I get my reading in when I can, because it’s one of the few activities that I find relaxing. While I don’t lack reading material, I lack proper diligence to finish books within a reasonable amount of time. I suspect that this list would be triple the size had I actually committed to reading each evening, and not try to multi-task several books at once. Oh well.
I tend not to write proper reviews for finished books. I believe book impressions, instead of full-on book reviews, are more important. I tend to forget most of the details around a particular book, save for one or two salient points. Much like how good films evoke particular feelings, good books leave solid and resonant impressions. The impression can be this author really knows his domain well, and I’d better keep the book as a reference guide. Maybe it’s holy smokes the author is really speaking to me! And then there’s the ever dependable hey, I learned something new about the world today. Each impression is valuable in its own way.
This is a shared list of impressions. Links are also provided, in case you want to explore the plot summaries and other bits of detail.
Marty Cagan, Inspired: How to Create Products Customers Love. They should just change the title of this book to “The Product Management Bible Every Product Manager Should Read” and call it a day. The guidance in this book is unbelievably on-point, and every current and aspiring product manager should buy a copy of this book. I don’t do 30% of the things he describes at a proficient level, but hey, knowing is half the battle. There’s also a great interview with Jeff Bonforte, who is now running the show at Yahoo as a senior executive.
Dave Eggers, The Circle. The nightmarish vision contained in this piece of fiction is scary because it is so close to reality. We are already halfway there in terms of having technology and social media take over our lives. This is the first piece of work I’ve read from Eggers, and I intend to read more.
Peter Hessler, River Town. Hessler writes about his experience as a foreigner teaching English in the Sichuan province of China during the late 90’s. I couldn’t put the book down because so much of it explains why China is the way it is today. As I read page by page, I couldn’t help but see that all of us are shaped by our education. More importantly, we all have dreams, hopes and aspirations. The classroom and teacher dynamics that Hessler describes are revealing. This was an engrossing book, and I hope you read it even if you don’t plan on visiting China.
Chuck Klosterman, Eating the Dinosaur. Klosterman is the smartest guy in the room – a laid-back, analytical, intelligent guy who can write convincingly about any pop culture or sports topic. After getting a taste of his style on the Grantland web site, I dove head first into this collection of essays. He’s smart, but not trying too hard. He makes you laugh with the seriousness in which he dissects pop culture minutiae, but it’s earnest and coming from the right place. After Eating the Dinosaur, I’m set on devouring the rest of his bibliography.
Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, Superfreakonomics. While I’ve not had the pleasure of reading the original Freakonomics manifesto, I truly enjoyed this sequel. What’s the book about? To quote the authors: “People respond to incentives, although not necessarily in ways that are predictable or manifest. Therefore, one of the most powerful laws in the universe is the law of unintended consequences.” Maybe I’m drawn to the book because I’m in China, and China is basically a massive social and economic experiment with unintended consequences. Or maybe I just really like the book’s attempt to correlate suicide bomber profiling with life insurance.
Brad Stone, The Everything Store. Each company has its strengths, weaknesses and quirks. The leader defines the DNA of the company; Jeff Bezos and Amazon is no exception. I read this book before I joined Amazon, and loved every page of it. Everything that makes Amazon what it is today can be traced back to the early days. We like to say that “It’s Still Day One” at Amazon, and this book takes you there.
Yu Hua, China in Ten Words. Yu Hua is a gifted writer, and this collection of stories from his past is framed around ten Chinese concepts. Much like the other books on this list, you’ll get a vivid picture of what made China the society it is today. One of the key points Yu makes is that the Cultural Revolution never ended – it merely evolved into the Economic Revolution. It’s a deep and insightful look into the Chinese psyche. Although I will never “understand” China, this book has allowed me to take a step towards the impossible goal.
Lizzy Acker, Monster Party. Acker is a writer with an incredibly gifted imagination. As I started reading this book in-between works of non-fiction, I enjoyed the creativity and fluidity of her narratives. There are crazy stories in here that are not really all that crazy because they come from a place that’s real. It’s hard to describe, but she has a unique voice and imagination that will knock your socks off.
James Altucher, Choose Yourself. If you haven’t heard of James Altucher, do yourself a favor and Google him. He’s the Rodney Dangerfield and Conan O’Brien of entrepreneurs – self-critical, honest, self-deprecating and all-around guru of managing your life in a non-BS way. After reading his blog for some time, I bought this book to learn what it really means to “Choose Yourself.” There’s some really good advice in here if you’re willing to curate the ones that are most valuable for you. As with any self-help book, your mileage may vary.
Scott Berkun, Confessions of a Public Speaker. This is a step-by-step guide on public speaking. Berkun is an accomplished writer and speaker who has done the speaking gig for a long time, but the point of the book is that we all get nervous from time to time. It doesn’t matter if you’re speaking to five people or a room of bored students. It doesn’t matter if you’re new or experienced. There are tips in here that will work for anybody. I really enjoyed the down-to-earth, practical advice contained here.
Titus Chalk, So Do You Wear A Cape? Chalk created a detailed account of the origins of Magic: The Gathering, from the early days of Richard Garfield to the modern game that it’s evolved into today. You pretty much only have to read the words “Magic,” “The,” and “Gathering” to make a decision on whether to touch this book with a 10-foot pole. If you are a Magic aficionado like I am, please show some respect for tradition and read this book.
Nir Eyal, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. How do you build addictive products? What are repeatable systems to do it? How are the Facebooks and Twitters of the world doing it? And is it morally acceptable to get people hooked on Candy Crush Saga? This is a short read, but a really good one.
Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs. Isaacson writes a compelling biography about the Leonardo Da Vinci of our generation. Jobs was not a perfect human being by any stretch of the imagination. But he was a unique product visionary who transformed how we live today. Say what you will about Apple – it has lived up to our expectation of technology as a cultural and social transformative force. As Isaacson had intimate access to Jobs, the work here is insightful and revelatory.
Ian Johnson, Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in Modern China. The book captures three important lessons about modern Chinese society, in the guise of three stories. Johnson paints a vivid picture of what it means to face injustice in the Middle Kingdom today, and what the common man (and woman) is doing about it. Really engrossing stuff, made all the more poignant for me because Beijing is at the center of it, both literally and metaphorically.
Michael Lewis, Flash Boys. Can I just say something real quick? (Yes, Kanye.) I absolutely love Michael Lewis as a writer. In my mind, he’s the Michael Jordan of writers and can do no wrong. Having said all that, Lewis didn’t quite achieve classic status with this book. It’s about Finance, it’s about David vs. Goliath, but the payoff just isn’t as rewarding as some of his previous work. Give the man credit, though – if I ever want to learn about janitors or watching dust settle, I want Lewis to write about it. He can make anything laugh-out-loud funny.
Hamish McKenzie, Beta China. In a quick but revealing read, McKenzie gives a number of examples to illustrate the “incremental innovation” that is coming out of China tech companies. Some of the biggest names in China today are highlighted in his book. If you think the Chinese have done nothing original since inventing paper, pick this one up and be prepared to change your perspective.
Sam Smith, The Jordan Rules. This book was controversial when it was initially released, because it was a no-holds barred inside look at the Chicago Bulls locker room during the Jordan era. It’s fairly tame by 2014 standards, but if you ever wanted to know why Toni Kukoc and Jerry Krause were so reviled by Jordan, this is your jam. Smith writes with a steady hand, although if the foreword is to be believed, the success of the book really got to his head. But hey, the NBA – it’s greaaaaaaaat!
Michael Watkins, The First 90 Days. The classic book they ask you to read at MBA schools everywhere. It’s all about how to make a credible impact in the first 90 days of a new role or situation. It’s actually a very good book backed up with a lot of credible research, and a handy reference guide to revisit.
Wil Wheaton, Just a Geek. It’s unfair to pigeonhole Wheaton as merely a former child actor who happened to play Wesley Crusher in one of the biggest television shows ever. This book was a pleasure to read because he perfectly reveals his fears, joys, and insecurities – the whole nine yards. If you ever wanted to know what it’s like to be famous but not that famous, read this book. There’s a little bit of everything in here, from fatherhood to rejection to geek cred to anger. About being a human being, really.
Roger Ebert, Life Itself. I bought this book because I wanted to get into the mind of one of the greatest film critics of our generation. I grew up watching Siskel and Ebert, followed by Ebert and Roeper. I have tremendous respect for Ebert’s critiques. But this book just didn’t do anything for me because it was dry, it was humorless, and there was a lot of narrative that I didn’t care for. Maybe I was just not in the right place to appreciate it.
Chris Hedges, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. Hedges is an American journalist who spent considerable time in warzones all around the world. It’s a nail-biter of a book, well written, and probably worthy of the accolades bestowed on it. But I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind to appreciate it. It took me several attempts to finish the book over a period of two years. I don’t regret reading it, but I wouldn’t recommend it, either.
Seth Godin, All Marketers Are Liars. I just can’t connect with Godin, supposedly one of the best marketing minds of our time. Between this book, Permission-Based Marketing and Purple Cow, I just can’t disseminate his writing style and guru-ness. It’s an incredibly short book, but I’d be hard pressed to tell you about anything I remember from it. Your best bet is to look for the Wikipedia summaries of his books – I suspect a 30-second summary will do the trick.
Harvard Business Review, On Managing Yourself. A collection of HBR essays on (drumroll please!) managing yourself. Only 20% of the book was valuable for me – the rest tended to repeat. I would try to find the essays individually instead of buying the whole book, if I had the chance to do it again.
Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In. While I’m not the target audience for this book, I was intrigued enough to pick up a copy. Most of the book reads like it was ghost-written by someone other than Sandberg. I never got a strong sense of authenticity from the narrative, nor do I feel that her advice would apply to white-collar women everywhere. It’s really one of those “love it or hate it” types of books, and I err on the latter.