Top Books from 2019

My reading this year was a very mixed bag. A few were extremely impactful, altering my worldview and opening up new areas of interest. Many others were duds – not terrible, but way less interesting than expected.

A Sand County Almanac

Rating: 5 out of 5.
A Sand County Almanac

I first came across Aldo Leopold in Fire Season, a book I happened to pick up from the shelf at an Airbnb during a personal retreat last year. I’d never heard of Leopold before, and here was this interesting character who seemed not only to be a natural philosopher / historian, but who also profoundly impacted the way the U.S. manages wildlife and forests.

I was not disappointed when I finally picked it up from the library. The first two sections of A Sand County Almanac are just great nature writing. In each chapter, Leopold describes some observation of nature, or humans in nature, and uses it to illustrate a larger point about life.

It’s the third section, The Upshot, that really blew me away. Here, Leopold discussed four themes: the conservation esthetic; wildlife and recreation in American culture; wilderness; and the land ethic.

Throughout these, Leopold explains the ongoing tension between people and natural spaces. The need for wildernesses as a place for us to retreat into and reconnect; the ways in which our need for wilderness is destroying it; the need for ethics; the need to develop perception in humans to appreciate nature; and finally, the land ethic.

It’s the Land Ethic that stuck with me the most from this book – an understanding that humans have the ethical responsibility when it comes to land (water, soil, animals, etc) and the primary role of individual responsibility for land. Leopold’s perspective is different from many other natural historians, as he accepts the economic value of land and calls on individuals to practice a set of ethics, or self-induced restraints, to preserve and regenerate their lands.

I may write a longer summary of this book, but I would highly recommend this for anyone interested in sustainability or who enjoyed Thoreau, Muir, etc.

This View of Life

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Another world-view shifting book! I picked this up as a precursor to reading Prosocial. This View of Life is the pop-science version of Prosocial, which seems to be much more in-depth – almost an operating manual or implementation guide for the principles in this book.

This View of Life centres around multi-level selection theory, which essentially builds on evolutionary theory by showing that species do not just evolve at an individual level. Instead, species are selected for survival at the individual level (within-group selection) as well as the group level (between-group selection) – hence multi-level selection theory.

Take, for example, a small group of humans. If natural selection only occurred at the individual level (within-group selection), you’d have a group of hyper-aggressive and physically capable humans. But if you can imagine that actually playing, you know that group is headed for disaster. It would be full of conflict and backstabbing as the individuals tried to survive.

This is where group level selection comes into play. A group needs to cooperate to a certain degree in order to be successful, particularly if their resource base could be threatened by another group. The group that is most successful will be selected for survival, whereas the group full of infighting and competition would be easy to destroy. In order for maximum success, species need a mix of individual-level selection and group-level selection.

Wilson then expands on this by bringing in Elinor Ostrom’s Core Design Principles for group cooperation. Together, he presents a strong model for creating productive groups, particularly within organizations.

This book was eye-opening for two reasons. One, I learned a lot about evolution and how primary of a role it plays in the world. It’s a new lens for me to see the world and understand how and why things work (or don’t). Two, the Core Design Principles and multi-level selection theory are new, practical models I can use in my work. It felt like a missing keystone fell into place when it comes to how organizations, and teams within organizations, work.

The One Thing

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I described this book to a friend as a more practical version of Essentialism. There isn’t much that’s new in this book, but it’s presented in a way that allows you to take action. It might have been a case of the right book at the right time, but The One Thing just clicked for me.

At it’s core, this book is about understanding your purpose, setting priorities, and then being productive. It introduces a bunch of helpful models along the way, namely “the focusing question”. This follows the pattern of “What’s the ONE thing you can do for { area } in {time frame} such that everything else becomes easier or unnecessary?”. I’ve incorporated this question into my weekly reviews and my morning routine, and it’s helped me get more impactful work done.

Other interesting takes in The One Thing include work-life balance, our relationship with money, managing your calendar, planning your vacation before your work, and others.

I really didn’t expect much from this book, but it’s already changed how I approach my day-to-day and it’ll be one that I revisit regularly.

How to be Yourself

Rating: 5 out of 5.

A practical read about managing anxiety. This book was a game-changer for me and one I’ve recommended several times. The strategies are really straightforward and easy to apply.

A Sense of Urgency

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A classic business book that took a long time to get on my list. It’s one I refer to regularly now when leading change at work.

Two Solitudes

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Excellent Canadian fiction that explores the tension between Anglophones and Francophones in Quebec. Hugh MacLennan is quickly becoming one of my favourite authors.

One Story, One Song

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Reflections on life by Richard Wagamese, this book is divided into section along four Ojibwaye principles: balance, harmony, knowledge and intuition. One of the themes that has stayed with me is how we are disconnected from the natural rhythms of life, and the benefits of reconnecting to them through our food, activities, etc.

The Invention of Nature

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A fascinating biography of Alexander von Humbolt, one of the earliest naturalists and whose impacts are all around us today. A well told story full of connections to modern day naturalists and environmentalism of which I was completely unaware.

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