling than journalism (compared to The Last Days of August), but it’s an addicting set of stories. Ronson explores a variety of psychopath stories, such as a man who talked himself into a mental institution as a way to avoid prison, cult leaders, and obviously murderers.
My favorite chapter covers “Chainsaw” Al Dunlap, a man ranked by Time magazine as one of the top 10 worst bosses of all time, fired by companies for committing fraud, and was once accused in court by his ex-wife for holding her at knife point and asking what human flesh tastes like.
In between these stories, Ronson traces the history of psychopaths in the psychiatric literature, starting with early-1800s French psychiatrist Philippe Pinel identifying patients as “manie sans delire” (insane without delusion) and through the debates in the academic community about how to identify and classify these slippery assholes.
If you’re interested in psychopathy, there are more medically informative reads. If you want a captivating story about subversive evil in humanity, this is a fun one.
Snakes in Suits – When Psychopaths Go to Work by Robert D. Hare, Phd.:
Dr. Hare, after he had finished writing his first book Without Conscience, was quoted as saying, “I should never have done all my research in prisons. I should have spent my time inside the stock exchange as well…. Serial killers ruin families. Corporate and political and religious psychopaths ruin economies. They ruin societies.”
He spent the later part of his career working on studying functioning psychopaths, many of whom either commit while-collar crime or similar destroy business value but undermining their employers and pocketing company money for themselves instead of investing into growing the business.
The format for Snakes in Suits alternates between fiction and non-fiction: one chapter will cover specific behaviors or symptoms of psychopaths, followed by a story about how that might manifest itself in the workplace.
Hare concludes with a chapter on how colleagues can identify and manage working around people who seem to be destructive toward their business and others. Having worked with some in the past, I think more people would benefit from reading this guide, as they’ll instantly recognize someone from their life in these pages.
Four Stars (Highly recommended for those interested in topic, or generally recommended for anyone)
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson:
I decided to read this after completing his earlier work The Psychopath Test in one weekend. Shamed is slightly longer, but didn’t take much more time for me to finish. Ronson’s unique take on public shaming is inspired by and inextricably tied to the rise of social media technology, particularly Twitter, which empower mob mentality at historically unprecedented scale. Much of the book is centered around Ronson tracking down victims of this new form of kangaroo courting in an effort to understand the history of public shaming, how it happens in modern context, and its fallout.
His sense of morality seems to drive him to empathize with the victims, who he (and I agree) have been the collateral damage of the new weaponized techno-social justice warriors. This book is a great siren call that, if we as a society don’t learn to apply the golden rule to the Internet, then the great tools used for giving voices to the marginalized will be turned into the fear-driven banality of universal silence.
Chuck Klosterman IV – A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas by Chuck Klosterman:
Published in 2006, this collection covers two types of articles Klosterman had previously written for outlets, especially Esquire. The first third of the book is Chuck’s interviews with a variety of celebrities, to whom he brings unique understanding: Britney Spears (at the time of writing in 2003, easily the most famous person he interviewed who dodges the subtext of his questions like a politician), actor Val Kilmer (giving readers a better understanding of why he got semi-exiled from Hollywood for being unintentionally loony), and basketball star Steve Nash (who comes across as incredibly likeable).
The second section is a collection of non-interview articles, some still journalistic and some pure opinion pieces. Most notable among these is “The Importance of Being Hated” about how all of us have an archenemy, a nemesis, and the important differences between the two. Also, Chuck Klosterman ate only Chicken McNuggets for a week well before Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me.
The books ends with a short story which was Klosterman’s first published work of fiction. The story is about a guy named Jack who would have a boring job as a newswriter if he didn’t start his mornings with phencyclidine, better known on the street as PCP or Angel Dust. It’s completely disconnected from the rest of the book, but has some great comedic observations that at least geeky men, if not everyone, will relate to.
Chuck Klosterman X – A Highly Specific, Defiantly Incomplete History of the Early 21st Century (and its Audio Companion) by Chuck Klosterman:
Published in 2017, Klosterman’s most recent essay collection captures the changing American culture. The book is mostly features of specific people he’s written previously for outlets such as GQ and ESPN: Taylor Swift (whom he considered the most famous person he’s ever interviewed), Tom Brady (the seemingly least cooperative interview), Kobe Bryant (the most direct). There’s some general culture writing mixed in, including an insightful discussion on the “nostalgia problem” and the definitive analysis of the band KISS for their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction.
X ends with celebrity obituaries written by Klosterman. My personal favorite is of Warrant’s Jani Lane. Klosterman ended his first book, Fargo Rock City, with a story about Jani Lane, the lead singer of Warrant, best known for their titillating music video Cherry Pie. Here was a man who was mocked for allegedly contributing to the downfall of his artistic genre due to reasons outside his control, and would spend the next couple decades trying to pursue his artistic aspirations before killing himself in a Comfort Inn motel. Klosterman is able to take this one man’s true tragic tale and extrapolate lessons for us all; we are much less in control of our stories and legacies than we’d like.
It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson:
The newest book from the creators of Basecamp and Ruby on Rails is a collection of short lessons learned from their experience running a successful, founder-owned, investor-less software business for over a decade. There’s a lot more I agree with here than disagree with, such as the arbitrary-ness of most goal-setting exercises and the compounding problems of productivity-death-by-meetings (very reminiscent of Paul Graham’s “Makers Schedule, Manager’s Schedule” essay). While I could write a whole separate essay on unifying the Basecamp school of thought with other startup and business canon, I’ll emphasize one here: If you know what’s important to do and efficiently focus on that, then work does not have to be hell.
The Big Rich – The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes by Bryan Burrough:
In my youth, I didn’t realize that I was familiar with one of the people from The Big Rich; I just knew Lamar Hunt as the founder and owner of the Columbus Crew, probably the sports franchise whose games I’ve been to the most in my life.
Lamar got his money as a descendant of H.L. Hunt, one of four family patriarchs described in the mid-20th century press as “The Big Rich” of Texas, chronicled here by Bryan Burrough (who also co-authored one of my top five favorite business books and probably his most famous, Barbarians at the Gate).
Burrough tells the century-long story of the Texas oil business, starting with legendary Spindletop oil boom in 1901 and ending with the election of President George Bush, himself an heir from an oil empire, in 2001. In between, the story focuses on four families which became, at differing points in the century, the richest Americans in the world in an era that even pre-dated men like Warren Buffett. Men such as H.L. Hunt, Sid Richardson, and Roy Cullen are names lost to modern culture but were the moguls that bridge the timeline between the Rockefeller/Carnegie era and the electronics industry of the 70s.
Despite most not knowing their names, Americans have a stereotypical identity of Texas and Texans: cowboy boots with spurs, big hats, and flaunted wealth. Shows in the 80s such as Dynasty were inspired by The Big Rich families. The modern American political conservative movement, too, is told here, with the roots of Bush-era politics inspired and funded by these oil tycoons distrusting a US government who their parent’s generation hadn’t even been members of during Texas’s independent days.
Most Americans of my generation probably fail to realize how much of their lives descend from these men: Half of the NFL teams and Major League Soccer were initiated by the Hunt family and one descendant named Sid Bass became the savior and largest shareholder of the Disney Corporation until 2001. Love them or hate them, thanks to Burrough, the iconic Texas oil men of the mid-1900s will never be forgotten.
The Frackers – The Outrageous Inside Story of The New Billionaire Wildcatters by Gregory Zuckerman:
Zuckerman has written the canonical account of one of the great business and technology stories of our lifetimes.
The Frackers tells a classic American entrepreneurship tale: a group of unknown outsiders, many the children of poor immigrants and only armed with gusto, create a new technology that truly disrupts an industry. This generates newfound wealth for themselves and shakes the foundations of the rest of society and geopolitics, as countries and old industrialists question assumptions about the world’s available energy (a very fundamental thing to be questioning).
The two main technologies are “fracking” (shooting water and chemicals into rocks so they crack open like eggs and spill out oil and gas) and horizontal drilling (pretty self-explanatory but historically difficult to do thousands of feet below ground). Those bold enough to spend the major time and money upfront to test these techniques in America were richly rewarded. But once proven right on the availability of untapped energy in our backyards, these wildcatters conflict with Wall Street, ExxonMobil, and environmentalists, sometimes all at once. The environmental impacts of fracking are treated reasonably and evenly debated. Zuckerman has done a tremendous job documenting a historic period in American business and ultimately worldwide geopolitics around how humanity gets its energy.
The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis:
What happens when a new administration takes over the government, and then doesn’t put anyone in charge of running anything? This is the question Michael Lewis tries to answer in The Fifth Risk, which dives deeply into a very specific period of time. In the first couple months after Donald Trump was sworn in as President, he reportedly had nearly no one show up to actually run the departments of the Executive branch.
Lewis searches through the government underbelly where the sausage is made and asks the current and former government officials: What do all the agencies do? How are they managed? Most importantly, what happens if society forgets how they’re managed?
The title itself is an allusion to “project management”, or a complete lack thereof, being one of the major risks to political stability. The importance of consistent, capable management is the major takeaway from this story and applies to well outside the White House.
Reality is Not What it Seems – The Journey to Quantum Gravity by Carlo Rovelli:
Rovelli provides a foundational, understandable history of physics, from ancient Greece to the modern dilemma reconciling quantum mechanics and gravity. The last third of the book focuses on the sub-title, which is Rovelli’s specialty and a competitor to the more mainstream String Theory. Despite the latter chapters being a bit more technical and obtuse for the laymen, the first two thirds are such a well-written walkthrough of physics that I recommend it as an introduction to the field.
Five Stars (Highly Recommend to Everyone)
Saudi America – The Truth About Fracking and How It’s Changing the World by Bethany McLean:
Bethany McLean, most famous for breaking the Enron story almost two decades ago, is my favorite journalist-author. She continues to deliver with her latest short-form Columbia Global Reports book. True to form, she investigates a simple but globally important question: Is “fracking” really going to bolster American energy independence and upend the international oil and gas markets?
The answer is a complex one. She slowly unpacks the issue, starting small with a concise biography of fracking pioneer Chesapeake Energy and its founder Aubrey McClendon. Companies such as Chesapeake have raised a lot of investor interest, but have they actually made any profits? An influx of new oil and gas from fracking may just mean a lot of new supply driving down energy prices; good for consumers but unprofitable and unsustainable for investors.
This segues into geopolitics: If America continues to flood the market with cheap energy and drop prices, what impact will this have on our biggest allies and enemies? Saudi Arabia’s dictatorship is sustained by its oil money. Russia will have even more reason to be militarily aggressive if it loses its control of Europe’s energy supplies. And if the USA can generate its own energy without Middle Eastern oil, does that provide hope for ending our endless warring in the region?
Lastly, the future of the energy industry could/should be renewables like solar and wind. With all the focus the past couple decades on fracking, have the short-term benefits come at the long-term cost of falling behind in the marathon to truly ubiquitous, free energy?
The Psychopath Whisperer – The Science of Those Without Conscience by Kent Kiehl, Phd.:
The culmination of my deep-dive into psychopathy, this is the best book on the subject. Doctor Kiehl, whose thesis advisor was the aforementioned Doctor Robert Hare, is arguably the world’s leading expert on psychopathy. This book presents both the history of his professional research as well his personal experiences, which include non-strictly-academic endeavors such as innovating in mobile MRI hardware, the politics of navigating an academic career, and being inspired to devote his life to this subject after growing up down the street from renowned serial killer Ted Bundy.
What sets Professor Kiehl’s research on psychopaths apart from predecessors is his dedicated inquiry into neuroscience and biological-based causes for mental disorders. As someone without a neuroscience background, this book demonstrates how the functioning of the brain dictates human behavior far more than the vast majority of people comprehend. The Psychopath Whisperer is captivating, informative, and a must read for anyone who wants to understand the darkest, animalistic side of humanity.
Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson:
Ranked by Time Magazine as one of the all time top 100 English novels, this science fiction classic was inspiration for my greatest influence (programmer John Carmack) and many of his contemporaries in the videogame industry.
Snow Crash is an eccentric sci-fi action story starring the mafia’s futuristic pizza delivery boy whose computer hacking hobby entangles him in an underground criminal plot for world domination via mind control. The unfolding of the evil villain plans is an intelligent integration of religious and technological ideas, some such as the “avatar” have become so entrenched in culture that most people forget it originated here. Snow Crash is campy, fast-paced, and all-around the most fun I’ve ever had reading fiction.
The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli:
This is the best book on physics I’ve read. I could also say it’s one of the best philosophy books, the two fields being so close together when it comes to thinking about time. Here, Rovelli explains, in simultaneously simple and complete as possible terms, what humanity currently understands about time. While many of us have had some exposure to ideas like time-travel through pop culture, once the limits of knowledge on time and entropy are explained, it’s hard to think about anything else. Rovelli’s writing is so eloquent, I completed it in a couple sittings. The time flew by.
The Best Book I Read in the Second Half of 2018
The Disordered Mind: What Unusual Brains Tell Us About Ourselves by Dr. Eric Kandel:
This is the epitome of the type of book I love. It’s concise, written by a regarded expert in the field, tackles profound issues, and has pictures. Just published in 2018 by Dr. Eric Kandel, who won the 2000 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his work on how memories are stored in our brain’s neurons, The Disordered Mind is a fantastic introductory guide to all the major mental disorders, with chapters on: Depression, Bipolar, Schizophrenia, Dementia, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, Post-Traumatic Stress, and Addiction. And it concludes with two chapters on the neuroscience of two important, universal human conditions: gender identity and consciousness.
While covering the foundation of how humans work, Kandle integrates the latest research from related fields into as cohesive a narrative as possible: psychology, biology, chemistry, neuroscience, and genomics. I can’t emphasize enough how important the topics covered here are, and how effectively and succinctly Kandel covers wide ground. This is the book I would highly recommend for non-scientists breaking into the study of the brain.