- Neal Stephenson. Cryptonomicon.
- William Sloan Coffin. Credo.
- Robert Kagan. The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperial World.
On Deck (the Short List):
- Niccolo Machiavelli. The Prince.
- Lao Tsu. Tao Te Ching. As good a “Theory of Everything” as you’ll ever find.
- Richard Feynman. Six Easy Peaces. Six of the easiest-to-chew physics lectures from the Feynman Lectures on Physics, 1963. Here’s a basic understanding of fundamental physical laws of the universe. You need not be a physicist, rocket scientist or brain surgeon to understand these. (Chapter 6 involves some advanced mathematics, but you need not be able to follow the equations to understand the principles they prove.)
- Chris Voss. Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depended on It. Voss was the Lead International Kidnapping Negotiator for the FBI. This book is how he did it. The insights here are huge. Like anything else, to actually do it requires practice. This explanation of the principles gives you a place to start practicing. I wish I’d read this (and started practicing) years ago.
- Daniel Pink. When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. A few years ago I read Dan’s previous book, Drive, and have been a lurking fan ever since. When addresses the question, “If everything is timing how do you figure out the right timing?” In an easily accessible way, Dan lays out some of the best research about the why of when — from why you get that foggy feeling in the afternoon, to why you’re more likely to run a marathon when you’re 49, to why choirs and crew teams perform better in sync than any of the individuals can alone.
- Sheryl Sandberg & Adam Grant. Option B. Not what I expected when I signed on for this one. I had expected it to be psychological research about creating alternative strategies when unexpected things happen precluding following through with plans in progress. It’s sort of about that: it’s Sheryl Sandberg’s memoir of coping with life after the death of her husband, drawing on psychological insights from Adam Grant. As such, it’s much heavier reading than I’d expected and focused specifically on strategies for coping with major life losses. Still worth the read.
- Marcus Aurelius. Meditations. Trans. by Gregory Hays. “Everyone” seems to say that if you want to know about the Stoics, read Marcus Aurelius. And the Meditations does give you a pretty good feel for what Stoicism is about. What I found just as interesting is what “the most powerful man in the world” in his time was writing in his diaries. Turns out he was mostly depressed and lonely at the top, and trying to talk himself out of being afraid of death. This edition’s introductory essay by Gregory Hays is half the length of the book, and it also is nearly as interesting as the Meditations themselves.
- George Orwell. 1984. With Trump’s election last year, I read Animal Farm and made a start at a couple other dystopian novels: Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon and Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, neither of which I managed to finish. So many commentators have called the past year Orwellian, it seemed the thing to do, and not just for me. 1984 was unavailable (and perhaps is still unavailable) at the little public library down the street. It was out of stock the few times I actually wandered into a book store last year. Having now finally read it, we are not there yet. Not even close. There are enough people who still regard Trump as a cruel and disastrous joke, and we are still allowed to say so openly. And Big Brothers of the moment Corporations rather than Communists — the Amazon Alexa, constantly listening to everything, and the Roku TVs and Google, tracking everything we see.
- Yuval Hoah Harari. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. This is a great read, smart in a lot of ways. One of its most powerful ideas is the extent of things we treat as “real” are socially constructed fictions. So, for example, religion. But also, law, nations, and money. More provocatively, race and gender. Fictional doesn’t necessarily mean false. These fictions are what have enabled sapiens to go from unremarkable species to taking over the planet. Whether that’s been good for the planet, or even for most individual sapiens is still an open question. Harari also speculates on where technology may take us from here — that sapiens are close to becoming gods: “dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want.” Apparently, the only hope Harari sees for the future is that we evolve into something better.
- Eric A. Meyer & Estelle Weyl. CSS: The Definitive Guide. 4th ed. Coming in at just over 1000 pages, and dealing with the technical specifications of website style sheets, this book is not something that’s going to hit the must read list of the general public. That said, if you’re someone who works with web design, this book really is the definitive guide. And, of all the technical books I’ve read, it’s remarkably readable. I’ve been working with CSS for years, and nearly every day, and still I learned a lot about both why things work the way they do and things I just never knew could be done.
- Robert Wright. Why Buddhism Is True. Both “Buddhism” and “true” are highly qualified terms in this book. Wright’s Buddhism is Buddhist meditation theory as practiced in Western context, stripped of most (but not all) of its wider, Eastern divine aspects. Truth is, loosely, where Western Buddhist meditation philosophy meets modern Darwinian theories of neuroscience and psychology. While it makes a fascinating read, and Wright’s style is engaging, most of the proof is highly selective and subjective, and I suspect the parallels between Buddhism and cognitive science bend both Buddhism and science in ways their more rigorous practitioners will find disturbing.
- Douglas Adams. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Still a classic. If you haven’t read it, you owe it to yourself to read it. If you have, you owe it to yourself to read it again.
- Daniel Kahneman. Thinking, Fast and Slow. This one took me all summer. It required slowing down to really think about it. Kahneman identifies two different processes in the brain to explain why you can do some things without “thinking” about them, by intuition, and others that require slowing down to think. But even when you slow down, how you think is informed by assumptions you’ve arrived at via the intuitive brain process that make it difficult to recognize that you’ve assumed them. The upshot: there are many ways our thinking can go off the rails without our realizing it. By definition, there’s no bulletproof way of preventing them, but being aware of them can help.
- James Veitch, Dot Con. This is a quick, fun read. A compilation of several email exchanges between James and various email scammers. You can see several abbreviated versions online.
- Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan. Several previous books this year recommended this. You’d never guess that a book that is basically about the misapplication of Gaussian statistics would be a “can’t put it down” read. Written in 2006 the implications implied (he doesn’t claim to have “predicted”) the 2008 market crash. The implications also lead him in this book to say: “Anyone can be elected President.” Another prophetic implication now come to pass. Beyond that, the book has a few nuggets of great advice: “Don’t cross a river if it is, on average, four feet deep.” “The key to survival is not to die.” And, “Never run for trains.”
- Neil deGrass Tyson, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. I’m a Tyson fan. I go to the Hayden Planetarium whenever I get the chance. I watched his Cosmos series — even had friends over for viewing parties. I picked up Astrophysics when I saw it on the shelf in the Clarkson bookstore as I was picking up The Black Swan. I was disappointed. Maybe it needed more pictures (there are no pictures). Or maybe in his attempt to be accessible to a general audience, he ended up at a level so superficial that it lost the sense of “Wow” I had been hoping for. I kept thinking, “Yeah, that sounds cool, but how do we know that?” Maybe I’m asking too much from a book that’s written for someone who’s in a hurry.
- Arthur De Vany, The New Evolution Diet. Nassim Taleb mentioned De Vany in the addendum to the second edition of The Black Swan, above. It’s the first diet book I’ve ever read. Probably the last. De Vany applies statistical power laws and fractal mathematics (mentioned in Swan) to nutrition and exercise. Also, eat and exercise like a cave man — which became the mantra of the various Paleo diets. I’m not so sure about the derivative diet advice that came out of this, but the original idea made a good (and quick) read.
- Atul Gawande. Being Mortal. This is a leading contender for “most important book of the year”. If you think you might grow old, or if you love someone who might, or if you work with people who are growing old, this is mandatory reading. End of life medical care is way too often more harmful than helpful. I’ve seen it myself over 25 years of pastoral work. Getting old and dealing with all the ways it’s possible to fall apart is hard enough. Left to their own devices, the doctors will make you miserable and kill you quicker than anything mother nature might throw at you. This doctor, who’s been there and done that, shares some better ways to navigate old age, death and dying, and keep medicine from making it worse. It’s what I’ll be getting a lot of friends and family for Christmas this year.
Abandoned: (a.k.a. not worth finishing)
- Daniel A. Helminiak. The Transcended Christian. Quit after Chapter 10. The first few chapters that deal with how fundamentalism gets it wrong are a good review. Helminiak’s personal experience of being a gay Roman Catholic priest is a 1st hand window into that world (although he implies that his previous books are more focused on that — so maybe they’d be better). By Chapter 6 he’s moved on to resolving the miracle accounts of the Gospel into modern therapeutic terms, but the theology is less than compelling.
- Charles T. Munger. Poor Charlie’s Almanac. I picked this up on the recommendation of several blogs and podcasts. It’s a compilation of stuff by and about Charlie Munger, Warren Buffet’s partner at Berkshire Hathaway. It’s as much a tribute to him from friends and family as anything else: the kinds of things you hear about rich people at their funerals when everyone is given a chance to “give remembrances” and the service goes on way, way too long. Yes, he’s smart. Yes, he’s a smart-ass. And yes, he’s rich, so stuff he says gets taken more seriously than it needs to be. If I ever were to meet him in person, I might like him better.