My Top Reads of 2021
I have slowed down how many books I read but this year I made a concerted effort to read more. Much of my reading is confined to a short period of time before bed, and I'm just as liable to read articles as books, but here are a few that stood out for me.
(All links are to Amazon unless noted, but I always recommend supporting your local book sellers if possible.)
Best Overall: Factfulness by Hans Rosling
This will be a classic book in the field of sociology and data presentation (see his famous 2006 TED talk). It's also one of the most optimistic books I've read, as it takes a data-based look at the world over time and tells the story of how much better everything keeps getting.
Rosling identifies ten "instincts" we have about the world and why they often lead us to misinterpret how the world really is. Throughout the book he uses simple questions to challenge our default assumptions, and while I didn't get them all wrong, I got enough wrong to realize I have work to do to understand the world better.
I particularly liked his simple framework for our world being "bad but better." No, things aren't as good as we want them to be. But they're getting better. And the direction we're headed is more important than where we are today. We just need to learn to see the world for how it is and not how our "instincts" incorrectly lead us to believe.
Best Running Book: Running Nirvana by Greg McMillan and Allison Goldstein
Greg McMillan is a renowned coach and author and this is his latest book. It has 50 tips for getting more out of your training. A bunch of them are fantastic. I highlighted his "most important training lesson" and "awesomeness journal" in newsletters and I wrote about his "Go Zone" method of racing in an article for Runner's Tribe.
If you're looking to have a strong foundation for how you think about your training, this is the best book I've read. It'll give you just enough to change your perspective while whetting your appetite for more.
And don't miss my interview with Greg McMillan on the Fueling the Pursuit podcast where we talk about the book and his coaching philosophy. (I believe hard copies of his book may only be available at mcmillanrunning.com)
Best Science & Technology: Where is My Flying Car? by J. Storrs Hall
I just wrote about this a bit in my latest newsletter. Hall argues that we could be living in a future like the science fiction writers imagined, only we have failed to make the necessary technological progress. And he outlines why the technological progress that science fiction writers predicted was not only possible, it was plausible.
From flying cars to nuclear energy to nanotechnology to space exploration, Hall outlines how we have veered off track in many key areas and makes the case that if we can overcome our Failure of Nerve and Failure of Imagination, we can create the futuristic cities that authors predicted 100 years ago.
It's a challenging book because parts are technical and scientific, but if you are willing to skim over those parts it will inspire you to change your assumptions about what's possible.
Best Memoir: How Magicians Think by Joshua Jay
This is a collection of 52 essays by master magician Joshua Jay answering common questions about magic. It's not strictly a memoir, but many of the essays recount Jay's experiences as he attempts to explain a specific point or challenge with performing magic.
I'm always fascinated by the mental models and mindsets that elite performers use, and this book captures some of those beautifully. His essays on what it means to practice are relevant to achieving mastery in any field. He explains how he creates shows and unique experiences, and he introduces the reader to the many ways in which magic is being challenged by modern technology.
And if you're a fan of magic, his essays about his favorite magicians are fantastic. Highly recommended.
I read all three of these as prep for podcast interviews and I can recommend them all. If you want to know more about the authors, you can listen to our podcast interviews with them here:
Kyle and Brent Pease - Fueling the Pursuit
Lex Gillette - Fueling the Pursuit (coming out soon)
Best Science Fiction: Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
When Mark Zuckerberg changed Facebook's name to Meta and bet the company on the "metaverse" I decided to go back and read the book that coined the idea. And it was good!
It's a rollicking science fiction read with futuristic technologies, distinctive villains, and an outrageous yet plausible enough plot. I don't read a lot of science fiction, but I'm interested in the authors who are able to envision a future that inspires future generations to build their vision. I don't just want the Metaverse, I want Hiro's motorbike!
Honorable Mention: Exhalation by Ted Chiang. This is a collection of stories that are very different from Snow Crash. The stories are subtle, thoughtful, philosophical. They imagine simple scenarios with everyday people and the decisions that they have to make. This book will probably stay with me longer than Snow Crash, but it isn't as much pure fun.
Best Audio Book: The Bomber Mafia by Malcolm Gladwell (link to Pushkin)
This was the only audio book I read, but it was great! The book tells the story of the creation of the US Air Force, the concept of strategic bombing--eliminating targets so precisely that you can end a war--and the role it played in ending World War 2.
Rather than just read the text of his book, Gladwell threads in actual audio from the historical players and those he interviews, making it a fuller audio experience. I think he's right that audio books done this way are the future, and he's paving the way.
Honorable Mention: Miracle and Wonder by Malcolm Gladwell. This is a series of interviews with songwriter Paul Simon. I haven't listened to it but I gave it to my mom as a Christmas present and she said it's fantastic. If you like Paul Simon's music or Malcolm Gladwell's anything, you'll probably like this as well.
Best Kid's Book: The Magic Misfits by Neil Patrick Harris
A fun story about a group of young magicians who learn that a crew of circus performers are stealing from their patrons, and have a plot to steal even more. They use their skills in magic to save the day.
The book has a fun plot, relatable characters, and a few twists and turns and suspense. It also teaches you some magic concepts, has instructions for doing a couple tricks, and has some puzzles to solve. I enjoyed those as an adult but as a kid I would have eaten it up for sure. There are actually four books in the series but I've only read the first. Recommended!
Bonus! Best Newsletter Subscription: Stratechery Daily Update by Ben Thompson
No, it's not a book, but I wasn't sure where else to put it since I probably spent more time reading this blog/newsletter than all the books on this list combined. When viewed as a whole, it's like a real-time book covering all the key goings-on in tech and media businesses.
Ben Thompson publishes a weekly article for free, and three daily updates covering all the major news in technology. He spends time analyzing the FANG companies, but he will dive into much more niche industries, the economics of the supply chain, international trade, and more.
He used to publish a podcast called Exponent with James Allworth, but it's been on pause for a bit. He also does a paid ($3/month) 15-minute podcast called Dithering with noted Apple analyst John Gruber that I just started listening to. If you're interested in business and tech, this is the subscription to get.
I think I'll stop here. I'm sure I left out a few good ones and maybe I'll post an update to this if I missed a big one.
If you have books that have changed the way you think, inspired you to do your best work, or simply entertained you please let me know!