In 2017, I set a goal for myself to read 20 books. The same goal as the year before, which I’d surpassed with 24 books. This was a great year for reading, and I read or listened to 46 books in total! I’ll likely write about this experience, but there’s a great resource at Farnam Street on how to level up your reading.
My reading focused, somewhat accidentally, on what I call the “how to live” genre as opposed to more business-focused books. I also tried to add some more diverse perspectives to my library, which I’ll continue to do next year.
In no particular order, these are my top reads from 2017:
Essentialism was a recommendation from my friend Jeff. The core idea of the book is that executing on “the vital few” and letting go of everything else will lead to a more fulfilling life.
It covers four areas: the essentialist mindset, identifying what’s essential (“discern the trivial many from the vital few”), eliminating the trivial, and executing effortlessly on the vital few.
Throughout this book you’ll pick up on shades of other writers or ideas, from Peter Drucker to mindfulness to Stoicism. At first this threw me off – if it’s just a rehashing of other ideas, what’s the point? However, it connects all of these concepts around a central direction and lays out practical steps to implement them.
The book tends not to go too deep into some of the underlying ideas, rather providing a surface-level overview. This bothered me at times, but it does the trick. Particularly if you supplement it by reading some of the sources he relies on.
This is a book I plan on revisiting periodically as a helpful guide on how to live a better life.
Obligatory “Sapiens” mention on a 2017 reading list. Sapiens is a fantastic overview of humans from pre-history to the modern world and extremely well-written. I would recommend this book to just about anyone as it’s accessible yet insightful.
I wish it had spent a bit more time exploring early humans as I found that to be the most engaging (and the area I’m least familiar with). However, Sapiens re-ignited my interest in this type of book, and I’ve added more like it to my reading list.
Between the World and Me
Between the World and Me is a deeply personal account of the author’s experiences growing up as a black man in America, told as a letter to his son.
I listened to this as an Audiobook narrated by the author which made the experience that much better. It has imprinted very clear mental images of where I was while listening to it which speaks to the power and emotion contained in it. It encouraged me to think more critically about topics like race and privilege by exposing them in a very human way.
This is a must read book.
Man’s Search for Meaning
Another audiobook, Frankl recounts his experiences being persecuted in the Second World War and in concentration camps. Similar to Between the World and Me, Frankl unpacks some deep truths about humanity based on his experiences with the worst of it.
This book, while a difficult read at times, will make you a better person. Another one I plan to revisit.
I picked this up to read on a camping trip after reading Three Day Road. It tells the story of three characters – a Haudenosaunee girl and a Jesuit priest who are captured by a Wendat warrior, and the Wendat warrior. From what I’ve read, it appears to be well researched and true to history, with insights into indigenous spirituality and the effects of French influence.
It can be a tough read at times with some pretty violent scenes. I enjoy Boyden’s style a lot though and plan to read Through Black Spruce shortly.
Thinking in Systems
I picked this up after reading Freedom from Command and Control as a primer on Systems Thinking. I’d recommend this to anyone who’s interested in learning about Systems Thinking as it’s very accessible, covers the key points, and wasn’t overly long or academic.
It’s best used as a jumping off point or primer, but it does a good job of making the subject matter less intimidating and leaves you feeling well armed but wanting to learn more. I plan to follow up on deeper Systems reading.
Sidenote: I went into this with no idea who the author was, and was fairly skeptical it would be some low-quality book that a random person had put out. I later realized the author also wrote Limits to Growth!
How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer
Recommended by Farnam Street, How to Live is an unorthodox biography of Michel de Montaigne. Rather than a chronological (or even factually complete) biography, Bakewell tells Montaigne’s story in a non-linear way similar to his own Essays, and frames it in terms of how to live a good life.
Chapters include topics like “Pay attention” and “Do a good job, but not too good of a job”. It touches on the influence of Stoicism, Epicureanism and Scepticism on Montaigne and also explores how his life and work was influenced by later periods, including the Romantics, the Enlightenment and more.
This is a rich and meandering book – the kind of book that is good for the soul, but maybe not for everyone.
Ego is the Enemy
I have a love-hate relationship with Holiday’s writing style. It’s direct and practical and right to the point, which I love. But it also makes for many short chapters (5-8 pages) which makes me feel like he’s just skimming the surface on many ideas before moving along.
That said, Ego is the Enemy is the kind of book I want to always have on hand. I read it on Kindle and will be buying a physical copy to have around. It full of tactical advice on how to live a better life and master your ego in a healthy way. I think we’d all be a lot better off if everyone read this book.
The Fountainhead is a real outlier and I promise I haven’t become a hard-nosed libertarian. The main reason I read this is convenience – I had a copy on my Kindle from a friend and had run out of things to read. That said, I’m glad to have read it “as a student of my culture” (as my dad would say).
The book follows the career of an architect, Howard Roarke, and those around him. It explores the ideas of libertarianism, personal freedom, and how socialism leads to ruin. Rand beats you over the head with her ideology, but it’s also incredibly seductive – you’ll likely catch yourself agreeing with things you otherwise wouldn’t have. The advice from Perks of Being a Wallflower holds – be a sieve, not a sponge.
Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done
Execution was one of the few “business” books I read this year. It was another great recommendation from my Mastermind group in response to some specific challenges I encountered in the later half of the year.
While I’m still making my way through it, one of the main reasons it’s on this list is because I’ve already begun to change my behaviour based on some of the insights.
The book dissects what an execution culture looks like and the building blocks to get there, and hits the right mix of theory and practice. It also uses a lot of examples from traditional industries and companies (Honeywell, GE, etc) which adds a different perspective than the usual tech landscape while still being useful.
Loveability: Knowing How to Love and Be Loved
If you read one book, make it this one. A suggestion from my sister, Loveability explores the topic of love in a wholly unique and restorative way – more a meditation on love rather than the usual self help book.
The idea that has influenced me the most from this book is that in order to love anyone else, you must first love yourself. It focuses on reconnecting to your original self and letting go of the version of yourself that you’ve built up over time in reaction to external influences.
I highly recommend this book to everyone, and it’s one I expect to continue to refer to and learn from.
You can see all the books I read this past year here. In 2018, I plan to read fewer books more deeply. This means active reading, reflection and distilling important insights. I’d like to get a good system going for this and sharing more with the people around me as a way to internalize what I’ve learned.