The Best Books I Read In 2020

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.

7 Powers

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.

Scary Close

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.

The Best Books I read in 2016

Good books are a joy to read; great books make you a better person. Of the books I read in 2016, I would nominate the six below as good or even great.

Per book, I explain how it influenced my life, so that you can decide which are worth your time. If you’re interested in more book recommendations, have a look at “Books that Influenced my Life” and “The Best Books I read in 2015”.

What’s the best book you read this year? What’s the best book you ever read? Please share a book recommendation in the comments below.


1. Dune, by Frank Herbert

Frequently ranked as “best science fiction book of all times”, this story about a battle between extra-planetary noble houses trying to take control of a desert planet Arrakis is a page-turner. I finished this book in a week, spending many nights reading till deep in the night. The book is well-written and rich in narrative, touching on topics diverse as how to start new religions; how to manage international (or interstellar) relations; and how to preserve water in deserts. It’s a tale as rich as Star Wars, so good that I’d be happy to re-read it soon.

2. Road to Character, by David Brooks

People who have cultivated a deep and applied compassion inspire me. One of the best books I read in 2015 was My Life with the Saints, by Fr. James Martin, which profiles a dozen or so saints in a chapter each. NYT-columnist David Brook’s Road to Character is similar in structure.

David Brooks observes that in today’s Western societies, our media admire people who show grit, persistence, boldness, and courage. Think of famous entrepreneurs, professional athletes, and pop stars. However, when we look at the people who are most admired upon their deathbed, these are people who show a different set of virtues. Brooks contrasts today’s résumé virtues against eternal eulogy virtues, dedicating the book to profiling eight people who lived in the last two millennia—from St. Augustine to President Eisenhower—in the hope that it may inspire us all to be better. As Brooks writes in his introduction:

“Occasionally, even today, you come across certain people who seem to possess an impressive inner coherence. They are not leading fragmented, scattershot lives. They are calm, settled, and rooted. They are not blown off course by storms. They don’t crumble in adversity. Their minds are consistent and their hearts are dependable. Their virtues are not the blooming virtues you see in smart college students; they are the ripening virtues you see in people who have lived a little and have learned from joy and pain. They possess the self-effacing virtues of people who are inclined to be useful but don’t need to prove anything to the world: humility, restraint, reticence, temperance, respect, and soft self-discipline.”

Reading through the book, I found myself underlining constantly, making notes in the margins on almost every page. Re-reading my notes made it clear how much space we have to grow. This is a book I want to continue to return to, to remind myself how much work it takes to be a good person.

3. The Art of Possibility, by Rosamund and Benjamin Zander

This book will make you shine like a lightbulb! In The Art of Possibility, Rosamund and Benjamin Zander, a social worker and the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, share their philosophy of a life full of possibility. In each chapter, they illustrate a helpful maxim with lively stories. One example stands out: Ben Zander explains how he publicly announces at the start of a new class that each student will get an A, under one condition: they must write a letter to themselves, imagining they have finished the class, explaining what it is that made them deserve an A. By doing so, you can unleash the power of possibility and responsibility.

I first read this book in print, and later downloaded it as an audiobook. I’d listen to (part of) a chapter each morning on my way to work, which would often have a profound impact on how I’d go through my day. Highly recommended!

4. Acts of Faith, by Eboo Patel

Eboo Patel is the founder of Interfaith Youth Core, an organization that brings young people of different religions for cooperative service and dialogue around shared values. I picked up his autobiography in Chicago this fall, after noticing the title years ago on my friend Ted Gonder’s booklist.

Patel’s short, highly readable biography filled me with inspiration about starting organizations that matter. Patel opened my mind to the reasons why youth are easily attracted to religious extremism, because it offers a clear path to a life mission and social status, things that every teenager craves for. He then suggests that the way to address religious extremism at its root is to offer young people alternative paths to meaning and social status, which he tries to do with his organization.

5. Structures (or Why Things Don’t Fall Down), by J.E. Gordon

Giles Holt recommended this lovely book. Reading Structures was a déjà vu back to my undergraduate civil engineering classes. Gordon, a very witty British professor, will make you learn something new on each page, such as how our quads compare to car springs, why birds have feathers on their wings, or why a piece of paper rips apart more easily once it has an initial cut. He strips structural engineering of its confusing terms, communicating it in vivid and witty prose through clear examples.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who is curious to learn more about their physical environment (if you like this book, also consider Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces on physics or Goodsell’s The Machinery of Life on cell biology). Although neither Structures nor Dune directly led to a lot of changes in my everyday life, they both brought many new perspectives and were absolutely a joy to read.

6. Shoe Dog, by Phil Knight

I picked up Phil Knight’s autobiography three days ago and finished it this morning. This story, about the origins of Nike, reads like a high-speed train. Phil Knight, Nike’s cofounder, explains in detail and without much ego how he started to import Onitsuka Tigers from Japan, building a scrappy business from scratch in a time when venture capital, minimum viable product, and A/B testing did not exist. Knight’s story left me with a sense of the importance of having courage in your endeavors, and pursuing your crazy idea.

I already have a few must-read books on my list for next year: Value Investing by Guy Pierce, Gene by Siddharth Mukerjee, and Tolstoy by Henri Troyat. I will remind myself to read the classics. Which books should I add?

The Best Books I read in 2015

Below are some of the best books I read in 2015, each with a short paragraph explaining how reading the book influenced my thinking.

If you’re looking for great books to read, also look at my July 2014 blog on “Books that Influenced my Life”, Ted Gonder’s “Books that Have Changed My Life“,’s list of 2015 Summer Reading, Neil deGrasse Tyson’s list of 8 books that every intelligent person should read, and Mark Bao’s “Great Books I read in 2015“.

I keep a visual overview of all the books I read in 2015 at (a great, easy-to-use Tumblr template).

Best books I read in 2015:

My Life with the Saints, by James Martin

James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor of America magazine, shares a brief synopsis of the lives of about fifteen Christian saints, detailing how each saint inspires him in everyday life. Reading this book kindled my desire to become a better person through service, and led me to explore more deeply the lives of St. Francis and Dorothy Day. If this paragraph tickles your curiosity, listen to Krista Tippett’s interview with James Martin on On Being.

The Tao of Pooh, by Benjamin Hoff

Benjamin Hoff explains the essence of Taoism through stories from Winnie the Pooh. This is a hilarious read that will inspire you to be kinder and funnier under the hardships that life will throw at you. Reading a chapter of The Tao of Pooh every morning is one of the surest ways to be a happier person (I can attest!)

Writings on an Ethical Life, by Peter Singer

I first read Peter Singer’s writing many years ago about eating meat, when he influenced my thinking that it’s OK to eat oysters and mussels as part of a vegetarian or vegan diet. In this book, a collection of essays and excerpts from different books, Singer will challenge many of your beliefs on how to live well.

Consolations of Philosophy, by Alain de Botton

De Botton’s mission is beautiful: to make the wisdom of philosophy accessible to a wide audience. In this book, he looks at six great philosophers, and frames the message of each in a way that can help you in every day life. I was particularly intrigued by Socrates’ method to get to truth, and Nietzsche’s belief that pain and distress are good, because they spur us to work harder to realize our dreams.

Snowcrash, by Neal Stephenson

In this crazy science-fiction story, Neal Stephenson sketches a world where people choose to live more in virtual reality than in physical reality.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlein

Heinlein describes a beautiful symbiosis between men and machine who collectively try to overthrow an upsetting political regime.

The Glass Bead Game, by Herman Hesse

Hesse is possibly my favorite novelist, and I had put this book (a Nobel Prize winner) off for too long. The book made me think about the contemplative life versus the life of action, a theme that replays itself in many of Hesse’s books.

Books I want to read in 2016:

  • The Utopia Experiment, by Dylan Evans—to understand the challenges of communal livings.
  • On the Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin—to understand the foundation behind how Darwin came to his conclusion on natural selection.
  • Mastery, by Robert Greene—to understand the path of the artist, so compellingly portrayed by Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
  • The Age of Reason, by Thomas Paine—to understand his critiques on The Bible and religion.

Books I want to re-read in 2016:

  • Bhagavadgita, in translation by Eknath Eswaran—to be inspired to be a better person. (Gandhi read the Bhagavadgita every day.)
  • Six Thinking Hats, by Edward de Bono—to be more aware of the different modes of think I do, and can, use.
  • From Darwin to Munger, by Peter Bevelin—to remind myself of the flaws in my thinking.
  • The Little Prince, by Saint Exupéry—because the wonder expressed by our small friend from another planet is something I always want to keep in mind.

One of my intentions for the new year is to keep a digital summary of the best books I read in 2016, with the intention to re-read the summaries frequently, to truly internalize some of the lessons.

Books that Influenced my Life

A dear friend of mine keeps a list (two, actually) of the books that shaped him. I liked that idea, so I made my own list below.

Books, of course, are not the only influence on us—I am influenced too, probably to a greater extent, by experiences, conversations with people, documentaries, and so on (those influences may be a topic for another blog post). The beautiful thing about books is, however, that for the cost of a meal and a few hours of dedication, you can gain a new perspective on the world.

The books below come to mind when I ask myself “Which books have changed the way I see the world and act?”

I’ve read (or re-read) all of these in the last 5 or so years, so I hope that the list will be much longer by the time I turn thirty.

(PS I would love to hear your recommendations for further reading. If there’s a book that has shaped your life that’s not on the list below, please share it with me.)


Life Philosophy:
Viktor Frankl – Man’s search for meaning
How a deep sense of purpose can keep you alive even in the toughest of circumstances.

Erich Fromm – The art of loving
A primary driver for human action is our desire to overcome separateness. Love is an activity, not a noun, that we need to keep practicing. “Work on yourself more than on the other person.”

Seneca – Letters from a Stoic (also Cicero – On the Good Life)
Practical recommendations for how to be happy and less perturbed by what happens to you.

Bhagavad Gita and Dhammapada (both in the translation by Eknath Easwaran)
Powerful words to motivate you to try every day to be a better version of yourself, I read two pages each morning last summer before jumping on my bike. 

Lao Tze – Tao Te Ching (also the lighter, but as impactful, Benjamin Hoff – The Tao of Pooh)
Wonderful short verses that inspire you to smile and take a zoomed-out view at life’s busy-ness. 


Life stories that inspired me:
Buckminster Fuller – Critical Path
Revealing how you can live your life as an experiment; how much freedom you have to shape your days; and how powerful it is to work only and always for the benefit of all humanity. 

Benjamin Franklin – Autobiography (and Walter Isaacson’s biography of Franklin)
Combining the roles of writer, printer, entrepreneur, public citizen, politician, diplomat, and many more in one lifetime, with incredible zest and infinite curiosity.

Tracy Kidder – Mountains beyond Mountains
A page turner—one of the most inspiring, best written biographies I’ve read; and very relatable since Paul Farmer is still very active today. Paul Farmer’s story also deeply reminded me of Albert Schweitzer’s life (below).

Albert Schweitzer – Essential Writings
Like Paul Farmer, Albert Schweitzer expressed through his actions a deep commitment to serving others. His Essential Writings are written from a very human perspective—explaining how he loves to dance, play the organ, and put his feet in an ice-bath to stay awake at night while writing. 

Joseph Jaworski – Synchronicity
Every one of us has a cubic centimeter of chance pop up in our view occasionally. It is the warrior—the person who is always aware—who recognizes this and ceases the opportunity. A story that makes you excited about life. 

Wendy Kopp – One Day, All Children
A powerful example of how experience and age are not prerequisites for making big things happen. 


Personal Effectiveness:
Stephen Covey – 7 Habits of Successful people
I still use (slightly changed) versions of Covey’s weekly calendar exercise every week. 

Tim Ferriss – 4 hour workweek
You can disagree with some of the principles and core values underlying the book, but this book definitely makes you rethink what you’re pursuing and how to do so more effectively. 

Ray Dalio – Principles
Clearly-written, logical, practical manifesto on evaluating your mental models. 

Seth Godin – Linchpin
Emphasizing the mindset that you should always strive to be indispensable.

Reid Hoffmann and Ben Casnocha – The Start-up of You
From this book I took a number of practical exercises on how to tap into your network and look at your own future. 

Dale Carnegie – How to Win Friends and Influence People
Despite the “superficial” title, this book is surprisingly sincere; if you practice the lesson, you will be a kinder, happier person.


Books that helped me to improve my thinking:
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Helped me realize how often I use the scientific method (and when I fail to), and the limitations of the method. 

Peter Bevelin – From Darwin to Munger
Introduce me to using the evolutionary perspective to explain why our mind works in the way it does. Also includes a stunning list of all the “biases” of the brain, and led me to read Charlie Munger’s great speech and Charles Darwin’s autobiography. 

Nassim Nicholas Taleb – The Black Swan
This book was the first that made me aware how foolish it is to make predictions about phenomena that do not follow the laws of nature, such as the value of GE shares two years from now.


Books that changed the way I look at the world: 
Paul Hawken & Amory Lovins – Natural Capitalism
This book convinced me that resource-efficiency and profitability can go hand in hand. A good, more recent, book on this topic is “Resource Revolution” by Stefan Heck and Matt Rogers. 

Janine Benyus – Biomimicry
We can take so much (scientific) inspiration in design and technology if only we look at the rest of Life on Earth. 

Jared Diamond – Guns, Germs, and Steel
Describing the “advance” of man from Africa through today in a very exciting way, explaining what phenomena caused the differences in wealth we see in the world today.

James Goodsell – Machinery of Life
Beautiful illustrated book about the biology of the human body. 



Novels that touched me:
Herman Hesse – Siddharta
A personal journey that many of us can (or want to) identify with—going into the “real world”, tempted to follow our senses, only to realize that wisdom is found in simple things. 

Antoine de St. Exupéry – the Little Prince
Always stay a child at heart. 

Choose for adventure! 



I would love to hear your recommendations for further reading. If there’s a book that has shaped your life that’s not on the list below, please share it with me.