2017: My Year With Books, Part 1
The BGB 2017 Year in Books
Last year, I read an article that suggested CEOs need to read 60 books a year to keep up with what is happening in the world. Presumably, that means a cross-section of books that would make them effective leaders, track what is going on in the world that would have an impact on their business, and maybe some notable new books about non-fiction subjects on what is to come.
My interest wasn’t in just doing what the CEOs do. I wanted to read what I wanted, which would be a mix of books about being more effective at my job (sure, that one’s similar and what I do for a living), data and social sciences (this is what we work on at my company, and it’s something I’m passionate about), and a smattering of fiction to keep myself level. This makes me laugh, thinking of the quote in Sideways (yes, I saw the film first) when the soon-to-be-father-in-law of Jack says, “I can’t read fiction, it’s all made up.” So funny to think you can’t learn from fiction.
Anyway, I was more inspired by the number, the sheer volume of knowledge flowing into the heads of these exceptional CEOs than their subjects of choice. But I also didn’t want to set myself up for failure. New Year’s resolutions are kind of a joke. We break them all the time because we set goals too far beyond our ability or in categories we just don’t care about. Then, we buckle. So, I went low. I thought one book every two weeks would be a good place to start. So, I set the goal in Goodreads for 26 books.
To my delight, I surpassed that quickly and hit 64 books for the year with a combination of reading physical books, Kindle books, and audiobooks when I would commute. In this way, I can read two to three books at all times depending on the circumstances. Next year, I plan to double my goal to 52 books, one per week, to see if I can match this excellent reading year.
I would note that I consider all of these options ‘reading’ a book. I have some friends who think otherwise, suggesting that listening to an audio book is somehow less pure than reading the words on a page. That’s hogwash, of course. Douglas Adams famously noted that people who are concerned about this are ‘mistaking the plate for the meal.’ If the information flows into your head, you read it. The whole point of reading is to get that information into your head so it will be knowledge you have available to filter against everything else that comes out of your mouth (or your pen), not so you can consume it in a certain format that will allow you to line shelves in your home with your accomplishments. Reading 60 books a year isn’t about showing off, it’s about learning enough to feel you spent that part of your life well this year.
Why do I read so much despite a busy life with work, family, and time-consuming hobbies like tabletop board game design? I have been asked this a few times this year – ‘how do you find the time?’ Well, as a Franklin Covey class taught me over twenty years ago, you don’t ever ‘find’ time. You make time. You schedule, you keep conscious of where you waste time (e.g., the television and now, the internet), and you just simply turn over some of that time to books. Not all of it, because the reality of the situation is that most modern people want to spend some amount of time consuming content. That’s what the books are anyway: consumption. But it’s not empty consumption like watching sitcoms or crime shows. It’s the vitamin-enriched meal, versus the junk food, and moderation is key.
With that, let me jump into my list for 2017. I find my year in books to be, in many ways, as compelling as a lot of physical experiences. The flowering of one’s brain should really be enjoyable on the level of exercise from being out of the woods, or effective days at the gym.
While this last year was a grim one in many ways both personal and political, my reading year was truly wonderful.
The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams – Fiction – New Read
Geek confession, I suppose. As someone who called a BBS in the 80’s called The Dark Domain where you needed to know the books in Adams’ famous series to understand what people are saying, I had read the first novel when I was 14 years old. But I never got to the other novels in the series because that first one gave me a sufficiently solid grounding to understand why someone was called Hitchhiker, someone else Trillian (his girlfriend), someone else was Arthur Dent, etc. I’d say thatanyone from the geek persuasion needs to, and will, in fact, enjoy the series. So, when my son Alaric read the first one and asked if the others were any good, I had to say I wasn’t sure. That would not stand. My friend Kai has been encouraging me to read more books for pure fun (although he’s been pushing Douglas Adams’ fantasy counterpart, Terry Pratchett), so I thought I’d give the second novel in the series a try. It’s not Hitchhiker, with the wall-to-wall uproarious entries from the books that gives the series its name, but it is funny and a quick read to delight geeks, nerds, and thoughtful people in general. I will continue the series in 2018.
Blink by Malcolm Gladwell – Non-Fiction – New Read
After seeing Mr. Gladwell on a talk show last year, I’d meant to read his books. I first tackled Blink after finding it at a used bookstore for a great price. This exceptional book had a major impact on me. Blink explores the human tendency to make judgements quickly, for better or worse. Interesting examples of both abound and it made me consider how thoughtful I can be about judging people in the world, and how often a gut reaction can help when considering the response to a situation. That ‘gut’ just needs a history of context to be useful. A wonderful read that I found rewarding.
The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell – Non-Fiction – New Read
Perhaps a week or two after finishing Blink, I took up The Tipping Point, which was an earlier book that made Mr. Gladwell quite famous, it seems. While it similarly takes on the subject (journalist that he is) of explaining a concept through stories, I found The Tipping Point to be a lot less intriguing. Sure, it’s mildly interesting to think about why some things hit big and others do not (that is the titular ‘Tipping Point’), the revelations from the book were only somewhat useful to me as a marketer. Worth a quick read, but it doesn’t have the impact of Blink.
Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson – Fiction – New Read
One of the more popular and well-respected games of the last few years is a monster called Terraforming Mars. I don’t call it a monster due to its size, but due to the enormous number of cards in the game. My first play was just okay, due to an early card mix that tended towards attacking cards that seemed to just slow the game. The second one was better, and by game three, I understood why so many of my hardcore gamer friends were playing it: it was rich in game-play like Race for the Galaxy, another exceptional game that had so much to explore. Word on the street was that the designer of Terraforming Mars had been inspired by Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy that began with the novel Red Mars. I had not read the series but I recalled it from my days working at a bookstore in the 80’s. It was hard sci-fi, the type I typically only read if it is from a Golden Age author like Clarke, Heinlein or Asimov. Yet, I was excited to check it out due to its inspiration for the game. I got what I expected: hard science fiction heavy on plot and details of scientists doing scientific things, low on character development. The novel is rich in details easy to turn tiny plot points into cards within the game, so it was ideal for this purpose. It’s a hefty book and playing a little ‘spot the card’ was a side activity while I read through the novel. I might read the sequels (Blue Mars and Green Mars) as I explore the board game with my son (who loves it), but they aren’t on the top of my list.
When Breathe Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi – Non-Fiction – New Read
Picked off a list on Product Hunt about the most gifted books, Kalanithi’s book does not fit any of my normal reading areas, except maybe the unspoken one about being a better human being. The difficult narrative follows the life of a budding surgeon who gets a diagnosis of cancer that will end his life. The acceptance of that situation and the choices one has to make once one knows that time is short are essentially the subject of the book. While I would not opt for anything Kalanithi did (including having a child so he could feel the experience of fatherhood, while robbing said child of having a father for most of her life – or pursuing a career as a surgeon and putting people at potential risk), his story of letting go, learning to accept that there are others in your life who might have the right perspective to help you, and, finally, focusing on family, were insightful and useful to me. At times, the book was very hard to read because I lost two important people in my life this year, including my Uncle Bill (someone who was like my second dad and an inspiration for much of my personality) and my father early in 2018. The book was also illuminating and made me value the life I have and think ahead about planning for the world without me. I plan to make a chatbot. 😉
Nightwings by Robert Silverberg – Fiction – New Read
Silverberg has always struck me as one of the underrated writers of speculative fiction. Within the sci-fi world, he’s been recognized but he doesn’t get enough mainstream respect because he writes things that can be a trifle odd. His work is consistently interesting, he knows how to create great characters, and he has a head for new ideas that can match the Golden Age greats and a weirdness that can match those 60’s sci-fi greats like Philip K. Dick and Samuel R. Delany. I had read Nightwings was one of his best (probably in a Harlan Ellison essay) and I’m glad to report that it certainly is right up there with Tower of Glass, my favorite of his works. A heartfelt piece of science fiction taking place on an alien world, Nightwings still conveys a lot about the human condition and is possessed of Silverberg’s lovely prose. I will be hitting more of his books in 2018 for sure. It’s a crime that I haven’t read them all.
The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google by Scott Galloway – Non-Fiction – New Read
My love of Prof. Galloway’s L2 videos is hard to overstate. While they have gotten sillier (not ideal), the main appeal is his no-BS take on brands, society and the world in general. His book takes a lot of his observations on the power and damage to the world done and potentially to be done by these massive companies and puts it into book form. While I think most would probably be just as well served by watching his recent Ted Talk on the subject, I enjoyed the detail and examples he provided as I am a student of these four companies and share similar concerns about their power and influence. A fun read, and a quick one, too. And he just did a board game themed episode so, here’s an embed.
The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz – Non-Fiction – New Read
The founder/VC/Product leader Horowitz quickly became a member of my CEO crush list (including Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Marc Benioff) with his no-nonsense guide to getting tech companies right. While Mr. Horowitz had his ups and downs over time, he’s learned a ton and generously shown it off here, down to the details of hiring, managing and operations for tech startups. This book is like a textbook for the biz and I immediately purchased a physical copy after reading it on Kindle so I could make use of it. Highly recommended for those who work in technology or startups in general.
Artemis by Andy Weir – Fiction – New Read
The Martian is a very pleasant book, a good film and on the basis of those facts, I definitely was going to give Artemis a try. I heard the audio book, which is narrated by Rosario Dawson – a woman with one of those voices that sounds more pleasant than a Chopin composition. The book itself is a heist story set on the moon and feels like Weir wrote it with the expectation that it would hit the big screen soon enough. Based on the success of the last story getting into movie form, this is a fair assumption, but it also makes it read a bit like a screenplay. Not a bad thing – Artemis reads quickly, which makes its initially-unlikable heroine easier to like as the story moves fast. It’s not as awesome as The Martian but Weir’s version of the moon’s society is interesting (although I’ll take Heinlein’s version in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress over this one for sheer oddness-while-plausible). Worth a look if you really like the author.
Storm Front by Jim Butcher – Fiction – New Read
My friend and colleague Kai pushed me to read this one and I’m glad he did. Butcher’s Dresden series will likely get read entirely because the easy style of this wizard-detective in modern times goes down like sweet tea. Butcher’s take on magic-users in the now is clever and while the mysteries themselves will probably not interest me from the POV of trying to solve them ahead of time, I did enjoy the ride. Not quite bringing me back to the fun of Glen Cook’s old Garrett Files, but there’s a little something there. Also, there’s a new game based on these books but it’s another deckbuilder. Sigh. I think we’ve had enough.
Couch by Benjamin Parzybok – Fiction – New Read
Every week, I go to the Glendora Library and pick up used books for my father to read (until his passing in early 2018). He lacks mobility here in his mid-80’s but his mind still wanders constantly among the stories and books I bring him. And the man reads fast. He used to do two books a day when he was a younger man, reading on his bus ride to work, at lunch and breaks, and on the ride home. Insane. I can’t do that, and I’m not sure I want to try. But this means regular trips to find him new material now. The upside of these regular hunts is that I find books for myself sometimes, too. Couch was one of those finds. It’s an odd book that I knew wouldn’t work for my dad, but would work for me. Three geeky slacker friends are forced to move a couch from their apartment and that process unearths an adventure that takes them to the sea and into another country as they realize there is more to this piece of furniture than they ever imagined. Strange, delightful and well-written, I recommend Couch to anyone who likes oddly diverting fiction that just tells a good story.
To be continued…