2015

I listened to 28 audiobooks and read 12 paper books this year. Happy with that. Pretty good books overall, too. (I left #21 in though I didn’t finish it, hence why there are 41 on the list.)

Books are listed in the order I read them. Books in bold are the ones I’d recommend most highly. “(a)” signifies that I listened to the book as an audiobook; “9h07” signifies that the audiobook is 9 hours and 7 minutes long; “(p)” signifies that I read it on paper.

1. On Writing, Stephen King (a) (8h00)

This was a whimsical purchase — it popped up somewhere looking highly rated and short, so I couldn’t resist. Though I’ve seen plenty of movies adapted from Stephen King novels, I don’t think I’ve actually ever read one of his novels. Given how many he’s written, it’s funny that my first official encounter with him is non-fiction…

Even as an outsider I really enjoyed the book. The first third is a fun autobiographical romp through King’s childhood and early adult years. The rest is advice for burgeoning writers, interspersed with plenty more fun anecdotes. I ended up getting through the book in a day or two since it was so short and addictive (and I was listening on 2x speed). Here are a few choice pieces of writing advice:

(1) Grammar: the passive voice is for timid writers — avoid it. And avoid adverbs — they’re for timid writers too! You don’t need to write that your main character spun around angrily; if you’ve written the story well enough your readers will know that she’s angry when she spins around without you having to say it.

(2) Read and write, lots and lots! King emphasises throughout that there is no shortcut to reading a lot and writing a lot when it comes to improving your writing. On reading he says (approximately) that ‘The trick is to learn to read in both small sips and big gulps’: he will always take a book with him to dip into in spare minutes, and also has a spot in his chair at home where he loves to read for more extended periods. He averages at around 70-80 books a year. (Reading, not writing — not even King can do that.)

(3) Get into a regular routine of some sort. When he’s writing a first draft of a novel, King always makes sure to write 2,000 words a day so that the characters stay fresh in his mind and he keeps making incremental progress on the story. His daily schedule usually looks as follows: write in the morning; lunch; nap and respond to letters in the afternoon; watch Red Sox games and chill out with his family in the evening. (What a life!) The 2,000 words usually get done by 1pm, but sometimes he’ll have to stretch out into the evening. He writes 365 days a year — Christmas and birthdays included — as the idea of taking a day of “rest” away from writing makes him more stressed than relaxed.

2. I am Malala, Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb (a) (11h14)

My dad recommended this book to me at a good time: I had just finished the mammoth Big History, and was looking for something less dense with facts and figures. I’m glad I followed his recommendation.

In case you haven’t been following last year’s Nobel Prizes, Malala was a Pakistani schoolgirl who was shot in the head by the Taliban at age 15 for advocating that girls should be allowed to go to school. This book was written by her and a co-author in 2013, before that particular prize but after her recovery.

Malala’s story is compelling for many reasons, but perhaps most of all for being a case of extreme individual bravery. I am currently reading Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia, a book consisting of short essays on 100 political and cultural figures from the 19th and 20th centuries (I’m reading one entry each night before bed). James has a fixation with young people — particularly women — who stand up to oppression in the societies they find themselves in, even when they are fairly certain this will lead to their own demise. Cultural Amnesia was published in 2007, but had it been published six years later Malala would most likely feature in the dedication. As it is, the book is dedicated to Aung San Suu Kyi, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Ingrid Betancourt, and Sophie Scholl, all of whom fit the bill described above: extreme individual bravery in extremely oppressive circumstances. James describes Scholl, who, at the age of 21 was executed by guillotine for distributing anti-Nazi leaflets, as follows: ‘If there can be any such thing as a perfect person beyond Jesus Christ and his immediate family, Sophie Scholl was it.’

From the age of 14 or so it was pretty clear to Malala’s family that she — or, more likely, her father — might well be killed by the Taliban any day. Malala still went to school every day. She still spoke out in favour of education to reporters whenever she could, as the Taliban murdered those around her who expressed similar dissent.

Clive James recounts Sophie Scholl’s final days in 1943:

Throughout her interrogation, the Gestapo offered her a choice that they did not extend to her brother. They told her that if she recanted she would be allowed to live. She turned them down, and walked without a tremor to the blade. The chief executioner later testified that he had never seen anyone die so bravely as Sophie Scholl. Not a whimper of fear, not a sigh of regret for the beautiful life she might have led. She just glanced up at the steel, put her head down, and she was gone. Is that you? No, and it isn’t me either.

Malala miraculously survived a shot to the head. She has produced a book which lets us hear the thoughts that no one got the chance to hear from Scholl: from her erudite and passionate exterior Malala shows no whimper of fear nor sign of regret either — but of course she was scared, scared for her life. And she still kept going. Her story is truly aspirational: that is not me — I Am Not Malala — but I wish it were.

3. Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie (p)

Christmas present from my sister. Inventive sci-fi. Good read.

4. The Fall and Rise of China (Great Courses), Richard Baum (a) (24h10)

A series of 48 half-hour lectures covering China from the mid-19th century through to the current day. Excellent, and very much worth the length. Baum is a compelling narrator, who knows how to tell good character-driven stories in ways that help you process the bigger picture.

I knew embarrassingly little about the details of 20th century China, so it may be that if you’re more generally informed already you won’t get as much from the lectures as I did.

5. A History of Russia: From Peter the Great to Gorbachev, Mark Steinberg (a) (18h48)

An enjoyable series of lectures about the history of Russia, following on from my previous ventures into China (#4 above). I don’t think I’ll remember many of the details, but Steinberg was good at painting a general sense of the philosophy and feel of Russia through the ages that will stick with me.

6. London: A Short History of the Greatest City in the Western World, Robert Busholz (a) (12h22)

Fun series of historical lectures. Not as good as China, though.

7. The Innovators, Walter Isaacson (a) (17h28)

Great topic, and a fun read. Bizarrely I have already forgotten most of what was in the book…

8. The Lean Startup, Eric Ries (a) (8h43)

The “Startup Bible” — worth reading for people in startups and beyond. Lots of key concepts applicable to many different fields; even if you don’t apply them it’s worth knowing about them.

9. Stress Test, Timothy Geithner (a) (18h23)

Quite shallow given its length.

10. Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell (a) (8h59)

A nice listen, though it didn’t change my life. Really nice last line.

11. Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut (p)

Birthday present from a friend. Never read before, and nice and quick. Good, though didn’t completely blow my mind.

12. Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert (a) (9h59)

I’m not sure why, but I had real difficulty clicking with this. I think it’s because everyone had raved about it for so long so I felt under pressure to like it. But it took me months to get through this book even though it’s <10 hours long. And I had trouble focussing throughout.

13. Venture Deals, Brad Feld and Jason Mendelson (a) (7h23)

I bought this as we were about to start fundraising at Papero, and googling around suggested that this was the best resource to get a primer on how the fundraising world works. Not disappointed: An extremely helpful book targeted exactly at first-timers like me but with just the right amount of detail. Not ideal to consume as an audiobook, as it’s the kind of book that’s useful to dip in and out of, with chapters that need to be revisited a few times to lodge in long term memory. So I asked my mum for the hard copy for my birthday, and the rest is history.

14. The Opposite of Loneliness, Marina Keegan (p)

Bought this in an airport for a transatlantic flight since a different friend was obsessed with Marina Keegan. Good; the vibe and settings of her short stories are depressingly familiar.

15. Zero to One, Peter Thiel (a) (4h50)

A short listen, densely packed with insights and provocative reasoning. Several people I’ve talked to about the book/Thiel have taken negatively to him, which is inevitable given some of his character traits (and views). But I got a lot out of the book both in the sense of it prompting interesting lines of thoughts/discussion and in that I found it very motivating. Maybe even inspiring…? I’d recommend it for these reasons, rather than because I agree with everything he says.

16. The Ruby in the Smoke, Philip Pullman (p)

Fun romp. Christmas present.

17. Beyond the Black Stump, Nevil Shute (p)

Objectively boring but strangely enjoyable. Christmas present.

18. The Art of Learning, Josh Waitzkin (a) (6h39)

Josh Waitzkin was the child chess prodigy that Searching for Bobby Fischer is about, as well as a Tai Chi World Champion later in life. The Art of Learning was recommended to me by a friend, and is Waitzkin’s account of how he made it to the very top of two very different competitive worlds.

I enjoyed listening to his storytelling, and I predict the topic of learning/growth mindset is one that I will return to again and again throughout the course of my life. One of the key lessons from the book is that you should allow yourself to be broken down repeatedly by losing in ways that are informative. I used to play chess competitively when I was younger, and I think I never fully managed to do this — losses were usually just embarrassing. I didn’t quite manage do this with pieces of work in undergrad either, though I was more aware of the value of trying.

I think there is great strength to being vulnerable and looking like an idiot in public in a way that helps you learn. And it’s so painful to do, that you may actually look pretty good when you do it, since most people wouldn’t be able to stomach such a thing. Which is not why you should do it, but is a counterintuitive extra benefit.

Another key message from The Art of Learning can be reduced, I think, to “Wax on, wax off”. Which is another key life lesson I have not yet internalised well — but am working on!

19. Night Train, Martin Amis (p)

I’ve never read a Martin Amis novel before, and this the shortest one I could find. Overall quite addictive – read it in 24 hours – but I think I should have started elsewhere with Amis. And the writing is a bit annoying (as expected).

20. Elon Musk, Ashlee Vance (a) (13h23)

I thought all I would get out of this book was good gossip, but I got a lot more. Musk is not a man I would want to resemble too closely on an interpersonal level, but his drive is awesome and he seems to care about the right things (pretty much). This book was particularly motivating for me given that I am currently trying to get a company off the ground, but I’d imagine that it would have a similar effect on a lot of people.

21. Street Smarts, Norm Brodsky and Bo Burlingham (a) (10h08)

This was highly rated on Audible, but I just did not get much from it at all. I gave up after 1h30m – might get good afterwards. If you listen to it all and it turns out I’ve made a mistake, let me know!

22. Getting To Yes, Roger Fisher and William Udy (a) (6h16)

I expected this book to be more bullshit-heavy that it was — overall it codified some pretty useful insights and advice about how to negotiate with people, and how to approach arguments in general. The key insight is probably: don’t have fixed positions and demands and bait them against your opponent’s positions; get to the underlying interests you each have and mutually beneficial new options will emerge.

I’m still left with some residual suspicion from the book, though — a world in which people calmly discuss their interests and feelings with each other and listen carefully to each other with the purpose of using the information to their advantage creeps me out. Though it probably leads to better outcomes for everyone.

23. Citizens of the Green Room, Mark Leibovich (a) (8h21)

Gossipy drivel about people in politics and media, which is obviously quite fun. I bought this since I quite enjoyed Leibovich’s last gossip-fest, This Town. This one is not as good as This Town, as this more recent book is pure gossip rather than gossip you can listen to while feeling that there’s a message behind it. Possibly this assessment is wrong though, and my memories are messed up by the order in which I listened to them – maybe they’re as bad (good?) as each other.

Each chapter profiles one figure from 21st Century American politics/media, from (Hillary) Clinton to Kerry to Cheney to Edwards to Chris Matthews to Mike Allen to Rick Santorum to… everyone. And they all have flaws – some endearing (John McCain) and some pernicious (Glen Beck).

24. Season of the Witch, David Talbot (a) (17h00)

When I go on holiday somewhere I like to read histories or novels set in the place, to get a better sense of what it’s like from the inside. I just moved to San Francisco full-time, so was scouting around for a book/books that could make me feel like more of a San Franciscan. My friend/co-founder Ceci was already reading a hard copy version of Season of the Witch when we moved, and recommended it as fitting this bill.

I loved the book. It’s written by David Talbot, founder of Salon, and covers the history of San Francisco from the 1960s through 1980s. That sounds like a short period of time, but holy shit did a lot happen. The writing is suspiciously vivid and specific, with beautiful, tragic stories painted in gruesome detail — delving deep into the motivations and feelings of the characters involved in each story, and drawing out how these reflected the throbbing soul of the city at the time.

One lesson that came through the different pieces of the book is how susceptible left wing values and language are to being co-opted by forces of evil. It’s easy to be aware of this phenomenon on a macro level given the looming examples from the 20th century of Stalinist Russia and Maoist China, but the stories from San Francisco, the city of good, brought it home in smaller, more local examples. In particular, the sections on the Symbionese Liberation Army and Patty Hearst, the Zebra murders, and the Peoples Temple stand out as multi-chapter stories which are so incomprehensibly horrible that you can’t stop listening.

Talbot is so good at telling these stories with such suspense that I’d recommend not clicking those links above if you plan to read/listen to the book. I had some significantly emotional moments with this book — think trying not to well up on the BART — and am glad I didn’t know where many of these stories were going.

Despite these depressing lessons about the dangers of co-opted language, the beauty of the book is that San Francisco emerges as a place where left-wing awesomeness actually does win — though it takes a lot of pain to get there. Sexual freedom and the gay liberation movement really are amazing. Standing up for the disempowered actually can work. San Francisco actually is a more tolerant, chilled out place that most bits of middle America. One of the strangely beautiful moments from the book is the few chapters near the end that describe the 49ers, San Francisco’s (American) football team, and its surge forward at a time when San Francisco most needed unity. Sports being culturally important in San Francisco — a bizarre thought. The story culminates with a match between the underdog 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys — “America’s team, God’s team”. The 49ers’ overly emotional, tolerant coach Bob Walsh faces off against his alpha male, racist counterpart at the Cowboys. I won’t give spoilers on how the match ends. The symbolism was beautiful, and triumphant near the end of such a harrowing book.

Overall I could not recommend this book more highly. Masterful writing, and an incredible subject. It’s cool to be in the city a few decades later, and see how things have gone now that all the big characters described in the book are history.

25. Mozart—His Life and Music, Robert Greenberg (a) (6h10)

This is a series of 8 45-minute lectures, which interweaves a biography of Mozart with clips of his music.

After listening to the first 2 hours, I had my review all prepared: The idea of mixing music with biography is great, and Prof Greenberg is a compelling presenter — but the overall experience is held back by the recordings of music not being that great, and sounding slightly off. Sadly for me this review backfired when I realised that my policy of listening to audiobooks on 2x speed may have affected this audiobook in ways that it didn’t affect others. Sure enough, once I hit 1x speed, the music was perfectly well recorded, and a fair bit more enjoyable.

Some may view this as symbolic of a broader trend of me doing certain things wrong in life.

26. Hooked, Nir Eyal (a) (4h47)

Short book, and I got very little from it.

27. Gilead, Marilynne Robinson (p)

An astonishingly beautiful novel, and easily the best I have read this year — probably for a lot longer. The book is written from the perspective of an old reverend, John Ames, who has lived in the small town of Gilead, Iowa for his whole life, and is now preparing to die. The book is a letter to his young son, to read when he becomes an adult, where Ames explains his understanding of the world, and what has been important in his life. The book is slow, and I predict I will read it again a few times (though not anytime soon) as the writing is so beautiful in parts that I’m sure it rewards multiple unpackings. Thank you Clara for the recommendation! (One final note: The book is religious throughout in theme and content — but don’t let this dissuade you if religion in general turns you off. I have never been religious, and don’t have much of the cultural background of small town churchgoing, but this didn’t inhibit my enjoyment of the book at all.)

28. Great World Religions: Islam (Great Courses), John Esposito (a) (6h08)

I listened to this to brush up on my knowledge about Islam. A good intro, and it reminded me of things I’d learned but forgotten in religious studies class in primary school (good teaching I guess). Nothing mindblowing but glad I read it. Next stop: Christianity…

29. Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson (a) (25h19)

Jobs is such a compelling character that the book didn’t feel long, even though 25 hours is hefty.

As with the Musk biography, there is a lot to admire about Jobs, ways in which I wish I was more like him, as well as a lot I would not wish to emulate. Jobs seems worse than Musk: Musk comes off from Vance’s account as being unaware of how his intensity and bluntness negatively affects those he works with; by Isaacson’s account, Jobs was knowingly mean-spirited and selfish.

Isaacson concludes at the end of the book that Jobs didn’t need to be so mean, and that this trait hurt him more than it helped him. But this rings hollow at the end of a book where Jobs’ single-minded intensity, and refusal to compromise, made all the difference to the success of his ventures. If Jobs had been less mean, would he still have been so uncompromising?

There are many paths to success, and Jobs is one template that I don’t plan to follow too closely. The fact that he was so transformational is a datapoint on my chances of success in life that I plan not to think about too much.

30. Superforecasting, Philip Tetlock (p)

The only nonfiction book on the list, since I listen to most nonfiction in audiobook form. But what a cracker! A book very dear to my heart — can’t recommend it highly enough. If you want an (almost) exhaustive list of traits that I value in people and aspire to have, then look at pages 191-2. These are the traits that Tetlock pulls out as common to the best forecasters of future events — actively open-minded, reflective, and full of grit. Though this book is in many respects the exact polar opposite to Gilead, I amusingly or not found it quite emotional as well: the world would be a much more beautiful place if people took the lessons from Superforecasting onboard.

31. Eminent Victorians, Lytton Strachey (a)

I have been reading too many business books so wanted to return to something clearly in a different camp. Eminent Victorians is one of those books I feel like I should have read, and also has understated British-style gossiping in it, so it was an easy choice.

The book is split into four parts, covering the biographies of four eminent Victorians — Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Thomas Arnold, and General Gordon — for Strachey’s 1910s-20s audience. The goal is both to give an interesting portrait of these four characters and, as such, a portrait of the Victorian world as a whole. Highly entertaining and highly British. One of the biggest impressions I was left with was a reminder of just how important Christianity, and the specifics of doctrine, were in Britain and Europe for so many centuries. Christianity is so unimportant in daily British life now, and doctrinal disputes seem so frivolous today that it’s amazing to be transported to a time not so long ago when the country turned on such issues.

Here are a couple of quotes to give you a sense of Strachey’s dry wit:

“It began to dawn on the Roman authorities that Dr Newman was a man of ideas. Was it possible that Dr Newman did not understand that ideas in Rome were, to say the least of it, out of place?”

[After someone made a someone made a stupid decision, and was looking to justify it:] “‘St Peter has spoken.’ The years that followed showed to what extent it was safe to depend on St Peter.”

32. Ready Player One, Ernest Kline (p)

Fun, popcorn-y, young adult novel. Sort of like The Hunger Games or Ender’s Game (I’ve only watched not read that one), but where everyone in the dystopian future world wears virtual reality headsets to escape into a virtual universe: the OASIS. Satisfyingly predictable plot lines, and I’m sure will make a very successful blockbuster (in production with Steven Spielberg directing, apparently).

33. Creativity Inc., Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace (a) (12h52)

I was expecting this to be a more straightforward history of the rise of Pixar, but it is primarily a management book about how to foster creativity in corporate environments. In the end this was more interesting for me, as I’d heard an account of the rise of Pixar already in the Steve Jobs biography two audiobooks ago.

I like Catmull’s style, and that he’s wary of slogans, given that I’m wary of business books. In honour of that, I won’t summarise any of the book here.

34. Masters of Doom, David Kushner (a) (12h43)

This covers the rise of Id Software, the gaming company that made Doom and Quake, and was founded by the notorious John Carmack and John Romero. I listened to it since I was starting to work on virtual reality, and John Carmack and Michael Abrash are two of the most important figures in the field – the CTO and Chief Scientist of Oculus respectively. Id was was where they first worked together, and where the idea of virtual reality was first given serious hope with new high-powered game engines designed by Carmack.

Abrash was working at Microsoft, but was attracted away by Carmack (despite a personal call from Bill Gates trying to convince him otherwise) so that they could build the metaverse together. They’re now both at Oculus doing just that.

A well-told story: recommended.

35. Understanding Movies, Raphael Shargel (a) (7h09)

A series of lectures on the history of film, going all the way from the Lumière brothers and George Méliès, the original French pioners of film in the 1890s; through the German expressionists in the 1920s; through the montage school in Russia at the same time; the rise of the Hollywood studio system in the 1930s (“more stars than there are in heaven” was MGM’s motto); the European neo-realists and American film noir pioneers in the ‘40s and ‘50s; the French New Wave followed by the American New Wave in the 1970s; and finally the birth of the wide release blockbuster with Jaws, Star Wars, and Raiders of the Lost Ark from 1975.

I listened to this as the parallels of early film experimentation seem prescient for the early days of virtual reality film. For those interested in the technology behind early film, I would also recommend watching this 5 minute video.

36. Edit Better, Jeff Bartsch (a) (4h52)

A nice and short introduction to film editing, for the uninitiated. Contains a long list of rules of thumb for editing. I think the list was too long, and could have have been prioritised better. Here are a few tidbits:

  • To create a visually smooth edit, start the next shot with the focal point in the same place (quadrant) as the focal point of the last shot — otherwise the audience has to search around for where to look every new shot.
  • “Frankenbiting” is where you splice together completely unrelated clips of an actor to make them say something they didn’t say on set.
  • “Roomtone”: take any seconds where people aren’t saying anything in the scene and use them as continuous background noise throughout the scene. (I’m amazed by how clunky and artificial that is, and how I’ve never noticed it.)
  • Don’t fade out text at the same time as doing a cut — this forces people to scan around the shot.
  • Don’t let audio and visuals compete if you need audience to focus on one of them.
  • Contrast settings deal with difference between bright light and dark shadows in the shot. Gamma moves the midpoint of brightness while leaving the top and bottom the same. It’s usually much better to tweak the gamma than the contrast.

37. Minecraft, Linus Larsson, Daniel Goldberg, Jennifer Hawkins (translator) (a) (5h07)

Not super interesting, partly because the book was written prematurely: since it was published, Notch sold Minecraft to Microsoft and has posted about some the negative personal toll this has taken on him. I’d like an updated version of the story that covers some of these details.

38. Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson (p)

The significantly more hardcore version of Ready Player One, from 1992. I read this as I started working on virtual reality and this book has influenced the imagination of people working in the field for two decades. For example, Snow Crash coined the concept and name “Metaverse” (OASIS’s inspiration), as well as “avatar”. The book itself is nuts — very long and all over the place, dipping alternately between ancient Sumerian myths, battles and explosions, virtual reality, and dystopian mega-religions. Not a must read unless you’re a sci-fi nerd, but I was glad I persevered.

39. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Peter Biskind (a) (23h41)

This covers the 1970s in Hollywood, and the lives of the directors who made up America’s New Wave of filmmaking. The summary is that they’re all men with enormous egos and drug/alcohol problems, who are assholes and sexists.

Made me want to watch all the films, though.

40. Accounting Made Simple: Accounting Explained in 100 Pages or Less, Mike Piper (p)

I read this to brush up on basic accounting (business, not pleasure), and it did the trick. Recommended for this purpose. It’s also quite useful general knowledge given that much of the world runs off a few basic financial concepts and principles (assets, debt, equity) that it’s worth understanding well.

41. The Alchemist, Paolo Coelho (p)

Nice and short. Easy to get swept up in it while reading, since it’s very momentous and paints a beautifully simple picture of what is important in life: fulfilling your Personal Legend, and not getting distracted by everything in the way (status/jobs/family). I had to shake myself to remember that life isn’t actually quite so simple, and there are other important things I have to do aside from following my Personal Legend.