“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.

Enjoy!

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.”

Four Ways to Develop Learning Agility and Improve Perspective

There is a method to the way you learn, and it is personal to you.  If you’re not paying close attention, you won’t have thought about the assumptions you make and behavioral patterns you rely upon when you make decisions, think, and act.  Approximately 30 to 50% of executives experience some kind of executive or management derailment in the course of their careers.  Research suggests that this stagnation and underperformance can be attributed to a person’s failure to update his or her mental frameworks in the wake of new experience.

In other words, you can and should be learning from the breadth of your personal and professional experiences to develop systematic thinking.  Monique Valcour in Harvard Business Review describes this skill as “learning agility,” or “the capacity for rapid, continuous learning from experience.”

Agile learners are good at making connections across experiences, and they’re able to let go of perspectives or approaches that are no longer useful — in other words, they can unlearn things when novel solutions are required. People with this mindset tend to be oriented toward learning goals and open to new experiences. They experiment, seek feedback, and reflect systematically.

Develop a desire to improve

How do you develop learning agility?  Its foundation is a desire to improve through (1) the development of new skills and (2) succeeding in new situations.

Agile learners value and derive satisfaction from the process of learning itself, which boosts their motivation as well as their capacity to learn from  challenging developmental experiences.

By finding internal value in the process of learning through new experiences, agile learners “don’t get defensive” and are more “willing to take risks.”  The benefit to this mindset becomes clear when you consider being confronted with a new, uncomfortable, scary experience.  Instead of fearing moving outside of their comfort zone or risking public critique through open discussion, an agile learner broadens experience and improves his or her mental toolkit by taking advantage of the opportunity to learn in a new environment.

Four Mental Tools You Can Use to Sharpen Your Learning Agility

There are discrete practical tools you can use to improve your ability to learn from experience in meaningful ways.

1.      Ask for feedback.

Think of one or more people who interacted with you or observed your performance on a given task. Tell them you’d value their perspective on how you did, and ask what you could do differently the next time. To maximize learning from their feedback — and this is vital — restrain any urge to defend yourself. Thank them for their input, and then ask yourself what you can learn.

This practice depends on your mindset, and will not work if you cling to defensiveness.  Google’s Director of Executive Coaching and Leadership, David Peterson simplifies this into a retrievable motto: “There has to be a better way, and I don’t know it yet.”

The power of the motto lies in the word “yet.” As research on growth mindset by psychologist Carol Dweck has found, if you hold the view that there is always more to learn and embrace the process of wading into unfamiliar waters, you can free your thinking, dissolve your fear of failure, and power your success.

2.     Test Out New Mental Models and Approaches

Expanding your mental toolkit requires you to test and retest different perspectives, models, and approaches.

To identify new behaviors for testing, Peterson recommends reflecting on a challenge you’re facing and asking yourself questions such as “What’s one thing I could do to change the outcome of the situation?” and “What will I do differently in the future?” You can also conduct thought experiments, unearthing possibilities from trying out a different point of view. For example, one of my clients was concerned about leading the first team development offsite with her new team of highly talented country managers. With some reflection, she realized that she had gotten stuck in the perspective that in order to be seen as credible, she had to know more than they did. Since she was new, this was impossible. Holding on to that perspective would have caused her stress and undermined her credibility. By letting go of the assumption that she had to be the subject-matter expert and adopting the perspective that she could add greater value as a facilitator, she was able to design and carry out a meeting at which creative ideas flowed freely. The team, which had previously suffered from poor coordination, developed more collaborative relationships.

We all have biases in our decision-making, many of them hidden from our own view.  This is why developing a broad set of mental models is so important — they cause you to shift perspective and unroot hidden traps in your thinking.  Checking your assumptions and testing new approaches to familiar scenarios will allow you to explore effectiveness of these ideas.

3.     Understand cross-disciplinary connections

This is a key to reaping value from new experiences.  Studying and reading broadly provides you with little value if you do not let new ideas cross-pollenate and fertilize your other areas of knowledge.

Peterson has systematically applied principles he’s used to learn about wine to the domain of leadership development. Oenologists develop expertise by trying many different wines, comparing them, and discussing them with fellow experts. Borrowing these principles, Peterson realized that he could extend his mastery of leadership development by seeking out a wide variety of leaders to coach, comparing leaders to each other on various qualities, and discussing leaders with other experts.

You must have an area of expertise that on its face, has nothing to do with your profession.  But think harder and more deeply to see the connections.  How can you apply the lessons you learned during one area to the other.  This is one benefit of reading broadly across a wide variety of subjects – an understanding of seemingly unrelated areas of study will, upon reflection, turn into a network of mental models that help you approach and solve problems in new ways.

4.   Review and reflect.

To understand the lessons learned from new experience, you need to systematically reflect on those experiences.

A growing body of research shows that systematically reflecting on work experiences boosts learning significantly.  To ensure continuous progress, get into the habit of asking yourself questions like “What have I learned from this experience?” and “What turned out differently than I expected?” Leaders who demonstrate and encourage reflection not only learn more themselves, they also spur increased contextual awareness and reflective practice in others, thereby laying a foundation for higher levels of learning agility in their teams and organizations.

Make time to do this.  Put it on your calendar, and don’t let anything get in the way.  In my experience, review provides the most value if you do it regularly and purposefully.  My weekly reviews let me focus on details, tasks, and short-term goals.  Monthly reviews let me think about bigger lessons learned from projects and check progress towards annual goals. Quarterly and annual reviews let me take stock on my alignment with long-term and life goals.

Go and Seek out the New

Once you have built a desire for improvement and understand these practices, go and seek out new experiences, people, and information.  Valcour highlights the difference you can expect between career development and career stagnation by pointing to examples:

Learning agility also involves being open to new experiences, people, and information. Two senior management professors I’ve encountered at academic conferences over the years exemplify opposite ends of the spectrum. Professor A has a voracious appetite for new ideas. Despite his lofty academic stature, he converses just as enthusiastically with graduate students and junior faculty from little-known universities as he does with fellow academic stars, and he collaborates with a wide variety of scholars. Well into his 70s, he’s vibrant, energetic, and recognized as an active leader in his research domain. Professor B, by contrast, shows little interest in scholars outside of his familiar circle of followers. His presentations generally rehash old ideas; it’s been a long time since he produced anything new. Although he made many important contributions earlier in his career, the low level of learning agility he exhibits now accompanies his fading reputation. He’s fallen into the exact career trap the CEO is seeking to avoid.

artwork: By Peter Pöml [CC BY-SA 1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/1.0)

Commonplacing – Do You Remember What You Read?

Do you read books?  Do you read a lot of books?  Do you remember all of the great information, lessons, and points you might take from the writing you ingest?

I read a lot of books.  I also do a poor job of retaining the information I read with memory alone.  As a result, I began to look for a system to capture in an efficient manner the parts of texts that I read.

During my school days, I took copious marginalia notes in books, which I still do and highly recommend.  Marginalia, however, are only retrievable if you pick up the book again and find the page on which you took the note.  In other words, in recording your note, your observation will forever be captured and stored on a page in another writer’s book.  It is not portable, searchable, or usable in that form.

Enter the commonplace book.  A commonplace book is, in its simplest terms, a centralized collection of the notes and excerpts a reader takes from books that he or she has read.  The practice is one that was particularly popular centuries ago.  Robert Darnton described the idea in a 2000 article in the New York Review of Books:

Time was when readers kept commonplace books. Whenever they came across a pithy passage, they copied it into a notebook under an appropriate heading, adding observations made in the course of daily life. Erasmus instructed them how to do it; and if they did not have access to his popular De Copia, they consulted printed models or the local schoolmaster. The practice spread everywhere in early modern England, among ordinary readers as well as famous writers like Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson, John Milton, and John Locke. It involved a special way of taking in the printed word. Unlike modern readers, who follow the flow of a narrative from beginning to end, early modern Englishmen read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book. They broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks. Then they reread the copies and rearranged the patterns while adding more excerpts. Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality.

A commonplace book can take any number of forms, from a journal, to an electronic database, to loose scraps of paper.  (Thomas Jefferson apparently collected loose scraps for his commonplace collection, and then had them bound later in his life).  I use a system that is heavily promoted by Robert Greene (author of books including The 48 Laws of Power) and Ryan Holiday (author of books including The Obstacle is the Way).  When reading a book, I mark pages and passages I find worthwhile or particularly insightful.  I also take margin notes and otherwise mark up my books.  When I finish a book, I set it aside for a period of days.

After some days have passed, I return to the book, and I review my marked passages and notes.  With the passage of time, 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.  I have no predetermined themes or any limit to the number of themes that I may use, although 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.”

Books I Have Read

Since March 2008, I have kept a list of the books I have read.  I was inspired to do this after reading that Art Garfunkel has kept a list of every book he has read since June 1968.  My list is not perfect; some items have slipped through the cracks.  It is close to accurate, nonetheless.  Books marked with an asterisk (*) are favorites.

I encourage all readers to engage in this exercise.  It allows you to maintain a record, of course. In addition, however, it allows you to review periods of your life, to see how interests have risen, developed, ebbed, and flowed.  It allows you to remember particularly busy and productive times, as well as unproductive and slow periods.  It also allows you to review the list for books that should be reread or revisited as appropriate.  I only wish I had started sooner, instead of at age 32.

My Reading List