Time is scarce, books are many, what do I read? Here is my list of 2019, I hope you can find something you like!
1. Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker
10 out of 10
Illuminating! This should be taught in schools, as it affects everyone in so many ways. Not sleeping enough leads to weakened immune response, overeating, being overweight, fatigue, higher likelihood of just about every disease, including mental ones.
Author also gives some practical tips on how to fall to sleep faster and stay asleep longer. Some things are a bit overly dramatic, e.g. don’t drink coffee and alcohol, but as usual — exercise the moderation!
2. Spillover by David Quammen
10 out of 10
Thriller/detective genre & spirit while non-fiction and scientific!
Quammen takes you on a tour to see the sequences of events for each of the notable zoonotic spillovers (when a disease jumps from a non-human animal to humans) — and you see the story unfolding making guesses and finding the intricate answers shortly.
Hendra, Lyme, Ebola, SARs-CoV, HIV… how did they come around? The story is often quite non-trivial and actually fascinating. What’s the Next Big One (NBO)? It’s considered inevitable, the question is only when, where and how bad?
More practically, after this books you’ll at least have an idea of what’s the difference between a virus (just a piece of RNA or DNA) and a bacteria (cell organism), and how their actions and treatment strategies differ.
Highly recommend! Probably will be out of the typical read for many.
3. Homo Deus by Yuval Harari
8 out of 10
What’s the future going to be like? Having dissected the history of humans in the first book, we are presented with what are the likely logical developments in the second.
Harari argues that humanism and capitalism won 20th century not because the are “right”, but because they worked better than anything else. It made economic sense to give individual humans the rights and freedoms, and encourage them to search within and listen the inner voices.
With the dramatic increase of the computing power humans are gradually becoming less and less useful, individually, which may and will lead to the changes in the way we organize our societies. Read on to find out how and why!
Good read overall, though less exciting and less non-controversial than the first one, it will definitely prompt the reader to think about how the future can really look like…
4. Algorithms to Live By by Brian Christian
9 out of 10
Nice read on useful strategies to employ in day to day decisions.
Personally, I found a lot of ideas that I intuitively thought about and have been using in life, but elaborated clearly. For example: how to minimize regret by optimizing the explore/exploit ratio, or how to use randomness to solve intractable problems. Bayesian rules for prediction based on small sample sizes and knowing the distribution shape was also enlightening.
Authors do an awesome job providing specific examples from sports, politics and other fields to demonstrate the principles. Easy to read, and does not require a hard commitment.
Additionally, I’d recommend to gift this book to kids and teenagers who want to get an idea on what computer science is about: modeling common problems, analyzing the tradeoffs, and solving puzzles — basically a game!
5. Benjamin Franklin by Walter Isaacson
9 out of 10
Excellent read on American roots of meritocracy, entrepreneurship, community and frugality. Not having had US history class in school, I appreciated the details on the spirit of times: from the distinct proprietary colonies, to war, to independence. It was illuminating to follow the often quoted characters like Washington, Jefferson and Adams through their corresponding paths that intersected with Franklin, who was 30–50 (!) years older.
Franklin, as many a genius, have had plenty of quirks, but it is just mind blowing how one person could do so much in just one life: writer, postmaster, diplomat, inventor, scientist, essayist, founder and entrepreneur, he grew rich by doing good but bettering himself too. All while enjoying his life and having constant social contacts. I wonder — how was it even possible to maintain the conversation with what seems to be 100+ close friends/confidants in the era when people would ride animals as a means of transportation. Admittedly, being a chief of the snail mail system did help though. Oh, and did I mention, he invented the basis for electricity, bifocals and couple of musical instruments in the spare time.
The text does get a bit dry at times, but a shrewd reader will easily skip through those parts.
Overall, highly recommend — inspirational and educational.
6. Food Rules by Michael Pollan
7 out of 10
Palatable little book — matches my views on food and diet — takes only 30 minutes to read, but might help to navigate the complicated world of nutrition that we are presented with today.
7. Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Todd Gilbert
11 out of 10
If you are to read just one book — read this one!
Daniel Gilbert talks about the faults of human faculties: memory, perception, and imagination, which is fascinating on its own right, yet author weaves these together to make a compelling case for why we often do things that ultimately don’t lead to feeling happier.
There is no one shoe fits all solution to happiness, but being informed on why we stumble on the way will go far (I’m sorry) in increasing anyone’s daily ration of glee and joy.
The model of the emotional immune system Gilbert introduces is just so powerful — perhaps the single most important psychological tool you will have learned.
Below are some excerpts in no particular order, there were too many to jolt them all down:
“We ask whether the facts allow us to believe our favored conclusions and whether they compel us to believe our disfavored conclusions.”
“Because if you are like most people, then like most people, you don’t know you’re like most people.”
“We are more likely to generate a positive and credible view of an action than inaction, of a painful experience than of an annoying experience, of an unpleasant situation that we cannot escape than of one we can. And yet, we rarely choose action over inaction, pain over annoyance, and commitment over freedom.”
“Imagination cannot easily transcend the boundaries of the present, and one reason for this is that it must borrow the machinery that is owned by perception. The fact that those two processes run on the same platforms means that we are sometimes confused about which one is running. …We mistakenly conclude that we will feel tomorrow as we feel today.”
8. Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson
9 out of 10
Revealing, educational and inspirational!
Being far from art and Renaissance history I’ve learned a lot — really cool to the Leonardo in the detailed context of 15–16th century city states of Italy and of the France. As to Leonardo himself, as the French king put it: “he knows everything there is to know about anything in this world”. It’s crazy to think about how one person could know almost everything, and on many subjects know more than any other expert for the next few centuries!
Without spoiling the book — and I really did not know much about Leonardo — I want to highlight that it was pretty interesting to learn more about how arts work and what are the nuances — e.g. how to appreciate Mona Lisa.
The book itself is a lee bit dry and repetitive, but once you accept it and allow yourself to skip the paragraphs that you already know what they are going to convey, the read is fluid and enjoyable.
I’d recommend this book to those who have kids in ages 5 to 15 — you’ll re-learn how to be curious like a child, and might even try out several experiments…
9. The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking
9 out of 10
Awe-inspiring and witty book that glances over why we live in the world like this one, why universe the way it is and how could it have been created out of nothing.
It’s pretty remarkable how such a physics/math heavy subject could be so well written and relatively easy to comprehend — enjoyable and even entertaining read that makes you wonder about the millenia old question. Would recommend to everyone!
To highlight the wit, it’s just so delightful to see, after a paragraph of a loaded abstractions:
“As a result, in more than three dimension the sun would not be able to exist in a stable state with its internal pressure balancing the pull of gravity. It would either fall apart or collapse to form a black hole, either of which could ruin you day.” :)
10. The Millionaire Next Door by Thomas J. Stanley
5 out of 10
Mostly overly simplistic and annoying this book does contain many insights some of which different people might find useful. Would recommend to glance/skip/read this one.
About 80% of the time is spent talking about the benefits of being frugal. I think it’s self evident, but the authors made being scrupulous with money sound that it’s good no matter what, while in reality it’s much more nuanced.
The most interesting part for me was the analysis of the effect of gift to children. Frequently, parents weakening the weak by giving money to the under-performers — I see this mistake all too often.
All in all, I’d recommend the book to anyone who is not able to live debt free.
11. Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber
8 out of 10
Provocative and timely, this book unravels the history of money, debt, state and capitalism to provide a better context for thinking about the future of our world.
The writing itself is too convoluted to my taste, lacks the structure that would be easy to follow, but I think that’s intentional — Graeber tries to write with just as much smoke and mirrors as there is in the actual economic structures of the world. I found the ethnographic parts too long and a bit annoying, but they could be easily skipped.
With the bad parts out of the way, I really liked the bravery with which things are described in the historic perspective: no one seems to be talking about the larger picture nowadays, people focus on the small scale models and just pray it all will work out.
All in all, I’d recommend this book to a serious and curious reader, while some parts of the contents, for example about the history of the debtors and creditors, jubilees, and how the modern neoliberal economic model works, would be useful to a practically everyone.
12. Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford
10 out of 10
What a fantastic book that reads like a mystery novel yet concisely unravels the narrative that shaped the modern world! Would recommend to absolutely every one — enjoyable and educational on so many levels!
On rather tangential example: what’s common between an assassin, an algorithm and a kamikaze? All of them are tied to the Mongols: they killed off the terrorists assassins (hash-shashin, or hashish users) who messed with the middle Eastern trade for centuries; they identified the best available mathematics to keep track of their enormous inventories and development programs — they spread that math from Al Khwarizm (al-gorithm) to the rest of the world; and they almost conquered Japan when the crazy storm Kamikaze, or Divine Wind if you are Japanese, wiped the enormous ships out…
I wish history was that much fun in school!
13. Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy by Tim Harford
9 out of 10
Easy, entertaining, funny, and educational. I like how the author tried to highlight that most of the truly game changing inventions, however simple or complicated, tend to have both immediately visible benefits, as well as the complex and far reaching negatives. It’s a good exercise to think about anything in terms of tradeoffs; it’s especially vital in our oh so polarized society where lots of people prefer to see things black and white, instead of focusing on collaboration and fruitful discussions of the tradeoffs, remedies and balance.
I’d recommend this book to anyone, perfect for travel, or any other situation when self contained chapters is a plus.
Few random highlights: insurance vs. gambling, how to think about it; s-bend to enable centralized and connected sewage in cities, preprocessed food — facilitated women liberation but on the flip side unlocked obesity; how gramophone and TV separated the incomes of top stars vs. most of the other performers.
14. Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell
9 out of 10
Amazing audiobook; chapters that make you think and analyze…
I first really want to praise this audio book — Gladwell narrates it himself and uses the actual people’s recordings for the dialog. That makes it almost like a mix of a book and a podcast. It’s really well done!
The material itself is mostly great. I especially want to highlight the chapters on alcohol (and the myopia theory — alcohol does not reveal our true selves, it just magnifies whatever is that you mind is focused on at the moment, and blinds us from all else), on suicide and the coupling theory (it never ceases to surprise me why people talk so little about suicide when it’s such a major cause of death!?) and on transparency (how we are not very good at reading people by their looks or behavior).
Some chapters were just passable for me, either because it was trivial or too repetitive, but that would depend on the reader’s background, of course.
Overall, just like with other Gladwell’s books, I’d recommend to anyone — it’s easy to read, it stimulates thinking critically, and is just enjoyable in general.
15. Investment Biker by Jim Rogers
8 out of 10
Perfect book to take with you on a travel! It’s exciting, stimulating, honest and easy to follow.
I appreciated the endless adventures during the trip around the world — also makes you realize your limits — I wouldn’t have enjoyed such an extreme travel — while highlighting that some the of the most amazing experiences there are you can’t just purchase from a tour agency — one would have to create them serendipitously by allowing the chance to work its magic on the strategically planned opportunities.
I also liked the book from a historic perspective — it’s well more entertaining to learn about the things past from the descriptions of a traveler than from a history book.
Overall — would recommend to anyone and every one!
It might seem like I got very lucky with the book selection this year. I have! Although I also start many more books than I finish, so there is a bit of a survival bias going on :)
15 books, ~5900 pages