“Best Book” Lists of 2016

I have not yet compiled my list of favorite reads of 2016.  I have been busy, however, perusing some great lists of book recommendations from individuals I trust to steer me to good material.  Keep in mind that these lists are not all of books published in 2016; rather, they are lists of great books discovered, read, and sometimes published, in 2016.  The distinction is not a meaningful difference.

Farnam Street’s “Best Books of 2016” – Farnam Street is a treasure trove for readers, especially readers who take pleasure in a greater understanding of the world.  This is a great list of nonfiction and fiction alike.

Bil Gates’s list of “Favorite Books of 2016” – Gates releases a list of great reads every year, sharing that “Never before have I felt so empowered to learn as I do today.”

Ryan Holiday’s list of the “(Very) Best Books of 2016” – Ryan Holiday is a great resource on reading, how to read more effectively, and what to read.

Bonus: Shane Parrish, curator of Farnam Street, has released his list of all books he read in 2016.  Not a “best of” list, it’s still well worth a look.


Joan Didion on Keeping a Notebook

I keep notes in a lot of places.  I have Moleskine notebooks with thoughts, sketches, business notes, to do lists, and snippets of prose in my briefcase everyday.  I have older notebooks that are full and aging on bookshelves in different rooms.  I have a box of note cards with quotes from books I’ve read that make up my commonplace book.  I have an electronic archive of articles and photos I’ve clipped from the web in an Evernote file.  As a keeper of notes, I do puzzle over the source of the compulsion to record the instant moment, our impressions of the past, the hopes for the future.  Why do we write things down?

Why Do We Write Things Down?

I found simple and wonderful insights into this question in Joan Didion’s essay “On Keeping a Notebook,” part of her 1968 anthology Slouching Towards Bethlehem.  The essay was written nearly fifty years ago, but feels perfectly modern, arguing that a notebook allows us to return to our former selves and visit, if just for a little while.

joan didion on keeping a notebook
Joan Didion, 1970

Didion begins by describing the moment when she found a random story scribbled into a notebook.  She asks herself why she wrote it in the first place:

Why did I write it down? In order to remember, of course, but exactly what was it I wanted to remember? How much of it actually happened? Did any of it? Why do I keep a notebook at all? It is easy to deceive oneself on all those scores. The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself.

Keeping a Notebook Lets Us Remember How We Felt

Didion supposes that her instinct to record is not shared by all, and that her compulsion is borne of some underlying anxiety.

I suppose that it begins or does not begin in the cradle. Although I have felt compelled to write things down since I was five years old, I doubt that my daughter ever will, for she is a singularly blessed and accepting child, delighted with life exactly as life presents itself to her, unafraid to go to sleep and unafraid to wake up. Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.

Didion begins to peel back psychological layers when she admits that “the point of my keeping a notebook has never been, nor is it now, to have an accurate factual record of what I have been doing or thinking.”  Instead, she says that her recordings were about “how it felt to me.”

I sometimes delude myself about why I keep a notebook, imagine that some thrifty virtue derives from preserving everything observed. See enough and write it down, I tell myself, and then some morning when the world seems drained of wonder, some day when I am only going through the motions of doing what I am supposed to do, which is write—on that bankrupt morning I will simply open my notebook and there it will all be, a forgotten account with accumulated interest, paid passage back to the world out there.

The Beauty of Visiting Our Own Histories

Didion ultimately admits that the practice of keeping a notebook is inward-facing.  While she imagined that “the notebook is about other people,” she admits that the point was always to “remember what it was to be me.”

Only the very young and the very old may recount their dreams at breakfast, dwell upon self, interrupt with memories of beach picnics and favorite Liberty lawn dresses and the rainbow trout in a creek near Colorado Springs. The rest of us are expected, rightly, to affect absorption in other people’s favorite dresses, other people’s trout. And so we do. But our notebooks give us away, for however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable “I.”

Didion’s best advice to us is to never overlook the value in “remembering what it was to be ourselves.”  As she says, “It all comes back.”

Perhaps it is difficult to see the value in having one’s self back in that kind of mood, but I do see it; I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were. I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be; one of them, a seventeen-year-old, presents little threat, although it would be of some interest to me to know again what it feels like to sit on a river levee drinking vodka-and-orange-juice.

Intuitively, I’ve always felt that my notebooks were about remembering ideas so that I could return to the facts of times past.  Didion convinced me in this short essay that I was completely missing the point.  I returned to some old notebooks this week and realized that in reading the entries, I can’t recall the factual details of events or entries.  But the feeling of who I was, what was important, why I was writing was as clear as the day I wrote them.

Didion ultimately reminds us that, “it is a good idea, then, to keep in touch, and I suppose that keeping in touch is what notebooks are all about.”

The entire collection of Slouching Towards Bethlehem is full of similar insight and wit, touching on self-respect, morality, and marriage.

Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: Harvard Physicist Lisa Randall on Our Place in the Universe

If there is a connecting theme in my intellectual pursuits, it is the goal of finding connections between ideas that open up a new window of perception and expose some hidden truth. Harvard physicist Lisa Randall has written a stunningly beautiful example of the creativity that comes from the study of the intersection of great ideas, in Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe.

Did Dark Matter Cause the Extinction of the Dinosaurs?

Sixty-six million years ago, an object the size of a small city crashed into what is now the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.  The cataclysmic event, known as the K-Pg Extinction, killed off the dinosaurs and 75% of the remaining life on Earth. Randall’s book presents a hypothesis that seems simple, but quickly reveals massive complexity: that “dark matter might ultimately (and indirectly) have been responsible for the extinction of the dinosaur.”

To test this theory, Randall weaves an explanatory narrative that is approachable enough for readers unfamiliar with cosmology and particle physics, but thorough enough to satisfy the more curious.  Dark matter makes up 85% of the matter in our universe, but we cannot see or touch it.  It interacts with gravity, but not with light or visible matter. The theory that Randall and her colleagues have advanced is that the K-Pg impact was caused by a comet passing through a disk of dark matter on the horizon of our galaxy. When the cosmic wrecking ball touched the dark matter, it was deflected toward Earth and its dinosaur inhabitants.  It left a changed world, the death of the dinosaurs, and new evolutionary opportunities for mammals and their descendants.

The book succeeds on a fundamental level for its historical explanation of the theories of dark matter and the extinction event. But Randall excels in using this scientific explanation as a point of departure for bigger themes about the limits of our perception and our place in the Universe.

We See Very Little of the Universe

Our powers of observation are weak and contain massive blind spots.  As Randall reminds us, “the Universe contains a great deal that we have never seen – and likely never will.” The dark matter that Randall studies composes up to 85% of the matter in our Universe, and yet no one has ever seen it, or felt it, or heard it.  Physicists know that it is there because of its gravitational pull, but otherwise have been unable to conduct experiments on it.

At first mention to the uninitiated, this idea might seem contrary to the natural order. Why would there be matter that we cannot see or touch?  Randall points out that this is nothing more than a bias on our part in favor of overestimating our capacities:

People ask how it can possibly be that most matter – about five times the amount of ordinary matter – cannot be detected with conventional telescopes.  Personally, I would expect quite the opposite…. Why should we have perfect senses that can directly perceive everything?  The big lesson of physics over the centuries is how much is hidden from our view.

We rely on our senses every day.  Without confronting evidence to the contrary, we fall into the easy trap of believing that we can perceive and understand all around us.  But our blind spots are huge, and making sense of our relationship to the Universe requires us to confront this point and embrace uncertainty.

Telescopic image revealing the gravitational pull of dark matter.
Telescopic image revealing the gravitational pull of dark matter

Finding Freedom in the Cosmic Order

The greatest lesson I found in Randall’s book is the realization that we are central to nothing in the Universe of any cosmic significance, and that there is unparalleled freedom in embracing our insignificance.

Between 1500 and 1950, humanity fought against, and then accepted, three great intellectual revolutions.  First, Copernicus taught us that we are not the center of the Universe.  Centuries later, Darwin taught us that we are not the center of life on Earth. Shortly thereafter, Freud taught us that we are not even at the center of our own minds. Randall proposes that modern physics should cause us to undergo a “Fourth Revolution,” in which we realize that our fundamental physical makeup is not aligned with the majority of the Universe:

Not only is the Earth not physically the center of the Universe, but our physical makeup is not central to its energy budget – or even to most of its matter.

Theists sometimes advance an argument for intelligent design that supposes that the fact that the Universe is “something,” rather than “nothing,” is of some cosmic significance tending toward the existence of God.  At the very least, they argue, it is evidence that the Universe is not a random occurrence.  According to Randall, the idea that “something” is special doesn’t hold true under mathematical scrutiny.

One question I frequently hear is why there is something rather than nothing…. I just think something is more likely.  After all, nothing is very special.  If you have a number line, “zero” is just one infinitesimal point among the infinity of possible numbers you can choose.  “Nothing” is so special that without an underlying reason, you wouldn’t expect it to characterize the state of the Universe.

At first glance, one might consider these notions of insignificance to be depressing or saddening.  I don’t. One of the unavoidable conclusions of any consideration of the K-Pg event is that death and destruction lead to new life.  The K-Pg comet destroyed the dinosaurs and three-quarters of the Earth’s life, and yet without that extinction, it is likely that birds, mammals, and humans would never have had the evolutionary opportunity to exert their influence on the world.  As Randall puts it, “extinctions destroy life, but they also reset the conditions for life’s evolution.”

It’s worth remembering that the K-Pg extinction was not the first time the Earth had experienced an extinction event.  In fact, it was the Fifth Great Extinction.  Four times before, the Earth and its cosmic environment turned hostile to its global set of inhabitants, destroying and paving the way for new evolutionary paths.  We are the beneficiaries of the K-Pg extinction.  And if Randall’s theory is true, our entire race’s birth, development, and eventual extinction are the product of the seemingly random interaction of a comet and a disk of imperceivable dark matter on the edge of our galaxy. That random collision, some 65 million years ago, is responsible for the Mona Lisa, Hamlet, the Magna Carta, Taco Bell, and the Macarena.  All is Stardust, after all.

These things, of course, have a finite life.

In another four billion years or so, the Sun will turn into a red giant, and a few billion years after that, it will burn out completely.  According to current models, no forms of Earth-bound life – simple or complex – will survive in that distant future.

So what do we make of this?  The conclusion I keep returning to is that the bad day at the office doesn’t matter.  A disappointing outcome on a business deal doesn’t matter.  The things that cause  stress and anxiety and jealousy, that make me compare myself and my accomplishments to those of other people, that make me feel like I have failed in some way – they don’t matter.  They are of such infinitesimal consequence that they are not worth mental energy or focus.  The time we have is short and beautiful, and we should fill it with all of the love and charity and teaching and learning that we can.

I don’t know if Lisa Randall considered this type of impact when she wrote her book.  I have to believe that she considered its possibility.  In relying on lessons from cosmology, particle physics, biology, environmental science, geology, and contemporary culture, she has created a multidisciplinary masterpiece that gives a markedly unique perspective on our place in the cosmos.  Highly recommended.


Book Recommendations from Bill Gates

If you’re not already reading it, add Bill Gates’s Gates Notes to your reading list.

The Best Books of 2015 by Bill Gates

Here’s Gates’s list for 2015.  The comments about each book are written by Gates.

The Road to Character, by David Brooks. The insightful New York Times columnist examines the contrasting values that motivate all of us. He argues that American society does a good job of cultivating the “résumé virtues” (the traits that lead to external success) but not our “eulogy virtues” (the traits that lead to internal peace of mind). Brooks profiles various historical figures who were paragons of character. I thought his portrait of World War II General George Marshall was especially enlightening. Even if the distinction between the two types of virtues is not always crystal clear, The Road to Character gave me a lot to think about. It is a thought-provoking look at what it means to live life well.

Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words, by Randall Munroe. The brain behind XKCD explains various subjects—from how smartphones work to what the U.S. Constitution says—using only the 1,000 most common words in the English language and blueprint-style diagrams. It is a brilliant concept, because if you can’t explain something simply, you don’t really understand it. Munroe, who worked on robotics at NASA, is an ideal person to take it on. The book is filled with helpful explanations and drawings of everything from a dishwasher to a nuclear power plant. And Munroe’s jokes are laugh-out-loud funny. This is a wonderful guide for curious minds.

Being Nixon: A Man Divided, by Evan Thomas. Former U.S. president Richard Nixon is often portrayed as little more than a crook and a war monger. So it was refreshing to see a more balanced account in Being Nixon, by author and journalist Evan Thomas. I wouldn’t call it a sympathetic portrait—in many ways, Nixon was a deeply unsympathetic person—but it is an empathetic one. Rather than just focusing on Nixon’s presidency, Thomas takes a cradle-to-the-grave approach and gives you sharp insights into the inner workings of a brilliant, flawed, and conflicted man.

Sustainable Materials With Both Eyes Open, by Julian M. Allwood, Jonathan M. Cullen, et al. How much can we reduce carbon emissions that come from making and using stuff? Quite a bit, according to the University of Cambridge team behind this book. They look closely at the materials that humans use most, with particular emphasis on steel and aluminum, and show how we could cut emissions by up to 50 percent without asking people to make big sacrifices. Although the topic can be dry as a desert, the authors keep it light with lots of colorful illustrations and clever analogies without sacrificing clarity or rigor. I learned a lot from this thoughtful look at a critical topic. (You can download it free on the authors’ site.)

Eradication: Ridding the World of Diseases Forever?, by Nancy Leys Stepan. Stepan’s history of eradication efforts gives you a good sense of how involved the work can get, how many different kinds of approaches have been tried without success, and how much we’ve learned from our failures. She writes in a fairly academic style that may make it hard for non-experts to get to her valuable arguments, but it’s worth the effort. You come away from it with a clearer sense of how we can use the lessons of the past to guide future efforts to save lives.

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Carol S. Dweck. This book first came to my attention a few years ago during an invention session on education with my friend Nathan Myrhvold. It’s been an important influence on the foundation’s education work. Through clever research studies and engaging writing, Dweck illuminates how our beliefs about our capabilities exert tremendous influence on how we learn and which paths we take in life. The value of this book extends way beyond the world of education. It’s just as relevant for businesspeople who want to cultivate talent and for parents who want to raise their kids to thrive on challenge.

Honorable mention: I read one book this year that definitely deserves a spot on this list, but I haven’t had time to give it the full write-up it deserves. The Vital Question, by Nick Lane, is an amazing inquiry into the origins of life. I loved it so much that I immediately bought all of Lane’s other books. And I jumped at the chance to meet Lane and talk to him about his research last September, when both of us were in New York City. I’ll post more about his fascinating work when I get the chance.

Read to Learn

Bill Gates is a great example of the type of thinker that Country of Quinn tries to follow and emulate.  Describing himself as someone who “reads to learn,” Gates comments about the synoptical connections he drew between his reading selections for the year:

I just looked over the list of books I read this year, and I noticed a pattern. A lot of them touch on a theme that I would call “how things work.” Some explain something about the physical world, like how steel and glass are used, or what it takes to get rid of deadly diseases. Others offer deep insights into human beings: our strengths and flaws, our capacity for lifelong growth, or the things we value. I didn’t set out to explore these themes intentionally, though in retrospect it make a lot of sense since the main reason I read is to learn.

Country of Quinn’s list of the Best Books of 2015 is here.

How to Read a Book Analytically to Build Understanding

How do you read a book?  You know how to read, of course, but have you paid attention to the purpose or the method of your reading?

We read in different ways at different times.  The way we read is influenced both by what we are reading, and why we are reading.  We can read for entertainment, for information, or for understanding. Appreciating the distinction between these modes will allow you to pull more value from the reading material you choose.

The classic text on how to read a book is (funny enough), How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler.  Adler outlines his goals and methodology in his preface:

How to Read a Book attempts to inculcate skills that are useful for reading anything. These skills, however, are more than merely useful—they are necessary—for the reading of great books, those that are of enduring interest and importance. Although one can read books, magazines, and newspapers of transient interest without these skills, the possession of them enables the reader to read even the transient with greater speed, precision, and discrimination. The art of reading analytically, interpretively, and critically is indispensable only for the kind of reading by which the mind passes from a state of understanding less to a state of understanding more, and for reading the few books that are capable of being read with increasing profit over and over again. those few books are the great books—and the rules of reading here set forth are the rules for reading them.

Purposes of Reading

The first question when reading is to understand why you are reading. Adler first divides reading into (1) reading for amusement and (2) reading for knowledge.  Reading for knowledge, in turn, consists of (1) reading for information and (2) reading for understanding.

Let’s break this down.  There are times we read casually or light material – magazines, vacation paperbacks, mystery novels.  In these moments, you are reading for amusement.

You might also casually read for information – a newspaper or weekly periodical, for example.  This requires slightly more attention than reading for entertainment, as you might commit new facts to memory. Reading a newspaper, however, does not require an analytical approach to the text itself.  You read the newspaper for the facts it contains, but rarely for the language or the structure of the piece.

Reading for amusement or for information are perfectly fine.  They are the most common types of reading, and it’s still better than a lot of things on which you could waste your time.  It’s a question of your goals.  If you have a goal of getting better, building skills, gaining a competitive advantage, you need to improve your understanding.

Reading for understanding is reading to learn.  This type of reading requires thinking and analysis on your part, because you’re spending time with the book to find its insights and its essence.  Books present us with the opportunity to improve ourselves and to get smarter.  To do that, however, you need to work. You need to challenge yourself by finding books written by people smarter than you about subjects you don’t fully understand.

Four Types of Reading

Adler defines four types of reading:

1. Elementary – This is basic entry-level reading.  It answers the question, “What does this sentence say?”

2. Inspectional – Inspectional reading is skimming or superficial reading.  It answers the question, “What is the book about?”

3. Analytical – Analytical reading is the beginning of higher-level reading. It answers the question, “What does the book mean?”

4. Syntoptical – This requires a comparison of a book to other texts. It answers the question, “How does the book’s meaning compare to other books?”

Tools of the Active Reader

I particularly like Adler’s focus on the “kind of reading by which the mind passes from a state of understanding less to a state of understanding more.”  It breaks down a demanding task to an understandable and concrete objective.

How do you read a book inspectionally, analytically, or syntoptically? Adler offers a fantastic list of questions and approaches to help you work through a book.

Inspectional Reading

While inspectional reading may be a superficial skimming of the book, it may also be the initial “pre-read” that paves the way for a deeper second look.  Look at the title page and read the preface to determine what type of book it is.  Study the table of contents and index to gain an understanding of the book’s structure, key terms, and topics.  Reading the opening and closing pages of key chapters can be helpful.

I have always been of the belief that many books should not be finished.  If you’re choosing the right books, this won’t happen very often, I hope.  But if you determine that a book isn’t worth the time it will take to finish, put it down.  There’s plenty of other things to read.  I was glad to see Adler echo this thought, writing that “many books are hardly worth even skimming.”  As for the rest, “some should be read quickly,” and only “a few should be read…quite slow…for complete comprehension.”  As a result, you need to develop different reading speeds.

Analytical Reading

Reading analytically requires work, but the framework is simple and straightforward.  Adler outlines four questions to ask about any book:

1. What is the book about as a whole? (i.e., what is the subject?)

2. What is being said in detail, and how? (i.e., what terms does the book use and how are those terms interpreted?)

3. Is the book true, or partially true? (i.e., how do you evaluate the book?)

4. What of it? (i.e., why does it matter and what is the significance?)

Seizing a Book and Making it Your Own

If you’re reading a book for knowledge and understanding, you should have a pen in your hand.  Adler recommends a list of common-sense actions:

-underline key sentences
-mark key sections with vertical lines
-star in margins
-insert page numbers in margin to parallel or contrasting sections
-note key words, phrases, and terms
-margin notes

You might have notes that are structural, about the content of the subject. The next level of note taking will be conceptual, concerning the truth and significance of the book.  Finally, dialectical notes will mark the shape of argument in the larger context of the topic.

One tool that works particularly well for me is to create my own index of important topics on or near the title page.  The beauty of this type of index is that the topics and entries are entirely up to you.  I try to save these index entries for definitions of the author’s key terms, beautiful quotes, and other important themes.

Remembering What You Read

If you read a book with a pen in your hand, asking yourself Adler’s key questions along the way, you will already be ahead of the game of reading to improve your understanding and knowledge.  Unless you have an encyclopedic steel trap of a memory, however, you’ll pull even more value from books if you have a system for cataloguing and cross-referencing the material you read.  I use a commonplace book.

When I finish a book, I put it and all of my notes, dog-eared pages, and post-its down for at least a week.  Two weeks is preferable.  After that time has passed, I review my marked passages and notes.  Some of the marked passages no longer seem worth recording to me, and I ignore those.  I write down those that remain onto paper notecards.  I write the quote, along with the author, title, and page number on the card.  In the top right corner of the card, I label the card with a theme. Themes are obviously more useful if you pick topics that are applicable to a broad enough set of quotes that you can gather related ideas.  Examples from the last four or five books that I’ve read might be: “zen,” “stoicism,” “cognitive bias,” “leadership,” and “work.”  Placing them on notecards as opposed to a fixed journal allows me to organize notes, or take a small set of notes with me if traveling or working remotely.

As you collect more and more notes, you will find that these themes develop and emerge across multiple texts.  This will allow you to become a comparative and a more analytical thinker.  How do different texts and different writers illuminate these themes in different ways?  What similarities do you find?  What differences?  Ultimately, your focus should shift to developing your own analytical viewpoint and insights into these areas of thought.  When that happens, you know that you have moved from just “reading” to “thinking,” from “consuming” to “analyzing,” and ultimately, from “observation” to “creation.”

A New Weekly Newsletter for the New Year

For 2016, I am going to begin sending a weekly newsletter from Country of Quinn.  I will send it on Sundays, and it will include links to the week’s new posts, updates on books I am reading and recommend, and other articles or finds relating to mental tools, science, art, psychology, philosophy, business, and technology.

My goal is to pass along things that were of value to me over the week, so that we can all learn together from the best minds to have tackled our common human challenges.

Sign up here for insights to improve judgment, broaden understanding, and build a better mental toolbox.