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All 2016 Book Reviews

Contained below is a list of books I've read in 2016. Most recent 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.

Running totals so far are: 19 books and 5,860 pages.

Becoming Steve Jobs - Brent Schlender

Quite a different tale from the one told in Isaacson's biography, much more focused on his growth and development as a manager. Even having read Isaacson's bio, I found this extremely interesting and gripping, particularly the detail of Apple's path to recovery from $1bn a year of losses before Steve was brought back to the company.

Deep Work - Cal Newport

I've been quite interested for the last few years in the limits of human cognitive potential, one aspect of this being the capacity for extremely focused uninterrupted streaks of work, and Newport's "deep work" provides an interesting outlook and assortment of contemporary advice regarding this.

It does feel a little forced that a whole book was required to explain why it's a good idea to create schedules around focused uninterrupted work, remove distractions such as emails/social media/the Internet, and embrace downtime. But I suppose for the "knowledge worker stuck in the shallows" which the book seems to address, it could come as a wake-up call.

I do also like the underlying theory that the ability to perform "deep work" will become increasingly important as "shallow work" is obsoleted by machines, and being able to rapidly acquire new skills and work with these intelligent machines will become the real area where humans can add value.

Messy - Tim Harford

[Audiobook] As a collection of case studies about situations, both personal and on a macro level, where disorder produced a favourable outcome over control/tidiness, this works well. Felt lacking in structure, but I'm sure that's a play on the book's theme. For more depth on some of these ideas, The Medici Effect and Antifragile would be good further reading.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance - Robert Pirsig

Started off extremely promisingly, but felt it went a little too deep into the "metaphysical" ramblings. Unsure if this was partly an intentional depiction of a descent into madness, or if it was meant to be an entirely coherent theory of "Quality" as a form of higher purpose.

Either way, found some parts very inspirational and some great ideas throughout, even if a little tricky to make it the whole way through.

Getting Things Done - David Allen

Quite bloated and repetitive, and not a system that I'd by any means call perfect, but still some very interesting ideas and strategies that can be drawn from. For someone who doesn't have much of a system for their own goal setting and task management, this would definitely be a good starting point.

Useful to see how close this workflow is to the one recommended by Nach, but highlights a few things I could improve on Nach to make this specific workflow even easier.

Slaughterhouse Five - Kurt Vonnegut

Originally almost stopped reading this, as I thought it was just going to be another depiction of the atrocities of war, but picked it up again after discovering the main themes included 4-dimensional aliens and time-travel.

Really enjoyed some of the philosophical thoughts Vonnegut put forward, and the unconventional plot devices that were used to do so. One I found particularly thought provoking was the Tralfadorian's ability to see across the entire passage of time, but despite this to actively choose to focus on those points in time & space which are enjoyable. The absurdity and satirical nature of the story creates a powerful setting for the 'fatalistic' ideas.

Also watched the film, which certainly didn't do any justice to the book itself.

The First 20 Hours - Josh Kaufman

I think Kaufman does a great job of laying out a simple framework for rapid skill acquisition. While a lot of the general advice may seem obvious, there's no harm having it laid out as a checklist which aims to counter many of the barriers people naturally come up against while trying to pick up something new.

The specific examples were interesting, although very brief and narrow in scope (but this is to be expected by the premise of the book).

One aspect I did find amusing was the author's mention of being inspired by Tom Hodgkinson's books on living an anti-consumption lifestyle in favour of focusing on simpler pleasures, such as playing music, followed a few paragraphs later by his justification of the need to spend a couple of grand on a second, higher quality, Ukele to practice on.

He did initially present a compelling argument for ensuring you have adequate access to equipment before embarking on a demanding practice routine, but I think his examples in the book take this too far in the opposite direction, spending $$$$ on equipment before even having a taste for the activity. But maybe I am biased here by having up to this point favoured hobbies that require very little upfront investment, and a general strong-held minimalist attitude on possessions.

How Google Works - Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg

Kind of all over the place, didn't feel very cohesive. I did find a few of the ideas to be slightly thought provoking, but found myself disagreeing in many places with the overall attitudes/advice that were presented.

I suppose I can see the merit in Google's approach, but if I were running a company, there are a lot of things I'd want to do very differently. The lack of unifying vision in Google's approach I think reflects in the disorganisation present in much of their strategy and products.

Ready Player One - Ernest Cline

Promising concept, but in the end didn't really live up to my expectations. There were some interesting philosophical points touched on in the book, mostly around the idea of an entire population converging towards a virtual reality instance of the universe as a form of escapism, which holds a lot of promise. But unfortunately the overall execution felt a little shallow and rarely delivered surprise.

Too high a volume of gamer culture references and clichés for my liking. Eventually felt like it was becoming a compendium of 80s pop cultured catering to those who love geeky references.

Something that I did find quite thought provoking was the story of a single creator (Halliday) masterminding the entire creation of the OASIS, as it scaled up from a simple simulation to galactic proportions. This prompted me to think about my own projects, and what causes them to tend to hit plateaus once they reach a certain scale.

Sapiens - Yuval Harari

Some really interesting history - puts things into perspective nicely. But it's a shame that the book is so heavily opinionated, and written in such a way that it's difficult to tell what is a general consensus held by anthropologists, as opposed to a unsupported theory conjured up by the author.

The full title of the book ("Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind") suggested to me something a lot more objective, without the author stopping to give his opinions on the current sociopolitical climate every other chapter. I think, for this genre, I preferred the writing style of Bill Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything".

The Martian - Andy Weir

​Haven't seen the film so wasn't sure what to expect. Extremely gripping in parts, but by the end was starting to feel like it dragged on too much, and even I was finding the level of technical detail becoming tedious. This could be partly due to reading the whole thing in one day though. Also found the entire premise (this much attention around a single life) a bit far fetched.

The Medici Effect - Frans Johansson

​My initial disappointment that this wasn't actually a book about the Renaissance era's Medici family quickly disappeared as this turned out to be quite an exceptional analysis of the merits of interdisciplinary work for innovation.

​​I'm a big believer in this type of broad learning and generalisation over specialisation, and really like how the author argues these points. Highly recommended for anyone interested in creativity and innovation, even outside a business context.

We - Yevgeny Zamyatin

​Quite enjoyable. Can see how this inspired Orwell's 1984. Interesting to see narration from a character who rationalises everything in terms of mathematics/logic.

The Art of Travel - Alain de Botton

​Fascinating philosophical look at travel and, surprisingly, art. Love the opinions brought forward on what can be expected from travel, and how to derive marvel and wonder. Extremely well written.

The Doors of Perception - Aldous Huxley

​Some interesting thoughts. Found the detailed analysis of Huxley's own experiences a bit tedious though.

The Utopia Experiment - Dylan Evans

Interesting read for anyone who's wondered what it could be like to try and live a more primitive lifestyle. Focus of the book swings back and forth between the practicalities of trying to live in a hunter-gatherer style community, and mental health/depression.

Moonwalking with Einstein - Joshua Foer

Fascinating and inspiring book, extremely well written. Journalism as its finest.

I was already familiar with memory palaces and some other mnemonic techniques, to the point of being able to count a deck of cards several years ago, but only learnt as more of a party trick. I was completely lacking in any of the highly interesting background, philosophy, and state of the art, that this book explores.

The Last Lecture - Randy Pausch

Semi-entertaining light read. Personally didn't pick up much new from it, but that will likely be due to reading heavily into personal goal-setting. The parts related to Pausch's terminal illness were probably the most moving, but that's what he was explicitly trying to avoid focusing the book on.

Found the glorification of childhood dreams a little odd. Thinking back to my childhood, my goals have changed and adapted over time as I've learnt and experienced more. What I thought was cool when I was 7, doesn't have the same appeal now. I'm not sure what to make of the fact that Pausch's life ambitions apparently didn't change over the course of his entire adult life. Perhaps something to do with a very selective memory and/or revisionist history.

Antifragile - Nassim Nicholas Taleb

For me, this brought to the table a lot of super interesting ideas and surprisingly widely applicable 'heuristics'. Really keen on the heavily analytical style of arguments that were presented.

The title is based around the concept, introduced early on in the book, that the opposite of fragile (something that doesn't like stressors) is not robust (something that is unaffected by stressors), but is actually antifragile (a new term to describe something that benefits from experiencing stressors, randomness, and unpredictability).

But Taleb goes a lot further than this, and introduces an entire arsenal of related theories. Far too many to cover here, but one of my favourites was the 'Lindy effect' – the idea that, while for perishable items (e.g. human life) every additional year lived is a year off life expectancy, for nonperishable items the opposite applies – every additional year indicates antifragility and that the item is likely to be around for another year more. This gives the rule of thumb that, for any non-perishable item (such as a technology), it can on average be expected to be around in the future for as many years as it's already been around. The argument gave me a new-found respect for works and inventions of history. (I was probably suffering from, as Taleb labels it, 'neomania').

Unfortunately, Taleb's writing style is bursting at the seams with hubris, arrogance, and general sweeping statements, making it quite a difficult read. He seems to be a strong believer in "any publicity is good publicity" philosophy, which unfortunately results in what comes across as an overly immature and crass demeanor, both from what I've seen online, and in the book.

This book would have been much easier to recommend if it were written in a more composed manner. I was also occasionally tripped up by the heavy use of words and phrases coined earlier in the writing.

I suppose it could be argued that on the bright side, his style can be seen as a refreshing change from more reserved authors. On the whole, if taken with a grain of salt and you can bear the style, I'd highly recommend giving this a read. Will probably end up re-reading it myself to try and fully grasp the large number of concepts covered.