2017 Book Recommendations

January 5, 2018

 

Someone asked on Twitter recently, "What books did you read this year that you'll re-read within the next 5 years?" I started asking myself a related question: "What did I read this year that taught me something radically new?" I was a little disappointed that few of the excellent books on this list quite reached that level. The exception was probably 'Why Forests? Why Now?', which taught me a lot about natural capital and ecosystem services. But perhaps that's too high a bar. After all, the benefit of reading is often incremental, rather than earth-shattering. I found myself exploring a new field - Cities, Sustainability and the Environment - in some depth, and am curious to see where this takes me. Sometimes, themes are only apparent with the hindsight of a few months - maybe even years.

 

As predicted, I didn't get through as many books as I did in 2016, but I hope you'll still find some things here of interest. Books are arranged by theme and scored on a 5-star scale. I didn't finish books marked with an asterisk, but read at least a third of them. I'm not introducing this feature to "pad" my reading stats. The simple answer is that I don't want to feel compelled to finish books, but I'd still like to share them with fellow readers.

 

Enjoy the picks, and I look forward to starting my 2018 list soon.

 

Business, Finance and Economics

 

Skyscraper Dreams (Tom Shachtman). This book is a testament to the value of an anti-library. It took 5 years and probably 3 aborted attempts to finally read it, but it was all worth it in the end. It's a magnificent and fast-paced history of the skyscrapers that dominate New York City's skyline. The social history of the builders - many of whom hail from Jewish immigrant families - is never far from the economics and egos. Many readers will be particularly intrigued by references to a certain real estate tycoon turned politician. Spoiler: the references aren't flattering, and this book was published in 1992. I wrote a post about some of the book's lessons. 5.0 stars. 

 

Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works (A.G. Lafley & Roger L. Martin).* Lafley is the former CEO of consumer goods giant P&G, while Martin was a long-time management consultant with Monitor Group, working directly with the famous Michael Porter. There's a lot of great stuff here on thinking clearly about strategy, which can be applied to business, the non-profit sector and even one's own career. I'd take it with a grain of salt, though, since even the best strategy has to account for luck and complexity (see "Thinking in Systems" below). I got about 2/3 of the way through it and got busy with other things, but I'd like to go back and finish this one at some point. 4.6 stars.

 

Frontier Investor: How to Prosper in the Next Emerging Markets (Marko Dimitrijevic). Dimitrijevic is a very well-known EM and frontier market investor, and has written a highly readable introduction to the field. The book really shines when the author shares his personal investing case studies, including a few failures. Few investors will be able to replicate his style of combining top-down and bottom-up analysis, but the lessons are still worthwhile. 4.5 stars.

 

Banking for a Better World (Nanno Kleiterp). Kleiterp is the former head of Dutch development bank FMO, and shares his perspectives on development finance for the 21st century. Short and accessible, the book (available for free as a PDF) shares personal anecdotes and vignettes of FMO's successes (and the occasional failure). Those who want to dig further into the numbers and the investments may wish the book was a little longer. Still, given FMO's remarkable growth and innovation during Kleiterp's tenure, this is well worth the read for those interested in development/blended/impact finance. 4.0 stars.

 

Cities, Sustainability and the Environment

 

The Test (Jeremy Leggett). Entrepreneur Jeremy Leggett takes readers through the compelling story of off-grid solar in Africa. I put this under "Sustainability" but it could just have easily fit under "Business" since the story Leggett tells is one of innovation and competition. It's a fascinating tale of how a superior technology (solar lighting) is struggling to make inroads against an inferior incumbent (kerosene). Its format is highly unusual: it's a "live serialised linear narrative", meaning the book is not yet complete, adding to the sense that the struggle is ongoing. Highly readable and educational about the off-grid solar market. 5.0 stars.

 

Why Forests? Why Now? (Frances Seymour & Jonah Busch). I'll start with the bad news on this one: I don't think this is going to be a popular favourite. But it really should be. Seymour & Busch do a marvelous job of explaining what's causing deforestation, why it's so pernicious and what can be done to stop it. With a compelling mix of case studies and data, the authors explain why forests can be a large part of the climate solution (as big as road transport) and at a lower price - the ultimate undervalued asset. It's uncertain if the authors' preferred method of financing forest protection will succeed, but this is a valuable stake in the ground, and a Bible for those interested in forests. 5.0 stars.

 

Climate of Hope (Michael Bloomberg & Carl Pope). Reading about climate change can often be a bit of a morose affair, given the scale of the challenge. Climate of Hope takes a different tack, proposing ways that cities and businesses can take concrete actions to mitigate climate change and adapt to its effects. Having experienced the effects of Hurricane Sandy on New York City, I particularly enjoyed Bloomberg's insight into how NYC began to tackle climate change under his watch. I'm not giving this a perfect score because it skimmed over some things I would have found interesting, such as why national governments have been so slow to devolve power to cities. But I recognize such detail would have detracted from the book's immense readability. Probably the best book on climate for laypeople I've come across so far. 4.8 stars. 

 

The Well-Tempered City (Jonathan F.P. Rose). Rose is best known as a developer of affordable, environmentally responsible communities, and is a member of a famous family of builders (see Shachtman's "Skyscraper Dreams" above, coincidentally). I really enjoyed this ambitious and erudite vision of cities at their best, finding wholeness by "aligning humans and nature, with compassion permeating its entire entwined system." As readers of this blog might guess, I appreciated Rose's impressive multi-disciplinary approach. I only wish that his personal experience as a developer was explicitly given more time in the book. 4.6 stars.  

 

Reinventing Fire (Amory Lovins).* This is a very information-heavy book, but is still written in a lucid style. I found it really worthwhile to learn more about some of the amazing new technology out there in energy efficiency. One downside of being stats-heavy, though, is that the book is already out of date 6 years later (see, for example, the discussion on peak oil supply - which seems ludicrous in the age of shale). Nonetheless, a really good volume to learn about energy and sustainability. 4.6 stars.

 

Dull Disasters? (Daniel J. Clarke & Stefan Dercon). I first learned about disaster risk finance from an excellent CGD podcast (see here for a follow-up panel). Learning how finance can help provide quick and predictable aid after disasters might not be everyone's cup of tea, but I found it an illuminating example of why finance is so important. Very simply, Clarke and Dercon argue that well-constructed disaster recovery plans, in tandem with the right financial instruments, can prevent extended suffering after catastrophes. Given the recent spate of disasters, the book was very timely. I only wish it had been longer, as I found myself wanting to learn more about instruments like catastrophe bonds. 4.5 stars.

 

The Land Grabbers: The New Fight over Who Owns the Earth (Fred Pearce). This was a great way to start my 2017 reading list. Pearce wonderfully captures the complicated world of land grabbing, and the colourful characters involved. He combines extensive research with riveting stories from around the globe that really challenged my notions of land use and reform. My one criticism of this book is that Pearce gives relatively short shrift to the role of markets. I was reminded of Bryan Caplan's simple left/right dichotomy, where he argues, "Leftists are anti-market. On an emotional level, they're critical of market outcomes. No matter how good market outcomes are, they can't bear to say, "Markets have done a great job, who could ask for more?"" I'm much more pro-market than Pearce, but still enjoyed this tremendously. 4.5 stars.

 

Ethics, Philosophy & Self-Improvement

 

Do Nothing & Do Everything: An Illustrated New Taoism (Qiguang Zhao). I first read this last year and was intrigued by the ideas of harmony and equilibrium, and the tension between effort and effortlessness. Strangely, I was reminded of these concepts while listening to an interview with South African game tracker Boyd Varty. There's so much in here that's worthwhile, though there are chapters and precepts I still find incomprehensible. All in all though, a great read. 4.4 stars. 

 

The Wisdom of the Native Americans (ed. Kent Nerburn). I've been thinking a lot recently a lot about Native Americans, who are known for their great reverence for nature, while being victims of a horrendous land grab throughout the Americas. This volume is well edited, and there's much to appreciate in the philosophy of co-existing with nature, and valuing community. Still, there's a great temptation to romanticize Native American life before the arrival of white people. The flipside of strong communities is the diminution of individuality, and that's presented as an unalloyed good here. The book also says nothing about the disease and suffering that must have existed, while downplaying inter-tribe warfare. Terry Anderson provides an interesting foil, and I hope to read more on this topic soon. 4.0 stars. 

 

Letters to a Young Muslim (Omar Saif Ghobash). This might seem a strange choice for me, given that I'm neither Muslim nor particularly young. Omar Saif Ghobash pens a series of letters to his son, addressing various ways in which a modern, liberal (in the sense of being cosmopolitan, not being permissive) and self-critical Islam can exist in today's world. I learned (or was reminded of) quite a bit about Islam, and its various strands. The book is at its best when Omar relates his personal story, though some of the letters seem a bit repetitive. 3.9 stars.

 

Other Non-Fiction

 

Naked Statistics (Charles Wheelan). If you're anything like me, it can be hard to remember material from old statistics courses. Never fear - Wheelan's book is a brilliant jaunt through most of the statistics you'll need if you want to be an informed citizen. Laugh-out-loud funny, this book explains important concepts in an accessible way. The fact that I'm re-reading it is a deficiency of the student, rather than the teacher. 5.0 stars.

 

Audacity (Jonathan Chait). Confirmation bias is a serious danger when reading a book with whose basic premise you agree. With that warning to myself, I embarked on Chait's "Audacity", which is a stirring endorsement of the legacy that Barack Obama left as President. Chait doesn't hide his partisan support for Obama, but argues his case well, showing how Obama combined liberal ideals with the tools of a moderate Republican. I'd forgotten (or never knew) so much of the history of the Obama years, and was lifted by Chait's view that the electorate will ultimately come to embrace the values that marked Obama's time - an age that will be "humane, pragmatic, open to evidence and science, and welcoming to outsiders and diverse perspectives." 5.0 stars.

 

King Leopold's Ghost (Adam Hochschild). I was loosely familiar with some aspects of the Democratic Republic of Congo's history. But I certainly didn't realize that its population was roughly cut in half under the rule of Belgium's King Leopold II. It's a heart-wrenching story of greed, with human rights abuses on an epic scale. The cast of characters is impressive, starting with the rapacious and devious Leopold, and including explorers, missionaries and reformers. Crucially, Hochschild is aware of the book's limitations, never romanticizing the Congolese people. This story is also an unfortunate example of the commodity curse, and is one to watch given the DRC's tropical rainforests and peatlands (tying in with "Why Forests? Why Now?" and "The Land Grabbers" on this list). 5.0 stars.

 

Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta (Richard Grant). What do you get when a middle-aged Englishman and his American girlfriend decide to leave New York City to inhabit one of the strangest, most complicated places in the US? A rollicking good story, full of humorous anecdotes tempered with clever insights into race and history in the American South. It carried more substance than your typical travel writing because the author actually still lives in the Delta. I'm looking forward to reading more of Grant's work. 5.0 stars. 

 

Thinking in Systems (Donella H. Meadows). I've been intrigued for several years by the idea of thinking the economy and asset markets as complex adaptive systems. I've been increasingly trying to apply these ideas when thinking about social change, environmental sustainability and health. This is a great, quick read on systems in general. Be sure to read this one to the end: the last chapter goes over the many pitfalls in systems thinking, which tend mainly to afflict those of an engineering mindset (and prone to hubris). Deserves a longer post at some point. 4.5 stars.

 

Political Philosophy: An Introduction (Jason Brennan). Like many people, I've been thinking a lot about politics over the past year, and exploring my own political beliefs. Brennan has written a good introduction to political philosophy. The book's main strength is also its greatest weakness, though: the short chapters are easy to get through but there is clearly a lot of material that requires unpacking. 4.2 stars.

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