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.
38. Bo Ryan: Another Hill to Climb – Bo Ryan
37. The Obstacle Is the Way – Ryan Holiday
Bo Ryan is my favorite basketball coach; no one is more entertaining to watch stalking the sideline. From his incredulous faces, to his ability to seemingly win with nothing, he is impossible not to love. That being said, this is one of the worst sports books in existence. It’s devoid of any personality or insight, just 200-some odd pages of clichés. The Obstacle is the Way is the same. Holiday previously wrote a great book on manipulating the media, and the fact that the book has a positive Good Reads rating is proof he really is a master at it. It is supposed to be a book of stoic philosophy, but is really just 200 pages of ineffectual proverbs and incomplete historical rehashes.
36. US Guys: The True and Twisted Mind of the American Man – Charlie LeDuff
34. Self-Made Man: One Woman’s Year Disguised as a Man – Norah Vincent
33. Slam – Nick Hornby
Slam is a book for teenagers that I would have loved if I still were one. When I reviewed my notes for US Guys, I was surprised by how many passages I highlighted, but when I was reading it, I distinctly remember wishing the book were over. Norah Vincent took a great idea (pose as a man for over a year) and managed to suck all the fun out of the experience. Young Money is probably the most disappointing book of the year. Roose is a good journalist and a must follow on Twitter, but he had a chance to write a book that defined Millennial America and wrote a breezy book on finance culture instead.
32. Pearl Jam Twenty – Pearl Jam
It is a 384-page textbook on the best rock band of the last twenty years. If you purchased Binaural or No Code, this book would look great on your coffee table. I lowered it twenty spots because I can’t comprehend anyone who doesn’t love Pearl Jam even moderately enjoying it.
31. Naked Statistics: Stripping the Dread from the Data – Charles Wheelan
Since a book on stats can’t possibly be engaging, this book does more with less than nearly every one in this section. It is definitely readable but utterly forgettable. On a side note, the New York Times once described Wheelan as “the Dave Barry of the coin-flipping set”, which makes me think that the Times has never read Dave Barry.
30. Shadow of the Hegemon (The Shadow Series) – Orson Scott Card
How do you rank an engaging book in a classic science fiction series that doesn’t feature the main character and is written by an insane conservative homophobe? 30 out of 38 sounds about right.
29. Them: Adventures with Extremists – Jon Ronson
On paper, an investigation into people who believe a small group of shadowy elites control the world should be great. After all, if it is done right you get a dose of heavily researched history mixed with a gallon of unintentional comedy. Ronson spends time with the Klu Klux Klan, an Islamic fundamentalist attempting to put on an anti-West conference in London and people who truly believe the world is controlled by lizards. Ronson is an expert of drilling down into a seemingly ridiculous idea and revealing the terrifying fragment of truth behind it. There are definitely flashes of this in Them, but I’d suggest skipping to his later books (which are reviewed below).
28. Turning Pro: Tap Your Inner Power and Create Your Life’s Work – Steven Pressfield
The War of Art is on nearly everyone’s list of “Best Books for Creative People” for a reason. The sequel doesn’t offer a lot of new insights. It isn’t a bad book, but there aren’t a whole lot of reasons to read it.
27. Salt: A World History – Mark Kurlansky
The “almost” in this book is unbearable. It almost creates a unified theory for the economic development of the modern world. It almost makes the case that modern history can be broken down into two epochs: salt and petroleum. It almost devotes 1/5 of the book to six hundred year old recipes for salted codfish. Read it to find out how much the world owes to salt, but skip the recipes.
26. Undisputed Truth – Mike Tyson
In 1991, Mike Tyson was the most popular and feared athlete on the face of the earth. He also had a fourth grade education, and managed to earn nearly a billion dollars. He has a public reputation of being a savage idiot, but it is pretty clear he knew he was playing the villain and embraced every moment of it. “Boxing is entertainment,” Tyson said quoting his mentor, “so to be a successful a fighter must not only win, but he must win in an exiting manner.” Reaching the pinnacle of success and seeing in fade away has made Mike Tyson the wisest dumb person in modern America.
25. Crash and Burn – Artie Lange
A touching and funny look at addiction through the eyes of comedian Artie Lange.
I covered this earlier, but this is probably the most important book that I wouldn’t recommend reading.
23. Ten Types of Innovation: The Discipline of Building Breakthroughs – Larry Keeley
As a rule of thumb I don’t read a lot of business books. Most regurgitate the same core concepts (how many different ways can you write about listening to the customer). 10 Types is different. It takes a different approach to corporate innovation and reads more like a practical textbook than a traditional narrative. I know a reasonable amount of readers work in the innovation industry and I’d suggest checking it out. You can read my longer review here.
22. Revolution By Murder: Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, and the Plot to Kill Henry Clay Frick (Kindle Single) – James McGrath Morriss
At the turn of the 19th century America neared a second civil war over what James McGrath Morris called “industrial slavery.” Revolution By Murder tells the story of an ill-fated attempt to kill Henry Clark Frick, the President of Carnegie Steel and man who embodied the gilded age. After Frick killed over 2,000 people when a private lake he built flooded a nearby town, a pair of anarchists decided to assassinate him and start a revolution.
The plot didn’t work out. In fact, it irreparably damaged the labor movement.
21. Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football – Rich Cohen
Like the Pearl Jam book before, I’m not sure how this book will rate if you aren’t a fan of football, specifically the Chicago Bears. From the cover it looks like it is about the 1985 Bears, a team many consider to be the best of all time. On the inside, it’s about the contradictions of cheering for a violent sport that destroys almost everyone who played it.
20. Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s– Jeff Pearlman
Today the NBA finals are broadcast live to over 200 countries. Twenty-five years ago they were broadcast on tape delay in America. In under a generation basketball went from an after thought to arguably the second most popular sport in the world. Jeff Pearlman reveals both the personalities and business decisions that created the NBA’s most important franchise.
19. Man’s Search for Meaning – Viktor Frankl
Jill Bolte Taylor is a brain scientist who suffered a stroke and used the opportunity to study the brain from “the inside out”. She was the perfect person to tell that story. Viktor Frankl was a Jewish psychiatrist imprisoned at Auschwitz. In a weird way, he may have been the only person who could have possibly experienced that and come to the following conclusion: that the main drive in life isn’t sex or power, but meaning. The first section of the book is an amazing and heart-wrenching account of his time in the concentration camps, while the second is an introduction to logotherapy.
17. The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival (Vintage Departures) – John Vailant
Who would win in a fight between a tiger, bear and lion? After reading this book, it’s impossible to argue anything but tiger. Vailant reports on one of the most terrifying true stories in recent memory: In post-communist Russia, a man-eating tiger seemingly develop a personal vendetta against the people of a small logging town. The book reads like an action movie, but details the political and biological pressures that fractured a relatively peaceful relationship between the species.
I’m not going to take the time to review these novels, but you should definitely check them out.
16. Everyone’s Reading Bastard– Nick Hornby
15. This Is Where I Leave You: A Novel – Jonathan Tropper
14. The 25th Hour – David Benioff
13. Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae – Steven Pressfield
12. The Martian – Andy Weir
11. City of Thieves: A Novel– David Benioff
10. Joyland (Hard Case Crime) – Stephen King
9. Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation – Tyler Cohen
The recent immigration debate was dominated by the idea of scarcity—there simply aren’t enough engineers to fill the engineering positions available. According to Tyler Cohen, this is just the beginning. There are three things that are scarce in today’s global economy.
1. Quality land and natural resources
2. Intellectual property, or good ideas about what should be produced.
3. Quality labor with unique skills
Here is what is not scarce these days:
1. Unskilled labor, as more countries join the global economy
2. Money in the bank or held in government securities, which you can think of as simple capital, not attached to any special ownership rights (we know there is a lot of it because it has been earning zero or negative real rates of return)
Cohen then takes a deep dive into the implications of this shift on the world’s economy. While it certainty isn’t Piketty, this is the first conservative book I’ve ever read that actually attempts to address inequality. He doesn’t do a bad job at it either.
8. Washington: A Life – Ron Chernow
George Washington is the most mythical person in American history, but yet few people actually know much about him. We were taught he was honest and moral, but gloss over the fact that he tried to work his way up through the British colonial system, only to quit when he realized the entire thing was fraudulent. After leading the American Revolution and becoming President, the citizens responded in the most American way possible. They chanted “Long Live the King!”
Chernow does a great job of showing the motivations and human side of an icon. Yes, he was probably the most honorable man in that time period. He was a great leader who understood human psychology better than anyone and kept meticulous records about his habits, going so far as to keep a journal of “Where and how my time is spent.” Washington was also petty. He played off of insecurities and his detached demeanor would make him unelectable in modern politics. The book is long, but if you are willing to make the investment, Washington: A Life is a worthy endeavor.
7. Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World – Michael Lewis
If you think the financial crisis is over you are wrong. The world’s best non-fiction writer travels across the world to find that the “solutions” applied were nothing but temporary band-aids to complex problems. Iceland and Ireland are still trying to figure out how to rebuild an economy after a small number of people ruined it, no one bothers to pay taxes in Greece and the Euro (designed to limit Germany’s power) has made them more powerful than ever. “European leaders have done nothing but delay the inevitable reckoning,” Lewis writes, “by scrambling every few months to find cash to plug the ever growing holes in Greece, Ireland and Portugal, and praying that bigger and more alarming holes in Spain, Italy and even France do not reveal themselves.”
6. The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap – Matt Taibbi
Published months before Eric Garner and Michael Brown brought the legitimacy of the American justice system to national attention, Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi takes an in-depth look at the country’s widening justice gap.
If you are unfamiliar with Taibbi check out these articles while you are at it:
6. Flash Boys – Michael Lewis
If you complete a stock market trade in Chicago it takes 14.1 milliseconds to finalize in New York City. In June 2010 Spread Networks revealed it spent $300 million to reduce the transaction time to fewer than 13 milliseconds. For a stereotypical value investor (the type of person who buys and holds stocks) 1.1 milliseconds are worthless, but if the entire business is built on arbitrage, dark pools and front running it is worth $14 million a year. Lewis explains how the stock market turned into a cesspool of corruption and tells the story of a few enterprising traders who set out to reform it.
5. The Men Who Stare at Goats– Jon Ronson
According to rumors, in the 1980s the U.S. Army trained group of top-secret soldiers to become so powerful they could kill a goat by staring at it. Ronson investigates the seemingly insane rumor and stumbles upon something true and perhaps even more frightening: the institutionalized use of psychological warfare in modern society.
4. The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry– Jon Ronson
This book holds a strange place in my head. It’s one of those objects that automatically reminds me of someone. Kind of like how s’mores bring me back to summer camp; only this time it’s an ex-girlfriend. She recommended this book and it set me on a path to develop a massive writers crush on Jon Ronson. It’s an incredible examination into the “madness industry” and attempts to answer the question, “What does it mean to be a psychopath?”
3. The Alchemist– Paulo Coelho
I don’t have much to say about a book that has sold 65 million copies and is rightly regarded as a work of art expect that I wish I would have read it ten years earlier.
2. Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future – Peter Thiel
Part political call to action, part business book, this is the best the genre has to offer in the last ten years. Here’s a more complete recap.
1. The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Vol. IV– Robert Caro
The book begins with LBJ as Senate majority leader and one of the most powerful people on earth. He seems preordained to achieve his long-term goal: become President of the United States. Over the next 700 pages you see how LBJ’s own fear caused him to lose the 1960 Presidential Nomination, only to reach his goal after the assassination of JFK. Caro brilliantly describes how Johnson strategized progressive values into the American system and held the country together while seamlessly asserting his authority in the process. His near monopoly on the arcane rules of the Senate allowed him to pass two bills that lay trapped under Kennedy’s guidance – a massive tax cut and the first meaningful Civil Rights legislation in history. “Although the cliché says that power always corrupts,” Caro writes, “What is seldom said, but what is equally true, is that power always reveals.” For a short period of time LBJ was revealed to be exactly the leader America needed.