2020 Book Recommendations


As I surveyed my 2019 recommendations, it struck me that the authors on the list were predominantly white, Western men. While I generally do my best to read from a broad range of fields, I've been making an attempt to increase the diversity of authors (acknowledging that "identity" diversity and "perspective" diversity aren't the same). I didn't do as good a job on the "identity" side as I wanted to in 2020. Still, I hope you find something here that whets your interest.

Business, Finance and Economics

Modern Monopolies (Alex Moazed and Nicholas Johnson). I first heard about this book 3 years ago after an excellent podcast interview. I've been trying to understand more about platform businesses, and found this a terrific look at what makes platforms work. 5.0 stars.

The Frackers (Gregory Zuckerman). Zuckerman has written a number of bestsellers about business and finance, and this book on the fracking revolution is equally excellent. Some wonderful lessons here about how innovation happens, and how quickly boom can turn to bust. 4.9 stars.


The Lean Startup (Eric Ries). I've been hearing about this book for years, and have always enjoyed hearing the author speak. Having finally taken the plunge, I understand the buzz. This is an incredibly thoughtful approach to building a startup, with applications beyond the business world. I suspect this will be one whose many layers are revealed upon multiple readings. 4.8 stars.

Disciplined Entrepreneurship (Bill Aulet). This is a terrific blueprint for building a business in a systematic fashion. I learned a lot from Aulet's thinking, honed by years of teaching at MIT and building his own businesses. 4.8 stars.


Playing To Win (A.G. Lafley and Roger L. Martin). I have read this book 3 times over the past 6 years and I always find something new in it. It's an excellent guide to thinking strategically in a business context. Highly recommended for anyone interested in strategy. 4.8 stars.

100 Baggers (Christopher Mayer). Despite Mayer's easy writing style, this book contains an extraordinary amount of wisdom on finding great investments for the long run. This is one I return to time and time again. 4.8 stars.


The Many Lives of Michael Bloomberg (Eleanor Randolph). I must confess I've been a huge fan of Bloomberg's for a while - first for his incredible business acumen, then for a relatively successful stint as mayor of New York City and finally as a philanthropist on many causes close to my heart, particularly climate change. While Bloomberg did not particularly distinguish himself as a presidential candidate, I remain impressed by his many and varied achievements. 4.6 stars.

Goodbye to Deerland (Matti Rautkivi). Trying to combine business and energy economics with fiction is no mean feat. Rautkivi, who works for Finnish engineering firm Wartsila, has produced an eminently readable story which helps explain why coal's use for power generation in the US has been decimated by natural gas and renewables. 4.6 stars.

The Founder's Dilemmas (Noam Wasserman). Wasserman has written an excellent book for understanding the issues that plague young businesses. I don't think you have to be a founder to glean some valuable insights on team building and designing incentives. 4.5 stars.

Grow the Pie (Alex Edmans). Edmans is a professor at London Business School, who writes prolifically on sustainable business and responsible investing. There's a lot to like here, with Edmans bringing some much needed academic rigour to a young field. 4.3 stars.

A Primer on Corporate Governance (Cornelis A. de Kluyver). An extremely relevant read for anyone involved in ESG investing or who simply wants to understand best practices in corporate governance. 4.3 stars.


Measure What Matters (John Doerr). Doerr, a renowned venture capitalist, lays out the case for his favourite management tool, the OKR (or Objectives and Key Results). While the tool does not seem revolutionary at first glance, it's remarkable how powerful a simple framework with metrics can be for driving performance. 4.3 stars.


No Rules Rules (Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer). Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and co-author Erin Meyer have written a widely-acclaimed book on the philosophy and management structures that have made Netflix such a successful and innovative company. I'm not sure the lessons translate for every other company but it was nonetheless a fascinating read. 4.4 stars.


Dynasties of the Sea (Lori Ann LaRocco). I've been fascinated with the shipping industry for many years. I re-read this book last year as I was trying to remind myself of some of the great stories in shipping. A series of interviews with well-known shipping executives, it's an easy read that is also a great lesson in how challenging certain industries can be. A good reminder of Buffett's dictum that "When a management with a reputation for brilliance tackles a business with a reputation for poor fundamental economics, it is the reputation of the business that remains intact." 4.3 stars.


Superpower (Ross Garnaut). Australian economist Ross Garnaut has written a fairly readable text on how his country can use its abundance renewable energy resources to thrive in a low-carbon world. Lots of lessons for countries hoping to make a similar transition. 4.3 stars.


The Snowball (Alice Schroeder). Major asterisk here: while I think the world of Buffett's brilliance, I could not get through the whole of this detailed account of his life. I suspect I'll come back to it at some point. 4.1 stars.*


Dear Shareholder (Lawrence Cunningham). I'm a huge fan of Cunningham's work, particularly his edited edition of Buffett's letters. While this collection of letters from executives highlighted some important common elements among high-performing CEOs, I enjoyed this much less than other similar books such as Will Thorndike's 'The Outsiders'. 4.0 stars.

History, Politics and Current Affairs

The Fifth Risk (Michael Lewis). Michael Lewis is just such an extraordinary writer. 'The Fifth Risk' is a terrific book on the many unsung heroes within the US government - particularly the DOE, USDA, NOAA and Coast Guard - and how the Trump administration has shown a complete lack of interest in managing its workforce better. I can't think of a better book to understand the botched response to the Covid pandemic, but its implications of course go far beyond the current crisis. 5.0 stars.

The Healing of America (T.R. Reid). The combination of a global pandemic and a US presidential election sparked some interesting conversations with friends about the state of health care in the US, revealing my relative ignorance. This is a well-written introduction to the subject, comparing the US system to global peers. An eye-opener that offers many pointers on how the US has gone astray. 4.7 stars.

Society

The Moment of Lift (Melinda Gates). Gates is a well-known philanthropist, and this is an excellent book describing the undeniable case for women's empowerment around the globe. The many ways in which we fail to give women and girls opportunities is both economically harmful and downright unfair. Gates also brings a personal touch to the book, relating some of her own history with these issues. 4.9 stars.

The Diversity Bonus (Scott E. Page). I've enjoyed Page's work for many years. In this book, he tackles the case for diversity, and offers some suggestions for developing teams to succeed in the knowledge economy. This is an even-handed treatment of the subject, pointing out the many benefits of diversity while making clear that it brings challenges. 4.5 stars.

Free Speech (Nigel Warburton). A series of conversations on Singapore's relatively restrictive speech laws prompted me to try and learn more about the history of this topic. Warburton has written a short, highly readable introduction that touches on some of the gray areas in this fascinating field. 4.5 stars.

The Birth of Korean Cool (Euny Hong). After enjoying the exceptional Crash Landing On You (come at me, haters!), I became fascinated with the rising popularity of Korean pop culture. While this isn't a classic, it did provide some interesting insight into the government-supported boom in Korean pop culture as well as the country's remarkable economic rise over the past 40 years. 3.9 stars.

Personal Growth

Range (David Epstein). Epstein has written a wonderful book on why generalists are important in an increasingly specialized world. As a bit of dilettante, I thoroughly identified with a lot of this book, though of course the trick is to realize when one should specialize and when it's optimal to be a generalist. A superb addition for anyone interested in creativity and progress. 5.0 stars.

The Courage to Be Disliked (Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga). Marc Andreessen highly recommended this. It describes Adlerian psychology, which inverts many conventional thoughts on human psychology. Very interesting, though perhaps needs another read to grasp its lessons fully. 4.4 stars.


Neurodharma (Rick Hanson). This is a very interesting book that approaches Buddhist meditative practice from the perspective of Western brain science. I read this in a somewhat distracted fashion and would like to return to it when I have more time. 4.3 stars.


How Will You Measure Your Life? (Clayton Christensen). The renowned business thinker died earlier this year, and it struck me I had never read any of his books. This slim volume takes some of his business theories and applies them to living a good life. I enjoyed the premise and some of the chapters quite a lot but I can't say the book as a whole made a huge impression on me. 4.1 stars.

Becoming Who You Are (James Martin). For some reason, I had the desire to re-read this book. It contains some beautiful thoughts by a notable Jesuit priest on becoming one's "true self", inspired by the work of Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen, but I was left wondering how one might actually achieve that laudable goal. 4.1 stars.

Singapore & Southeast Asia

This Earth of Mankind (Pramoedya Ananta Toer). I came across the author in 'Blood and Silk' (see below) and was surprised I'd never heard of this important Indonesian writer. The book, part of the 'Buru Quartet', is a deeply moving statement on bigotry and class hierarchies in colonial Indonesia. 5.0 stars.


State of Emergency (Jeremy Tiang). A wonderful book of historical fiction by Singaporean writer Jeremy Tiang. The overlapping stories revolve around political upheaval in Singapore and Malaysia in the post-war period to the present and capture some of our region's forgotten history. 4.7 stars.

The First Wave (Loke Hoe Yeong). An outstanding look at opposition politics in modern Singapore, focused on two MPs, JB Jeyaretnam and Chiam See Tong. Superbly written, keeping the pace of events moving along nicely, while offering deep research into the twists and turns besetting Singapore's opposition parties. 4.7 stars.

This Is What Inequality Looks Like (Teo You Yenn). I'm not aware of many Singapore sociologists who have gained as much popular acclaim as Teo You Yenn, but I hope she will be the first of many. While Singapore is a remarkably prosperous society, there is also a shocking amount of hidden inequality. Teo does an excellent job of shining a light on what life looks like for Singaporeans at the other end of the wealth/income spectrum. 4.7 stars.

Blood and Silk (Michael Vatikiotis). I've been looking for a modern history of Southeast Asia, and while this is far from comprehensive, it does cover a lot of material about Southeast Asia's current political landscape. Some of it makes for fairly depressing reading as one considers the lost potential of the region. I learned a lot, even if some of the political theorizing seemed speculative. 4.5 stars.

The Singapore Citizens' Agenda (New Naratif). I was looking for a quick read on important issues in modern Singapore before our General Election, and this edition did not disappoint. While written with a distinctly anti-government slant, it brings to light many issues which remain unresolved in Singapore. Many of these will continue to be hotly debated after a fractious election season. 4.2 stars.


Other Fiction


Harry Potter 1-7 (J.K. Rowling). If you need a distraction from current affairs, I can't recommend the Harry Potter series enough. This was the first time in many years I'd read these books and they didn't disappoint with the humour and strength of the plot and characters. 5.0 stars.

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