Reading Review 2019

Ryan James Spencer

This year came up at roughly sixty books "consumed". I've pared the list here down to about forty. I say "consumed" because I decided to give audio books a go so while I would normally read about thirty books I've managed to double that amount by listening to things while I work.

Things of note:

  • It may seem obvious (or not?) that there is a tremendous amount of noise out there but I'd like to reiterate that there is ridiculous amount of fluff out there in what we choose and are asked to read.

  • The best books were too complex and deep to truly grok in a single pass, but still lucid enough to catch on core points in that first pass. I call this quality "replayability".

  • Because of the number of titles to put thoughts against here I've opted to describe from what I remember as quickly as possible and either be direct about truly loving the book or not.

  • The worst books were shallow and forgettable.

  • Overcoming the discomfort of skimming and skipping through books has had a remarkable impact on helping me tackle material I'm requested to ingest.

  • I found a lot of value in taking notes during or after reading. I heard once that spending a brief period (specifically thirty seconds, but that feels too short) of time to summarize recently received information, no matter how complex, drastically improves retention.

  • When I found a book truly worth its weight, I would buy a physical copy to review sections.

  • Of notable mention are Naval Ravikant's tweet storm and podcasts on How to Get Rich (without getting lucky).

  • Two particularly inspiring non-technical blog posts were Speed Matters and More People Should Write. I also felt a kinship for Alexis King's process described in Parse, Don't Validate.

  • I found it useful to read contrarian takes on subjects so that I'm not stuck in my own bubble of thought.

Onto some short blurbs on what I've read. These are no replacements for properly reading the texts, but they may give you an idea of some core concepts and provide some interest for diving into some (or avoiding others). As noted, some descriptions may be shallow because the text in question is either too deep or too shallow. I may do a top pick article to help clarify in the future.

A People's History of Computing In The United States

A fabulous recount about the history of time sharing computing systems in the united states. I found the exploration of the social and economic contexts of how these large-scale systems rose up fascinating. Easily goes in the collection of great narrative historical stories of computing along with Soul of a New Machine.

Unix: A History and a Memoir

For the *nix fans out there this is a wonderful telling of the people involved in the makings of Unix at Bell Labs. Brian Kernighan has written several books that are always fun to get through: The Awk Programming Language, The C Programming Language, The Go Programming Language, and so on. Learning that Ken Thompson wrote the prototype of what would become Unix in three weeks absolutely blew my mind.

The Rational Optimist

The thesis of this book is that although things seem bleak in our current state of human affairs, especially in regards to the knock-on effects of capitalism, the degradation of the environment, and rampant political fracturing, we are actually in a far better place than we were before now. Ridley proposes that bartering is what makes us distinct from other animals and that our ability to form markets and labour has allowed us to accelerate advancement of our day-to-day lives.

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion

There's about six-ish things that Caildini focuses on as pillars of influence on humans. By taking various roles and exploring each concept in relation to the presumed job, Caildini explores things like scarcity, consistency, attractiveness, providing reasons to requests, etc. Caldaini's original framing of the book was to help provide tips so people could better understand how to combat the effects of influence but it seems like it has become a reference as a means of understanding a subset of persuasion on others.

God's Debris: A Thought Experiment

Thought experiment where a parcel carrier has a series of discussions with God. Deep (and quick) enough for a read.

Platform: The Art and Science of Personal Branding

Johnson's argument is that you are only truly an expert in a field if you hold a reputation for it. A reputation is only built by putting work into gaining an audience (platform). She outlines several ideas and approaches for doing this digitally.

Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World

The Dalai Lama examines various topics of life from a consciously secular standpoint.

The Courage To Be Disliked

A discourse about Adlerian psychology expressed as a young-man/old-man dialogue which is trite. I found the various concepts (especially that of people inventing their dramas) to be particularly intriguing. In the story they explore the concept that other people have desires that they expect of us but we ought to ignore them and instead focus on our freedom to react to events however we truly prefer.

Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable

Remarkable things sell. If you don't have a remarkable thing, you ought to find one to sell. If you have a remarkable thing, don't pretend the effect will last forever.

To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others

No matter your career selling is a part of it. You must convince people with resources to part with them, usually in exchange for something else. This thesis is not dissimilar from The Rational Optimist.

The Autobiography of Gucci Mane

This was highly ranked in recommendations for marketing but I'm not sure why. Gucci Mane explains his upbringing, his entry into rap, the continual inclusion of criminal activity and drugs (especially 'lean'), all while achieving stellar success. The book finishes with him being fully incarcerated and going through a period of withdrawal where he realizes he wants to properly abandon drugs and turn his life around.

Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life

Incredible autobiography about Steve Martin's adventure through standup and eventual explosion of fame (and his disgust of it thanks to his dissatisfaction of the isolation it caused). It's interesting to note his exploration of his standup style and career as a serious business endeavour rather than coming off as part of his 'art'.

Hacking Growth: How Today's Fastest-Growing Companies Drive Breakout Success

A cut-and-dry prescription approach to "growth hacking" and the book that claims to have been authored by its inventors. Business intelligence is definitely far older. and I wound up finding the book a chore to get through.

The Mom Test: How to talk to customers & learn if your business is a good idea when everyone is lying to you

People will lie to you to feel good about themselves when asked questions about your product. Your Mom does the same when you ask her, too. Your goal is to get past the fanciful future uses that people love to labour on about and focus on the actual pain they've experienced when dealing with a particular problem or competitors product. You want to know how you can help ail these pain points.

This is Marketing: You Can't Be Seen Until You Learn To See

Godin argues that marketing is actually good for us; marketing directs us to products that change our lives for the (arguably) better position and helps normalize this behaviour.

Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win

If you have direct reports and they fail, it's always back on you to teach them (unless they truly are inept). It's a long book with many drawn-out combat stories filling in the bulk.

Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It

Many fantastic tidbits of negotiation techniques. Some of these are drawn from other sources but it's how Voss connects the concepts to practical usage I found particularly helpful.

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

Lots of great little points on the "less is more" rhetoric.

Anything You Want

Tells the story of Darek Sivers, the fella who unintentionally built CDBaby and eventually sold the company at $12m. This was quick and had lots of great point, like the higher leverage obtained by keeping teams small.

Principles: Life and Work

Divided into two sections, principles discusses life and work principles, the latter being far larger but the former being the most applicable for the general public in my opinion. You can watch and read most of his material without buying his book online as his emphasis isn't making money off the book but sharing his knowledge (or so he claims). I've found it to be a fantastic trove of knowledge that seems to come up in several other books I've read without being Yet Another Business or Self-Help book and without being Get Rich Quick themed.

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

I did not know about Nassim Taleb until this year when a mentor of mine mentioned he was also reading him. Taleb, a former quantitative analyst, explores the concept of the Black Swan, a highly improbable, but not impossible, event, under the auspices that any attempt to claim that predictions are rock-solid is a farce. The classic example he gives early in the book is about a turkey who seems to be living the grand life, only to be later killed (the black swan event). One connected idea I found particularly intriguing is that of randomness being really about the observer of the random variable: the turkey may not know about the black swan event but the farmer who owns the turkey knows about this date for month.

The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups

People are productive when they feel safe and, therefore, can be vulnerable. They are also more creative and innovative. This is fundamentally Maslow's hierarchy of needs but he also discusses the emphasis of sharing goals in tandem with sharing vulnerability. One of the better books outlining why you want to structure a business culture with these characteristics.


Your work isn't everything and ought not to control you. A well-rested and clear-headed employee stays longer at a company and is wildly more productive than the run-down equivalent. I liked the idea of "JOMO" (Joy of Missing Out) being pushed in comparison to the usual sense of "FOMO" people experience. I usually like Jason Fried and DHH books because they are full of lots "common-sense" knowledge that are still helpful to be reminded of.

Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built

A rather bland telling of Jack Ma's growing of his various business interests and, later, Alibaba. His translation work and early interest in the internet helped eventually leading to his starting of Alibaba. There were many "everything store" styled shops and Jack's early translation company did far more than translation services, selling whatever they could.

"Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!": Adventures of a Curious Character

Feynman is a mixed bag. He is quick witted and smart but is also a creep. His autobiography paints a picture of a happy-go-lucky, curious-minded, exploration-driven individual who loves to prank, be a smart alec, and isn't shy to discuss his interest in women as well as visitations to strip clubs where he would draw the strippers and work on physics problems. That said, it is interesting to look at how Feynman is always deducing from other facts or principles which you can see in the way the text is written (also notable in his lectures).

No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work

An exploration into how to accept that emotions are always apart of our lives and decisions, including at work, and how to use that knowledge to best effect. Also a good reminder that our work is not everything.

When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times

A discussion from a Buddhist monk about how chaos is inevitable and how we must, no matter how stable we think life is, continually invite "chaos in with a cup of tea" if we are truly to handle what life has to throw at us.

Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders

A naval captain tells how he managed to change from a top-down organisational structure into something with more autonomy amongst the ranks, helping turn one of the worst ranked teams into one of the best. The "I intend to" language is gold, alone, but there are other techniques explained throughout the book as it covers the discovery of these in relation to particular organisational problems they were facing. For example, to deal with better handling operational concerns on the submarine, they begin practicing deliberate action where they vocalise what they are about to do, gesture at the subject that will be acted upon, and, after a short pause, perform the task.

Ultralearning: Master Hard Skills, Outsmart the Competition, and Accelerate Your Career

Discusses a form of learning where progress and speed are the focus; compressing learning into short bursts at a time to positive effect. I have mixed feelings about this book after having come out of therapy this last year because I am into this processes but I felt the emphasis of an always-on approach isn't healthy for long-term learning as well as general psychological health.

Inner Engineering: A Yogi's Guide to Joy

Particularly memorable parts of the book include reminding oneself of their mortality to help prioritise what truly matters and that taking responsibility is about taking charge of our ability to respond to life and events around us.

Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones

Although nothing new is prescribed here, I applaud Clear with compiling a simple compendium of core concepts that fuel habit formation. All the worksheets and activities I ignore but the four points are well worth the extra bit of reading to cement the ideas.

Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life

This one is considered a classic in that it is commonly referenced as being a big part of negotiation and interpersonal relationships discourse. Rosenberg's foundations are that failure to recognise needs, of our own and of others, is the crux of interpersonal conflict.

Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking

This one is great as it applies to areas of work outside of creating artwork. I found this incredibly useful in terms of recognising that quantity is much more valuable for the effort of learning (experimentation) than is focusing on quality upfront. Other people's magic is not your own so don't go attempting to copy in hopes that you'll achieve the same results. In the same train of thought, only compare your development to your own history.

Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams

Most of us know sleep deprivation is problematic but this book goes deeper in how debilitating it can truly be, as well as how little sleep deprivation is required before achieving ill effects.

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

Being an expert usually is less effective than being a jack of all trades. Why? Because experts go down deep holes that start to lose innovation as they make less and less cross-disciplinary connections.

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead

Being courageous means sharing. We tend to think its the other way; that sharing takes courage, but in reality if you share, you are being courageous. Brown calls sharing so much information that your intent is to manipulate others "oversharing".

How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life

Systems over goals. Energy drives success which drives passion, not the other way around. A varied collection of ideas and memoirs of how Scott Adams built various aspects of his career and had lots of little failures testing out ideas and going through a life as a cubicle jockey.

Infinite Powers: How Calculus Reveals the Secrets of the Universe

Absolutely wonderful exploration of the history and internals of calculus. Strogatz is the author of Sync, Non-linear Dynamics and Chaos, The Joy of X, and others. He has a knack for breathing life into mathematical subjects. I found his historical bits just as exciting as exciting as the clarity of his explanations for the inner workings of calculus.

101 things I learned from (urban planning|architecture|advertising|engineering) school

I have several of these '101 things' books. They are a breeze to get through (some of the points are just quotes, or usually short blurbs, less than two, on average about one, paragraphs each) and often about 2-4% of those points are absolute gold. One that is off the top of my head from recently finishing the advertising version of the series is the notion that you should emphasis getting your message across as many people as possible if it applies to a broad reach (say, toilet paper) while a specific niche demographic is best hit with higher frequency.

Game Engine Blackbook (Wolf 3D|DOOM)

These are fabulous books and if you have any nostalgia for the games they cover whatsoever, and you program, you should pick them up without a moments hesitation. They cover a portion of history regarding product development, hardware, and follow naturally into solid analysis of the internal tech of the rendering and game engines.

How To Lie With Statistics

This is a truly dated book that has an odd style of speech that rambles at great length so it can require some serious concentration to get at the core of what he is driving at for most chapters. It is also exceptionally light so not much is lost attempting to get through it, I suppose. The main theme of the book is where people, organisations, teams, researchers, surveyors, and so on, manipulate and confuse statistical data.

The Danish Way of Parenting: What the Happiest People in the World Know About Raising Confident, Capable Kids

Nothing exceptional here that a quick glance through the headlines and a few paragraphs wouldn't suffice with.

The Architecture of Happiness

This was one I read a bit more slowly than the rest. Alain De Boton is an intriguing author in how he explores a myriad of different topics in truly unique ways. I had previously read his book on Proust and how someone so bed ridden could write so well about human pyschology. In this text he explores how we tend to look at buildings aesthetically and jabs at modernist notions of functionality and science being at the core of architecture. It inspired me so much to write Make a Home which is still one of my favourite articles.

Hello World: Being Human in the Age of Algorithms

Fry explores how machine learning amplifies our biases. She argues that we can actively expose and rectify these biases and use machine learning to supplement human judgement rather than replacing it entirely.

A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age

I liked learning about Claude Shannon but this was tricky to get through as the writing was a bit bland. Claude is the founding father of information theory (the notion that different forms of data can be expressed with binary data). Shannon worked at Bell Labs for a good portion of his life, liked to juggle, ride a unicycle, and do mathematical puzzles. Apparently he had a knack for statistics and probability, too, to the point which he obsessively analysed gambling odds for roulette and had a knack for markets and building precursory computing machines.

Database Internals: A deep-dive into how distributed data systems work

Technical books are hard to review because what may work for one person may not work for another. Sometimes you need something as a heavy reference that you'll be rifling through often and without any clear ordering, and other times you may be looking for exactly a tutorial that starts and ends with a clear path (like a university course). "Database Internals" has a lot of knowledge and concise explanations of database concepts so it straddles the line between reference book and tutorial, but in a way I think is appealing to more voracious students on the subject. If you're looking for a simpler explanation of internals of databases with less meat or details there is the CMU Database course