Here’s what I read in December of 2013. Numbers are for chronology, not rank.
1 – The Buy Side by Turney Duff (audiobook): The first part of this book was amazing. A “how I did it” success tale. Then it kind of turns into a “woe is me” sob story when the author tries to make you feel bad that he ruined his $1M+ per year job (and lifestyle) because of his cocaine addiction. Props for being honest, but I have no sympathy for you, bro. I’d strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in Wall Street life or tales of excess.
2 – Lord of the Flies by William Golding (audiobook): As with last month’s The Catcher in the Rye, I decided to revisit another high school required reading story with Lord of the Flies. I didn’t remember much of the book except them dropping a rock on Piggy (and I honestly think I remember that from the movie). I remember the teacher talking about in class how Simon’s name had biblical implications, and some shit about Beelzebub. Anyway, on second visit, I still wasn’t a huge fan of this book (none of the characters are likable – who cares if they die?), but I have to say that the behavior was spot on (IMHO), and very believable – unlike 1984 (which I read last month, and was critical of).
3 – Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (audiobook): My only encounter with Bradbury before this was The Veldt (which is excellent, by the way). I like his writing style. About half way through Fahrenheit 451 I realized I’ve been on kind of a dystopian novel streak lately, and it was starting to affect my mood. Again, compared to 1984 the behavior here is very believable. Even after they nuke the world, you’re left with a sense of hope that humanity will rebuild it. That’s a pretty impressive feat.
4 – The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell (audiobook): This was mentioned in Freakonomics, so I checked it out. The gist of the book is that ideas spread by getting into the right hands, and then “tip” where they spread like wildfire. Some of this book was familiar to me, but I’m not sure if it was from reading it before (very possible, as this book is largely forgettable), or just from the ubiquity of people citing Gladwell’s examples. The point to note here is that Gladwell gives credit to the decrease in crime rate of the 1990s to the broken window theory, which the Freakonomics guys discredited because a) the new policing strategy was only in NYC, but crime was decreasing everywhere, and b) crime was on the decline prior to the start of the strategy. All in all, The Tipping Point was mildly interesting, but very skippable.
5 – Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne (audiobook): I loved the old movie as a kid, but the book was kind of disappointing. The pace is too slow, and the book is full of scientific plant and animal names with little or no description of what he’s talking about. So unless you’re a marine biologist you’re largely in the dark. Less tell, more show! Alas, the differences between the book and the movie make the book a clear winner, so check it out despite its flaws.
6 – The Icarus Deception by Seth Godin: Hyperbole++. Make art! Be Amazing! Be weird! He admits there will be ups and downs on your path, but if you persevere he promises you’ll get to the land of unicorns and rainbows someday. Personally, I think this premise sucks, unless you’re exceptionally timid about your dreams (and somehow I figure that most people reading a Seth Godin book aren’t). Still, he manages to make a few valid points in this book, but the best part is that there’s a link to the next book on this list, which I actually enjoyed.
7 – The Bootstrapper’s Bible by Seth Godin: I read the updated (and shortened?) version of this one, found here on his website. This book might be the polar opposite of The Icarus Deception (above). It gives practical advice (ie. actionable) to anyone looking to start a real (ie. profitable) business. Instead of telling you to recklessly pursue your dreams, it gives you a plan to pay the bills. [Note: Once you have the bills paid, you can do whatever the fuck you want – that was the premise of The 4-Hour Workweek, which is still the best business book I’ve read (and it’s not about only working 4 hours, btw). Or to paraphrase what Nassim Taleb said in one of his books, if you want to be a philosopher king, the correct order is king first, then philosopher.]
8 – Cooked by Michael Pollan (audiobook): This is the third book by Pollan I have read, and all have the same structure of four or so shorter books stitched together under a loose theme. Like the others, this one also started off interestingly enough, but inevitably ran on too long, to the point that I begged it to end.
9 – The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr: I am about to be highly critical of this book, so let me first state that the author does indeed make some very good points, especially in regards to how the brain is physically affected by the constant distraction atmosphere of the internet. He’s 100% correct when he sums us up as crack addicted rats mashing the “get crack pellet” button in the laboratory. Unfortunately, some of his ideas are clearly biased, and that leads me to believe that some or many of the ideas that are not clearly biased are also biased.
Every change in technology, from the alphabet to the internet affects how we think. Carr says that Socrates feared what the written word would do to human’s memory, and because of that Socrates was anti-book. The Shallows seems to approach the same topic (human memory) from the standpoint of the physical book being the one best medium. Personally I find it easier to agree with Socrates here, but perhaps the physical book’s gift isn’t one of memory, but one of the ability to spread ideas far and wide, and that’s a much better deal to humanity overall.
Another of Carr’s points revolves around a study that was done with two groups of students that gave them the same article to read and be tested on, but one group had just an article and the other had wikipedia style links within. The second group scored poorly compared to the first, and it’s given that they clicked around aimlessly. What isn’t explicit is how they were told they would be quizzed. If you told them they would be tested, but didn’t make it clear that they were only to be tested on the primary article, that’s a huge difference. At that point, they weren’t distracted, but overwhelmed; the medium had nothing to do with the grading. Compare giving a whole chapter of a book to one group, versus giving a single page of that chapter to the other, and all the test answers came from the page. Less information is a huge advantage.
Here are my thoughts about the rest of this book:
a) Comparing readers of classic literature to readers of The Huffington Post or other ad-view machine, click happy blogs is clearly fallacious. Compare readers of local newspapers or tabloids to shitty web copy for a more realistic evaluation.
b) Most people out of school don’t read anything all day besides street signs (debatable) and ads for what shows are going to be next on their TV station. I think any reading at all is an improvement for this group.
c) I know that I don’t know what the height of human brain evolution is, and thinking anything else is ridiculous.
d) Perhaps the Ancient Greeks would win a competition where you had to memorize and recite something, but optimizing for that didn’t save their empire.
e) If you are optimizing for memory, the best medium is not the written book. Clearly the best medium is the popular song.
f) Human evolution has selected against self-sufficiency again and again. From hunters to bakers to sailors to graphic designers, specialization and inter-connectivity has won out. How the internet connects us is only the latest chapter.
10 – Make Something People Love by Alexis Ohanian – Super short ebook that details his ideas about entrepreneurship, and recounts some of his successful guerrilla marketing endeavors (make cute logos, give away lots of stickers). PS: The book is hosted on HIS Dropbox.
11 – The Alchemy of Finance by George Soros (audiobook): Soros is a legendary titan of the hedge fund world, but this book is mostly philosophical (and in that regard, it is dubious). The real takeaway here is his admittance of an aspect of his character that will serve you well in any endeavor: be willing to make a complete 180 degree reversal of position at any time when your analysis doesn’t seem to be working. The only thing he was sure of was his own infallibility. I think that’s brilliant.
12 – Stardust by Neil Gaiman (audiobook): I didn’t know what I was getting into with this one, but maybe that’s a good thing because I loved it. It’s an adult fairy tale – there’s some sex, some graphic violence, a couple vulgarities – but if you’re someone who is bothered by that, I urge you to look past it. This was wonderfully lyrical, and a really nice story of self-reliance and resiliency. For the first time in a long time I wish a book was actually longer than it was!
13 – The Dip by Seth Godin (audiobook): This version was abridged, and I still think it ran on too long. Quit doing things that aren’t important, but fight through the tough times where it is important. There I saved you the trouble of reading this.
14 – Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk (audiobook): A couple people I know have said this is their favorite book. One of them I’ve never seen pick up a book, so I really think he’s talking about the movie, but wants to seem literate (fuck people like that, tbh). From a writing perspective I liked some of the repetition usages in this book, but the overall story just isn’t very good. Same goes for the movie, by the way – even though it’s somewhat different. If you are an angsty teen with violent tendencies, maybe this speaks to you, but otherwise? I just don’t know… If you do decide to read this one, take note that what most people miss here is the gigantic pile of irony.