In 2019, I read 27 books. This was less than last year’s 40 and is not an overly impressive quantity for any serious reader, yet I’m happy with both the amount and the content that I read this year. Below, I’ll give a brief summary of my favorites.
In January, I read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. This is an extraordinary book written by one of the world’s most famous psychologists that discusses in depth and in riveting detail the numerous cognitive and behavioral biases that human beings exhibit. Kahneman and his life-long academic partner Amos Tversky revolutionized the world of behavioral psychology and behavioral economics by demonstrating empirically that humans behave and make decisions in systematically biased ways. This book is a must-read for decision makers and anyone interested in understanding their own psychological flaws and blind spots.
After Thinking, Fast and Slow, I read Michael Lewis’ The Undoing Project, a biography of both Kahneman and Tversky that covers much of the material in Thinking, Fast and Slow. I enjoy Lewis’ writing and have read almost everything he has written. The Undoing Project offers a more “lightweight” introduction to the concepts in Thinking, Fast and Slow along with Lewis’ excellent narrative spin.
Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield is a historical fiction novel recounting the famous Battle of Thermopylae (the same battle portrayed in the glaringly inaccurate 300). Pressfield’s novel is told through the eyes of one of the free Greeks living in Sparta who joins the 301 Spartiates (King Leonidas plus 300 peers) to stymie the advance of Xerxes’ Persian Army at the narrow pass of Thermopylae (Greek for “The Hot Gates”). Pressfield’s telling is gripping and tragic. He paints a bleak picture of the violence and chaos that are the hallmarks of all warfare, but particularly the up-close clashes of ancient battles. Pressfield’s novel does not overly valorize Spartan culture, but it certainly does omit many of the more unseemly aspects. For more on this, I highly recommend Bret Devereaux’s series on Spartan culture.
Tom Holland’s Rubicon was one of my favorite books of 2019. Holland recounts the twilight years of the Roman Republic, from around 120 BC to 20 BC. Holland’s narrative storytelling is utterly compelling and one could be forgiven for forgetting that they are reading actual history. Rome’s history is packed with intrigue, suspense, plots, twists and turns, and outrageous characters, and Holland does a remarkable job of bringing this world to life. It is incredible to think that some of the world’s most famous historical characters, such as Julius Caesar, Pompey, Cicero, Cato, Octavian, Mark Antony, Cleopatra, and others, all lived at the same time. Rubicon tells the story of one of the most dramatic periods in human history and I highly recommend it.
Two books I read on recommendations from the same friend were Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman and The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf. Einstein’s Dreams is a short collection of fictional vignettes representing Einstein’s own visions of time during the period he was developing his theory of special relativity. Lightman is both a physicist and a writer. His familiarity with the underlying scientific concepts is beautifully blended with his prose to create a unique and thoroughly enjoyable reading experience.
The Invention of Nature is a biography of Alexander von Humboldt, the most famous scientist whom I had never heard of. Humboldt was perhaps the most famous scientist in the world during his lifetime (1769-1859) and while he did not discover or invent any particular mathematical or scientific theory on which to attach his name, he is almost single-handedly responsible for defining the current scientific and popular conception of nature as a complex, interrelated web-of-life.
It is hard to believe, but prior to Humboldt the popular thinking in Enlightenment circles was that nature was a mechanistic process, almost like a clock. It was perfectly and rationally designed, with pieces that operated independently from each other. Descartes thought of animals as closer to machines or automata rather than creatures similar to humans. Humboldt, born in Prussia, traveled throughout South and Central America and through his writings, drawings, and samples brought a vivid picture of that world to the scientific community back in Europe. His observations laid the foundations for many scientists who followed: Charles Darwin read Humboldt obsessively and corresponded with him later in life. Humboldt also inspired other famous environmentalists and naturalists such as George Perkins Marsh (the founding father of modern environmentalism), Henry David Thoreau, and John Muir.
This year I also continued my Stoic education, reading Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic (also known as the Epistulae Moralis), Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, and Epictetus’ Enchiridion (I read the version titled How to be Free, which is essentially just a reprint of the Enchiridion). My study of Stoic philosophy has been the chief reason behind my ever-increasing sense of calm and self-control and has been the best tool I have found for battling feelings of anxiety and despair. These three books represent perhaps the “trinity” of Stoic thought, and I recommend them to anyone interested in learning more about Stoic philosophy (as a starting place, however, I highly recommend Will Irvine’s Guide to the Good Life).
On a recommendation from Brett McKay of The Art of Manliness, I picked up Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry this year and absolutely loved it. This is perhaps my favorite book that I read this year and is certainly now one of my favorite works of fiction. Lonesome Dove tells the tale of a cattle drive from South Texas to Montana set sometime in the 1870’s. McMurtry’s story telling ability is peerless and the characters he creates are funny, tragic, inspirational, frustrating, and terrifying. McMurtry’s knowledge of Western geography and history is evident throughout the tale and no other work of fiction captures the gritty and unromantic aspects of this hard life quite so well. I recommend this book to anyone, but particularly to those who grew up in or are enamored with the American West.
From Lonesome Dove, I picked up T.R. Fehrenbach’s Lone Star, his history of Texas and the Texans (this book was also recommended by Ryan Holiday, who’s book recommendations I follow religiously). Growing up in Texas, I took Texas history in grade school, which to me now seems utterly inappropriate. More than any other state, the settlement of Texas was steeped in violence and bloodshed. Texas was fought over fiercely by three sides, all of whom mistrusted and disliked each other: the Anglo-Saxon settlers from the United States, Spanish (and later Mexican) settlers, and the Plains Indian tribes, most notably the Comanches, Kiowas, and Apaches. Texas’ history is tragic, heroic, dramatic, and fascinating. The type of people who were willing to scrabble out a hard-won existence on Texas soil helped define the Texan ethos and culture which persists to this day. Lone Star gave me a somber appreciation and respect for Texas’ history.
S.C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon, a fascinating telling of the incredible story of Cynthia Ann Parker and her son Quanah Parker, continued the theme of Texas history. Cynthia Ann was abducted by Comanche Indians while she was a child from her family’s farm, where most of her family were killed. She was raised as a Comanche and later gave birth to three children, one of whom was named Quanah Parker, who would go on to become one of the most famous American Indians in U.S. history. Empire of the Summer Moon tells the brutal and captivating history of the clash between Texan settlers and the Comanche Indians. Gwynne is not shy about confronting the uncomfortable fact of Comanche brutality and cruelty. Reality is complex, and this book paints the complicated picture of that era. The Comanche Indians are portrayed as a sympathetic group to the extent that we see their culture and lifestyle slowly eroded by the settlement of Texas; however, their own violence, cruelty, and brutality make them more than mere victims. Empire of the Summer Moon, like Lone Star, forces the reader to reckon with the complications of human nature and the violent terror of Texas’ past.
I enjoyed Empire of the Summer Moon so much that I read Gwynne’s newest book Hymns of the Republic, the narrative history of the final year of the American Civil War. Gwynne is an exquisite author, and his ability to construct a compelling story line from historical events is unmatched. Hymns of the Republic draws into focus just how truly tragic the American Civil War was and also presents the stark realization that history is not nearly as clean as we would often like it to be. Both the Union and the Confederacy had their share of incompetent, racist, and corrupt leaders, as well as their share of courageous and valorous men who thoroughly believed they were doing the right thing. At the beginning, the Union’s motivation for the war was emphatically not about abolishing slavery or black liberation, but merely about re-uniting the country (it is unquestionable, however, that the South’s primary concern beneath their overtures of “states’ rights” and their reason for seceding was the continuance of slavery). Abraham Lincoln himself stated that if he could reunite the Union without abolishing slavery, he would do it. However, his own personal disdain for the institution as well as ever-increasing pressure from Northern abolitionists (particularly Frederick Douglass) finally compelled Lincoln to pivot his stance, refusing to even consider reunification without abolition. He suffered dearly for this position. Lincoln was deeply unpopular and was one of the most hated men in America. In the North, he was hated either for doing too much (many Americans were not happy with the fact that their sons, fathers, and brothers were dying to free slaves, which they feared would unleash a wave of black migration into the North) or not doing enough. Hymns of the Republic recounts all of the political and military drama of that era and sheds some of the mysticism around the characters of that time. Like Holland’s Rubicon, Hymns of the Republic so effectively draws you in to the story that it often makes you forget that you are reading real history. S.C. Gwynne has entered the list of authors of which I will read anything they write.
I read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation in a single sitting. I consider myself a fan of science fiction and yet had never read this seminal series. Needless to say, it did not disappoint. I love Asimov’s writing style (the stylistic structure of Foundation has echoes of one of my favorite short stories, The Last Question) and was completely enraptured by the tale of the waning Galactic Empire and the nascent, underdog Foundation.
Endurance by Alfred Lansing is the true story of Ernest Shackleton’s doomed Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. In 1914, Ernest Shackleton and his crew set out to become the first to cross the Antarctic continent overland. However, on their way to the continent their ship became trapped in the pack ice and eventually sank. In Endurance, Lansing tells the incredible tale of how Shackleton led his men safely back to civilization.
Finally, three of the most compelling books I read this year were Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Deep Work, and Digital Minimalism. The first contains a novel take on traditional career guidance, the premise essentially being that “follow your passion” is worthless and even harmful career advice. Many people don’t have “passions” that can readily be turned into a career, nor has doing something you’re passionate about been found to actually result in career satisfaction. Instead, the things that define a satisfying career are autonomy, connectedness, and competence. The logical conclusion is to instead focus on developing skills and experience (what Newport calls career capital) that you can use to leverage positions that offer these important traits.
Deep Work and Digital Minimalism go hand-in-hand and are Cal Newport’s manifestos on the importance of focus and attention in an increasingly distracted world. Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown, is utterly practical in his writing style, eschewing theoretical pondering and instead offering concrete practices, methodologies, and advice supported by research and empirical data. But don’t be deceived - his writing style is entirely approachable and conversational and the ideas can be digested by anyone. Deep Work is, in my opinion, required reading for any knowledge worker who wishes to be successful in today’s economy.
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