2016 Book Recommendations

August 28, 2016

 

My reading goals in 2016 were simple:

 

1) Read as much as possible

2) Read a variety of things. I mainly read non-fiction, but tried not to focus exclusively on any given topic, though you'll notice that investing and business feature prominently.

3) Read more slowly. That might sound odd, given my first goal, but I tried to engage more deeply with the books instead of shooting for quantity. 

 

In 2014 and 2015, I did an annual review of books I enjoyed. In 2016, I decided to keep an ongoing list, and found this a better way to keep track of things I'd enjoyed.

 

Recommending books is hard because books mean different things to different people at different points in their lives. The most meaningful books to me this year built on incipient ideas and brought them to life more fully. "Little Bets", for example, is something that made more sense to me after "How to Fail at Almost Everything". Nor is the long-term value of a book synonymous with the rating I gave it. For example, "The China Study" is probably the book I read this year that will have the greatest long-term impact on my life, but it wasn't the "best" book I read.  

 

So take my ratings with a pinch of salt, and I hope you find something you like. Books are listed according to my rating on a five-point scale:

 

Business, Finance & Economics

 

The Amazon Way (John Rossman). Amazon is a behemoth, and the company's success has everything to do with the remarkable culture Jeff Bezos has built. Written by a former Amazon executive, this book offers an inside look at what drives the company. 5 stars.

 

Common Stocks, Uncommon Profits (Philip Fisher). Hands down, one of the best books I've read on investing, and one that influenced me tremendously. I make it a point to re-read this every so often, and like every great book, it always sparks some new thought. 5 stars.

 

Once Upon A Car (Bill Vlasic). Automotive journalist Bill Vlasic describes the collapse of the US auto industry in captivating detail. I learned a lot about challenges in the industry, and how the government bailout came about. Particularly interesting in contrast to reading about businesses like Wal-Mart and Amazon. 5 stars.

 

The Chastening (Paul Blustein). Paul Blustein has been covering international financial markets for many years, and provides a scintillating account of the crisis that swept emerging markets in 1997. The scale of the crisis was truly staggering. 5 stars. 

 

Made in America (Sam Walton and John Huey). Wal-Mart is one of the greatest business stories of the modern US economy. This book captures Walton's folksy style but leaves the reader with no doubt about the man's relentless competitive drive. Poignantly, the book was finished a few months before Walton died, serving as a gentle reminder of the impermanence that pervades the lives of even the richest among us. 5 stars.

 

Setting the Table (Danny Meyer). Meyer is easily one of the most successful restaurateurs in the US. This details his business achievements as well as the philosophy that has driven his career. There are strong parallels with the Wal-Mart and Whole Foods stories. Thoroughly enjoyed this one, though I think I'm taking a break from the genre for the time being! 5 stars.

 

Fischer Black and the Revolutionary Idea of Finance (Perry Mehrling). Fischer Black is one of the most prominent founders of modern finance and one of its most innovative thinkers. It was stunning to learn just how central he was to its development. Mehrling sets himself an audacious goal in trying to cover Black's work in finance and macroeconomics within 300 pages. It's well-written, but the material is still challenging if you have no background in finance or macro. I certainly can't claim to have fully grasped all the details, but have been influenced by Black's insistence on applying financial notions like CAPM to his whole life. 4.2 stars.

 

Conscious Capitalism (John Mackey and Raj Sisodia). John Mackey is the founder of Whole Foods Market, one of the largest grocery companies in the US. He and Sisodia make a strong case for Conscious Capitalism, which seeks to build great companies that generate value for all stakeholders. I wrote more about the book here. 4 stars.

 

Common Stocks & Common Sense (Edgar Wachenheim III). I learned about value investor Eddie Wachenheim through Value Investor Insight. He lays out his investment philosophy clearly here, with the real value coming from the investment case studies he provides. 4 stars. 

 

Soros on Soros (George Soros). The title of this blog came from this book, so you can probably guess that I'm a fan. Structured as an extended interview with Soros, the book covers a wide range of material on Soros's investment philosophy, philanthropy and political involvement. I wrote more about this book here and here. It's also far easier to understand than The Alchemy of Finance! 4 stars. 

 

The Templeton Touch (William Proctor). John Templeton is a fascinating character, both for his investing prowess as well as his interest in religion and philanthropy. Authorized biographies are always biased, of course, and I found the first part a little superficial in understanding his investment philosophy. But the book really shines in the interviews with people Templeton influenced. 3.9 stars. 

 

So You Want To Start A Hedge Fund (Ted Seides). Seides has been allocating money to hedge funds for many years, and draws here on his vast experience. (Full disclosure: I worked at the same firm as Ted some years ago, though not directly with him). I enjoyed the vignettes of successful and unsuccessful money managers. The bad news for hedge fund wannabes? It's a brutally competitive market. My suspicion is that technology and good old-fashioned competition are going to dramatically reshape the hedge fund industry in the next 10 years. I hope that will be good news for investors. 3.9 stars. 

 

Falling Short (Charles Ellis, Alicia Munnell & Andrew Eschtruth). If you want to keep yourself up at night, this is a worrisome overview of America's impending retirement crisis. Given Ellis's status as one of the deans of investing, it was surprising to me how little of this book was devoted to investing. Perhaps that's actually right - rather than focusing on earning high returns, people should save more, invest prudently, and spend wisely in retirement. 3.7 stars.

 

Where Are The Customers' Yachts? (Fred Schwed). This is an investment classic by all accounts, and comes with a foreword by Jason Zweig, who is definitely one of the greatest financial writers out there. A lot of the writing is laugh-out-loud funny and reveals unseemly aspects of the investment industry that still exist.  Still, it didn't grip me as much as I thought it would. 3.6 stars. 

 

 

Food, Health & Wellness

 

A Guide to Better Movement (Todd Hargrove). This is an excellent book on how to move better and avoid chronic pain. It adroitly navigates the tension between being readable and providing some technical explanation for chronic pain. I've always been intrigued by the Feldenkrais method of therapy, which exploits neuroplasticity. Those interested in how the brain works will find this a fascinating read. Like all good books, it warrants a second reading when I have the time. It also inspired a post on the similarities between good movement and skillful portfolio construction. 5 stars.

 

The China Study (T. Colin Campbell and Thomas M. Campbell). I experimented with a largely vegetarian lifestyle in 2011 after reading Jonathan Safran Foer's "Eating Animals". Michael Moss's "Salt Sugar Fat" also changed the way I thought about food, by revealing the food industry's unethical practices. But "The China Study" has truly transformed the way I eat. The book lays out a convincing argument for following a whole food, plant-based diet. I hope to write more about this important topic soon. 4.5 stars.

 

Prescription for a Healthy Nation (Tom Farley and Deborah Cohen). This book delves into the question of why the US is so unhealthy, and what can be done to fix the problems. The authors lay most of the blame on unethical corporations and misguided or venal politicians, as well as the pervasive inequality in the US. For better or worse, the authors rely heavily on government intervention to solve some of these problems, and I found myself swayed by their arguments. I'd like to pair this other books, though, which analyze why other countries - presumably subject to the same corporate and political influences - have succeeded where the US has failed. 4.3 stars. 

 

 

Psychology

 

Risk Savvy (Gerd Gigerenzer). There's a lot to like in this quick read on risk and uncertainty. Gigerenzer proposes improving our ability to deal with risk and uncertainty by (a) teaching statistical thinking, (b) focusing more on simple heuristics and gut feelings when appropriate, and (c) teaching people to understand the psychology of risk. One major weakness of this book is in trying to navigate times when (a) and (b) conflict. Helping people understand when to use statistical thinking and when to rely on heuristics is upper-level decision-making, and Gigerenzer glosses over that difficulty here. 4 stars. 

 

 

Philosophy, Religion & Personal Development

 

Life's Meandering Path (Karma Yeshe Rabgye). In a fitting tribute to this book's title, I had this on my Amazon Wish List for two years before buying it. I'm delighted I finally got around to it. The subtitle of this book is "A Secular Approach to Gautama Buddha's Guide to Living", and it really is an excellent volume on how non-religious people can benefit from Buddhism's insights. I'd give everyone a copy if I could. 5 stars. 

 

Little Bets (Peter Sims). I couldn't decide whether to list this under Business or Personal Development, and that's testament to the wide-ranging applicability of the Little Bets philosophy. I wrote a post about this philosophy before reading the book, and learned a lot more about creativity and adaptability. It shared some similarities with other favourites of mine like Creativity, Inc. and Obliquity. Definitely one to re-read when I have time. 5 stars.

 

The Start-Up of You (Reid Hoffman and Benjamin Casnocha). I've read this book twice in the past few years. LinkedIn founders Hoffman and Casnocha do a great job of discussing today's world of work, and also provide lots of other great resources for those thinking about their careers. 5 stars. 

 

How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big (Scott Adams). I learned about this book from journalist Cardiff Garcia. Adams is the creator of Dilbert, and a phenomenally successful cartoonist. This book is part memoir, part life advice. Genuinely hilarious and packed with all kinds of interesting thoughts. Adams is a serial entrepreneur and experimenter - definitely someone worth emulating. 5 stars. 

 

Getting Right With Tao (Ron Hogan). This is a lovely modern take on the Tao Te Ching, one of the main texts of Taoism. I really enjoyed this quirky, contemporary take on TTC. Some of it is a little hard to figure it. Is it profound? Is it masquerading as profound? I'm not sure, but there's enough good stuff in here that I think I'll return to it in the future. 4.5 stars.

 

Do Nothing, Do Everything (Qiguang Zhao). A startlingly beautiful (and humorous) series of essays on Zhao's "New Taoism." In the first lines, Zhao imagines students asking him if he is a Taoist, and he responds, "I refuse to be named. Ancient Taoist thinkers and their works are ancient history. I am influenced by Taoism, but I keep my spiritual freedom and my right to fly without confines." An admirable goal. 4.5 stars. 

 

Designing Your Life (Bill Burnett & Dave Evans). Burnett & Evans teach a wildly successful class as Stanford using design principles to create a joyful life. The notion of life as a messy process rather than a neat, structured path is one that resonated deeply. Worked well in tandem with some other things I read this year like "Start-Up of You" and "How to Fail at Almost Everything" (although its score probably suffered given insights I'd read elsewhere). Still good enough for me to give several copies as gifts. 4.3 stars. 

 

Nothing Holy About It (Tim Burkett). I've been interested in Buddhism for awhile, but hadn't read much on Zen till this. Much of this was a good introduction to Zen, and also includes some great background on how Zen came to the US. But I have to confess that there were some parts that I either didn't understand or which seemed like New Age fluff (what researcher Gordon Pennycook calls "pseudo-profound bullshit"). 3.9 stars.  

 

Tao Te Ching (Stephen Mitchell). It's a bit strange to review a book that's the cornerstone of a major philosophical tradition. Even worse, I read this after reading Getting Right with Tao and Do Nothing, Do Everything (see above) and liked it less than the other two. There is a tremendous amount of wisdom here - particularly in the notion of wu wei - but there's an entire middle section that I found incomprehensible. And perhaps I just had a little bit of Taoism fatigue. 3.8 stars.

 

30 Lessons For Living (Karl Pillemer). Pillemer is a gerontologist, which means that he studies the elderly. He and his team interviewed many elderly Americans to distill their wisdom on topics like love, work and money. I liked the premise of the book, though some of the advice seemed a little trite. 3.8 stars. 

 

The Noble Eightfold Path (Bhikku Bodhi). I really enjoyed Bhikku Bodhi's "In the Buddha's Words". I enjoyed this less, finding some of explication a little dry. Nonetheless, a good introduction to the central tenet of Buddhism. 3.5 stars. 

 

 

Other Non-Fiction

 

Essays After Eighty (Donald Hall). Someone close to me died this year, and I reached for this short volume of essays. Hall is lyrical and wildly funny. I found this immensely comforting. 5 stars. 

 

Hunting Eichmann (Neal Bascomb). This is just a terrifically written, old-fashioned adventure story - and it happens to be true. The story of how Israeli spies tracked down one of history's greatest war criminals left me spellbound (and this was the second time I read the book!). 5 stars.

 

The Accidental President of Brazil (Fernando Henrique Cardoso). The sociologist and former Brazilian president known as "FHC" has delivered a superb memoir. The writing is crisp, moving quickly through his life story. Critics might argue it lacks detail about his life and policies, but for a general reader like me, the book hit the right balance. Fascinating insights into Brazilian politics and economics, especially given subsequent developments with Lula and Dilma Rousseff. ( For more on Brazil, I once wrote a series of posts about Brazil's hyperinflation here and here). 5 stars.

 

The Little Book of Manchester (Stuart Hylton). Manchester is a city I have a tremendous amount of affection for, although I haven't spent that much time there. My fondness for the city started for football reasons, but the city's history is equally fascinating. After United won the FA Cup Final this year, I wanted to immerse myself in all things Mancunian, and this little volume was a welcome companion. 4.5 stars. 

 

The Winter Fortress (Neal Bascomb). Bascomb returns to familiar ground, this time telling the story of the Allied (and particularly Norwegian) effort to prevent Hitler's Germany from creating the atomic bomb. I preferred "Hunting Eichmann", which has a tighter story line and characters that are better fleshed out, but still enjoyed the remarkable tale of heroism. 4.0 stars.

 

A Time to Betray (Reza Kahlili). This is the story of an Iranian Revolutionary Guard who becomes a CIA informant. I'm fascinated by Iran because of its rich history, and the contrast between its status as a fundamentalist theocracy and its secular, liberal diaspora. The story is well-written and fast-paced, offering an unusual look at Iran before and after the overthrowing of the Shah. That said, it lacks the emotional resonance of Bascomb's writing, for example. Given the author's use of a pseudonym, I also found myself wondering how much of the story was sensationalized or fictionalized. 3.9 stars.

 

 

Fiction

 

Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Collection (Arthur Conan Doyle). I read some of the original Sherlock Holmes stories years ago, but a wonderful interview with  Holmes aficionado Bonne MacBird sent me to the Holmes canon. The writing is marvelous, and remarkably entertaining even after all these years. 5 stars. 

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