This is the third year that I’ve kept a running list of every book that I’ve completed for the first time and then shared that list here as the first thing I write on either the last day of the old year or the first of the new.
A lot of folks in my line of work spend the waning moments of one year gazing out with predictions about the months ahead, and I’ll be doing plenty of that soon — most publicly at CES where I’ll be leading tours next week. However, I’m not only a futurist, I’m also a historian — a “futuristorian” — and so I look back as well as forward.
Looking back on what I read and when I read it helps me to track each year’s intellectual journey similar to how looking back at old emails or social media posts or journal entries can help me to pinpoint what I was thinking, when and often where. This year, one change from previous years is that I read more physical books than e-books.
So much of the recent news and social media torrent has been about how 2016 was a crappy year (John Oliver did a great job starting this meme). I prefer to think of it as a profound challenge, and amidst the challenges I read many wonderful books that I’m pleased to share. One new feature: at the end I’ll list a few of the books I have on deck for the first part of 2017.
For folks who just want the list without the thoughts after reading, here’s the short version:
- Polanyi, Michael. The Tacit Dimension.
- Bach, Rachel. Honor’s Knight.
- Edgerton, David. The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900.
- Bujold, Lois McMaster. Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen (Vorkosigan series).
- Grant, Adam. Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World.
- Bear, Elizabeth. Karen Memory.
- Dunstall, S.K. Alliance: A Linesman Novel.
- Nisbett, Richard E. Mindware: Tools for Smart Thinking.
- Rushkoff, Douglas. Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity.
- Connelly, Michael. Echo Park: A Harry Bosch Novel.
- Connelly, Michael. The Crossing: a Bosch Novel.
- Sacks, Oliver. Gratitude.
- Thaler, Richard H. & Cass R. Sunstein. Nudge: Improving Decisions About Heath, Wealth, and Happiness. (Revised & Expanded Edition.)
- Case, Steve. The Third Wave: an Entrepreneur’s Vision of the Future.
- Wallace, David Foster. This is Water; Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life.
- Bujold, Lois McMaster. Penric & the Shaman.
- Sennett, Richard. The Craftsman.
- Riordan, Rick. Blood of Olympus.
- Levitin, Daniel J. The Organized Mind.
- Lee, Sharon & Steve Miller. Alliance of Equals (Liaden Universe.)
- Riordan, Rick. The Trials of Apollo: Book One, The Hidden Oracle.
- Vance, J.D. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.
- Shafer, David. Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot: A Novel.
- Chiang, Ted. Stories of Your Life and Others.
- Bujold, Lois McMaster. Penric’s Mission.
- Connelly, Michael. The Wrong Side of Goodbye: a Bosch Novel.
- Schwab, Klaus. The Fourth Industrial Revolution.
- Krasny, Michael. Let There be Laughter: A Treasury of Great Jewish Humor and What it all Means. More Than 100 of the Funniest Jewish of all Time.
- Levitin, Daniel J. A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age.
- Lewis, Michael. The Undoing Project: a Friendship that Changed Our Minds.
- Sawyer, Robert J. Hominids: Volume One of The Neanderthal Parallax.
- Gibbs, Stuart. Spy Ski School.
- Perzanowski, Aaron and Jason Schultz. The End of Ownership: Personal Property in the Digital Economy.
I read fewer books in 2016 than the whopping 56 of 2015, and less fiction than usual, which shows how busy my head has been with work and other matters.
Here’s the longer version with thoughts, occasional snarky remarks and analysis:
1. Polanyi, Michael. The Tacit Dimension. Finished January 1, 2016.
Polanyi was a mid-twentieth century polymath, and this brief 1966 book came out of a series of lectures at Yale in 1962. The most useful for folks in 2017 are the first two.
In “Tacit Knowing,” Polanyi talks about how we can know more than we can say, and discusses a number of psychological experiments where subjects use information that they understand tacitly but cannot explain explicitly when asked to do so.
Tacit Knowledge is an important idea for our digital era where more and more things can be tagged, identified, tracked and known. We have ever more that we can say but not necessarily an equally speedy increase in what we can know… and vice versa.
in the second Terry lecture, “Emergence,” Polanyi extends the concept of the leap to show how concepts emerge out of hierarchies, where the emerged form cannot be anticipated from the lower form, as a set of grammatical rules cannot anticipate poetry. In this thinking, Polanyi anticipates by decades recent discussions about moving up and down technological stacks and how innovation builds on platforms.
2. Bach, Rachel. Honor’s Knight. Finished January 3, 2016.
Sequel to Fortune’s Pawn, which I read in 2014. This would be entirely conventional space opera if the protagonist were male, but because Deviana “Devi” Morris is a woman, it’s more interesting. Like many trilogies (e.g. “Empire Strikes Back”) this one is pure action and stops right in the middle, tantalizing the reader to go read the 3rd, which I might do if it’s in my local library, as this one was.
3. Edgerton, David. The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900. Finished January 25, 2016. (While on a plane to a conference in Cincinnati.)
This fascinating book challenges innovation-centric thinking by exploring the impact of technologies in use rather than when new devices and services first come over the horizon. “Our technological museums, with their emphasis on first design, tied to miss out on the extraordinary life stories of the objets they have” (38).
Edgerton focuses on maintenance as well as invention, highlighting how our attitudes toward technology today differ from prior eras: “In the 1920s a Ford Model T buyer ‘never regarded his purchase as a complete finished product. When you bought a Ford you figured you had a start — a vibrant, spirited framework to which could be screwed on almost limitless assortment of decorative and functional hardware’” (97). This is both similar to and different than today’s smart phones with limitless apps and customization opportunities, but few people get under the hoods of their phones and computers. In this, Edgerton’s argument reminds me of Jonathan Zittrain’s arguments about generativity in The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It.
4. Bujold, Lois McMaster. Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen (Vorkosigan series). Finished February 3, 2016.
Anything by Bujold is a cause for celebration, and a new entry in the Vorkosigan series can provoke a Snoopy-like happy dance. Bujold is my favorite living science fiction writer, and this series is magnificent and sublime. No spoilers: ping me if you want a hint about where to jump onto this terrific ride.
5. Grant, Adam. Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World. Finished 2/19/16.
I loved Grant’s first book, Give and Take, and so I snapped this one up the moment I saw it. Like the first book, Grant is a stellar writer who could have a second life writing fiction. In Originals, his insights about how things as seemingly-trivial as birth order determine choices, risk aversion and achievements later in life can cut to the bone in a spooky way. This book combines canny analysis with practical, applicable ideas: I wish it had a companion volume or app that would make some of the thinking more easily deployable… something I also think about books #8 and #29.
6. Bear, Elizabeth. Karen Memory. Finished 3/5/16.
Pacific Northwest Steampunk. This was genuinely interesting sci-fi that left me wanting to read more by Bear, and I hope for more from the protagonist, a prostitute with an appetite for adventure in an alternate-universe Seattle.
7. Dunstall, S.K. Alliance: A Linesman Novel. Finished March 25, 2016.
This is the second book in the Linesman series: not as good as the first because it was quieter after the sprezzatura world-building of #1. I remembered the first well but not perfectly, which inhibited my pleasure a bit while reading the second. I look forward to reading #3, which came out when I wasn’t looking in November.
8. Nisbett, Richard E. Mindware: Tools for Smart Thinking. Finished March 26, 2016.
Brilliant and useful and worth a second read as it ties into a bunch of other reading and thinking over the past couple of years. Many psychologists perform experiments about how flawed we are as thinkers, how irrelevant facets of a story can influence our decisions, and how bad we are at making the distinction between something that is plausible (a good story) and probably (likely). Nisbett’s “mindware” are rules and tools to help us think more effectively, or at least be aware of biases as we muddle through our lives.
9. Rushkoff, Douglas. Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity. Finished April 8, 2016.
Fascinating and important: Doug Rushkoff is one of those courageous thinkers who tackles foundational presumptions to shake our thinking into new shapes. The foundational idea that he tackles at the core of Throwing Rocks is that corporations need to grow in order to survive. This hasn’t always been the case (nor have corporations), and the practical consequences of adopting grow-or-die as the operating system for companies is that individual liberty and prosperity becomes subservient to the health of corporations.
Speaking of companies like Uber, AirBNB, Spotify and others, Rushkoff observers “As private companies induce us to become sharers, we contribute our own cars, creativity, and couches to a sharing economy that is more extractive than it is circulatory. Our investments of time, place, and materials are exploited by those who have invested money and actually own the platforms” (218). You won’t think about Uber and the like in the same way after reading this book.
10. Connelly, Michael. Echo Park: A Harry Bosch Novel. Finished April 16, 2016.
Devoured in less than 24 hours, on a quick trip to L.A. to give a dinner keynote. This is the 12th Harry Bosch novel, published in 2006. I haven’t been a completionist with this series, and the last one I read was The Burning Room at the end of 2014. That leaves me with The Crossing as the most-recently published that I haven’t read…
11. Connelly, Michael. The Crossing: a Bosch Novel. Finished April 21, 2016.
The Harry Bosch novel published in November of 2016, which I got out of the library Tuesday afternoon and inhaled. This one also features Mickey Haller from the Lincoln Lawyer series, although we see the story from Bosch’s POV. Connelly is amazing with both character and plot, hence the momentum. He’s also daring with having his main character change over time (like Lois McMaster Bujold with Miles Vorkosigan). Unlike Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, who is a bag of tics and a narrative function, Bosch changes over time. In this book, Bosch is facing his life after a second retirement from the LAPD and what to do with himself (also as an about-to-be empty nester).
Reading these two Bosch books back to back also inspired me to watch the terrific Amazon Prime TV adaptation, Bosch.
12. Sacks, Oliver. Gratitude. Finished 17 May, 2016.
A little book with big ideas and emotions: it collects Sacks’ last four essays, originally published in The New York Times, written between the time he got his terminal cancer diagnosis and his death. He was such a beautiful writer, and I’m pleased that my wife Kathi gave me this inspiring little collection for the 2015 holidays.
13. Thaler, Richard H. & Cass R. Sunstein. Nudge: Improving Decisions About Heath, Wealth, and Happiness. (Revised and Expanded Edition.) Finished May 22, 2016.
I’ve been meaning to read this book for years, and that ambition was heightened when I read Thaler’s Misbehaving memoir last year. A brilliant book about the social context of and need for deep thinking about default assumptions for all manner of situations, as well as how to change them via gentle “nudges” rather than strong mandates. The seeming paradox of “libertarian paternalism” takes an entire book to unwind, and although sometimes it is hard going the read repays the effort. The authors’ notion of “choice architecture” is profoundly useful, and I’ll be thinking about it a lot… in particular in the context of the connected experiences at the heart of my current work.
14. Case, Steve. The Third Wave: an Entrepreneur’s Vision of the Future. Finished 31 May, 2016.
This book was frustrating to read but has stuck with me in the months since I finished it.
Here’s a transcription of a notecard I scribbled on 5/26/16: “Generally book is platitudinous —> a good keyword to describe most biz books. Not enough concrete examples when he talks about the future, although plenty of the war stories.”
The word “platitudinous” is one happy result of a so-so book. Case’s Third Wave is a powerpoint with elephantiasis— the reverse of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” that was a book masquerading as an endless powerpoint presentation.
The other happy result of reading Case is my idea that most business books are Thneeds, from Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax… an idea that probably needs no teasing out. In Case’s case (ha), the “thneed” is the concept of “the third wave” itself, borrowed from Toffler and transmogrified into IoT.
Two of Case’s most-useful insights are 1) that the need for infrastructure makes the third wave more similar to the internet’s first wave than to the social/mobile second wave, and 2) that third wave companies will need to partner more effectively with governments in order to succeed… unlike, say, Uber which has grown by ignoring government regulations until they get in trouble.
15. Wallace, David Foster. This is Water; Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life. Finished 31 May, 2016.
An exquisite little book, which is the slightly revised text of DFW’s famous 2005 Kenyon College commencement address. I think I read the text online once before, and/or heard the audio, but I’ve been thinking about this talk lately and ordered the hard copy on Amazon in order to get it into my head more actively. The highest compliment that I can give this book is that I’ll have to read it again soon in order to make sure that I’m paying attention to what it asks me to attend to.
The reason I’ve been thinking about This is Water is that the thread of some other books I’ve been consuming have been more complicated versions of this, like Douglas Rushkoff’s operating systems in Throwing Rocks.
16. Bujold, Lois McMaster. Penric & the Shaman. Finished June 28, 2016.
A brilliant novella in Bujold’s “Five Gods” universe that I bought, downloaded and inhaled in one day despite my hopes of stretching out the experience. This is fantasy rather than science fiction and the sequel to last year’s Penric’s Demon.
17. Sennett, Richard. The Craftsman. Finished July 2, 2016.
I picked this up after my friend John Willshire talked eloquently about Sennet’s work in a presentation I admired. I couldn’t get through it the first time I tried, but the second time I got hooked and wound up filling 18 notecards with enthusiastic observations and filling the book with marginalia and underlines.
Sennett is brilliant and insightful, and his work resonates with my thinking about connected experiences, and particularly how using tools expands both our capabilities and our individual senses, leading us into new thinking: “We want to understand how tools can more generically engage us in large intuitive leaps into the unknown” (209),
18. Riordan, Rick. Blood of Olympus. Finished July 26, 2016.
This is the final book in the second Percy Jackson series, which I read because my son wanted me to do so. Although Riordan is always good, the second series was not nearly as good as the first: there are too many characters with a dizzying, constantly-switching POV.
19. Levitin, Daniel J. The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. Finished July 26, 2016.
This is a rare exception to my “first reads only” rule, but over the summer I realized that I hadn’t retained as much of this brilliant book the first time I read it last year… perhaps because I read it on the iPad. So I bought a paperback copy and dove back in, pencil in hand and a pile of notecards on the table beside me. The book rewarded a second read just as much as a first, which is rare.
The next phase of the digital revolution is going to put immense pressure on our notions of environments, place, transcending the limits of our bodies and more: Levitin’s book has informed my thinking about these matters. Moreover, his insights about how we all have a limited amount of decision-making energy each day have changed how I approach allowing many forms of stimulation into my life, particularly in the mornings.
20. Lee, Sharon & Steve Miller. Alliance of Equals. (Liaden Universe.) Finished August 14, 2016.
The latest in the Liaden series. I had to reread the prior (Dragon in Exile), as I didn’t remember it well. As with the last Percy Jackson book, this suffers from an oversupply of plots & POVs and characters, but at least in this case the three main plots all share a theme of transition, becoming and arrival.
21. Riordan, Rick. The Trials of Apollo: Book One, The Hidden Oracle. Finished August 22, 2016.
This is the first book in the next series in Riordan’s Greek myth universe, and the difference between Riordan writing multiple points of view and containing himself to one is profound. Here, Apollo annoys Zeus to such an extent that the Thunder God banishes Apollo to live as a mortal on Earth. The fun of the book is that Apollo is an arrogant prick, which isn’t a huge surprise after being worshipped as a deity for millennia. The narrative engine is virtually identical to that of the 1960s Marvel comic adaptation of Thor, only played for laughs.
22. Vance, J.D. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. Finished September 6, 2016.
This book has been a sensation, particularly around the vexing question of why middle class whites voted Republican in such overwhelming numbers in the last election despite it seeming to Democrats to be an act entirely against the self interest of those same voters.
I want to point out just two things: first, Vance never mentions President-Elect Trump by name or by direct inference, so the application to the election is more interpretive than some reviewers suggest. Second, the political application of this story is a distraction from a terrific read and a modern memoir of class that reminds me of classics like Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude Brown and Hunger of Memory by Richard Rodriguez.
23. Shafer, David. Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot: A Novel. Finished October 30, 2016.
My friend Ari Popper recommended this agreeable novel, which is not to be confused with the similarly-titled book that was the source for the Tina Fey movie.
Shafer’s book has a weird “this is the overture: where’s the symphony?” quality. It almost feels like a prequel written long after a novel — the start of a beloved multi-volume action series — that exists to explain to loyal readers where the protagonists originally came from… sort of like if J.K, Rowling wrote the James and Lily Potter story, where the whole point of those two characters was to get killed by Voldemort in a way that empowered Harry.
There was an interesting container versus the content aspect to this for me: the story kept getting more compelling but I noticed (because I have a paper copy rather than on the iPad) that even though the plot was ramping up I was running out of pages. “How can he resolve all this in the short amount of time he has left?” I think that if I’d been whizzing along reading it on the iPad — and didn’t look at the “you have read X% banner on the bottom — that I’d have felt quite cheated when I slammed into that ending. I remember this sort of thing happening to me with an Elmore Leonard novel that was one of the first things I ever read on a Kindle where the story ended abruptly even though I had a bunch of % left to read, which was because there was a free preview of another novel. At least with the Shafer book I could see it coming.
24. Chiang, Ted. Stories of Your Life and Others. Finished November 5, 2016.
There aren’t that many people who make me think, “Gosh, why don’t they write MORE?” Chiang’s astonishing collection of sci-fi short stories did just that, and I’m grateful to my friend Mike Parker for recommending the book.
The title story has now been turned into the film Arrival, which I want to see it based on the source material. The most personally compelling story to me was “Liking What You See: A Documentary” about lookism.
25. Bujold, Lois McMaster. Penric’s Mission. Finished November 12, 2016.
Third novella in Bujold’s newest fantasy series (see #16, above), delightful.
26. Connelly, Michael. The Wrong Side of Goodbye: a Bosch Novel. Finished November 13, 2016.
More Connelly: he’s just so good. I started the iBooks sample on the elliptical machine at the gym, went home, bought it, and then inhaled most of it that same night, finishing it the following morning. Any mystery lover shouldn’t miss these.
27. Schwab, Klaus. The Fourth Industrial Revolution. Finished November 16, 2016.
At a conference this fall my friend Tim Murphy recommended this book. It’s an interesting and mercifully brief “behold the future!” volume written book by the founder and head of the World Economic Forum: it provoked a long set of index card notes.
The book can be frustrating with its dearth of evocative examples, which makes imaginatively seeing what Schwab is talking about hard, but reading it catalyzed a great deal of my own thinking, and perhaps led indirectly to this recent piece.
28. Krasny, Michael. Let There be Laughter: A Treasury of Great Jewish Humor and What it all Means. More Than 100 of the Funniest Jewish Jokes of all Time. Finished November 26, 2016.
This is a breezy read by the host of KQED’s “Forum.” In an ungenerous mood I told my parents — who lent me the book — that the commentary is so shallow that it aspires to be fatuous, which was unfair but only a little. Krasny spends so much time on self-aggrandizing anecdotes about the celebrities he knows and has interviewed that it can be annoying.
But he does have some good jokes.
I’ve long bemoaned that 1980 and 1990s identity politics and political correctness essentially killed joke-telling as a social lubricant. For my father and grandfather jokes were the professional currency. I can only think of three friends and colleagues with whom I trade jokes, and I’m sufficiently antsy about this topic that I won’t name them. You know you are, guys.
29. Levitin, Daniel J. A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age. Finished November 29, 2016.
A fantastic read, one that inspired many, many notecards. More practical than his previous, brilliant book The Organized Mind (#19) and akin to Nisbett’s Mindware (#8), Levitin provides the reader with tools to evaluate information critically, not to be taken in by poor arguments, and to understand that “we didn’t evolve brains with a sufficient understanding of what randomness looks like” (163). This is a friendlier, more useful version of the work of Nassim Nicholas Taleb of Black Swan fame.
Reading books like Levitin’s can make me despair of ever thinking clearly myself, but I can at least take comfort in always making progress.
30. Lewis, Michael. The Undoing Project: a Friendship that Changed Our Minds. Finished December 10, 2016.
Magnificent. As with the Vance book (#22), this is a huge bestseller so I don’t know how much I can add. I’ve read the works of its main protagonists — Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky — and other behavioral economists with fascination for years. What Lewis does is to make their ideas come alive in a powerful platonic love story between two geniuses.
You can watch a long, insightful conversation between Lewis and Adam Grant (a.k.a. #5) here.
31. Sawyer, Robert J. Hominids: Volume One of The Neanderthal Parallax. Finished December 15, 2016.
Delightful, thoughtful and well-structured sci-if novel about a parallel universe where Neanderthals survived & homo sapiens died off. Then, a Neanderthal physicist accidentally drops through a portal to our universe in modern day Canada. The book was published in 2002 & therefore written as the first early phases of the internet took place. I wonder how the story would have come out differently if written a decade later when the internet and the smart phone were established. One key difference between our world and the Neanderthal counterpart is that every Neanderthal has a “Companion” grafted into his or her inner forearm that is like an advanced iPhone with a smarter version of Siri. The gap, in other words, between the Neanderthal world and ours has shrunk in the years since the book first came out. I just started reading Humans, the second volume: so far, so good.
32. Gibbs, Stuart. Spy Ski School. Finished December 20, 2016.
Fourth in the hilarious series that my son reads and urges me to read immediately after he does. Gibbs channels the minds and concerns of middle-schoolers with a James Bondian overlay that is delightful and funny. With its speedy plot and engaging characters, I can’t believe this series hasn’t been optioned for a TV series. (Note: there was a 2008 movie called “Spy School” that is entirely unrelated.)
I also admire how closely Gibbs engages with his young readers on his website.
And finally for 2016…
33. Perzanowski, Aaron and Jason Schultz. The End of Ownership: Personal Property in the Digital Economy. Finished December 29, 2016.
In this wide-ranging yet powerfully-focused book, two law professors explore the issues surrounding our cultural move from owning copies (of movies, CDs, books) to EaaS (Everything as a Service) alternatives like Netflix, Spotify and licensed ebooks (versus physical copies that are our property).
We are trading a lot for the convenience and wider selection of digital goods over physical, and after reading this book (which is surprisingly brief) I’m more aware of the tradeoffs than I was before. The ramifications are widespread, from the death of secondary markets (e.g., because you can’t sell the Netflix videos you’re done with on eBay) to attempts to block generic alternatives to manufacturer brands (printer ink, Keurig cups) and beyond… with added implications coming in the world of self-driving cars and 3D printers everywhere. This books makes a remarkable, if inadvertent, bookend with Edgerton’s Shock of the Old that I read last January (#3 on this list).
Thanks for reading! I’d love your comments, critiques and suggestions for further reading.
Here’s a sneak previews of books already on my desk to read or complete in 2017 in alphabetical order by author rather than ordered by likelihood of reading:
- Samuel Arbesman, Overcomplicated: Technology at the Limits of Comprehension
- Dan Ariely, Payoff: The Hidden Loginc that Shapes our Motivations
- Harry Collins, Tacit & Explicit Knowledge
- Jon Fine, Your Band Sucks: What I Saw at Indie Rock’s Failed Revolution (But Can No Longer Hear)
- Thomas L. Friedman, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations
- Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion
- Tim Harford, Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform our Lives
- Joi Ito and Jeff Howe, Whiplash: How to Survive our Faster Future
- Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities
- Steven Johnson, Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World
- Cal Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World
- Robert Sawyer, Humans: Volume Two of the Neanderthal Parallax
- Pat Shipman, The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction
- Cecily Sommers, Think Like a Futurist: Know What Changes, What Doesn’t, and What’s Next
- Amy Webb, The Signals are Talking: Why Today’s Fringe is Tomorrow’s Mainstream
- Tim Wu, The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads
The attentive will see some clear themes extended from both this year’s list and those of previous years. It will be interesting to see how many of these make it onto the 2017 list one year from now.
Happy New Year!