The books I read in 2017

I didn’t actually read any of these, but boy do they look good!

Last year about this time I extracted all my answers to our monthly Basecamp check-in question of What are you reading? So I thought I’d do the same again. These are the books I read in 2017, as I presented them to the rest of the company:

February 14

With Russia fever at Defcon 2, I’ve made it about half-ways through the biography The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin. It’s a great refresher on post-WWII history, the cold war, KGB, but above all, on the forces present in Russia.

There are many lines to draw between Russia’s struggles after the fall of Communism with the fundamental political theories of Fukuyama (Origins of Political Order / Political Order And Political Decay). When taken together, they lend an all the more human and sympathetic story to why things played out the way they did. While still appreciating just how immense the level of brokenness, corruption, and brutality that journey has brought with it.

On a lighter note, I finished The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo. It’s a short book, but it still manages to repeat itself a lot. And yet the core patterns it covers are as effective as they are simple. I’ve been on a decluttering kick at home and feel so much better because of it. It was also the kickstarter for the conversation with JF that lead us to sell WWR.

April 5

  • The Undoing Project: Michael Lewis is just a great storyteller, and tell a story in this he does. It’s about two Israeli psychologists, their collaboration on the irrationality of the human mind, and the milestones they set with concepts like loss-aversion, endowment effect, and other common quirks that the assumption of rationality doesn’t account for. It’s a bit long-winded, but if you like Lewis’ style, you probably won’t mind it. The scientific recaps could have happened in a book 1/10th the length, but then you’d miss out on the character portrayals of these two fascinating scientists.
  • The Stranger: Seminal novel on existentialism and the absurd by Albert Camus from 1946. Explores that feeling of disconnectedness from society, its norms, and the absurdity of every day life. Striking first-person account in a powerful, direct language.
  • The Myth of Sisyphus: Camus’ philosophical exposition of absurdity, suicide in the face of meaninglessness, and other cherry topics that continue on from his fictional work in novels like The Stranger. It’s surprisingly readable, unlike many other mid 20th century philosophers, yet no less deep or pointy. It’s a great follow-up, as an original text, to that book The Age of Absurdity, I recommended last year. Still working through it.
  • The Antifragile: Ryan recommended this earlier, and I had already read Black Swan, so followed up here. I’m of two minds with this book so far. On the one hand, I think Nassim does a great job at taking swings at The Establishment thinking in economics in particular, but on the other hand the tone at times seem needlessly polemic. The irony of me saying that of all people is not lost. Which is perhaps the best take-away from the book so far: That it’s a mirror on how to present arguments in a compelling, believable, punchy fashion, without getting lost swinging at ghosts and straw men.

July 5

  • Debt: The first 5,000 Years. Fascinating exploration of the history of economics, debunking the “if we didn’t have money, it’d all be inconvenient bartering!” myth, and the morality of debt. Only just in the early parts of the book, but liking the narrative and the anthropologic examples of exchange from other cultures already.
  • About 2/3s through Antifragile, as I mentioned last time. It got better as it progressed, even if some of the examples (like Fat Tony) are still a bit tortured. Wish he would have edited it down to half the length though.
  • In the last 10% of Political Order and Political Decay. It’s been about 50 hours of listening between that volume and the first, The Origins of Political Order. So quite the undertaking. But we’ve finally progressed all the way through the history of political order and arrived at Fukuyama’s diagnosis of modern day societies. It’s a truly epic journey, and one that’s uniquely timely to the current upheaval. “Things are so crazy now” is only something you’d say in the absence of a historical perspective. These books give you just that and then some.

November 7

  • Debt: The First 5,000 Years. After a few false starts, I finally got going with this, and what a treat. It shoots down the common myth that prior to money, everyone just bartered shit. I give you a pig, you give me five pies and a hat. Evidence shows that just wasn’t at all how things went. Most societies were structured either rather communistic (take what you need, give what you can) or with a loose debt-ledger system (or a combination of both). But where things get really interesting is how the emergence of market economies (and money) changed the relationship with human life and dignity. Especially as a consequence of slavery, which put a very explicit price on that which previously was priceless. All sorts of fascinating historical links to women wearing veils (to distinguish them from women who could be bought), how debt peonage really took off once slavery came profitable (so debtors could be sold, or their children sold, if they failed to repay), and how other morality got intertwined with debt. It’s truly eye-opening, and the lines trace disturbingly well from millennia.
  • The Richest Man in Babylon. This is a 1920s classic version of How To Get Rich. The ancestor of all the pale imitations, like Rich Dad/Poor Dad, that came since. And while I scoffed at plenty of the allegories from ancient Babylon that presents the lessons, it was still a neat package. And at least ancient Babylon is a more interesting backdrop for teaching lessons about money than some suburban house flipper. I ended up liking it more at the end than I did at the beginning. It’s also a really interesting tie-in with that debt history book.
  • Never Split The Difference: Negotiating Like Your Life Depend On It. A former FBI hostage negotiator distills the heuristics of how to defuse tense negotiations with unstable humans, and proposes that they’re the same for every other form of negotiations. Not a bad premise, and I found several of the techniques compelling and resonant of what I’ve read about human biases and flaws from other sources. But the FBI bravado is grating. It’s basically “hey, I just learned this stuff, and I whattadoknow, I become so bad ass that I could beat every Harvard trained negotiator with my sick mind hacks”. Okay dude. Nassim Taleb would be proud though 😂.
  • The Celtic Holocaust. This isn’t technically a book, but it might as well be. It’s Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History “podcast”, but calling a 6 hour history show a “podcast” is a bit of a stretch. That’s longer than many audiobooks I’ve read! Anyway, this one is fantastic. It details Caesar’s Gaelic and Celtic campaigns, the military strategy, the political motivations from Rome, and the right and might of empire. It’s uncanny how similar the justifications and the hypocrisy of Caesar mimics that of modern day empires. All the while still portraying him in the fair light as a brilliant writer, strategist, and general. And then there’s of course Dan Carlin which could make even the most boring topic riveting. So when the topic is this good, the combo is just ace. Very highly recommended.

December 21

  • The Wealth of Nations: It’s hard to believe that Adam Smith wrote this tome in 1776! It’s written in such plain, if repetitive, language that it makes the basic economic theory easily accessible. That doesn’t mean it’s right. The book on Debt: The First 5,000 Years spent a fair chunk of time debunking many of Smith’s accounts of “the barter, truck, and exchange” cultures that supposedly were the rude state of man before the introduction of coinage. But the book is all the better from a read with a critical mind. It presents such a basic, plain description of capitalism and its functions that serves as a proper grounding for a critique. It’s also full of kinda hilarious deep dives into the exchange rates between silver and gold and other commodities set to 1770s prices.
  • The Republic: I’m about a third through this and still can’t tell whether Plato is making a mockery of Socrates ideas for the idyllic society or not. So many of the arguments presented as Socrates’ are so tortured and with so disconnected leaps of logic that it’s hard to take it at face value. Yet still, it’s good fun to follow the dialogue. It reads more like a play than a book, and again, immensely accessible. It’s fun to see the lines that continue from a book like this to the considerations of the Stoics all the way to Adam Smith and the Wealth of Nations and then onto a modern critique and history in that Debt: First 5,000 Years. A conversation spanning millennia.

Basecamp is a great place to help coworkers and team mates share what they read on a regular basis, but it’s not the only automatic check-in we use. We also ask What did you do this weekend? and What’s one thing that inspired you this week?, in addition to the question about work and progress. 2018 would be a great year for you and the team to bond over such questions.