Reading 2017 / by Jonathan Biddle

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One of my goals every year is to read 50 books. This year, I read 61: 44 audiobooks and 17 kindle books. I read some phenomenal fiction this year. With a new job that was mentally and physically draining, it was wonderful to have this escape. I note the best ones below, but I've never read so many simply great books in one year. The nonfiction was a little dry. I read a lot, but not many great books. I hope this will change with the lineup I have selected in 2018.

So, on to the best books I read in 2017, in no particular order.

Give Work by Leila Janah

Leilah Janah is inspiring, and this book chronicles her journey to find sustainable ways to give agency to the world's poorest. She provides a healthy, realistic perspective on poverty that avoids the twin dangers of solutionism and white-guilt. 

When you ask people living in desperately poor regions whether they would prefer to receive aid or work, they choose work, because work gives them access to the necessities listed above and the long-term ability to procure them without outside help. In addition, work gives them what we in the West prize so highly: agency—the means with which to make their own decisions and chart their own lives.

Dynamic Supply Chains by John Gattorna

I specialize in international supply chain management, and this book was invaluable in helping me focus on a strategy to revitalize the supply chain in the business unit in which I work. Gattorna's customer-centric approach is brilliant, and crystallized a lot of scattered ideas I'd had. I won't say more lest I bore everyone else to tears who just wants book recommendations!

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

How we know what we know and why we believe we know it are some of the most fundamental and critical questions of life. Kahneman's research delves deep into our decision-making and truth-gathering processes. He brilliantly details the most common pitfalls of our mind and the heuristics we unconsciously use to guide our decisions.

Unfortunately, the book is a bit of slog, and Kahneman delights in very detailed explanations of his experiments. Most are quite interesting, but it's easy to lose to the point of a chapter for all of the trees. Still, I highly recommend this for anyone who makes decisions on a regular basis, especially anyone in a management role. I have found the book incredibly helpful to give me more pause before I rush to conclusions and to help me continually question my "gut."

This is the essence of intuitive heuristics: when faced with a difficult question, we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution.
Narrative fallacies arise inevitably from our continuous attempt to make sense of the world. The explanatory stories that people find compelling are simple; are concrete rather than abstract; assign a larger role to talent, stupidity, and intentions than to luck; and focus on a few striking events that happened rather than on the countless events that failed to happen. Any recent salient event is a candidate to become the kernel of a causal narrative.
Subjective confidence in a judgment is not a reasoned evaluation of the probability that this judgment is correct. Confidence is a feeling, which reflects the coherence of the information and the cognitive ease of processing it. It is wise to take admissions of uncertainty seriously, but declarations of high confidence mainly tell you that an individual has constructed a coherent story in his mind, not necessarily that the story is true.
We are confident when the story we tell ourselves comes easily to mind, with no contradiction and no competing scenario. But ease and coherence do not guarantee that a belief held with confidence is true. The associative machine is set to suppress doubt and to evoke ideas and information that are compatible with the currently dominant story.

Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday

I loved this book. Holiday is good at waking us up to reality. Our illusions about ourselves and our ego are the roots of so many problems in our lives. He doesn't waste words and gets right to the point: we are our greatest enemy. Humility and perseverance are the pathways to true success.

In this way, ego is the enemy of what you want and of what you have: Of mastering a craft. Of real creative insight. Of working well with others. Of building loyalty and support. Of longevity. Of repeating and retaining your success. It repulses advantages and opportunities. It’s a magnet for enemies and errors.
We will learn that though we think big, we must act and live small in order to accomplish what we seek. Because we will be action and education focused, and forgo validation and status, our ambition will not be grandiose but iterative—one foot in front of the other, learning and growing and putting in the time.
The greatest work and art comes from wrestling with the void, facing it instead of scrambling to make it go away.
Passion typically masks a weakness. Its breathlessness and impetuousness and franticness are poor substitutes for discipline, for mastery, for strength and purpose and perseverance. You need to be able to spot this in others and in yourself, because while the origins of passion may be earnest and good, its effects are comical and then monstrous.
Receive feedback, maintain hunger, and chart a proper course in life. Pride dulls these senses. Or in other cases, it tunes up other negative parts of ourselves: sensitivity, a persecution complex, the ability to make everything about us.
Instead of pretending that we are living some great story, we must remain focused on the execution—and on executing with excellence. We must shun the false crown and continue working on what got us here. Because that’s the only thing that will keep us here.
The problem is that when we get our identity tied up in our work, we worry that any kind of failure will then say something bad about us as a person. It’s a fear of taking responsibility, of admitting that we might have messed up. It’s the sunk cost fallacy. And so we throw good money and good life after bad and end up making everything so much worse.

Deep Work by Cal Newport

In our increasingly distracted lives and world, it's hard to find time to dig deep into our work and accomplish the hard things. Newport provides some incredibly helpful suggestions and resources to help in this endeavor. 

At the Existentialist Café by Sarah Bakewell

Excellent overview and history of existentialism. 

The Stone Sky by N. K. JEmison

A fabulous conclusion to Jemison's trilogy. My words won't come close to doing it justice, but the worldbuilding and social commentary is spectacular.

Well, some worlds are built on a fault line of pain, held up by nightmares. Don’t lament when those worlds fall. Rage that they were built doomed in the first place.
‘Lynching was never the only option. The nodes were never the only option. All of these were choices. Different choices have always been possible.’ There is such sorrow in her, your little girl. I hope Nassun learns someday that she is not alone in the world. I hope she learns how to hope again.

Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham

A beautiful and sad exploration of a boy's search for meaning in life. Maugham writes wonderfully, and it's a pleasure to read.

Philip thought that in throwing over the desire for happiness he was casting aside the last of his illusions. His life had seemed horrible when it was measured by its happiness, but now he seemed to gather strength as he realised that it might be measured by something else. Happiness mattered as little as pain. Whatever happened to him now would be one more motive to add to the complexity of the pattern, and when the end approached he would rejoice in its completion. It would be a work of art, and it would be none the less beautiful because he alone knew of its existence, and with his death it would at once cease to be.
Philip thought of the countless millions to whom life is no more than unending labour, neither beautiful nor ugly, but just to be accepted in the same spirit as one accepts the changes of the seasons. Fury seized him because it all seemed useless. He could not reconcile himself to the belief that life had no meaning and yet everything he saw, all his thoughts, added to the force of his conviction. But though fury seized him it was a joyful fury. Life was not so horrible if it was meaningless, and he faced it with a strange sense of power.
It seemed to him that all his life he had followed the ideals that other people, by their words or their writings, had instilled into him, and never the desires of his own heart. Always his course had been swayed by what he thought he should do and never by what he wanted with his whole soul to do.

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

Bowles' masterful writing is clearly on display in this book. He uses the story of three travelers journeying through Morocco to explore themes of loneliness, meaning, happiness, and death. Highly recommended.

He did not think of himself as a tourist; he was a traveler. The difference is partly one of time, he would explain. Whereas the tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveler, belonging no more to one place than to the next, moves slowly, over periods of years, from one part of the earth to another.
And it occurred to him that a walk through the countryside was a sort of epitome of the passage through life itself. One never took the time to savor the details; one said: another day, but always with the hidden knowledge that each day was unique and final, that there never would be a return, another time.
Death is always on the way, but the fact that you don’t know when it will arrive seems to take away from the finiteness of life. It’s that terrible precision that we hate so much. But because we don’t know, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.

Remembrance of Earth's Past Trilogy by Cixin Liu

A surprisingly fantastic sci-fi trilogy. Liu imaginative literature is firmly grounded in scientific theory, and this believability stretches from the current age into the future ages he postulates. 

What Ye disliked most was seeing the waves that slowly crawled across the display, a visual record of the meaningless noise Red Coast picked up from space. Ye felt this interminable wave was an abstract view of the universe: one end connected to the endless past, the other to the endless future, and in the middle only the ups and downs of random chance—without life, without pattern, the peaks and valleys at different heights like uneven grains of sand, the whole curve like a one-dimensional desert made of all the grains of sand lined up in a row, lonely, desolate, so long that it was intolerable. You could follow it and go forward or backward as long as you liked, but you’d never find the end.
Every era puts invisible shackles on those who have lived through it, and I can only dance in my chains.
The past was like a handful of sand you thought you were squeezing tightly, but which had already run out through the cracks between your fingers. Memory was a river that had run dry long ago, leaving only scattered gravel in a lifeless riverbed. He had lived life always looking out for the next thing, and whenever he had gained, he had also lost, leaving him with little in the end.
Death is the only lighthouse that is always lit. No matter where you sail, ultimately, you must turn toward it. Everything fades in the world, but Death endures.
And now we know that this is the journey that must be made by every civilization: awakening inside a cramped cradle, toddling out of it, taking flight, flying faster and farther, and, finally, merging with the fate of the universe as one. The ultimate fate of all intelligent beings has always been to become as grand as their thoughts.

Terra Ignota #1 & #2 by Ada Palmer

These are the first two books of a 4 book series, and they're unlike anything I've read. Palmer models her future society heavily on Roman and Greek history, not only in the worldbuilding, but also in the writing. These are difficult books and hard to get into, but very rewarding. Palmer manages to comment on a wide variety of subjects such as sociology and class, gender, the question of war's inevitability, if utopia is possible without bloodshed, etc.

Red Rising Trilogy by Pierce Brown

Brown does a phenomenal job of character building and plot development in this trilogy. It's a really enjoyable series with incredible plot twists.

And I wonder, in my last moments, if the planet does not mind that we wound her surface or pillage her bounty, because she knows we silly warm things are not even a breath in her cosmic life. We have grown and spread, and will rage and die. And when all that remains of us is our steel monuments and plastic idols, her winds will whisper, her sands will shift, and she will spin on and on, forgetting about the bold, hairless apes who thought they deserved immortality.
Maybe that’s just the nature of us, ever wishing for things that were and could be rather than things that are and will be. It takes more to hope than to remember.
Everything is cracked, everything is stained except the fragile moments that hang crystalline in time and make life worth living.
Everything grand is made from a series of ugly little moments. Everything worthwhile by hours of self-doubt and days of drudgery. All the works by people you and I admire sit atop a foundation of failures.