I read a lot and am often asked for recommendations. Rather than continuing to respond privately to emails, I decided to post my recommendations from 2013 here. I’ll continue to post recommendations, either in separate posts or under some consolidated archive. These are roughly in the order I read these throughout the year, not in order of my favorites. For anyone looking to read just one book, the best book I read in 2013 was probably Matterhorn.
Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China by Paul French
1937 Peking is colonial China on its last legs. Still, remnants survive of the opulent enclave the Brits managed to carve out, complete with old-world drinking parlors and opium dens, even while the Japanese surround the city. This is the backdrop for Paul French’s investigation of the brutal murder of Pamela Werner, daughter of a British consul. You get to explore not only the underworld, and literal back-alleys, of what would become Beijing, but the psyches of those who lived there during the city’s last days. For those reasons alone, the book is well worth reading. As a true-crime murder mystery, the book is generally engrossing, although it can get a little repetitive towards the end when it tells the same story from a number of different perspectives.
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
A classic piece of short fiction about a young man’s trip up an African river to find a fabled ivory trader. Not a load of detail about colonial Britain, but you get a deep sense of what it must have felt like to be there. Plus, there’s fantastic language throughout. Some people seem to HATE this story, but it’s definitely worth the hour or two it will take you to read it.
Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford
How did an illiterate slave conquer more land than any empire in history, in less than 25 years? In one of the best biographies I’ve ever read, Weatherford explains. Khan constantly adapted strategies and techniques and truly revolutionized warfare. But, far from being the bloodthirsty, brutal rapist that he is generally portrayed as, Khan created an empire that promoted religious tolerance, banned torture, and granted rights for women that were nearly unprecedented at the time. Khan promoted free trade and intellectual and scientific advancement, even abolishing taxes for those classes like doctors and teachers that he wished to promote. Virtually unheard of for rulers at the time, Khan limited nepotism in favor of advancement based on merit. Khan and his progeny also established the first regular census, created a trans-continental postal system, established an advanced banking network that included paper-based money.
I can’t recommend this book highly enough. There’s enough strategy and philosophy here to make it worthy of recommendation even if the book were dry, but it’s not. It reads like a novel and is constantly engrossing.
Sol Price Retail Revolutionary & Social Innovator by Robert E. Price
Sam Walton said he learned more about retail from Sol Price than nearly everyone else combined. In the 1950’s, Sol Price founded FedMart, an early discount retailer where he pioneered the warehouse-style of retailing. (Walton is said to have named his store “Wal-Mart” because he liked the FedMart name so much.) Twenty years later, he founded the Price Club, which eventually merged with Costco. This book, written by his son, offers insights into not only how Sol did it and what made him so successful, but his private life and philosophy as well.
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
Frankl is one of the most profound modern thinkers on how to find meaning and purpose in life. The father of logotherapy and a survivor of Auschwitz, among other concentration camps, Frankl’s little book combines his own life story with the foundations of his psychiatric theory. Frankl, through his own experiences, examines Nietzsche’s maxim that “He who has a ‘why’ to live for can bear almost any ‘how'” and concludes that finding meaning is what sustains us. A fascinating read, if for Frankl’s story of survival alone, and it can be read in one sitting.
Hannibal: One Man Against Rome by Harold Lamb
A good overview of the life and strategy of one of the greatest generals of all time. Marching war elephants over the Alps is his feat most well-known by school children, but both the lead-up to this brash feat and the decades that followed are actually more interesting. Lamb spends a good deal of time on how Hannibal won his most famous victories, including at Trebia, Lake Trasimene, and Cannae, but does an even better job explaining how Hannibal used statecraft, alliances, and marriage to avoid war, which he disliked intensely. Constantly undermanned and short of funds, Hannibal’s accomplishments against Rome were impressive. Still, he was a man who wandered the countryside for most of his life. He had no home, and lived much of his life merely trying to stave off Roman conquest for a few more years. There may be as much to learn from Hannibal’s shortfalls as there are from his triumphs. Note that the book itself is now out of print and difficult to find, but the audiobook is great.
Augustus: The Life of Rome’s First Emperor by Anthony Everitt
One of the best books about Rome that I’ve read. Here, Everitt, a meticulous researcher, develops a wonderful narrative about Julius Caesar’s delicate grand-nephew, who schemed his way to hold ultimate power over the Roman Empire for nearly half a century. The book is also an expansive look at not only the foundation of what we know as the Roman Empire, but also the foundation of the city of Rome as we know it today, which prior to Augustus’ reformation was a rather horrible place to live. The book does a good job describing Augustus’ life, from his early life in a small village outside Rome to his introduction into politics by his great-uncle, his crucial friendships with Agrippa and Maecenas, his campaigns to expand the empire and consolidate political control over it, his responses to crises both personal and of the state, his plans for succession, his ultimate death, and his legacy.
Augustus was able to grab and maintain power based almost exclusively on the support of the military and the people of Rome. This is rather surprising, given how relatively unremarkable August was. He was short and frail, with a lifelong disposition to bouts of prolonged stress-induced illnesses. He was also a poor general who relied chiefly on Agrippa’s brilliance to succeed in battles. However, he made up for these shortfalls by being supremely patient and thoughtful. He sought long-term solutions and avoided easy fixes, often taking years to arrive at a decision. And his decision-making was generally excellent. His greatest strength was knowing his own limitations, coupled with his inventiveness at making the best use of the human material at hand. In short, he was a superb manager. He was ruthless when he needed to be, often executing or exiling his close family members, and exceedingly generous when he need to be, such as with his troop’s pay, and granting citizenship to non-Romans, which made them citizens and stakeholders rather than victims of the empire.
Civilization: The West and the Rest by Niall Ferguson
In the 1400’s, the East contained the most advanced civilizations on Earth and the West was basically a dump. What happened? Ferguson argues that six ideas ultimately caused the West to dominate: competition, science, democracy, medicine, consumerism and the Protestant work ethic. While China, cultures of the Middle East like the Ottomans, and even the Aztecs and Incas were once far ahead of the West, each failed to implement one or more of the six key ideas and thus stagnated and ultimately failed. Ferguson is often hectic, jumping from one example and topic to the next, trying to cram 600 years worth of history about a topic into a few dozen pages. But, what the book lacks in rigor it makes up for in breadth and provocation.
Flawless: Inside the Largest Diamond Heist in History by Scott Selby and Greg Campbell
Antwerp, Belgium is the center of the diamond trade, where 84% of all rough diamonds and half of all cut diamonds are traded. Most of the big diamond traders are located on a street that’s barricaded at both ends, manned by a Belgium police outpost, and blanketed by security cameras. Diamonds are stored in underground vaults patrolled by private security guards. Despite all this, six men managed to empty one of the biggest vaults in the diamond district, making off with somewhere between $100 and $400 million worth of jewels, metal, cash, and jewelry. None of the loot was ever found, and only 5 of 6 believed conspirators were ever caught. Flawless is an entertaining retelling of the biggest diamond theft in history.
Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Michael B. Oren
The definitive account of the Six Day War. Exhaustively detailed, the book is tense throughout its 460 pages. If you want an understanding of the genesis of many of the issues currently plaguing the Middle East, read this book.
Letters to a Young Contrarian by Christopher Hitchens
Like all of of Hitchens’ work, this one is worth reading and contains many gems, not least of which is his summation in the epilogue: “Beware the irrational, however seductive. Shun the transcendent and all who invite you to subordinate or annihilate yourself. Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others. Don’t be afraid to be thought arrogant or selfish. Picture all experts as if they were mammals. Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake: the grave will supply plenty of time for silence. Suspect your own motives and all excuses. Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you.”
The Demon Under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor’s Heroic Search for the World’s First Miracle Drug by Thomas Hager
Less than 100 years ago, cutting age medicine wasn’t much better for the average citizen than what could have been had 2000 years ago in ancient rome. The Demon Under The Microscope is a well written story about German and French development of sulfa drugs, the world’s first antibiotics, in the 1920’s, 30’s, and 40’s, and the resulting medical renaissance that catapulted us into the modern era. Because of the time period, there is quite a bit of discussion about the development of modern science, medical testing, and germ theory, as well as some interesting medical and science aspects of WWI and particularly WWII. Parts of the book delve deeply into the lives of scientists behind the key discoveries, some of which can be skipped over, and the book only briefly mentions the concurrent discovery of penicillin. Despite this, the book is a great read.
The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins
As one would expect from Richard Dawkins, the book is heavy on the evolutionary arguments against an omnipotent and omniscient god who intimately involves himself in the lives of humans. While the prose doesn’t compare to Hitchens, the scientific discussions are thoughtful and far more fully developed. Definitely recommended.
Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion by Janet Reitman
A sometimes fascinating account of how L. Ron Hubbard, an uneducated conman, founded one of the world’s most successful new religions. It’s particularly worth reading for anyone interested in marketing and leadership. The tactics Hubbard and the church used to recruit and keep paying customers, especially in the internet age when information about the cult is widely available, are remarkable.
Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator by Ryan Holiday
A must read for anyone who creates. Also a must read for anyone who consumes modern news or media. Holliday reveals in horrifying detail exactly what drives modern media and how anyone can use this understanding to easily manipulate what millions of people around the world accept as truth.
The Charisma Myth: How Anyone Can Master the Art and Science of Personal Magnetism by Olivia Fox Cabane
A must read, period. Charisma isn’t something you’re born with. Some people intuitively figure out how to be charismatic when they’re very young, while most people don’t and simply assume it’s something they’ll never have. Here, Cabane examines the recent research that breaks down the various aspects that make up “charisma” and how to apply them to your own life.
The Great Siege: Malta 1565 by Ernle Bradford
The story of the Knights of St. John, a multi-national group of nationless soldiers who fortified the strategically important Mediterranean island of Malta. With no real purpose, other than to survive and serve their god, the small group of Knights fought off the massive might of the Ottoman fleet, who laid siege to the island for months. Bradford, unlike other authors of long-ago battles, actually explains the brutality of war in the middle ages and the hardships that a months-long siege imposes. The book is also an interesting look at life, duty, and honor in the 1500’s.
Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger by Ken Perenyi
A fantastic, almost unbelievable story of a art forger without remorse. It’s not terribly well written, but the sometimes-clumsy prose doesn’t really get in the way of the story. A great read for anyone interested in art. The book is light on painting technique, though explains in detail how to age new canvases to look old and swindle unsuspecting victims. Perenyi certainly isn’t worthy of admiration, but his story is hard to put down.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Published almost two decades before Orwell’s 1984, Brave New World is one of the first popular dystopian novels. Unlike Orwell, Huxley’s Brave New World predicts that people would be subjugated by constant satisfaction of their most base desires, rather than through censorship and repressive control schemes. (Or, in Huxley’s own words, “the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience.”)
Huxley gets so much right about our modern society that its fairly terrifying. While Brave New World feels a bit dated due to Huxley’s understandable failure to imagine just how quickly technology would advance, and while it really drags a bit in the middle, it remains satire of the highest order, and just as relevant as ever. This should be required reading
Growth Hacker Marketing: A Primer on the Future of PR, Marketing, and Advertising by Ryan Holiday
A followup to Holiday’s first book (Trust Me, I’m Lying), this short e-book explains why traditional marketing is dead, and how startups have gone from dorm rooms to multi-billion dollar companies without billboards, ad-buys, or PR firms. Just as interesting, and much more useful, than his first book.
How to Get Rich: One of the World’s Greatest Entrepreneurs Shares His Secrets by Felix Dennis
A must read book for anyone who thinks they want to get rich. Part Meditations, part memoir, part how-to book, part kick-in-the-ass, Dennis’ book is an easy read that’s far more insightful than you’d think.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Unlike most dystopian novels, this, as the title suggests, is focused on society’s treatment of women. In the near future, a Christian totalitarian society with declining birthrates has taken over at least part of the U.S. Women are stripped of all rights and the specially chosen “handmades” are forced to procreate with society’s elite. The protagonist, who was an adult with a husband and child prior to the revolution, loses everything and becomes one of these handmaids. The story is supposed to be her memoir, recorded after the events take place. This seems to be a book people either love or hate. Many people seem to think the book is dated and that it’s outlandish that society could change so dramatically in such a short period of time. I would point to Afghanistan as a perfect example of why those people are dead wrong.
Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes
This is, unquestionably, one of the best books I’ve ever read. A harrowing account of everyday life in the southeast Asian jungle during the Vietnam war, the somewhat fictionalized retelling of Marlantes’ experiences is tragic, hilarious, and terrifying. You truly get a feeling of what it must have been like to be not just in the Vietnam war, but in any war. You also understand that unless you’ve been there, even Marlantes’ wonderful prose can’t possibly fully explain what war is like. Every politician should be required to read this book before taking office.
The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout
As much as 4% of the population are sociopaths, meaning they have no conscience. Sociopaths do not empathize with others, do not care how others feel, and feel no remorse, shame, or guilt. They are often intelligent and extremely charming. Imagine if your therapist or psychologist was a sociopath. Terrifying.
Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke
A genre-defining novel that is supposedly Clarke’s best work, this is now, after decades of imitations, pretty standard sci-fi. Until you get to the second half of the book, where things get weird, existential, and pretty heady. If you’re into sci-fi, you should put this on your list of books to read.
The Guns of August: The Pulitzer Prize-Winning Classic About the Outbreak of World War I by Barbara Tuchman
This is the polar opposite of a book like Matterhorn. Instead of details about what it was like for a soldier to go to war, this book is a comprehensive history of the who, what, when, where, and why of World War I. Fascinating in its own way, this book focuses on the decision makers (of both sides) and their strategies before and during the war. One of the most interesting parts for me was learning just how closely related the leaders of nearly every european country were, and how convinced they were that the interconnectedness of their economies meant the war couldn’t possibly last more than a few months.
George Carlin Reads to You: New Expanded Edition – Brain Droppings, Napalm & Silly Putty, and More Napalm & Silly Putty by George Carlin
As the title suggests, this is an audio compilation of three books, narrated by Carlin. Like most of Carlin’s work, it’s usually thought-provoking, often silly, and sometimes laugh-out-loud hysterical. As usual, his strongest material focuses on his observations and gripes about our use of the English language.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
I had somehow never read this book in school and thought I should give it a try. It’s a simple story, clearly written for children, about a very young Tom Sawyer and his adventures along the Mississippi River in the late 1800’s. While I would probably recommend this for no other reason than to understand modern references to the tale, it actually provides a fairly interesting account of life in the late 19th century.
Dark Summit: The True Story of Everest’s Most Controversial Season by Nick Heil
Prior to reading this, climbing Everest had always been something I had hazily considered doing before dying. Sure, it would be windy and cold, but how hard could it be with modern technology and a small army of sherpas to get you up the mountain. This book immediately dissuaded me of these thoughts. While the main focus of the book is the deadly 2006 climbing season on the mountain, Heil covers the British discovery of the peak, the first attempts to climb it, the history of recent climbs, and even gets into the 1996 climbing season made famous by Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. But Heil’s harrowing descriptions of the effects of altitude are the most powerful sections of the book. These include exhausted climbers who simply decide to sit down and die and hallucinating climbers unable to take another step, left to die on the mountain. Heil’s account of the Himalayan conditions, and the choices those conditions force on climbers, including when to leave fellow climbers to die, is hard to put down.
The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking by Brendan Koerner
A fascinating account of the skyjacking epidemic that gripped America during late sixties and early seventies. From 1968 to 1973, roughly one plane was hijacked each week, at first by those demanding passage to Cuba, then to those demanding ransom, and then to those motivated by politics. This book touches on many of the hijackings during that period, including those accomplished by automatic weapons, jars of acid, bombs real and imagined, and nitroglycerin. But the crux of the story is about a black, dishonorably discharged Vietnam vet and his young, beautiful, white lover and their outlandish plan to free Angela Davis, fly to North Vietnam, and then live out their days homesteading in the Australian Outback. While that plan obviously goes awry, the tale of their exploits in Algeria and France, and of life, race, and politics in 1970’s is almost unbelievable, even if you lived through those times.