What I Read in 2021

book lot on table
Photo by Tom Hermans on Unsplash

The calendar has rolled over, meaning it’s time to provide an update on my reading over the last year. For my previous lists, you can see what I read in 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, and 2016.

TitleAuthorDate CompletedPages
1ClanlandsSam Heughan & Graham McTavish01-Jan352
2Lean OutTara Henley03-Jan336
3Moon of the Crusted SnowWaubgeshig Rice05-Jan224
4SovereigntyRyan Michler12-Jan266
5Eat a Peach: A MemoirDavid Chang14-Jan304
6NeverwhereNeil Gaiman19-Jan480
7The Office: The Untold Story…Andy Greene24-Jan464
8Angels & DemonsDan Brown30-Jan736
9*MeditationsMarcus Aurelius07-Feb256
10The PracticeSeth Godin23-Feb272
11*The Righteous MindJonathan Haidt12-Mar528
12A Clash of KingsGeorge R.R. Martin29-Mar1040
13Hold Me TightDr. Sue Johnson26-Apr320
14*To Pixar and BeyondLawrence Levy26-Apr272
15Cool SexDiana Richardson & Wendy Doeleman30-Apr128
16MindfuckChristopher Wylie10-May288
17*The Massey MurderCharlotte Gray24-May336
18*On ImmunityEula Biss21-Jun224
19At The Existentialist CaféSarah Bakewell30-Jul448
20Learn Like a ProBarbara Oakley & Olav Schewe05-Aug160
21The Great InfluenzaJohn M Barry05-Aug560
22The New FatherArmin A. Brott07-Aug336
23EffortlessGreg McKeown07-Aug272
24Can’t EvenAnne Helen Petersen13-Aug304
25The Happiness HypothesisJonathan Haidt13-Aug320
26SwitchChip Heath and Dan Heath16-Aug320
27The Bully PulpitDoris Kearns Goodwin22-Aug912
28Saving JusticeJames Comey22-Aug240
29An Elegant DefenseMatt Richtel27-Aug448
30Infinitely Full of HopeTom Whyman06-Sep218
31*The Black CountTom Reiss22-Sep432
32Think AgainAdam Grant01-Oct320
33Lives of the StoicsRyan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman03-Oct352
34*A Knock on the DoorTruth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada06-Oct296
35Our Own Worst EnemyTom Nichols07-Oct256
36A Storm of SwordsGeorge R.R. Martin11-Oct1216
37How Ike LedSusan Eisenhower17-Oct400
38Braiding SweetgrassRobin Wall Kimmerer29-Oct408
39*Social EmpathyElizabeth Segal05-Nov256
40NoiseDaniel Kahneman, Olivier Sibony, Cass R. Sunstein09-Nov464
41Finding Your ElementKen Robinson with Lou Aronica12-Nov320
42The StorytellerDave Grohl14-Nov384
43Why We Make Things and Why It MattersPeter Korn16-Nov176
44For Small Creatures Such As WeSasha Sagan18-Nov288
45Courage is CallingRyan Holiday24-Nov304
46*The Seven Principles for Making Marriage WorkJohn M Gottman and Nan Silver06-Dec288
47Mr. Dickens and His CarolSamantha Silva08-Dec288
48The Ghost of Christmas PastRhys Bowen14-Dec272
49Why We SleepMatthew Walker19-Dec368
50In A HolidazeChristina Lauren20-Dec336
51Christmas Every DayBeth Moran24-Dec408
52A Christmas CarolCharles Dickens24-Dec112
Total19308
Entries whose number is asterisked was read for our bookclub.

This year was a huge step up in the number of books I got through. In 2020 I came in at 38 books, whereas I settled into a good groove and managed 52 books for 2021, or a book per week on average. The big months were January (8 books), August (10 books), and October through December (7 books each month). 2020 was a tough year on everyone as we made the pivot to pandemic life; I was also preoccupied with my wife’s pregnancy and later the birth of our son. For 2021, things settled and we found new normals to operate within. I still relied heavily on audiobooks, but I found that where I made the majority of my reading progress during my work commutes in the before-times, I now find time while walking the dog and doing chores around the house to squeeze in a listen.

I’m also happy to see I continued my trend started in 2020 to move away from predominantly reading self-help and business books. While they are still sprinkled throughout, I embraced more fiction, memoirs, books on history, and discussions of complex social issues.

My book club was down slightly over last year, coming in at 9 books for the year. We also celebrated a birth and added a new member which is exciting. In the table above, the asterisked numbers denote book club entries, but I have included them collected below:

  1. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
  2. The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt
  3. To Pixar and Beyond by Lawrence Levy
  4. The Massey Murder by Charlotte Gray
  5. On Immunity by Eula Biss
  6. The Black Count by Tom Reiss
  7. A Knock on the Door by Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada
  8. Social Empathy by Elizabeth Segal
  9. The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John M Gottman and Nan Silver

And to round out the post, here are my top five reads of the year in chronological order:

  1. Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice (this book was so good, I bought two copies and mailed them to friends as gifts – one going all the way to Scotland!)
  2. The Great Influenza by John M Barry (if history doesn’t repeat itself, then at the very least it rhymes, and so learning about the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919 helps to contextualize our experiences over the last two years)
  3. How Ike Led by Susan Eisenhower (I took so many notes reading this book and will revisit the lessons of Dwight Eisenhower often)
  4. Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer (this was my first proper introduction to Indigenous ways of knowing, and my worldview has been made richer for it)
  5. Why We Make Things and Why It Matters by Peter Korn (a beautiful memoir and reflection on the nature of making, craft, art, and finding your calling within a career)

2021 was a great year of reading for me. Despite feeling adrift in the monotony of the pandemic (or languishing, as Adam Grant claims it), I found exploring both ideas and fictional worlds to be immensely rewarding. My horizons have expanded and I’m looking forward to continuing this exploration into the new year. I’m intending on tackling more biographies, books on history, and works of fiction. I’ve also decided to explore another genre – comic books! With all the great media being adapted from comic books (and now that I have disposable income), I’m intending on diving into some of the celebrated collected volumes that I missed out back in my Wizard reading days.

Happy New Year!

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

World Limits

I’ve been thinking about the limits of my world, specifically as it relates to my ability to understand it. Much of the time, I operate as if I have access to capital-T Truth, that I have some connection with facts about the world. It’s easy to fall into this kind of thinking – when I can predict and explain events, it gives me feedback that I know things about the world in a meaningful sense.

But I also know that this confidence in my knowledge is not as strong as I assume it to be. I have to remind myself to adjudicate the claims I encounter, or to remind myself of the difference between history and the past. It’s also good to listen to others who have learned about issues from multiple vantage points (see this amazing conversation on the Tim Ferriss podcast with Noah Feldman, and his experiences with constitution building in the Middle East).

Generally speaking, all of our experience in life has presented us with a mostly successful set of interactions with the world, but those interactions are subjective and limited. Taking the long view of world events, learning new languages, and empathy provide the Archimedean point beyond ourselves to attempt to stand on some point of objectivity (if this is even possible).

As Wittgenstein says, “the limits of my language are the limits of my world.” This shouldn’t be literally taken to mean language (though I’m assuming that’s what Wittgenstein meant), but we should apply this to our understanding vis a vis experience. The limits of my world are constrained by the limits of my experience and the mental framework I use to make sense of it. If I want to seek to expand my worldview, it’s important to both prune out the dead branches of knowledge while cultivating new seeds of wisdom.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Evidence, Credibility, and the Homunculus Courtroom

We should think of our beliefs and the evidence we engage with as if we had a little homunculus tv courtroom in our brain adjudicating whether to admit evidence into the record. Obviously, this is incredibly difficult to pull off in real time, but it’s a nice thought experiment to pause and consider the weight of a claim being made.

This idea came to me while watching a YouTube video covering the recent downfall of a famous hustle influencer, where the presenter made an observation that she (the presenter) would normally not take people’s personal lives into consideration when judging their professional work, but the case that the influencer sold conferences and products marketed as relationship coaching courses under the pretenses of having a great marriage was swiftly undermined by her (the influencer) getting a divorce approximately two years later.

I was impressed with this statement by the presenter – she was right! Under normal circumstances, the personal life of a person shouldn’t bear weight on something like this, but given the fact that the evidence under consideration was whether someone was misleading about their personal life and getting others to pay for her “expertise,” it would be grounds to consider this piece of evidence as relevant or bearing weight. My homunculus courtroom judge ruled that the testimony was admissible.

This is a silly thought experiment to anthropomorphize cognitive thought-processes that are otherwise just a black box to me. I suppose it’s a little farfetched to think that we have this much control over our beliefs, but maybe the next time I listen to a claim (or gossip, or something that doesn’t jive with my experience… or claims that I want to be true…), I will remember my homunculus courtroom and think twice about the claim’s believability.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

The Last Person to Know Everything

On a recent CBC podcast episode about Leibniz and Voltaire’s thoughts about evil and God, one of the interviewees referred to Leibniz as “the last man to know everything.” I find this notion utterly fascinating. Upon hearing that title, I jumped online to search for the “best biography on Leibniz” and found a highly acclaimed book detailing an intellectual biography of the 17th-century thinker. Once I clear some books on my current reading list, I’ll dive into this hefty book.

“Leibniz: An Intellectual Biography” by Maria Rosa Antognazz

This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered the moniker of “the last person who knew everything.” In fact, that was the title of a biography I read back in late 2018 on Enrico Fermi.

I’ve been drawn to this idea for a long time, probably originating with the first time I saw the 1994 film Renaissance Man starring Danny DeVito. That was where I first learned of the term renaissance man, or more commonly known as a polymath – a person with considerable knowledge and expertise across a wide variety of domains. While I wouldn’t quite call it a goal, this is an aspiration of mine since I was a child.

I suppose as the sciences progress, it becomes increasingly difficult to lay claim to being “the last person who knew everything.” Each field grows increasingly complex as we push the boundaries of the known world, which raises the threshold higher of what counts as expertise.

It would seem we need to seriously consider the observation recently made by Professor Adam Grant on the differences between experience and expertise:

Instead of seeking to always have depth of knowledge, perhaps we should give equal consideration to wisdom and how we can apply our experiences and expertise to solve interesting problems. While more nebulous as a goal, I think it steers us in the right direction. At the very least, it’s a good vision to aspire towards.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

PS – an unexhaustive list of the traits that distinguishes a “last person who knew everything:”

  • Intellectual curiosity
  • Intellectual humility
  • Interests spanning a variety of domains, both sciences and arts
  • A grasp of the methods and tools of science
  • Generating novel insights
  • The ability to see problems in terms of first principles
  • Engaging in idea arbitrage
  • Focus and flow in work – liking what you do

History vs The Past

While listening to a BBC podcast about Heroditus, the panelists described how Heroditus set about his project with the purpose of recording events with some accuracy before the details were lost from memory. Unlike some historians from Greek antiquity, Heroditus was writing about events that were within his lifetime. This created a new kind of writing that set itself apart from others in his genre because it aimed at corroborating stories rather than recording myth.

This is an interesting distinction worth keeping in mind. There is a difference between “history” and “the past.” It can be helpful to think of history as a subset of the past. History is the collection of stories we tell, and as a consequence it is necessarily selective in what gets included and what is left out. This makes sense from a practical standpoint – it is nearly impossible to capture every detail, nor does every fact in the past bear a tangible, causal relationship to the story being told (even if arguably from a systems perspective, many things create ripples of unknown influence that overlap with other events).

The challenge of history is accuracy – capturing events that happened with fidelity and charity. As new facts are discovered, and as new facits of importance enter the discourse, history is revised to (hopefully) move closer to our aim of truth. (For the moment, let’s ignore questions about power and who tells these stories and for what aim).

However, we must not confuse history (the stories we tell) with the past (events that happened prior to the now). Ignoring this distinction places us in danger of imbuing our myths with an illusion of objectivity. The stories we tell ouselves matter, of course, but they also carry power. Who tells the stories, and whose stories get left out, can carry harmful consequences.

We try to learn the lessons from history, but we cannot be so arrogant to think that history is complete.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

My Best Interest

If you want a good newsletter, you should check out Arnold Schwarzenegger’s newsletter. I signed up a few months back and have thoroughly enjoyed each update. I find him such a fascinating and inspiring person, not just from his bodybuilding work, his acting career, or even his time in politics, but above all because he strikes me as a fundamentally decent person.

He made two interrelated observations in the latest issue that stuck out for me. A significant portion of the email dealt with his clarifying and elaborating on his viral “screw your freedoms” moment during an interview talking about why people should get their vaccines. In his expanded comments, he urges his readers to pay attention to the motivations of people trying to give them advice, and discard those opinions which are not in your best interest (including his own). By this, he means fitness influencers and politicians, whose motivations are clicks and ad revenue in the former, as well as outrage, donations, and votes in the latter. When it comes to your health, these people are not giving advice based on your own health and wellbeing.

The second related comment is that if you can’t trust government or social media, who should you trust? To that, he says you should trust your doctor because your doctor took an oath to protect you. Your doctor is paid with only one expectation in return – the promotion of your wellbeing and health.

Talk to your doctor, not people who don’t have your health as their main responsibility. The Instagram and Facebook accounts you follow that give information on vaccines are not concerned about your health. They are concerned with getting more followers and making money.

I have seen way too many stories about people who listened to politicized information about the vaccine instead of their doctors, and then changed their minds when it was too late.

At the end of the day, everyone has to make their own decision about getting vaccinated. But if I can inspire even a few of you or your friends or family to avoid another one of these tragic stories that tore families apart, I want to do it.

He urges us to trust the experts and take wisdom from their experience. When presented with advice, we should ask ourselves what the advice-giver gets in return for our compliance. Do they benefit from our participation? What do we lose by their gain? These are important checks that we should make when deciding what’s in our best interest.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Parenting Lessons One Year On

We recently celebrated our son’s first birthday, so naturally I’ve been reflecting on the last year of being a first-time parent. If I were to summarize the most important lesson (beyond any of the technical skills you need to keep your kid alive), it’s that parenting is the largely an illusion of control. Your child is a chaos engine that you will try to wrangle, understand, and predict, but from moment to moment, day to day, week to week, things change wildly without discernable reason. Things that worked suddenly stop working.

The tighter you try to hold onto control, the more frustrated you’ll be.

As a corollorary, in accepting that your child is pure id, you must also come to terms that your child (at least for the first year) carries little intentionality behind what they do, and so you must not attribute your frustration to them. Instead, recognize that your frustration is a product of your own unrealistic expectations. If you align your expectations to this reality, I find it’s much easier to weather the physically and mentally taxing moments.

This isn’t to say that you won’t feel anger or frustrations directed toward your child. I’ve accepted that I will feel these feelings and there isn’t anything wrong with them so long as you don’t act on those impulses (physically or verbally). As the adult, you are expected to have learned to understand your physiological signals and adjust accordingly. As your child grows, and as they experience new feelings in themselves – feelings that they won’t have the context to understand – it’s your job to guide them through the experience so that they can learn as well.

In sum:

  • You are not in control of anything.
  • The frustration you feel is usually a product of having misaligned expectations for how you think your child ought to act.
  • Your child doesn’t understand the signals their body is giving them. You, having learned to understand your body, will be key to guiding your child through this period of discovery.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

1,111 Days of Practice

I hit a new milestone on Sunday with learning German on Duolingo. I hit 1,111 consecutive days of practice.

I’ve discussed before how I’m a little skeptical of the learning process, especially with how easy it is for me to mindlessly snap off a quick lesson by repeating modules so that I preserve my momentum. Still, I am pleased to hit this milestone after 3 years of consistency. While we can question whether I’m gaining true fluency in the language, we should at least acknowledge when we stick with learning habits.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Beyond the European Default Follow-up (7/4 time)

Last week I shared some thoughts on appreciating musical languages developed beyond the European music theory standard, and how it can be inappropriate to judge musical modalities using the vocabulary and standards of your cultural (musical) heritage. This isn’t to say that viewing art through different lenses can’t bring about interesting discoveries of the artform, but rather using one standard to pass a value-judgement of the merits of an artform can be fraught with problems.

Thanks to YouTube’s algorithm, the recommended videos feed provided some great gems appreciating the original. Through a drum cover, I learned the original was in 7/4 time (whereas I thought it might have been alternating 2/4-2/8 measures; sounds like I missed a 1/8 beat).

And here was another drum cover with some artistic interpretations on the beat.

I was able to learn a bit more about Konnakkol, and how it builds increasing complexity to the music.

And here was a great beatbox cover that got a shoutout from the male performer in the original video, Somashekar Jois.

Finally, I found that Somashekar Jois has a YouTube channel where he teaches lessons in Konnakkol. I was a little nervous about posting this since one of his past videos was an artist’s endorsement for Prime Minister Modi of India, but I still felt it important to provide the link here to learn more about the artform. If possible, I’m trying to focus on the art, rather than the artist (or his whatever his politics happens to be).

Oh, and a recent video from Adam Neely again touched on the problems with passing judgement on musical performance when you don’t critically engage with the sources of your musical taste. At best, you are falsely applying a single standard as a universal judge of taste, and at worst you are using music theory to justify sexist bullying of people just trying to have fun creating.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan