2017 Review of Books

06 Jan 2018

This is a list of books I read in 2017 sorted in chronological order. Following Aaron Swartz’s Review of Books, I’ve bolded books that I highly recommend, linked books that are decent, and omitted links for books that are poor.

  1. The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs
    An ode to cities jam-packed with ideas and observations that still ring true 50+ years later. My favorite chapters were 6: The uses of city neighborhoods, 18: Erosion of cities or attrition of automobiles, and 22: The kind of problem a city is. It helps to know some of the historical context, as much of the book is a critical reaction to ideas from urban planning, especially those of Robert Moses.

  2. Self-Coached Climber by Dan Hague
    In 2017 I joined the ranks of techies that climb. Don’t let trendiness dissuade you from trying it out! I’ve found climbing to be an excellent exercise. It’s physically and intellectually challenging and it’s sparked my interest in conservation and the outdoors.

  3. The Pope of Physics by Gino Segrè
    Inspiring biography of the legendary physicist. The history was riveting and the science was explained well at a high-level. The stories about early experiments related to beta decay and the construction of the nuclear pile were especially good. I learned that, in addition to winning his own Nobel Prize in Physics, Fermi had 10-12 (!!) students, depending on how you count, that also won Nobels.

  4. The Geography of Genius by Eric Weiner

  5. The Second Machine Age by Erik Brynjolfsson
    A fairly skimmable book with a smattering of interesting factoids. Most strikingly, there is a chart (Figure 9.2) showing the divergence of wage growth by education since the 1980s: the college-educated have seen wages increase significantly while high-school graduates and dropouts have seen real wages decrease. The argument that digital technology can increase “bounty” but with increased “spread” (i.e. income inequality) seems like an important consideration for modern society.

  6. Strength to Love by Martin Luther King Jr.
    A collection of sermons in essay form. Hopefully I’ll get around to listening to a few in recorded form, as that is their natural medium.

  7. Passionate Declarations: Essays on War and Justice by Howard Zinn
    A good follow-up to the MLK book. Zinn caused me to question my conventional understanding of American history, especially with respect to war and its justifications. Strangely, I can remember reading passages from A People’s History in high school and coming away without strong feelings. I wish I would have gotten more out of it back then.

  8. Startupland by Mikkel Svane
    A simple read, but scattered with interesting nuggets. It took Zendesk 18 months (!) to launch their first product while the founders worked on it part-time.

  9. You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train by Howard Zinn
    Covers a lot of the same ground as Passionate Declarations though this one comes in memoir form. I was most struck by the example set by Zinn’s personal activism, especially during his time at Spelman College.

  10. Grit by Angela Duckworth
    Offers a more serious and in-depth treatment of Malcolm Gladwell’s (in)famous “10,000 hour rule” though it’s never explicitly mentioned. Unlike other books in this genre, I think it provides well-researched suggestions for training and developing grit.

  11. Deep Work by Cal Newport
    I used to read Cal Newport’s Study Hacks blog religiously so this one was preaching to the choir. The book makes a strong argument that focus is increasingly valuable and difficult to achieve in our modern world. Tactically, I don’t think there’s anything materially different from the blog, though it’s been several years since I last read it. Newport’s “shutdown” sequence made me laugh out loud (in an appreciative way).

  12. Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Haruki Murakami and Seiji Ozawa
    The technical bits went over my head. I nonetheless enjoyed the philosophical discussions of “shibumi”, roughly translated as masterful simplicity, and the recurring theme of “ma”, the intentional absence of sound.

  13. Alice Waters and Chez Panisse by Thomas McNamee

  14. The Widow Clicquot by Tilar Mazzeo

  15. Dealers of Lightning by Michael A. Hiltzik
    I kept hearing about this book when I worked at Stripe and it was indeed excellent. It’s a gripping history of Xerox PARC told through the individual stories of legends like Alan Kay, Gary Starkweather, and Butler Lampson. There are some hilarious anecdotes, such as a story about a laser beam over a highway being mistaken for a ghost.

  16. Peak by Anders Ericsson
    A nice companion to Deep Work and Grit, with a particular emphasis on the science behind deliberate practice.

  17. Quiet Leadership by Carlo Ancelotti

  18. Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami
    Entertaining but probably my least favorite Murakami novel of the ones I’ve read. It didn’t have the wild imaginativeness of, for example, Kafka on the Shore.

  19. BART by Michael C. Healy
    Not the best-written book but still jam-packed with interesting and relevant history. It provides a sense of the grand scope and nitty details required to bring a system like BART into existence. Must read if you’re at all interested in public transportation.

  20. Instructions for British Servicemen in Germany, 1944

  21. Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu
    Informative though a bit long-winded and repetitive. Using numerous historical examples, the authors shows how “extractive institutions” perpetuate themselves.

  22. How to Run a Government by Michael Barber
    Found this at Hatchard’s, booksellers since 1797! The author previously headed up Tony Blair’s Delivery (a term I learned from this book) Unit. It’s an extremely practical book with concrete advice relevant to all organizations, not just government. This is the first non-American “business” book I’ve read and I found the difference in style and perspective to be refreshing.

  23. Siddartha by Herman Hesse
    Hard to summarize; suffice it to say that this is a book worth reading, and probably re-reading a few years later.

  24. The Promised Land by Nicholas Lemann
    A powerful, incisive book that documents a migration of African-Americans out of the South, coincident with the end of sharecropping. It was published in 1992 and I was left pondering the structural ties to modern-day gun violence in Chicago, one of the primary settings of the book.

  25. Worthy Fights by Leon Panetta
    A compelling memoir. I also learned some California history, as Panetta represented the Monterey area for several decades before becoming President Clinton’s Chief of Staff and President Obama’s Secretary of Defense. In the 70s or 80s, Panetta was responsible for legislation that prevented offshore drilling off the Central Coast.

  26. Stalin and the Scientists by Simon Ings

  27. A Philosophy of Walking by Frédéric Gros
    Among other random tidbits, I learned that, due to severe migraines, Nietzsche used to compose his works while walking then transcribe them afterwards. Note that the author is European; by walking he really means hiking in American vernacular.

  28. Mission High by Kristina Rizga
    I used to volunteer in an after-school program at Mission High so I was pleasantly surprised to learn of this book. I found the personal narratives of students and teachers to be inspiring.

  29. Forces of Nature by Brian Cox
    The book is wildly superior to the accompanying BBC documentary, which is advertised on the cover. I really enjoyed the author’s writing style. My favorite popular science book of the year.

  30. Take Back Higher Education by Henry Giroux

  31. Tools of Titans by Timothy Ferriss
    A blog in book form. None of the interviews are very deep, and I’m a bit confused why it’s so well reviewed.

  32. The Chinese in America by Iris Chang
    A comprehensive and engaging history. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the general American sentiment towards Chinese-Americans historically seems to have followed the tenor of US-China relations. The Chinese Exclusion Act is even more infuriating when placed in context.

  33. Ten Billion Days and One Hundred Billion Nights by Ryu Mitsuse
    The cover’s boast, “The GREATEST Japanese science fiction of all time”, caught my eye. Upon reflection, I think I liked it. Actually, I’m still not sure. This was a very weird book.

  34. The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz
    Really good as far as management books go.

  35. At The Existentialist Cafe by Sarah Bakewell
    A fun read. Intersperses personal histories of the major existentialist philosophers with Sparknotes-style treatments of their primary works. Existentialism makes philosophy seem fun.

  36. The Wangs vs. the World by Jade Chang
    Bought this based on the title alone. I tried really hard to like it but I just couldn’t recognize the experiences of the characters at all. I read an interview where the author mentioned wanting the characters to be American, not simply Asian-American. I don’t think it worked out well in practice.

  37. The Score Takes Care of Itself by Bill Walsh
    Probably the best sports management book I’ve read.

  38. Montana: High, Wide, and Handsome by Joseph Kinsey Howard
    An older book from the 1940s. The writing style is noticeably different from the modern nonfiction I’m accustomed to. The storytelling is uneven–some chapters are eminently skimmable–but there are some nuggets, including the story of the Copper Kings and when the US Senate refused to seat William A. Clark.

  39. The Big Burn by Timothy Egan
    Gripping and informative. The book describes the Big Burn, also known as the Great Fire of 1910. It interleaves the history of the founding of the United States Forest Service with the personal narratives of various rangers tasked with fighting the fire. I found it recommended by the Country Bookshelf, a really neat bookstore in Bozeman, MT.

  40. Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick
    Entertaining though somewhat uneven. As with other Philip Dick novels, it crafts a palpable sense of paranoia.

  41. The Social Animal by David Brooks
    Perhaps I would have liked this a few years ago, before I became jaded with pop sociology and psychology. Even still, it’s less captivating than Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and less thought-provoking than Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow.

  42. The Lean Startup by Eric Ries
    Recommended by a few different folks. A practical and useful book.

  43. The Earth is Weeping by Peter Cozzens
    This was a fairly depressing book that primarily covers the tail end of the Indian Wars, during the tenures of Generals Sherman and Sheridan. The author provides a serious, balanced treatment of the history. I was most surprised to learn about the decentralization of the various tribes and, indeed, the violent rivalries between some of them. For example, Crow warriors fought with the US military against the Lakota. Additionally, there was no single “Indian” front, but rather a number of different independent conflicts with different tribes.

  44. Hermit in Paris by Italo Calvino
    A mix of essays by and interviews with the author; the material is probably only interesting to Calvino fans. Most of the interviews cover similar ground. I was surprised to learn about events from his early life: born in Cuba, fought the Fascists, worked with Pavese, fell out with the Communists. The most interesting writings were the titular Hermit in Paris and the diary of Calvino’s travels in America, which he intentionally chose not to publish as a book.

  45. The Pleasure of Finding Things Out by Richard Feynman
    A collection of essays, interviews, and speeches. Not as captivating as Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, but still had its pithy moments as well as some laugh-out-loud anecdotes.

  46. Capitalism Without Capital by Jonathan Haskel and Stan Westlake
    A bit repetitive but contained some interesting nuggets on the notion of “intangible” investment. Felt like an Economist essay unnaturally stretched to the length of a book.