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All 2014 Book Reviews

Contained below is a list of books I've read in 2014 (and a few months prior, as this is my first time reviewing and collating a list).

The books which I've read most recently are towards the top of the list. I aim to upload a review straight after finishing a book. The ratings are based on how much I enjoyed the book, and how readily I would reocmmend it.

End of year totals are: 21 books and 6,070 pages.

The Innovator's Dilemma - Clayton Christensen

Essential reading for understanding the market dynamics at play in disruptive innovation, and why so often market leaders can fail to gain traction in the resulting emerging markets.

Arguments are extremely thoroughly backed up with extensive case studies, which can get a bit tiring, but does help cement the core ideas.

Reading (1) Innovator's Dilemma, (2) Blue Ocean Strategy, and (3) The Lean Startup, in that order, would provide an extremely solid foundation of knowledge for understanding how to go about bringing a disruptive innovation to market.

Waking Up - Sam Harris

Delivers extremely well on its promise of being a Guide to Spirituality WIthout Religion. Highly recommended to anyone who wants an objective analysis of spirituality, without the mysticism that comes attached to religious teachings.

This follows quite similar themes to Tolle's Power of Now, but brings more of a scientific angle, as opposed to a self-help one. Perhaps taking it a little too far with the constant defensiveness (although understandable), and slightly confusing structure and pacing, but undeniably an enlightening read.

Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biococomputer - John C. Lilly

This covers the rather fascinating topic of treating the human mind as a computer (a stateful system that accepts inputs, and responds with behaviours), and covers some of Lilly's experiments which, given, that assumption, look at observing and even reprogramming the mind.

There are some incredible insights in here, and extremely thought provoking discussions. Unfortunately, as this is essentially just a republishing of Lilly's notes, it is quite difficult to follow.

I'll sum this up with a quote from Rick Doblin's afterword:

Programming and Metaprogramming the Human Biocomputer remains a pioneering classic that helps us all to realize how much of what we consider reality is filtered through our own perceptual filters that we are obligated to rigorously evalutate.

What The Dormouse Said - John Markoff

Fascinating insight into the the culture that created the personal computing industry in the 60s and early 70s. Some inspiring tales of innovation and how it tied together with the counterculture movement of the time. Did become quite difficult trying to keep up with the numerous characters that were introduced, though.

Fight Club - Chuck Palahniuk

Love the film, and to be honest I think it was an improvement over the book. Still a big fan of the underlying themes, though.

The Power of Now - Eckhart Tolle

Picked this up without any preconceptions or expectations, and came out extremely impressed. "Mindfulness", and separating conscious behaviour from unconscious are topics that I've taken a lot of interest in recently, and this book makes a gives a nice comprehensive coverage of how these principles can be applied throughout life.

There are a few small issues in the way the information is presented, but honestly I'd recommend this to anyone who's able to retain a relatively open mind and not scared off by mentions of spirituality. An excellent exploration of how you can rise above the unconscious mind, and remove negativity from your life.

Blue Ocean Strategy - Kim & Mauborgne

The concept behind this book is extremely simple - instead of participating in a race to the bottom of crowded markets (red oceans), make the competition irrelevant by innovating to create uncontested market space (blue oceans).

I wasn't exactly sure how this concept was going to be stretched out to 200 pages, but ended up pleasantly surprised to find it filled with detailed strategic advice, including quantifiable tools like analytical frameworks to aid the process, as well as inspiring case studies.

The narrative is more aimed at corporate enterprise rather than startups, but I'd still call this essential reading for anyone involved in business strategy.

Fahrenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury

Another good dystopian novel exploring the loss of freedom for original thought in the name of "happiness". Not as clever as Brave New World or 1984, but still raises some interesting issues and worrying parallels with today's society. A very quick and well-paced read too.

Merchants of Doubt - Naomi Oreskes & Erik M Conway

Extremely well put together overview on how political agendas have led to the sustained obfuscation of scientific consensus, and spread of misinformation. Not just across the public, but among nations' leaders too, resulting in decades of regrettable inaction.

The cases (including tobacco smoke, global warming, ozone depletion, and a few others) are very comprehensively covered, and the authors have done an incredible job of connecting the dots between the issues, exposing the recurring individuals and organisations which form the vocal minority behind the misinformation.

All the issues are wrapped up nicely in the conclusion. Highly recommended for anyone with even a vague interest in the matters of science and politics.

On the Shortness of Life - Seneca

I've been doing some reading into Stoicism recently, and this took an interesting look at some of the facets.

Definitely managed to gain some useful insights which will stay with me for a long time. It's just a shame that about half of the book can't really be related to since it goes off onto tangents about Roman culture, mythology, etc.

Either way, it's very short, so still definitely worth a read as long as you're willing to sift through and make the effort of deciding which parts of the writings can be applied to your own life.

Brave New World - Aldous Huxley

Brilliant, definitely worth reading. An even more compelling case for the deterioration of society than Orwell's 1984, and a fascinating contrast of ideas.

A Short History of Nearly Everything - Bill Bryson

Fairly interesting. Gives a high-level overview of the scientific (cosmology, geology, biology, physics and chemistry) discoveries of history leading to the current state of understanding.

One of the big takeaways is how tentative much of scientific understanding current is - based on assumptions made from often incomplete evidence.

Not sure that the format (pure prose) is the most effective for conveying this type of information (at least it has an index though)... and the regular jumping into very explicit detail around the historical figures relevant to the discoveries felt a little unnecessary. Also, the cover illustration lead me to believe there'd be some coverage of mechanical/industrial history - but none to be found.

Nineteen Eighty-Four - George Orwell

A very solid foreshadowing of the type of dystopian future which can be expected to emerge as a corollary to societies built on a value system of power and greed. A stark reminder as to why principles like freedom and the right to privacy need to be kept in check by the people (and how the direction we're currently heading probably isn't the right one...).

No Logo - Naomi Klein

One of the most informative books I've ever read - extremely interesting and eye-opening throughout.

The arguments presented are very well-formed and follow a clearly organised narrative, with an incredible amount of examples and case studies to back up the reasoning. Can't recommend enough to anyone who wants to learn more about how consumerism and corporate rule is taking taking its toll across the world.

Make sure you pick up the 10th anniversary edition, as it contains a great foreword on one of the biggest modern-day "superbrands", even though it might not be readily recognised as one.

The Fountainhead - Ayn Rand

One of the most powerful novels I've read. I'd highly recommend this to anyone involved (or aspiring to be involved) in entrepreneurship, looking to boost confidence in their own vision and self-belief. It was one of the final things which helped confirm in my mind that moving forward as a solo founder was the right decision for myself.

Ayn Rand presents a compelling case for individualism, and helps understand why it's important to create based on your own independent beliefs of what's right, instead of constructing your life around the values and expectations of others.

Despite the subject matter being 1940s architecture, the concepts involved are surprisingly relevant to any modern-day field involving creativity, such as software design, to give one example.

Rand's political ideals are the area where public opinion gets really polarised. I presume this is more apparent in Atlas Shrugged (which I haven't read yet), because I found political ideologies to be only mentioned in passing, and far removed from the core messages.

Unfortunately I've had to knock a star of my rating due to the book's sheer length. At 700+ pages, it took me a while to bring myself to get through this as things really started to slow down in the middle, with endless long and drawn out scenes of stilted dialogue and needless romance.

Luckily things started picking up again towards the end. But I can only really recommend this if you're a relatively fast reader and/or don't mind putting up with huge amounts of contextual story around the real messages.

Spoilers below - click to reveal

Going on to the key message given in Roark's testimony at the end of the book, I can't help but feel the dichtomy made between the egotists and the second handers is missing something.

Perhaps this a cultural difference relating to the time the book was written, but Rand seems to imply that any egotist is by definiton a creator. I certainly wouldn't agree with this, as it's very possible to be self-absorbed, but a consumer rather than creator - i.e. despite egotistical self-absorption, the individual produces no net benefit for society as a whole.

Men have been taught that the highest virtue is not to achieve, but to give. [...]. We praise act of charity. We shrug at an act of acheivement
Men have been taught that the ego is the synonym of evil, and selflessness is the ideal of virtue. But the creator is the egoist in the aboslute sense, and the selfelss man is the one who does not think, feel, judge or act. These are functions of the self.

I do understand what Rand was getting at here, but I think the conflation of terms is slightly misleading and confusing.

I'd suggest that the two personality traits - self-driven creativity and selfless alturism - exist on independent spectrums, and the optimum would be a combination of the two. So to replace Rand's dichtomy, I'd suggest the following types of personality, ranked from least to most admirable:

  • "Selfless" Consumer - Someone who lives to acquire possessions and prestige for the sole purpose of validating themselves in the eyes of others - knowing that living life through the eyes of others isn't really bringing them happiness.
  • Selfish Consumer - Devotes their lives to bringing themselves enjoyment through material consumption and self-centered actions.
  • "Selfelss" Creator - The Peter Keatings - those whose foundations for creativity are based on fishing for approval and validation from others. This isn't much on top of a selfless consumer, as the "creation" is very limited and artificial.
  • Alturistic Consumer - Doesn't create anything of their own, but does try to base their actions around what will benefit others.
  • Selfish Creator - Is highly self-motivated and enjoys creating, but has no real interest in whether their creations are improving society as a whole, or simply providing them personal enjoyment - or even worse, immoral creations.
  • Alturistic Creator - Is purely self-motivated and independent in their creativity, but aims to create with the purpose of helping others and society as a whole

On the whole I did find enormous meaning and insight throughout - it was simply the implication that by being self centered you're helping to progress humanity which threw me off a bit.

Roark came off as a selfish creator. As pointed out in his monologue, this can lead to breakthroughs, and luckily throughout the book the projects did in general serve humanity, but there's no real guarantee of that. I think aiming to be an alturistic creator would be a better aspiration.

Manage Your Day-to-Day - Jocelyn K. Glei

Felt like a rushed compilation of blog posts containing vague productivity-related musings, a lot of which ended up contradicting each other. There were a couple of solid points I took away after reading it, and maybe you'd find more of it useful if you've never read into productivity advice before...

Rework - Jason Fried

Really solid summary of how to approach conceiving and running a startup in a true minamlist fashion - i.e. bootstrapping, keeping the team lean, avoiding beurocratic overhead, and so on.

I found myself agreeing with nearly all of the lines of reasoning and points made. However I have been a keen advocate of these strategies for quite a while, so overall I didn't really learn much new here, but a lot of it is the complete opposite to classical business advice, so if you're looking to get into startups but coming more from an MBA background, I'd definitely recommend giving this a read.

The book itself is very short, and organised into a series of bite-size essays - most of which contain powerful arguments, and practical advice, so even for someone very confident in the field, it's probably work a quick read anyway.

The 4-Hour Work Week - Tim Ferriss

The book is split into 4 main parts - Definition, Elimination, Automation, and Liberation. I found the first and last pasts most interesting, as they consisted largely of useful and inspiring and advice on getting the most out of life. I'd recommend the book solely on these sections.

As for the other two... Elimination and Automation contained some very questionable "productivity" guides, and went into great deal on some peculiar strategies which I doubt I'd ever see myself using. Unless you're living a very specific lifestyle, I can imagine a lot of these techniques taking more time to set up and maintain than the time they'd actually save.

The main time-saving advice revolved around outsourcing the majority of ones life to a low-wage "virtual assistant" working abroad. And the automated income strategy walked through step-by-step setting up some reseller ecommerce brand, which I'm sure would end up being a lot more hassle than Ferriss makes out. If I were to read this again, I'd probably skip out these two parts.

The Ecology of Commerce - Paul Hawken

Picked this up after seeing Ray Anderson speak so highly of it in The Corporation. Very glad I did - it turned out to be a highly interesting and informative overview of the real impact business is causing to the environment.

Presents many unsettling facts and figures about the rate of ecological destruction (sadly slightly dated though - first published 1993), explains the social aspects that lead to a lack of action, and goes on to describe how governments could solve the problem.

The Lean Startup - Eric Ries

Contains useful information and strategies, which are certainly worth bearing in mind with any entrepreneurial venture, but my two criticisms would be: firstly that too much emphasis is placed on quantitative methods of analysis - perhaps this is dependent on personality type, but I believe in personal vision and intuition to a much higher degree than is represented in the book. Treating users like statistics will generally lead to a comparatively slow method of iteration, and is also much easier said than done when operating on anything other than an extremely large and invariable source of users.

My other feeling was that the booked seemed very long for the messages it conveyed - perhaps an effort to stretch the contents out to a desired length.

The Millionaire Fastlane - MJ DeMarco

Filled with quality practical advice on sensible ways to go about attaining wealth. MJ DeMarco recognises that time is just as important as money in the wealth equation, hence the "fastlane" methodologies covered in the book, aiming to help you use business to become both time-rich and money-rich.

While I don't agree with the importance DeMarco assigns to attaining great riches, this doesn't get in the way of the utility of the advice given. Even if you have no aspirations to become a millionaire, money is needed to cover living costs, and the book will help you understand how to set up revenue streams that aren't directly tied to your time or labour.

The first half of the book covers the problems of living the "slowlane", which makes a lot of people defensive and puts them off the book, as he's pretty ruthless with dismissing working as an employee. But I'd encouraging sticking through it, or skipping to the fastlane part of the book, because the tone really changes once he gets onto preaching what he believes in.

The overall writing style is pretty succinct - lots of lists and bullet points, little needless filler. An easy and enjoyable read.