2019 was another fun year of interesting books. I am trying to sprinkle in some “re-reads” each year because enjoying a book after a multi-year absence is like spending time with an old friend. As of now, I have read 35 books this year, and have picked 18 of them to share with you. Those books covered a lot of genres. They are listed in the rough order that I read them throughout the year.
I have added six of the books to my Great Books List. Those selected books have “Great Book Selection” in their description.
|Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport — It has been famously said that “money is a great servant but a terrible master” (commonly attributed to Francis Bacon). The same might be said for our electronic devices. Picking up where he left off in his earlier work Deep Work, Newport addresses the problem that many of us wrestle with: how to control our use of devices and apps that have been engineered to occupy our attention. Just as our children have needed to improve their financial literacy in a more complicated financial world, and just as we all need to improve our media literacy in an era of deliberately misleading “news”, so too must we develop social media mastery. Blaise Pascal famously said in the 17th century that “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone”. Can you imagine what he’d think today?
|Bad Blood by John Carreyrou — Great Book Selection. This book covers the jaw-dropping corporate malfeasance, Silicon Valley hubris, bad judgement and reprehensible behavior that marks the Theranos story. Also made into a documentary by HBO, this story would be more impossible for me to believe if I hadn’t spent as much of my career working for Silicon Valley tech companies and hanging around VCs. But based on the herd mentality and cult of personality that influences investments, I’m not that surprised – although bad bets usually don’t create $600 million in investor losses. This was a great book. I was shocked. I was horrified. I couldn’t put it down.
|The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis— Great Book Selection. I saw an interview with Ross Douthat, the syndicated columnist for The NY Times, in which he talked about this book. Most of us are familiar with Lewis’s more famous works – principally the Narina series and his books on Christian apologetics such as the Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity, etc. In the interview, Douthat referred to this book as Lewis’s best. Since I had never heard of it that caught my attention. This is a short read that relates the story of a group of people in “hell” taking a very British-sort of bus to visit “heaven” and the difficulties they face in changing their ego-centric worldview.
|My Father Left Me Ireland— This would fall into the “gripping memoir” genre. The author is a writer for The National Review and other conservative publications, but this book isn’t about politics or policy. It’s his reflection on his youth. His birth was the result of a brief relationship between his Irish father and Irish-American mother. Brought up in the U.S., his youth is spent immersed in Irish heritage through his mother and his yearning for the distant father who himself is unsure of how to relate to this American son of his. Anyone who likes a beautifully-written memoir, or who likes Ireland, will enjoy this.
|The Election of Pope Francis — Not for Catholics only. The process of electing a new pontiff recalls medieval times when the politics were no-tech but involved just as much coalition-building and strategy as today’s elections. The writer, Gerard O’Connell, has unprecedented post-conclave access and walks the reader through the back-and-forth that results in the election of the first pope from Latin America.
|The Buried by Peter Hessler— The most recent book by one of my favorite authors. Two of Hessler’s books are in my Great Books list, and cover his deep insights into China. He and his wife – also a journalist – decide they want to have children in the U.S. and then move to Egypt. Twin girls quickly arrive and well before they were intending to move to Cairo, the civil unrest known as the “Arab Spring” begins. Most of us would have pulled the plug, but this actually caused them to move up their departure date. The resulting family adventure in an ancient civilization racked by protest is this book. If you’re interested in Egypt, or a story of a young family learning a complicated language in an ancient culture, this book is for you. As always, Hessler’s humor, curiosity and intellect are on display.
|The Pioneers by David McCullough — Another gripping historical account from McCullough who truly is a national treasure. This book details a group of New England families who, starting in 1788, set out for the wild and uncharted Northwest Territories, settling on the Ohio river in what is now Marietta, Ohio (a place that would have been considered “Northwest” to the 18th-century Americans who mostly were clinging to the eastern seaboard). McCullough uses first-hand accounts to build his typically gripping narrative. If you think your life is tough, read this book and understand what others had to deal with.
|The Second Mountain by David Brooks— Great Book Selection. I loved this book, which is the continuation of Brooks’ public discernment about the nature of a moral life, and the path that people travel toward a later-in-life wisdom. Brooks, as usual, is clear about his personal failings, including his divorce. He – like all of us – is made of crooked timber (from which, as Kant said, “nothing straight was ever made”). Thoughtfully written, the title refers to the fall-down-then-climb-back-up pattern of most people’s moral growth.
|Atomic Habits by James Clear — I suppose you make a habit out of reading a bunch of books about habits. I’ve read a few of them and this one is great. It provides practical guidance on how to, as the book’s subtitle says, “build good habits and break bad ones”.
|Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens— A beautiful work of fiction set in the North Carolina marsh country in the 1950s and 60s. The protagonist is an isolated girl growing up outside of town – both literally and figuratively. The book follows intertwined stories, gives the reader a true sense of place, and explores the human struggle between independence and the need for connection. Don’t take my word for it though. This book sold more print copies in 2019 than any other adult title, fiction or non-fiction.
|Tools and Weapons by Brad Smith— The subtitle of this book is “The Promise and the Peril of the Digital Age”. Written by Microsoft Chief Legal Officer and President Brad Smith, this book looks at the societal impact of technology – cybercrime, cyberwarfare, privacy, artificial intelligence, social media and more. Brad is a broad thinker. This isn’t some sort of pro-Microsoft drivel. He looks hard in the corporate mirror and wrestles with important issues. Brad is a native of Appleton, WI (where I live) and has done well since graduating from a local public high school. This is a smart book for people who want to think more deeply than the average media story about tech.
|The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt— A Pulitzer Prize winning novel that follows the growth of a boy grieving the loss of his mother and holding on to one thing that links him to her tragic death and his miraculous survival – a small painting of great value. His hiding of the painting plunges him into a world of art, duplicity, and personal growth. This is a coming-of-age story set in New York and beyond.
|On the Plain of Snakes by Paul Theroux— Great Book Selection. Written by the dean of travel literature, Theroux shows that age will not slow him down, as he packs his car and heads to to one of the most dangerous borders in the world: The U.S./Mexico border. During his travels, in which he hops back and forth over the border, he gives the reader a true sense of the people he meets and their stories. I did a blog post on this book. I recommend it highly if for no other reason than it will give you a depth of understanding of the immigration issue beyond the high-volume debates.
|In Defense of Elitism by Joel Stein— The title says it all. Stein takes a funny but reasonably respectful look at the anti-elitist sentiment in various quarters. Although I loved his writing, it’s natural to be annoyed from time to time as you’re reading it (I was). But his writing is great fun, and there are lots of gems in the book. Joel’s author photo in the book has him holding a pipe, wearing a smoking jacket, and wearing monocle, and the book’s subtitle is “Why I’m Better Than You and You Are Better Than Someone Who Didn’t Buy This Book.”
|Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell— Any Malcolm Gladwell book is a sure-fire best-seller, and this is another interesting read. In this one, he outlines how a series of complex interactions between strangers can lead to tragic outcomes, and he uses the Sandra Bland case as a way to demonstrate what can happen. I know there are a few Gladwell haters out there, but I’m not one of them. I’d pay to read his grocery list. Sure – he might make a simple concept seem more earth-shattering than it is, but again he was written a serious, fun, and thought-provoking book.
|Educated by Tara Westover— Great Book Selection. Astounding. Truly an incredible book that deserves all the accolades it has received. Much like The Glass Castle, this book details a childhood that is difficult to fathom. Tara’s ability to overcome her zero days of schooling to study for, and then do well on, a college entrance exam enabled her to attend school for the first time at BYU as an 18 year old. There, she learns words she had never heard before, such as “Holocaust”. The story is beautifully written, and as you read it you realize that her process of moving away from her family’s pathologies will be a life-long struggle.
|The American Story by David Rubenstein — The subtitle of this book is “Conversations with Master Historians”. These transcripts were a series of interviews Rubenstein did with well-respected historians about great Americans and the challenges they overcame. Interestingly, these interviews were held in the Library of Congress over a period of time for the members of Congress themselves. One can only hope that the interviews inspired them to take up the serious work before them, and to be cognizant of the gifts bequeathed to them by leaders who sacrificed and strived.
|Upheaval by Jared Diamond— Great Book Selection. This book by Jared Diamond (no relation) looks at six different countries that had to overcome some massive upheaval. Ranging from Finland and Germany in and following WW2, to Australia, Indonesia and others, Diamond shows what helped some countries succeed in the face of upheaval, and what has caused others to remain stuck. Naturally, this book is directed toward an American reading audience to contemplate how our own country might fit into the reality of upheaval. Diamond doesn’t pull any punches, and by the time you get to his point of view he has earned your attention.
Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers. Keep on reading in 2020.