2018 Book Recommendations

January 14, 2018

 

Welcome to my book recommendations for 2018. As always, books are listed by genre and scored on a 5-point scale. You can find my lists for 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017 at the hyperlinks. Happy reading!

 

Economics, Finance & Business

 

The Outsiders (William N. Thorndike, Jr.). This is rightfully hailed as one of the best investing/business books of the past 5 or 6 years. I re-read it after having the chance to hear Thorndike speak in person, and was reminded what an outstanding book it was, using case studies to emphasize the importance of capital allocation. While identifying these "Outsider" CEOs is extremely hard to do in advance, I think the general framework can only help investors and corporate executives. 5.0 stars.

 

Quality Investing (Lawrence A. Cunningham, Torkell T. Eide & Patrick Hargreaves). Written by two members of successful investment firm AKO Capital, this is an outstanding introduction to the discipline of quality investing. While I started as a classic value investor, the notion of quality has become increasingly important to me over the years, and this crystallizes so many of my inchoate thoughts. As with Phil Fisher's growth investing, the AKO strategy eschews fixating too much on pure valuation, which will be counter-intuitive to many. I think the justification for saying "valuation doesn't matter that much" could be strengthened, but otherwise, this is a super addition to any investor's library. 4.8 stars.

 

Good Strategy, Bad Strategy (Richard Rumelt). There's an awful lot of nonsense out there about how strategy should work. This is an excellent introduction on thinking about strategy. My one criticism is that it sometimes comes across as an engineer's mindset - once you find the "right" strategy, things are supposed to work. But there needs to be more room for uncertainty in this framework. Still, this is a valuable starting point given how easy it is to be led astray by fluffy "strategy" these days. 4.5 stars.

 

The Power of Impact Investing (Judith Rodin & Margot Brandenburg). Impact investing is a field devoted to pursuing environmental and social benefit while earning financial returns. If that sounds too good to be true, read this book. It doesn't shy away from hard questions, such as how to measure impact (which is something that keeps impact investors up at night), and whether impact investing is appropriate for all investors (it's not). At the same time, it offers an optimistic note on the promise of impact investing to create innovative business and financial models to solve social problems. A good introduction to the field. 4.5 stars. 

 

The Second Bounce of the Ball (Sir Ronald Cohen). Many of the people I admire combine success in private enterprise and exceptional integrity. Sir Ronald Cohen falls firmly in that category. Having founded Apax Partners, he is a successful entrepreneur and financier, in addition to being a major innovator in impact investing and philanthropy. This book details his journey building Apax along with lessons he's learned from funding successful - and less successful - businesses in that time. The range of investment vignettes really brings this book to life. There were also two themes that stood out to me. First, while it is tempting to take cheap money, the savvy entrepreneur takes the smart money, valuing the rigour and endorsement value that money brings. Second, Sir Ronald writes at length about creating luck, rather than hoping for it. While few people have Sir Ronald's talent, energy and family propensity for calculated risk, there are lessons here for a variety of aspiring investors and entrepreneurs. 4.3 stars.

 

Creating Climate Wealth (Jigar Shah). For years, I've enjoyed listening to Jigar Shah in his role as opinionated co-host of The Energy Gang. But Shah's early claim to fame was as founder of solar services company SunEdison (which failed later, after his tenure). After hearing an excellent interview with Shah on how he founded SunEdison, I decided to read his book. There are some great insights into how business model innovations can harness technologies that are ready for prime-time. An important theme in this book is the value of having the most rigorous investors, even at the expense of a temporarily higher cost of capital. This fits perfectly with Sir Ronald Cohen's thinking (see above), and is a challenge to impact investing. 4.0 stars.  

 

The Templeton Touch (William Proctor & Scott Phillips). I've always been fascinated by Sir John Templeton. Perhaps it's because we went to the same undergraduate institution and appear to have gravitated towards value investing strategies with an international outlook. There, I'm afraid, the similarities end. This is the story of a truly extraordinary individual, who excelled both as an investor and philanthropist. It's a hard book to rate, really being three books in one. First, it tells the story of Templeton's unusual upbringing and his rare qualities even as a young man (fascinating, but too one-sided - no mention of any flaws he might have had). The second part talks about Templeton's investment methods (reasonably well-read investors won't find much new here). The third is a series of interviews with Templeton proteges and fans, including people like Julian Robertston and Prem Watsa (largely interesting, but of varying quality). I doubt I'll re-read this again, but I appreciated the reminder of Templeton's ferocious work ethic and investing talent. 4.0 stars.

 

Science & Technology

 

Taming The Sun (Varun Sivaram). If you haven't been paying attention to the remarkable growth of solar energy around the world, you're missing an important part of tomorrow's energy landscape. Varun Sivaram has written a terrific introduction to the outlook for solar energy that speaks to both the technological and business questions that need to be answered in coming years. 5.0 stars. 

 

Our Renewable Future (Richard Heinberg & David Fridley). There's a lot of nonsense out there about renewable energy, both from those who deny its potential and those who over-hype its inevitability. This was a good starting point to make sense of the truth, written for laypeople. Two caveats: (1) Given the pace of technological change, it may be outdated in a few years, and ; (2) I'm certainly not an expert, so can't judge the book's technical claims (and in fact disagreed with some of the economic/political claims made). All the same, I learned a lot about our modern energy system, and in particular, the potential and challenges facing renewable energy. 4.5 stars.

 

Alternative Energy for Dummies (Rik DeGunther)The book's title offers a hint of how dated it is: renewable energy is far from alternative these days, and the book hasn't aged well. I hoped to brush up on the basics of various power generation technologies etc., but didn't find this a particularly inspiring read. I've since discovered some other alternatives and hope to add them to the list in the near future. 3.0 stars.

 

Ethics & Self-Improvement

 

The Little Book of Talent (Daniel Coyle). A fantastic, quick read on nurturing talent. Coyle destroys many myths about natural aptitude, providing a quick summary of how talent develops. If you're a fan of the learning-to-learn genre, this is definitely for you. 5.0 stars.

 

Deep Work (Cal Newport). This is an early contender for most important book I'll read this year. Newport's thesis is simple: our ability to deep, focused work is diminishing at the same that the returns to such work is increasing. The culprits for this are varied, including our own wiring, popular culture that lionizes "busyness", and social media. As someone who spends a lot of time in the mindfulness literature, I was somewhat startled and embarrassed to realize how addicted I've become to technology. I don't think this book is perfect - there's some amount of anecdote that I found myself questioning - but its overall message is sufficiently important to warrant a top score (and perhaps a longer post at some point). 5.0 stars.

 

Nothing Holy About It (Tim Burkett). I read this book on Zen Buddhism several years ago, but wanted to remind myself of some of its core concepts. I enjoyed it even more than I remembered the first time. Zen is challenging - sometimes even leading me to wonder if it will ever make sense to me (perhaps it's not meant to) - but Burkett handles the subject lightly, with many beautiful stories about the early years of Zen in the US. 4.5 stars.

 

The Path (Michael Puett & Christine Gross-Loh). In 'The Path', the authors aim to capture the core of Puett's popular Harvard course on Chinese philosophy and living the good life. Having explored some aspects of Zen and Taoism, I was eager to compare the Taoist philosophy of Laozi and Zhuangzi to other such as Confucius and Mencius. The book is written in an easy, readable style, and contained many interesting nuggets. I did find some of the advice a bit superficial to be useful. Given some of the more unusual takes (for example, positioning Ronald Reagan's leadership style as Taoist), I found myself wondering how much of the material was being interpreted in an unorthodox way. Nonetheless, an enjoyable primer on some of the giants of Chinese philosophy, while sparking some thoughts for a post on complacency. 4.2 stars.

 

Becoming Who You Are (James Martin, SJ)This was an unusual choice for me, not being Catholic, but I enjoyed Martin's writing on finding one's "true self", aided by the writings of Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen. Short but punchy. 4.2 stars.

 

Other Non-Fiction

 

Singapore, Incomplete (Cherian George). I received this book for Christmas and devoured most of it in a few days. This series of short essays provides a valuable look at elements of Singapore politics that go unchallenged by local media. George, a former journalist, is a wonderful writer with a keen eye for political nuance. I expect to be paying more attention to Southeast Asia this year, so expect to see other books on the region making the list soon. 4.8 stars.

 

China's Asian Dream (Tom Miller)Miller, a senior analyst at the research firm Gavekal, has written an excellent book on China's foreign policy ambitions in its backyard. China's aims are complex, but Miller is appropriately nuanced, conveying the historical background of this fascinating region. It's also an eye-opening look at China's economic diplomacy, particularly its gigantic development banks which fly under the radar. The book is written is an entertaining and fast-paced style, although like any work of contemporary analysis, its information and conclusions may be outdated in 5-10 years' time. Still, an outstanding primer on potential conflict in the region, as well as double-edged swords like the Belt & Road Initiative. 4.6 stars.

 

The Poisoned City (Anna Clark). The water contamination crisis in Flint, Michigan, proved to be one of the biggest environmental scandals of recent times. Clark's account does an outstanding job of identifying the deep historical and institutional roots of the crisis while presenting a nuanced view of Flint residents. The failure of leadership here is shocking, and there's plenty of blame to go round among various layers of government. 4.6 stars.

 

The Siege (Cathy Scott-Clark & Adrian Levy). Having recently finished a podcast series on the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, I was keen to learn more about the modern history of terrorism in South Asia. This is a detailed but riveting account of the Mumbai terror attacks of 2008, focusing mainly on the siege of the Taj Mahal Palace hotel. It's a story of intrigue, bureaucratic incompetence and heroism in the face of danger. 4.5 stars.

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