Kevin’s Best Books of 2014
THE EMPEROR OF MALADIES
This “biography” of cancer is relevant to everyone and, due to its superb writing (considering the difficulty of the subject), it’s amazingly accessible. The book flows so well: it’s paced like a thriller, you hardly notice how much you’re learning. It’s like in the Matrix where Neo states: “I know Kung Fu,” except in this case “I know cancer.” Not as cool but tragically, more useful.
This was my favorite book of 2014 and the one I most recommend others read.
TALES OF THE SOUTH PACIFIC
TALES OF THE SOUTH PACFIC by James Michener is a rare book which communicates what it felt like to be involved in WWII. The budding genius author Michener had the privileged viewpoint of being “embedded” with the Navy during the war. He then lightly fictionalizes, organizes, and distills his experiences into 19 highly varied short stories which communicate something about what it felt like, and what it meant.
WWII in the Pacific and the Pacific in general was a theme for me this year. I loved Michener’s HAWAII, but this is a 1100 page epic and, it’s rather a deep dive. But if you want a deeper understanding of Hawaii it’s a great start. I read two WWII Submarine narratives by Edward Beach, a legendary Navy officer: SUBMARINE! and RUN SILENT, RUN DEEP … and we watched the movie version of Run Silent, Run Deep.
A STILLNESS AT APPOMATTOX
You come to have huge respect for Bruce Catton for his ability to convey poetical feeling and overarching meaning via rock solid factual underpinning. He writes how, at the peak of the war:
“the nation itself had been heated to an unimaginable pitch … and now it had been put on the anvil, and the hammer was remorselessly coming down, beating a glowing metal into a different shape.”
The description of the horrifically gone wrong Battle of the Crater helped me understand just how tired, hungry, and ill, the soldiers were, and additionally, likely poorly educated with little ability to communicate using writing or maps.
Also, if only the Union Army had Google Maps! So many things went wrong because, entire armies were lead in the wrong direction and, bumbled into one another in random ways.
THE PORTABLE BENJAMIN FRANKLIN
Every time I think I know everything about Franklin, I learn something new. For example, did you know about his love for swimming, that he was a leader in swimming education, and that he invented kiteboarding? He chased a whirlwind on his horse until a tree fell nearby “alerting him of the danger.” He invented Daylight Savings Time? He exchanged letters with David Hume? It just goes on and on.
THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES
The work of Jung & Campbell is the point where the modern, secular western world is wrestling with the questions of life, death, and existence. The western world is just like me: traditional religions are not providing meaningful answers any more. But, that doesn’t we should give up wondering: we need to keep struggling. That’s what Jung and Campbell are doing and they are pointing the way for others to follow: people like me.
FOUNDERS AT WORK: STORIES OF STARTUPS’ EARLY DAYS
The best business work I read all year. You have to read between the lines to realize that the author Jessica Livingston married the Y Combinator founder (and prolific essay writer) Paul Graham during the course of this book.
Perhaps this explains the amazing access Ms. Livingston had to some amazing startup founders. I really appreciate the interview style of writing as, it allows the unique personality of each interviewee to come through. For example, the interview with Steve Wozniak made me tear up. Other big names include Craig Newark of Craigslist, Charles Geschke of Adobe, David Heinemeier Hansson of 37signals and creator of Ruby on Rails, and on and on: http://www.foundersatwork.com/interviews.html
READY PLAYER ONE
To finish with a purely fun entry: Ready, Player One is a great cyberpunk thriller – similar to Snow Crash, but more poppy, easier to read, and a more classic plot. A huge amount of effort got put into all of the 80s references and the excellent plot. The book is a joy to read.
All books of 2014
In 2013 I read 20 books.
For 2014, I was very ambitious and challenged myself to read 50 books during the year. Sadly I fell down fairly hard on my challenge and only read 25 books during the year. However, if you go by pages read the picture looks a little better ‘cause I read about 1.5 times as many pages in 2014.
So, I use this app to force myself to read at least 20 minutes each morning with my coffee. I log this time on Beeminder to make it somewhat “official.”
This year I experimented with reading for 45 minutes each day, but I found after 20 minutes I started getting anxious about work and getting going with my day. Since I know I waste at least an hour each day reading low quality Reddit & Hacker News posts, I find this anxiety illogical. The time I spend reading is some of the highest quality time I have each day. So this year I will try once again to cut down on low quality internet reading and up my daily book reading time to 45m. In the past I blocked these sites from our home internet, but since I could easily bypass it by using the iPhone’s LTE connection, I found the block to be just annoying. I do wish that I could use a service like RescueTime on the iPhone because, I could set it up to only allow 30m of “distracting” internet browsing per day. There’s hope that the iOS 8 will eventually allow RescueTime to work on iPhone though.
I did about 50% of the reading on Kindle this year. I read a surprising amount of real paper books this year, however. Often the specific (sometimes obscure) books I wanted weren’t available for Kindle. I don’t mind because I’ve been having fun changing how I read. Earlier in the year I saw some neat blog posts about note taking while reading so, I’ve been using a pen as my bookmark and, challenging myself to make at least 3 marks on each page. This slows down my reading but it definitely increases my engagement with the text. This year I will probably upgrade my Kindle to the new Kindle Voyage and I think this will allow me to do more note taking while reading on the Kindle. I also think the Voyage will allow me to read more PDFs and content not bought from Amazon.
Another thought I had is that, the most “hackable” moment of reading is really, choosing the next book to read. I have a problem where I tend to be overly ambitious. I choose dense, long, difficult books and this slows me down a lot. I have this concept of “reading momentum” where, you have to switch off between quick, fun, pleasure reads which boost your momentum, and long, difficult, meaty reads, which slow you down. (However, if you just read quick easy books, there’s the danger you’ll start to lose respect for reading in general. Because there are many pulpy, low quality books out there that aren’t really worth reading.)
Anyways, to try and choose better books to read, I’ve created a “reading list” spreadsheet and I’m trying to develop a “formula” based on the Amazon rating and number of reviews, and my own interest in the book, as well as shifting between different subject areas over time. 2015 should prove whether this idea can help me to pick better books to read.