Ranking the 38 Books I Read in 2014

It’s the end of the year, which means it is time for ugly sweater parties and “best of lists”. 2014 was a pretty eclectic year in reading for me. For a short time I got obsessed with the journalism of Jon Ronson and then the novels of David Benioff, only to meander down to Presidential biographies. One thing you won’t find is a lot of business books. Even though I write a lot about business you won’t find many business books on this list. The reason is simple. You’ll learn more about strategy and leadership from LBJ than you will from any business advisor.

If you missed my earlier post on 2014’s best articles you can find it here.

Now to the books.

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The 27 Best Articles I Read In 2014

Why spend the time identifying the 27 best articles I read all year? The better question should probably be, “Why not?” I selected each article based on the following criteria:

  1. The work should most importantly be interesting
  2. The work should help explain the business, political and social world we live in.
  3. The work should provide historical context to the modern world.
  4. The work should make you laugh (See Jones, Jerry)

Without further ado, here they are.

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Book Review: Peter Thiel’s Zero to One

Each year hundreds of thousands of business books are published. Peter Thiel’s Zero to One is arguably the best business book of the decade. I’m not alone in this sentiment. The Atlantic called it “a lucid and profound articulation of capitalism and success in the 21st century economy.” New York Magazine said it was “surprisingly awesome” and The New Republic argued it “isn’t just entrepreneurial; it’s also ethical and romantic.”

Perhaps calling Zero to One the best business book of the decade was an understatement?

The book begins by asking a simple but contrarian question, “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?” The answer, according to Thiel, is that “most people think the future of the world will be defined by globalization, but the truth is that technology matters more.” Thiel describes globalization as taking what worked in developed nations and applying them in developing world. This moves the world from 1 to n. But if you invent a better way of doing things (how Thiel describes technology) the world moves from 0 to 1.

The problem is, moving from 0 to 1 is hard.

Thiel offers a lot of valuable advice on the topic. The most intriguing is his argument that capitalism isn’t about competition but rather creating a monopoly. He goes so far as to state “capitalism and competition are opposition.” For everyone on the right who is upset reading this socialist propaganda, realize that Thiel is about as pro-business as you can get without opposing all taxes. He founded Paypal in an attempt to create a virtual currency and supplant the US dollar. This would seem extreme if it wasn’t for his plan to build private islands exempt from the American government and international law.

All in all, Thiel’s book is an antidote to the bullshit percolating around the web. The world is now populated with charlatans and consultants of all stripes. Here is a guy who has actually built billions of dollars worth of value.

It is time we listen.

Book Review: Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control

I have very few certainties in life. There’s life and there are taxes, but when Eric Schlosser releases a book you read it. That may seem like a bold statement, but it is the truth. With the release of Fast Food Nation, a 2001 book that examined the impact of the fast food industry on America, Schlosser became one of the few working journalists who can claim to have changed an entire industry.  “This is a fine piece of muckraking, alarming without being alarmist,” wrote the New York Times upon the book’s release, “Schlosser makes it hard to go on eating fast food in blissful ignorance.”

It took him over ten years, but Schlosser finally released his follow up, Command and Control, a book nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. I can say this with certainty; it is without a doubt the most comprehensive book on the systemic risk of any nuclear weapons system. It is impossible to read this book and not think to yourself, “I don’t understand how the world made it through the Cold War.”

The book centers itself on the Damascus Incident, a 1980 nuclear missile explosion in Arkansas that nearly blew the state in half. Schlosser takes a detour to trace bureaucratic and executive decision making that led to a place where the idea of Mutually Assured Destruction went from a punch line to stated American policy. It makes incredible and jarring points about the folly of complex systems. How the people most familiar with nuclear weapons were the most dedicated in their support for banning them. How armed nuclear bombs were routinely dropped and discharged, completely by accident. The book is meticulously researched, balanced and important.

I’m also not sure I would recommend it.

To put it bluntly the book was so detailed that I felt it detracted from the overall flow of the narrative. Unlike his previous works, I felt myself struggling through the middle of the book (although the last section that details the actual explosion is riveting). Instead, I’d recommend reading the excerpt published earlier in the New Yorker. The except doesn’t give a complete picture of how close the world came to ending due to minor lapses, but it gives a good enough glimpse.

Bottom Line: Command and Control is one of the most important books ever written about both nuclear strategy and the dangers of relying on a complex computerized system. If you are genuinely interested in those topics than it is a must read, if not, read the excerpts and reviews to get a general sense of how close we all came to not existing.


Image via WikiCommons

Things You Should Read – Clinton on LBJ

You don’t have to be a policy wonk to marvel at the political skill L.B.J. wielded to resuscitate a bill that seemed doomed to never get a vote on the floor of either chamber. Southern Democrats were masters at bottling up legislation they hated, particularly bills expanding civil rights for black Americans. Their skills at obstruction were so admired that the newly sworn-in Johnson was firmly counseled by an ally against using the political capital he’d inherited as a result of the assassination on such a hopeless cause.

According to Caro, Johnson responded, “Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?”

Read the full book review here

5 Articles You Must Read About Martin Luther King Jr

Today marks the 46th anniversary of the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. If Thurgood Marshall was the tactical leader of the civil rights movement, King was its spiritual. It is hard to imagine anyone accomplishing more in his or her life than King, who lead non-violent protest across America and won the Nobel Prize abroad. Legacy wise, nearly every constituency has attached themselves to King, even conservatives. This is ironic since most conservatives would disown King if they knew about his opposition to Vietnam and his dream to unite the labor and civil rights movements. I’m sure today there will be hundreds of superficial articles published King, but very few will address the context of his life. I’ve gone ahead and curated five articles that do just that.

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Book Review: “Young Money” by Kevin Roose

For three years New York’s Kevin Roose followed the careers of eight young Wall Street workers to research Young Money. According to the book’s marketing materials Roose created “the story of how the financial crisis changed a generation–and remade Wall Street from the bottom up.” Released last month, the book is many things: a look at the culture of Wall Street through the eyes of those at the bottom, an exploration into the decline of the industry’s esteem, and an 8 person character study. It isn’t however, as some reviewers have suggested, a new Liar’s Poker.

It is a lazy cliché to compare any book remotely critical of Wall Street to Michael Lewis’ 1989 classic. Poker tells the story of an industry on crazy pills and absolutely shreds it. After majoring in Art History, Lewis get a job at Salomon Brothers and found himself handing out investment advice to seasoned investors despite not knowing a thing about the financial industry. “The whole thing still strikes me as preposterous,” he later wrote in a pseudo-epilogue.

I don’t think Roose set out to write the next Liar’s Poker. If he did he would have spent more time analyzing how the industry’s incentive structure turns good people into amoral technocrats. 1 He also would have called out the superficiality of many of the young analyst’s statements 2. Instead he crafted a narrative around the psychological impact of working in a toxic industry on eight young people. “I have never seen more people disgusted to get their hands dirty in my entire life,” a young analyst told Roose after her Bank of America class was tasked with doing routine yard work for a few charities.  “There were like two hundred kids just standing there, looking at their BlackBerrys and being like, ‘I really want to get back to the office.’ I was like, ‘Are you guys kidding me? Is this a joke? You’re out in the sun, doing something good for the community, and all you guys want to do is go back and sit at your desks?’”

That’s Wall Street culture in a nutshell. Given the chance to stay outside and help the community, they’d rather get back to their desks.

Bottom Line: Young Money does not offer an in-depth description of the financial services industry or a grand explanation for its failings. Rather, it is a light and breezy look at the impact of the finance culture on the lives of eight young people.