2018 was a year of contrasts.
From a personal level, things have never been better. I got promoted, bought a house, and got married. As I said, for me, things have never been better.
However, America seems to be edging itself closer and closer to outright fascism. Migrant children are dying because Government agents are kidnapping them. The Federal government is shut down — although the Republicans control all levers of the federal government. Our institutions are dying; seemingly at the same time.
So much is happening, and yet except for the mid-term elections, there doesn’t seem to be much hope against the constant attacks. In a 2016 interview with the New York Times, President Obama remarked that reading allowed him to better digest the constant bombardment of information pointed at the office. It slowed the assault, helped separate the signal from the noise, and gave him perspective.
Here are the books I read in 2018 along with a quick recap. Some are hopeful, others aren’t. They all provide some context to today’s ever-changing landscape. If reading recommendations are your thing, here are my recommendations for 2014, 2015, and 2016.
On to the list…
28. Private Label Strategy — Nirmalya Kumar
A 2007 book that looks at the different strategies branded consumer goods manufacturers can use to compete against private labels. Unfortunately, a lot has changed in nine years, and most of these “cutting-edge” strategies are now common knowledge.
27. Black Klansman — Ron Stallworth
Amazing premise: The true story of how Ron Stallworth, and African American police officer in Colorado Springs, somehow infiltrated the KKK. Downside: Ron Stallworth doesn’t know how to write and didn’t hire a ghostwriter. It reads like a high school creative writing project.
26. Sears, Roebuck, USA: The Great American Catalog Store and How it Grew — Gordon Lee Weil
I wrote a longer review here, but basically, this is an informative look at the creation of Sears — perhaps the most impactful US company of the 20th century. However, it reads as if it was commissioned by Sears itself.
25. Carter and Lovecraft — Jonathan Howard
A fun mystery / science-fiction book in the vein of H.P. Lovecraft (minus the racism). It has a nice build and features the worst sex scene in written history.
24. Hi Bob! — Bob Newhart
Bob Newhart is perhaps the most underrated comedian of all time. My generation knows him as Buddy the Elf’s step-dad, but most probably know him for his sitcoms. What I admire about him is that his first comedy album, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, was incredibly subversive. Think Stephen Colbert, but in 1960. This “book” was released by Audible, but unfortunately, is more of a collection of interviews and podcasts than a structured piece of content.
23. Travels with Charley — John Steinbeck
John Steinbeck earned a Nobel Prize penning novels that captured the plight of the common man. Towards the end of his life, he felt disconnected from his working-class roots and set out with his dog, gun, and camper to rediscover America. I struggled to finish this.
22. All the Pretty Horses — Cormac McCarthy
My first McCarthy book. I thought it was a well-written coming of age story that left me saying…so what?
21. Hit Makers — Derek Thompson
I really admire the work of Derek Thompson; however, I felt this was a book about innovation published in 2018, based on academic theories from 2007. I wrote a longer review here.
20. The Undoing Project — Michael Lewis
Behavioral economics is a field of economics that holds that maybe, just maybe, people don’t always make decisions based off of rational thought. Seems simple, right? Surprisingly, most economic theory is built on the idea of rational decision makers (which should give every sane person pause). This book details the development of behavioral economics through two close psychologists that pioneered the initial research.
19. The Outsider — Stephen King
What if 100 people independently recount the same scenario, but video of it shows something completely different? That’s the premise of King’s latest novel. It’s surprisingly meta-meaning it’s a retelling of a classic Mexican folk story by a white author — called The Outsider.
18. Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock — Steven Hyden
A book written by and for classic rock fans. It traces the rise and fall of rock music as a culturally dominant force. Hyden successfully argues its widespread popularity was the result of a music system biased towards white-male content, rather than artistic merit (this isn’t to say that a lot of classic rock is incredible).
17. The Coming Storm — Michael Lewis
Released as a special by Audible, the world’s best business writer examines the insidious impact of Trump’s Presidency on the every-day life of the Federal Government. Lewis focuses on the mundane — the National Weather Service. Citizens, farmers, and every business in American depends on the Federal government to provide accurate weather information. Natural disasters would kill more people, airlines could not function, and international trade would crumble if the NWS did not collect high altitude weather information. Lewis chronicles how Trump’s Republican Party is tearing this public service apart, and replacing it with a privatized organization for the wealthy.
16. Fatherland — Robert Harris
Harris builds an eerily accurate world where the Nazis didn’t lose WW2. Set in an alternative 1960s Germany, the Holocaust happened but is denied, and the primary engineers are dying in suspicious ways. The German Reich is a pariah state (think a wealthier North Korea), and a reluctant police officer uncovers a plot to murder the high ranking officials in order to hide the atrocities further and establish better relations with America. A very cool premise — I’m just not that into mystery books.
14. Big Game — Mark Leibovich
A lot has been written about this book and for good reason. In modern times, the NFL is a crazy semi-governmental private institution run by out of touch billionaires who view themselves as Emperors. Few reporters approach it with a critical eye, because their livelihood depends on maintaining stable relationships with the wealthy gatekeepers. What happens when you put the New York Times chief political reporter on the NFL beat? You get a book that skewers the league and captures how the Emperors have no clothes. Leibovich delights in burning every bridge.
13. The Noise of Time — Julian Barnes
I picked this up at the Frankfort airport because it had a cool cover and was short (true story). What I got was a fascinating biographical novel about Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich. I knew nothing about him or classical music, but I found myself thinking more in-depth about the book’s implications as the story progressed. It focuses primarily on the relationship between art and power — specifically the life of an artist in a totalitarian regime. Throughout his career, Shostakovich became a hero, a scapegoat, banished from his art, internationally acclaimed, a cipher for pro-and-ant-communist thinkers, and a puppet for the regime.
12. Dune — Frank Herbert
A lot has been written about Dune so I won’t write much except that I look forward to the new movie adaption.
11. The Dead Zone — Stephen King
An entertaining book centered around a man who has clairvoyance and precognition powers. The central antagonist of this book is a politician Greg Stillson. What’s surreal is that Stillson, a racist, a nativist, a thug is nearly identical to President Trump. Surreal since King wrote this book in the 1970s.
10. End of the Line — Barry Lynn
In 1999 an earthquake in Taiwan set technology stocks plunging to the floor. Lynn, who began his career as a business journalist, began to investigate why a small quake in Taiwan would cause an HP to close a factory in New Mexico. What he found was an international supply chain built up over a generation that left both companies, workers, and governments in a weak unsustainable position.
9. The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon — Brad Stone
Controlling the majority of internet commerce, Amazon is the Standard Oil of our time, and yet very little has been written about it. Stone documents the Redmond retailers rise from a garage to global domination. He reveals a company steadfastly focused on the customer, at the expense of manufacturers and governments.
8. The Boys in the Boat — Daniel James Brown
During the Great Depression, America’s favorite sport’s were baseball, boxing, horse racing, and rowing. Yes, Rowing. Rowing was the favorite of the upper class, but loved by most. The 1936 American Olympic rowing team was a working-class squad from Washington. Brown does a fantastic job bringing the story to life. It’s Americana in book form.
I love science fiction and fantasy because, at its best, it’s speculative about society’s future, while maintaining a sense of wonder and action. Unfortunately, the genre is also very white. Most published authors are white and male — meaning that we get a lot of repeated themes since they’re writing from a similar point of view. This year I made it a point to read science fiction from more diverse writers. Both of these books contain a fantastic collection of science fiction short stories. In the Paper Menagerie, I’d highly recommend “Good Hunting” and “A brief history of the trans-pacific tunnel.” In Black Future Month, I’d recommend “The Effluent Engine,” “Valedictorian,” and “The Evaluators.” Of the two, I preferred Jemisin’s collection. Each story was drastically different while maintaining a broader view of the narrative.
5. Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America — Rick Perlstein
Read this book if you want to learn how Donald Trump is not an aberration, but rather the logical outcome of the post-1968 Republican Party. I have a longer review here.
4. The Dark Forest — Cixin Liu
The Dark Forest is book two in Lui’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past series. It’s easy to see why the trilogy is the best selling science fiction fantasy book in Chinese history. Set in the near future, Earth has 400 years to prepare for an upcoming alien invasion. Complicating things are “sophons,” sub-atomic particles sent by the aliens that capture all human communication for the invaders to study. How can humanity defend itself, if each conversation provides the attacker with a playbook? The book is fast paced, reflective, and has an ending that made me question the nature of discovery.
3. Bad Blood — John Carreyrou
At its peak Theranos, the silicon valley blood testing company was on the cover of every business magazine and valued at over $10 billion. The entire company was a scam, offering worthless blood tests endangering the lives of thousands of patients. The Wall Street Journal’s John Carreyrou blew the lid off the entire company and told the complete story here.
2. American Kingpin — Nick Bilton
American Kingpin tells the remarkable true story about how one man built an Amazon for drugs and weapons. At its peak, it processed hundreds of millions of dollars a day in illicit substances. It then came crashing down due to the work of a handful of dedicated US agents.
1. Children of Time — Adrian Tchaikovsky
As I wrote earlier, at its best, science fiction speculates about society’s future, while maintaining a sense of wonder and action. Children of Time does this perfectly. The book is hard to describe because the scope and theme are so…unique. Essentially, two species compete for the last habitable planet: humans and spiders turbo-charged through evolution by humans. One society is based around a strict hierarchy led by a military dictator, while the other pushes for a progressive democracy. Both span thousands of years, and the civil wars the inevitably spawn — while maintaining a focus on the inevitable clash of civilizations.