I read a lot, at least a book a week, and get asked for recommendations. Rather than continuing to respond privately to emails, I have semi-regularly posted my recommendations here. Below are my favorite reads from 2015, not in any particular order. For anyone looking to read just one book, I would recommend The Fish That Ate the Whale.
The Fish That Ate the Whale – Rich Cohen
One of the best biographies I’ve ever read, Cohen weaves together the incredible story of Sam Zemmuray, a penniless Russian immigrant who became one of the richest men in the world, the history of the banana, the history and politics of Central America, WWII, and more. Starting as a banana peddler, Zemmuray transformed the fruit business, toppled governments, and changed the course of Central American history. This is a slice of history you’ve never heard before, a business course, and a dramatic story all rolled into one.
This might sound dry, but it’s a fascinating history of global shipping and how the simple and now-ubiquitous shipping container changed the world. Not only did containerization reduce the cost of shipping by roughly 95%, it directly led to the crushing of many of America’s unions, decimated established port cities (like Brooklyn), and transformed formerly backwater areas like Oakland, CA and the New Jersey ports on the Hudson. It also led directly to the modern global economy. Highly recommend this one.
Shadow Divers – Robert Kurson
This is narrative non-fiction at its finest. Kurson tells the story of John Chatterton and Richie Kohler’s 1991 discovery of a sunken U-boat just 60 miles off the coast of New Jersey and the subsequent six-year investigation to determine exactly which boat it was. This one also might sound dry, but it’s actually a harrowing tale. Scuba technology in 1991 wasn’t exactly great, and trying to navigate the cramped confines of a U-boat, in the dark, 230 feet under water, not only isn’t easy, it proves to be deadly on more than one occasion.
Pirate Hunters – Robert Kurson
Honestly, Shadow Divers was so good I immediately had to read the follow up. This time Chatterton is in the Dominican Republic, searching for a sunken pirate ship loaded with treasure. Like its predecessor, this one is heavy on history and interesting characters (this time of the English navy, the golden age of piracy, and the Caribbean), but it also features some pretty wild adventures in the modern DR, complete with bandits and gun battles. I found this one more fun than Shadow Divers.
The Power of Full Engagement – Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz
“Energy, not time, is the fundamental currency of high performance.” So if you focus on managing your energy better, your productivity (and happiness, and overall wellbeing) will increase. This book shows you how.
When I Stop Talking, You’ll Know I’m Dead – Jerry Weintraub
This isn’t a great book in the traditional sense. Instead, its a great collection of almost-unbelievable and usually hilarious stories from the man who discovered John Denver, essentially created the industry of nationwide stadium concert tours, promoted tours for Elvis, Frank Sinatra, Led Zeppelin, and the Beach Boys, and eventually became a Hollywood studio head and producer of films including The Karate Kid and the Ocean’s 11 trilogy. More than just fun, reading about how a poor, small Jewish kid from the Bronx turned himself into one of the most powerful people in Hollywood is pretty inspiring.
10% Happier – Dan Harris
Partly a recounting of how a news anchor’s on-air panic attack led him to investigate and ultimately start practicing meditation, and partly an investigation of how everyone from CEOs to U.S. Marines have begun to use mediation, 10% happier is a wonderfully compelling argument for why you should start meditating. As Harris’ title suggests, just a few minutes of regular mediation each day didn’t revolutionize his life, but it did make him 10% happier. If you’re already meditating, you can definitely skip this. If not, you should definitely read it.
In the Kingdom of Ice – Hampton Sides
Endurance, the story of Shackleton’s unbelievable escape from the Antarctic ice is one of the most unbelievable tales of survival I’ve ever heard. In the Kingdom of Ice tells the story of the USS Jeannette’s hunt for the North Pole, which is undoubtedly an even more brutal ordeal than that faced by Shackleton’s crew. The first half of the book can be slow, as there’s a lot of time spent on characters that aren’t central to the story, but there’s a lot of interesting information about life in the late 1800s (e.g. When the ship left port in 1879, no one had any idea what was at the North Pole; Many thought there was a warm polar sea and a garden of eden beyond the ice). Even if this doesn’t sound interesting, the central story is so good that the book is worth the full read.
The Dog Stars – Peter Heller
My favorite piece of fiction that I read last year, this is a post-apocalyptic tale unlike any I had read before. Instead of zombies or aliens or a hellish atomic wasteland, Heller tells the story of three companions trying to survive in a quiet, beautiful world only sometimes punctuated by violence. Similar to McCarthy’s The Road, but far less brutal and depressing, Heller’s story feels like what might actually happen if a pandemic wiped out most of the human race and you and some clever friends were trying to survive.