The past year was excellent regarding quantity and quality of books I read. It would make me ecstatic if I could repeat it this year too (a man can dream). Here are my top picks from 2018.
Astrophysics for People in a Hurry
In this popular-science book, Neil deGrasse Tyson explores basic workings of the universe, what we know and what is still outside of our grasp. The book is short, beautifully written, and witty, but it assumes some knowledge of physics if you want to follow along. I’m a secular person, but if I ever came close to feeling spiritual, it was while I was reading this book.
Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ
Gut is probably the biggest surprise of the year. Giulia Enders writes about our digestion system, a critical and often overlooked part of our body (yes, there’s pooping too). The book keeps a light tone and is written for a layman, but is dense with helpful and interesting facts. Nothing more to add except my recommendation to read it.
Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End
Atul Gawande tells a story of how improvements in medicine have led to the perception that medicine can cure and fix everything and everyone. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. There is a point, usually during severe illness or old age, when there’s nothing we can do to improve. Recognizing that point, accepting the outcome, and using the remaining time as best as possible is something that, according to the author, most medical and health practitioners are not trained to do. However, it seems some people know how to grapple with that impossibly hard moment and keep the conversation focused on what we care about most.
The Emperor of All Maladies
Siddhartha Mukherjee wrote a biography of cancer, from its first mention thousands of years ago through “war on cancer” and recent medical discoveries. Cancer’s inevitability in human life and its aggressiveness makes it one of the things we fear most, but also the one that we need to fully understand if we want to cure it, or at least come to terms with it. The book won The Pulitzer Prize.
Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World and Why Things Are Better Than You Think
Despite all negative news in the media, things have been slowly improving for the humanity overall. The Rosling family wrote the book to present ten instincts (like blaming and generalization) that distort our view of the world. The book is a companion to the Gapminder website where you can find tools and data to illustrate the improvements over the last 200 years and to explore how people across the world live today.
Scale: The Universal Laws of Life and Death in Organisms, Cities
Geoffrey West explores if there are universal laws of growth. Why there is no mammal bigger than a blue whale? How come the number of heartbeats in the life of a mouse and an elephant is roughly the same? What’s the theoretical maximum human lifespan? Why most companies die, but most cities don’t? If you find these questions intriguing, the book will delight you.
The Evolution of Cooperation
One of Robert Axelrod’s field of inquiry in the 70s and 80s was game theory. He was wondering what would happen if agents in the famous prisoner’s dilemma wouldn’t make only one transaction, but many. He ran computer simulations with different agents and noticed something startling—under specific conditions, the agent that dominated the tournaments was one of the most cooperative. The finding breaks the narrative that selfishness always prevails. The book is an elaboration of the author’s Science paper, and the author explores how cooperation can emerge in a world of selfish agents (nature or business) when there is no central authority to police their actions. It’s a short and easy read. However, if you prefer a more visual version, you can get the critical insights in this game (based on the book).
The two-thousand-year-old writings from the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius are a great insight into a mind of a stoic philosopher. The essays are as relevant today as they were then; it just shows how human desires, needs, and problems are pretty much the same despite technological progress. Humans haven’t changed a bit in two millennia.
High Output Management
In this classic from the 80s, Intel’s president Andy Grove explains the basics of management and how to run a company. The book is short, dense, and ideal for a new manager. If you know someone who just started in management, or would like to start soon, get them this book.
Principles: Life and Work
Ray Dalio shares principles he uses in his life and at his company Bridgewater Associates. His principles are interesting to read even if you don’t agree with them, but the real value of the book is seeing how helpful it might be to write down your principles. The clarity and detail that activity provides will make your decisions better and more consistent.
Merchants of doubt
This book gave me a lot of frustration. Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway present case studies in which a group of individuals has used media to oppose what the majority of the scientific community agreed at the time. Some examples are acid rain, climate change, and links between smoking and lung cancer. The group was tiny but its reach and harm disproportionately big so it left doubt in the minds of the public for many decades.
One mind-boggling fact I learned from the book is that in the 1930s German scientists had uncovered some evidence that smoking might be harmful. Most of their work was overlooked during the war because it was linked to Nazi propaganda. In the 1950s, the tobacco companies demonstrated harmful effects internally and didn’t do anything about it. It took half a century for a scientific consensus to prevail. So we’ve known that smoking is terrible for 80 years, but we still tolerate it. Lobbyists and sowers of doubt bear a part of the responsibility for this tragedy.
This one is hard to judge for a few reasons. The author, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, is someone who people either love or can’t stand. His style of writing could be described as aggressive and dismissive by some. When he has a good point he could summarize in 5 pages, he uses 50. Despite all of that, I would recommend the book because it covers important concepts that are worth exploring more. Examples: fragility and antifragility, nonlinear systems, rare and unpredictable events (black swans), intervention by subtraction, optionality and asymmetric payoffs.
Michael Lewis writes about how a group of traders in the US have started to exploit physical distances from their computers to trading exchanges. By being closer and getting a few milliseconds of additional time over a cable, they could manipulate markets—enter the world of high-frequency trading. Others followed soon, and the desire for speed and proximity became like a drug: addictive and destructive. However, a few people from within the industry still yearned for transparency and fairness, and they had an idea.
Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture
Even though I played Doom and Quake when I was younger, and first-person games are still one of my favorite genres, I didn’t know anything about the people who created the games and changed the industry. David Kushner tells a story of how John Carmack and John Romero came together to form ID Software in the 90s, how they reached the peak together, and how they separated due to differences between them. One interesting observation is how a small team can make a huge impact and how growing the team can actually slow it down. Bigger projects and teams rarely move as fast.
American Kingpin: The Epic Hunt for the Criminal Mastermind Behind the Silk Road
Ross Ulbricht was arrested two years after creating and leading the black marketplace Silk Road. Most of his private messages were found unencrypted due to a security oversight. Journalist Nick Bilton went through all the messages and recreated a gripping story of how a well-intentioned young libertarian started a simple exchange but then turned into a drug lord over time. It’s scary how your values can change quickly under pressure of immense wealth.
An excellent action thriller sequel to The Power of the Dog. Don Winslow tells a fictional story in a real historical setting of the war on drugs in the US and Mexico at the beginning of the 21st century. The story is excellent and descriptions of the war—yes, it’s a war—are nauseating. I highly recommend both novels.
You can find lists of recommended books from all years on my reading and books page.