Ranking the 40 books I read in 2020

I read 37 books this year, which I think is a new record. What can I say, I had a bit more free time with quarantine. You’ll see a pretty diverse set of books: from thrillers to business profiles.

40. Tides of War – Steven Pressfield

I once heard Trump described as “What a dumb person thinks as smart, a poor person thinks as rich, and a weak person thinks as powerful.” Tides of War is that but in book form. A cool concept (the retelling of the Peloponnesian War) but done in the most stereotypical and contrived way possible.

39. The Green Mile – Stephen King

I’ve never seen the movie and generally enjoy Stephen King. When I saw it on sale for $2 at a used book store, I grabbed it. The story is well told but hard to enjoy since the entire plot is a racist trope.

38. Motherless Brooklyn – Jonathan Lethem

A murder mystery with incredibly low stakes.

37. The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins

I looked for Gone Girl 2.0 and ended up with a mystery where the ending was obvious. All the characters were irredeemable.

36. Dream Big – Cristiane Correa

Correa’s profile of 3G Capital, the private equity group that upended the CPG industry with leveraged buyouts, is effectively propaganda. I went in looking for an honest assessment of the firm’s business strategy and structure. What I got was something that could have been written by the founder’s itself. 3G’s rise is incredible. In under twenty years, 3G went from an unheard-of Brazilian firm to owning two iconic American brands: Budweiser and Kraft. According to Correa, it was all due to their guts and courage. Complete nonsense.

35. Billion-Dollar Brand Club – Lawrence Ingrassia

200 pages on how the direct-to-consumer model is upending consumer products, when it’s not clear the author understands the CPG industry’s basic economics. The one good insight was that successful D2C companies undercut high priced competitors by offering “just-good-enough” products. The rest is a few hundred pages of repackaged buzzwords and press releases.

34. The Border – Don Winslow

Overall, Winslow’s Power of the Dog series has moments of pure beauty. He has the rare ability to put huge and overarching themes into genre writing. It’s a large part of why I rated the series’ second book one of my favorites of 2015. He is also a huge part of #resistance. I’m not a fan of Donald Trump, but I also have no interest in reading someone’s fan-fiction about throwing a Trump doppelganger in jail—which describes about 1/3 of the book.

33. Raised in Captivity: Fictional Nonfiction – Chuck Klosterman

A collection of short stories by one of my favorite essayists. I don’t remember a single story a year later, so I went ahead and downgraded it.

32. Dethroning the King – Julie MacIntosh

In 2008, 3G Capital purchased Budweiser for $52 billion. Overnight, a company that branded itself as America was now under foreign control. MacIntosh traces the rise of Budweiser from a regional brand to one that controlled over 50% of the American beer market. She outlines the operations that fueled the increase: Marketing, Marketing, and Marketing and how egos and greed led to a hostile takeover. A bit of it falls into the worship of 3G-Capital and the top-heavy management style it forces on its targets, but overall I’d say it was a decent read.

31. Secondhand – Adam Minter

An informed and well researched look at the secondhand goods and waste market.

30. Applied AI – Mariya Yao

A book on AI, written by an AI consulting firm. The book is marketing material at its core, but it’s an easy read and cuts a lot of the fat out of the conversation.

29. Mindset – Carol Dweck

28. Getting Things Done – David Allen

27. Executive Presence – Sylvia Ann Hewlett

My general view on self help books is that they’re good if you take 2-3 points form each. That explains each of these.

26. Point B – Drew Magary

In the future, the invention of teleportation solves climate change. Teleportation eliminates the need to drive anywhere and thus all carbon emissions. It also removes any sense of privacy as people can teleport anywhere they want—including a stranger’s bedroom. The wealthy can afford protection, while the poor are left to live in constant fear. I loved the premise, but the execution is somewhat limited—a fun book to read on vacation.

25. The Obelisk Gate – N.K. Jemisin

The second book in N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy. I really enjoyed her short story collection, but I haven’t been gripped yet.

24. True Grit – Charles Portis

Rightly viewed as a modern American classic. A deadpan look at the old-west, including the misogamy and racism inherent in its founding.

23. Store Wars – Greg Thain

I’d highly recommend reading this book if you’re new to the CPG world. Consider it a collection of case studies of the Western retail market.

22. Rising Tide – Davis Dyer

Harvard Business Review paid a history professor to write a history of Procter & Gamble. The company granted him immense access to its archives and resources. It’s incredibly well done, but don’t read this is if you’re looking for a complete company narrative. View it as a comprehensive look at one of the most successful companies in American history—written by the company itself.

21. Soap Opera: The Inside Story of Procter and Gamble – Alecia Sway

The inverse of Rising Tide. Alecia Sway, a reporter at the Wall Street Journal, spent a career reporting on the Cincinnati consumer goods company. The result is this book, Soap Opera, which she claims led to the company spying on her. The book acts as an examination of P&G’s business culture and values. Unlike Rising Tide, which portrays P&G as a beacon of American industry, Soap Opera paints a much darker picture. For example, in the 1970s, P&G released Rely Tampons. The tampons led to toxic shock and the death of at least one person. According to Rising Tide is was an unfortunate unknowable mistake that the company rectified via recall. According to Sway, it was a preventable problem known by the design team whose warnings were ignored by the financial people. Once the mistake was made public, the company then went on a scorched earth campaign to bankrupt its accusers and cover up the misdeeds.

Overall, I found it a very interesting read. Part of her criticisms were presented as unique to P&G, while I think they’re applicable to the industry at large. The end of the book did not age well. Published in 1994, it all but predicts the company’s demise.

20. Secret Formula – Frederick Allen

A look at the rise and continued rise of the Coca-Cola company. Allen did a nice job connecting Coke’s marketing and sales innovations. I thought it was the happy medium between Soap Opera’s contrarian view and Rising Tide’s mythmaking

19. The Club – Josh Robinson

In the last twenty years, English soccer went from locally owned organizations to being backed by billionaire oil despots. This book explains how and why it happened.

18. Antifragile – Nassim Taleb

It’s the third and most important book (according to Taleb) in his Incerto series. It essentially argues that we’ve over-engineered our society. Here is a more useful review from noted economist Branko Milanovicv.

17. No Encore for the Donkey – Doug Stanhope

The first few chapters of the book are typical Stanhope: cynical, funny, and a disdain for ‘normal’. But then it changes. It turns into one of the more heartfelt books I’ve read in recent memory. It’s a book about love and loss. About building your own family and sharing it with those you choose-not those you’re related through. It’s also about death, mortality, and rebuilding. Honestly, it is fantastic. One of the things I love most about Stanhope is how much his comedy has evolved. Stanhope is one of a handful of artists who have gotten more progressive and thoughtful with age.

16. Medium Raw – Anthony Bourdain

I listened to the audiobook, so it was basically 8 hours of your close friend talking about food.

15. The Sympathizer – Viet Thanh Nguyen

After the fall of Saigon, an American education North Vietnamese Captain is sent to live in America. Here he plots the eventual return of communism to his home country. It’s part spy novel, part assimilation story, while analyzing the history of the Vietnam war in American culture.

14. A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles

After the communist revolution, a wealthy landowner is sentenced to house arrest in a Moscow hotel. The book chronicles the remaining decades of his life. It’s a fun novel with an unexpected ending.

13. Deep Work – Cal Newport

It’s a self-help book, but I got more than 3 things from it. Basically, schedule “creative” time every day.

12. The End is Always Near – Dan Carlin

The first book from the genre-defining history podcaster. It’s more of a collection of mini-podcast episodes than a coherent narrative. However, each one is centered on the idea of how past eras viewed the end of the world.

11. Break ‘Em Up – Zephyr Teachout

I wrote a larger review here. Anti-monopoly is one of the most important movement in American society and will have huge impacts across both the CPG and retail world.

10. Salt Sugar Fat – Michael Moss

Salt, Sugar, Fat takes a critical but balanced look at the packaged food industry. It’s built around an interesting structure: how food companies evolved to use Salt, Sugar and Far to hook consumers. I’d highly recommended it to both CPG professionals and the broader population.

9. The Buyout of America – Josh Kosman

In 2020, I spent a fair portion of my free time learning about private equity. It’s a huge portion of our economy, and yet few people know much about it. Kosman, who writes an influential private equity newsletter, provides an thorough look at the business structure and social impacts of the industry.

8. The Year without Pants – Scott Berkun

A quick and easy read on managing remote teams.

7. Do the KIND Thing – Daniel Lubetzky

It’s not hyperbole that Lubetzky revolutionized the packaged food industry with KIND. KIND is a premium snack, with straight forward ingredients, marketed as openly as possible. Lubetzky provides dozens of great case studies and tactical advice on building CPG brands in a new era.

6. Empire of the Summer Moon – S.C. Gwynne

Gwynne frames the story as a biography of Quanah, one of the last great Comanche leaders, but it’s really a holistic look at the America’s Western expansion. At one time, the powerful Comanche tribe controlled territory from Colorado to the modern-day US/Mexican border. Today, the nation resides on a tiny reservation in Oklahoma. Gwynne provides a deeply researched and brilliantly told story on how it happened—tying in technology and politics. Did you know that the Texas Rangers had their roots as a genocidal militia? Neither did I. Gwynne explains how everything intertwines.

5. The Meat Racket – Christopher Leonard

Koshland was my second favorite book in 2019, so of course I had to read Leonard’s previous work. It’s a brilliantly researched and argued look at the rise of Tyson Foods. A chicken company that revolutionized American’s food system, while simultaneously destroying small-town America.

5. The City of Brass – SA Chakraborty

4. The Kingdom of Copper – SA Chakraborty

Typical fantasy novels are modeled after the European middle ages. Chakraborty sets her Daveabad Trilogy in an Arabic fantasy land. The best way I’d describe it is a more accessible, but less detailed and sprawling, Game of Thrones.

3. Goliath – Matt Stoller

Goliath is a comprehensive and readable history of America’s anti-monopoly movement. It starts by telling the historical precedence for framing anti-trust policies as bulwarks against fascism and ends by detailing its fall.

2. The Nickel Boys – Colston Whitehead

A young black boy is sentenced to reform school for essentially no reason. From there, the system destroys an innocent person. Based on a true story, but a fictional narrative, the Nickel Boys is a beautiful novel about race and America.

1. The Master Switch – Tim Wu

I’ve spent a fair amount of time this year thinking about anti-monopoly policy and history. The thing that I keep coming back to is that none of this is new! We’ve faced the exact same problems before, but we knew how to manage them! Wu gives a comprehensive look at networked technologies and details how they’ve been managed throughout our nations’ history. Many commentators talk about information technology as if it is magic, cure-all not bound by typical business restraints. They’re lying or being paid to have the opinion. 

The 20th century was defined by industrial-scale—electricity, telephone, television, radio. Today we have the same thing, except the vessel, for it isn’t in our homes but our pockets. Facebook, Twitter, podcasts—all of which are just reimaginings of past inventions.

Most of these technologies create nature monopolies, which have universally disastrous results if unregulated. Wu provides a new way to think about modern technology and shows us how to regulate it.

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