Aside from the usual bunch of academic texts which I won't include here, this month's reading focused on classics and books about rationality/decision making. I don't purposefully chose cohesive books, but themes always seem to emerge.
Also, Smart Reading is now available in Kindle and PDF format. It's a collection of essays covering the techniques I use to get the most out of books.
Here's what I read this month.
Black Swan- Nassim Taleb. It has taken me far too long to start reading Taleb's work and, although my Amazon wishlist has about 500 books on it, his others are now at the front of the queue. Black Swan took me about a week to read - it's dense with important ideas and the margins of my copy are covered in notes. A Black Swan is any highly improbable event which we seek to explain away or ignore in hindsight, anything revealing the flaws in predictive models. The highest leverage books are those which include versatile, foundational knowledge because they make reading others easier. Read this if you want to better understand human irrationality, probability, statistics and the role of chance (in a format that makes sense and includes the right dose of sarcasm.)
The Poor Mouth - Flann O'Brien. A ridiculously funny, satirical book about rural Ireland in the early 20th century, a place and time where life was cheap, people shared their beds with farm animals and everything revolved around potatoes. In The Hair Of The Dogma (which I also read this month), O'Brien describes a friend walking in as he had finished typing the title page. The friend asks if he's disturbed his writing, and O'Brien remarks that the book is half finished - most people will only read the title so the hard part is done.
The Year of the Hare - Arto Paasilinna. I often find that books in Scandinavian languages tend to lose some crucial element in translation, some cultural undertone that doesn't work through an alternate lens. Even so, I adored this book. A discontented journalist quits real life after encountering an injured hare. With the hare as his companion, he lives in the woods, avoiding responsibility and stumbling into a series of odd situations ranging from bear hunts to a forest fire. It's a timely reminder of the importance of freedom and unstructured time outside, something I have missed of late. Pico Iyer's introduction is a wonderful compliment to the story too.
Lost at Sea - Jon Ronson. Five hundred pages of madness, documenting Jon Ronson's trips into the world of the esoteric. Ronson has a knack for inserting himself into ludicrous situations - attending a competitive eating competition, roaming the streets with real life superheroes, interviewing a reclusive billionaire, getting to know a cult who believe in donating their kidneys - then recording the experience in a vivid, sensitive way.
18 Minutes - Peter Bregman. A bit superficial with way too many anecdotes and a nauseating amount of name dropping (sadly common these days in books which seem to be written more as a means of proving how smart the author is, rather than serving readers.) It's rare that I finish a sub standard book and I hate posting negative reviews. But I enjoyed the HBR article this is based on and kept waiting for some sort of insight beyond simplistic cliches and references to same studies/quotes that 99% of non-fiction books seem to chose. I'm scaling back on reading productivity books because the diminishing returns are apparent at this point.
Anything You Want - Derek Sivers. Reread. A short, sweet book I often turn to for guidance.
You Are Not A Gadget - Jaron Lanier. Someone recommended this via email and I can't remember who, so thank you if you're reading this. How do I explain this book? It's a disconcerting, non-sensationalist, considered exploration of digital culture written by someone who was part of many pivotal moments in the creation of the internet we know today. Lanier looks at the ways the internet is subverting our individual and cultural identities, changing the way artists work and creating a false meritocracy. If your living depends on the internet (as mine does), it's essential reading for understanding the deeper implications. I recommend getting familiar with some key aspects of postmodernist theory (simulacra and the panopticon come to mind) before reading.
On Writing - Stephen King. Reread. This has taught me much of what I know about the topic. Part memoir, part guide, Stephen King shares the rules he follows in his own work and the techniques he has developed or learned from decades of literary mastery. Someone once criticised me for reading so much Stephen King, claiming his work isn't 'serious literature.' I disagree. He's an absolute genius with a wonderful ability to craft fantastical narratives which revolve around core human themes and remain gripping from the first to last page. He's a genius and I'm always willing to defend his honour, usually by lobbing one of his 1000+ page books at any critics.
The Old Man And The Sea - Ernest Hemmingway. Considering how much I read, people are often surprised when I haven't read a particular classic, with this being a prime example. I read this in one sitting and I'm still confused about how a book about fishing can be so suspenseful. It's almost painful in many parts. I guess that's a testament to Hemingway's brilliance.
In Cold Blood - Truman Capote. Chilling and masterful, proof that the truth can sometimes be more bizarre than fiction. This type of journalism is a dying art. Side note: I can't believe you can actually buy a 50 page 'summary' of In Cold Blood. The whole point is the brilliance of Capote's writing, not the basic details of the plot.
The Dip - Seth Godin. I cried when I read the first page of this book, where Seth Godin writes that he often feels like quitting. I cried because it is unimaginably comforting to hear that someone as incredible as him feels like that. It can be hard not to put extraordinary people on a pedestal and assume they never have off days or feel like giving up. To see it in plain language - "I feel like giving up. Almost every day, in fact." - is almost surreal. This is a book about when to quit, when to stick and how to quit the right way. All too often, we praise persistence, doggedness, determination. But, as Seth Godin writes, sometimes quitting is a smart choice. It's about the difference between a Dip (the point where something gets hard before the real rewards kick in), a Cul De Sac (where nothing gets better) and a Cliff (which has a drop-off point where everything falls apart.) One of the most significant parts for me is an idea drawn from ultra marathon runners: "Write it down. Write down under what circumstances you're willing to quit. And when. Then stick to it." I love this because quitting can so often be a spontaneous, in the moment decision. The idea of deciding, before going into an endeavour, the exact circumstances in which you will quit is brilliant and not something I would have ever considered.
The Quiet American - Graham Greene. Having read Pico Iyer's beautiful memoir about his relationship with Graham Greene, it was time to start on the latter' works. This book is wonderful, with each sentence crafted so perfectly that I found myself reading parts aloud, and rereading sections several times before I felt able to move on. Condensing the plot into a few sentences feels wrong, so I'll just say that it's about a love triangle set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. More than that though, it's about the way people relate to each other and the way we try to fit other cultures into neat boxes, ignoring when they spill out and subvert our expectations.
Perennial Seller - Ryan Holiday. Being a deadpan, relaxed person gifted with great patience, I naturally sprinted down to my local bookstore the day this came out to avoid waiting for it to be delivered, pushed several people aside and grabbed the sole copy on the shelf. I just love books about making art and the long game perspective this book espouses is far too rare. Also, Ryan Holiday's books always have the best bibliographies and give me endless ideas for what to read next.
The Hair of the Dogma - Flann O Brien. It's probably no surprise by now that I love Flann O'Brien and am working my way through everything he wrote. This is a collection of his newspaper columns, written in the 1940s and all somehow sounding like they could have been written today. The issues he covers - 'click bait' book titles, dysfunctional cars, inept politicians, strange cultural phenomena - reveal the unchanging basic nature of the media.
Simple Rules - Sull and Eisenhardt. This is one of the most useful, practical books I have read for a while and one which is guiding me in my quest to becoming a better decision maker. Sull and Eisenhardt explore the concept of 'simple rules' - foundational guidelines for making complex situations simple. It's also rare to read a non jargon-y non fiction book which is actually based on science and includes original research. Simple Rules is having a substantial impact on the way I make decisions and plans.
As always, if you have strong feelings about any of these books or want to recommend one, send me an email here. I love getting suggestions and they always go on my list.