I read 25 books in 2020. I made a few changes to my reading process, meant to increase retention and stimulate new ideas.
First, I have started to use Readwise. Once you give it access to your Kindle, Readwise will send you a daily selection of your personal Kindle highlights. It’s a joy to revise quotes from books read years ago. Often, I read an interesting highlight and open up the book in the Kindle app to read a few pages or a chapter. I also love the Readwise app—it allows you to add highlights from print books using your camera. You can also sync Readwise with Instapaper or Feedly, if you use those for reading and highlighting articles.
Second, I have started to synthesize key points I’d like to remember by writing down questions. I then add these questions and answers to Anki, a flashcard application that “makes remembering things easy”. Anki uses spaced repetition, a technique to determine when a certain flashcard should be resurfaced to maximize recall. This setup was inspired by Michael Nielsen’s article Augmenting Long-Term Memory.
Third, I have started to post short reviews of books to Goodreads. This was prompted by a conversation with a close friend, who simply sent me a link to his Goodreads account when I asked him about his favorite books. This allowed me to see all books he’d read, including his ratings. Check out my Goodreads to see what I’ve been reading.
On to my top reads of the year.
Leadership in Turbulent Times
This was one of my favorite books of the year. Doris Kearns Goodwin chronicles the ascent to power of four US Presidents—Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Francis Delano Roosevelt (FDR), and Lyndon Johnson. It was fascinating to learn about the types of leadership these men displayed and to reflect which resonated. I liked Lincoln’s use of stories and parables. FDR’s aspirational leadership also resonated—setting forth a big, bold idea and then letting others solve it. For those interested in US history not ready to read four separate biographies, I highly recommend this book.
The Secret of Our Success
Recommended in Matt Clifford’s splendid newsletter, this is a far-reaching book about humans. In it, Joseph Henrich, a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard, makes the case that what sets humans apart is our propensity for cultural learning. In contrast to other species, most of what we learn to survive is not encoded in our genes—it is learnt by studying other individuals once we’re born. Stitching together decades of field research, this book is full of fascinating facts, such as why orcas have menopause; how blue and green eyes developed as the result of an agriculture revolution; and how a tribe of aboriginals was able to find a watering hole hundreds of miles away by singing an ancient song. If you loved Harari’s Sapiens, this is a must read.
After reading Good Strategy, Bad Strategy by Richard Rumelt, I was hungry for more. Reed Hastings, Netflix’s CEO, writes in the foreword that this is the only strategy book he takes seriously. In the book, Helmer identifies seven forces that can provide a company with a strategic position. These range from well-known forces—such as economies of scale—to lesser-known forces—such as counter-positioning. Helmer illustrates each power through examples from his career as an investor, using anecdotes about companies like Intel, Kodak, Vanguard, Tiffany’s, and Toyota. I often try to apply Helmer’s 7 forces framework.
Recommended by an old friend, this book by Don Miller is about intimacy and vulnerability. Miller tells the story of how he learned to build true relationships. It’s a deeply resonating personal tale about what it takes to be vulnerable. In one especially powerful chapter, Miller explains that often our professional identity is shaped by early childhood experiences. One person notices something that we are good at and expresses their appreciation. Since we desperately want to feel seen, that early appreciation leads us to excel in the activity, turning it into part of our identity.
A Pullitzer Prize winner, The Overstory is all about trees. The book starts with seven separate stories that are woven together over the course of the book into a single quest about halting deforestation and logging. The book is beautifully written. I especially loved the lessons about trees and plants. Reactions to this book by my friends are mixed—some think it’s boring and too slow, others love it. If you’re curious to learn more about trees and enjoy a well-written and long novel, I’d give it a go.
A collection of short science fiction stories written by Chinese-American author Ted Chiang, the stories in this book will certainly blow your mind. If you read and enjoyed Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu (which I also read this year), I’d highly recommend this book. For a more detailed review, see this New Yorker article.
What books have you most enjoyed this year? I’d love to hear from you.