What I Read in 2019

macro photo of five assorted books
Photo by Syd Wachs on Unsplash

Last week, I gave a highlight of the best books I read in 2019. Below, I present what I read in 2019. By comparison to 2016, 2017, and 2018, last year was a paltry year in reading for me.

TitleAuthorDate CompletedPages
1Harry Potter and the Deathly HallowsJ.K. Rowling6-Jan640
2The Bullet Journal MethodRyder Carroll31-Jan320
3Daring GreatlyBrene Brown4-Feb320
4Trumpocracy – The Corruption of the American RepublicDavid Frum25-Feb320
5DriveDaniel H. Pink4-Mar288
6TwilightStephenie Meyer10-Mar544
7The Gift of FailureJessica Lahey12-Mar304
8Better – A Surgeon’s Notes on PerformanceAtul Gawande27-Mar288
9The Graveyard BookNeil Gaiman11-Apr368
10Bad BloodJohn Carreyrou9-May352
11Atomic HabitsJames Clear23-May320
12Built to LastJim Collins25-May368
13Digital MinimalismCal Newport30-May304
14Right Here Right NowStephen J. Harper14-Jun240
15MasteryRobert Greene20-Jun352
16Complications – A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect ScienceAtul Gawande25-Jun288
17VagabondingRolf Potts29-Jul240
18Becoming SupermanJ. Michael Straczynski4-Aug480
19A Game of ThronesGeorge R.R. Martin11-Aug864
20UltralearningScott H. Young31-Aug304
21Reader Come HomeMaryanne Wolf11-Sep272
22The ThreatAndrew G. McCabe14-Sep288
23IndistractableNir Eyal19-Sep300
24Permanent RecordEdward Snowden22-Sep352
25The Path Made ClearOprah Winfrey19-Nov208
Total:8924

I have a few thoughts as to why my reading rate dropped off significantly last year and what I can do about it in the year to come.

Life Pressures

Last year had a few significant pressures on my life that might have affected my desire to read. We started basement renovations early in the year, only to discover our basement’s foundation was cracked, requiring us to source quotes and opinions for repairs. This delayed our basement renovation, which didn’t finish until the summer. The protracted project weighed heavily on our minds throughout the year as we questioned whether we were making the right decisions for our home repairs, or whether we would need to make additional fixes later down the line.

Another big change for me was a change of my job at work. While I wouldn’t say it affected me as strongly as the basement renos, it disrupted my routine enough to impact my desire to focus on reading when I came home from work. Couple that with another full year as Board Chair for the non-profit I head up, and it left me with less cognitive bandwidth for self-improvement.

Podcasts and Music

If 2016 was my year of purchasing books, 2017 saw me start to utilize Libby to access the library, and 2018 was an all-out race for me to go through as many audiobooks as my brain could absorb, I felt a greater push away from books in 2019. Instead of working my way through 8-15 hours of content for one piece of work, I found the shorter format of podcasts more satisfying on my commutes. I enjoyed the variety in topics, shows, and voices.

However I also found I was drawn back to listening to music instead of information. With the sheer volume of books I’ve consumed in the last three years, it was nice to go long stretches without a goal of getting through books (or trying to learn new things) and instead allow the melodies, riffs, percussion, and lyrics sweep me away.

Book Burnout?

Overall, my rate for the year was a bit varied. I started slow in January and February, then picked back up in March. April only saw one book completed, then I found my footing again through May onward. However, October is when my wife and I traveled abroad for our honeymoon, and I never recovered my reading habit for the rest of the year.

Given that I spent most of the last three years focusing on business, personal development, and productivity books, I didn’t feel a strong desire to read those books in 2019. Even among the books I did read from that area, I found looking back that I don’t remember anything of note from those books. Neither the book’s theses nor the examples they offered have stuck with me as I enter the new year.

I’ve mentioned a few time the concept of the animated bibliography on this blog, and I think I’ve hit peak saturation for the genre. I’ve read the canon, and find that reading new books in the genre is resulting in diminishing returns; that is, I’m not really seeing a lot of new insights being offered that leaves me wanting more.

In my list last week, I commented that the books that I’m drawn to now is starting to shift away from business and productivity and more towards moral lessons found in fiction, biography/memoir, and journalistic explorations of current events. That’s not to say I won’t continue to be tempted to pick up the latest book that promises to fix my life, but it does mean that I’m intending to be more selective in what I choose to prioritize.

Assuming I continue to live a somewhat healthy life that is free from accidents, I figure that I have around 45-50 more years of life left. If I read around 3 books consistently per month, I will get another 1,650 books in my lifetime (4 per month is 2,208 books, and 5 books per month is 2,760 more books before I die). While that sounds like a lot, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the number of books that come out each year and the books that have already been written. There is more to life and learning than being more productive or seeking more meaning in one’s life. I’ve grown to appreciate the value of storytelling this past year, and there are a lot of stories out there to sink into. If I only get access to a few thousand more stories, I should make sure they count.

Happy New Year and Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Top *6* Books Read in 2019

pile of books beside white printer paper and black ballpoint pen
Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

In the waning days of 2018, I gave a preview of the books I read for the year by listing my top five books.  I doubt my current list of books will grow before the new year chimes in tomorrow night, but I will save the 2019 list for next week, and instead present you with my top books I read this year.

My overall volume of reading this year was less than half of what I read last year.  Since 2016, I’ve intentionally set about to increase my reading and I was able to keep the pace for three years.  However, for some reason my reading slowed down a bit.  I’ll reflect on this over the coming week and share some thoughts with my 2019 reading list post.  Given the relatively short list this year, I will instead highlight all of my favourite books since it seems that these were the books that stuck with me.

In chronological order of when I finished them, here are my top books I read in 2019.

 

The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman

A delightful fictional story about a boy who grows up in a graveyard among ghosts and other creatures of the night.  Rather than a horror story as you might expect from the premise, instead this is a charming and whimsical coming of age story that gripped me from start to finish.  Like all good stories, I was sad when the book was over and missed the characters dearly.

View this post on Instagram

-/10 – "The Graveyard Book" by @neilhimself. I finally caved after repeated promotions by @timferriss. I loved reading American Gods, and recently Neil appeared on Tim's podcast, so I decided to pick up this and Good Omens with a couple extra audible credits I have lying around. Tim did not oversell this book – it's so good! The story has so much charm and heart, and I felt sad to close if off. A bildungsroman, the story is about a child who grows up in a graveyard, raised by ghosts. While it's a creepy sounding premise, the macabre story is actually incredibly touching and morally inspiring, and one I plan to read to my own kids one day. #reading #selfimprovement #books #fiction #neilgaiman #childrensstory #bildungsroman #growingup

A post shared by Ryan Huckle (@rhuckle) on

 

Bad Blood – John Carreyrou

The story of the rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes and the Theranos company.  Not only is this book a journalistic account of the deceptive “science” and events surrounding the failed tech venture, but it also explores the toxic achievement culture at the company’s top and the lengths the journalists and ex-employees had to go to in order to bring the company down.  It’s a riveting story to experience, and I was happy to hear of the Ethics in Entrepreneurship initiative founded by two of the whistle blowers.

View this post on Instagram

-/11 – Bad Blood by John Carreyrou. I've been listening mostly to podcasts and haven't finished a book in a month. This became available through the library, so I jumped on it. It details the rise, fall, and demise of Theranos and its wunderkind darling founder, Elizabeth Holmes. I was broadly aware of the story of how she lied about their product to consumers and investors, but I didn't know the details and depths to the fabrications. You hear of bad behaviour from the tech industry, or people overinflating the power of tech innovation, but rarely do you see this level of fraud. Thanks to Holmes' charisma, her gender, an all star board of directors, and a culture that expects secrecy and legal protection, I was astonished how long she was able to keep up the lies, and the amount of courage needed by whistleblowers to eventually bring them down. #reading #selfimprovement #books #nonfiction #learning #education #audiobook #tech #siliconvalley #techvalley #theranos #badblood

A post shared by Ryan Huckle (@rhuckle) on

 

Becoming Superman – J. Michael Straczynski

This memoir took me to the highest highs and the lowest lows.  While Straczynski is known for his ability to craft human stories in the most magical and alien of settings, none of his work of fiction can come close to matching his own personal story of growing up in an abusive home and how that shadow followed him throughout his life.  Running in parallel with his own story, he also tells a mystery story about his family’s origins that spans three generations.  I mostly started this book to learn about his craft and the origins of some of my favourite projects he’s worked on, but in the end I witnessed a masterclass in writing and reflection.

View this post on Instagram

-/19 – Becoming Superman by J Michael Straczynski. This is easily my favourite read for the year. I first encountered his work through Wizard magazine's coverage of comics industry news in the early 2000s, but never really had a chance to read his words firsthand until this memoir. His story is one of the saddest I've ever read. The abuse, trauma, and abject poverty he experienced is gut wrenching. And yet, the story is incredible and full of hope. It was a gripping read; I couldn't put it down. And I will gladly listen to it again. For those interested in reading it, be warned that he talks about domestic abuse, sexual abuse, and violence. #reading #selfimprovement #books #nonfiction #learning #education #audiobook #memoir #comics #superman #jms #straczynski

A post shared by Ryan Huckle (@rhuckle) on

 

A Game of Thrones – George R.R. Martin

With the end of the show this year, I felt like it was time for me to crack into the books that kicked-off the phenomenon.  I am grateful that I watched the series first as it really helped me keep track of all of the characters in this massive tale.  Also, reading a large fictional story was a welcomed relief.  Over the last three years, my primary genre to read is at the intersections of business, productivity, and personal development.  I think one thing that has lead to me reading less is feeling burnt out of that kind of content, so it was great to read something for pleasure.  I am still proud of going through 500-pages while up at the cottage; there is nothing quite like reading by the lake.

 

The Threat – Andrew G. McCabe

Thanks to the Libby app and the library, I was able to check out books I otherwise wouldn’t have encountered if I had to purchase them.  I wasn’t sure what to expect, but this memoir was fascinating.  I’m drawn to books where people look over their life and career to draw lessons when connecting their experiences.  Whatever the political climate we find ourselves in, I find it somewhat reassuring to know there are people in the deep state who work to put the mission above party, though as more evidence comes to light, that faith is beginning to crumble.

View this post on Instagram

-/23 – "The Threat" by Andrew G McCabe. I didn't know what to expect with this one. I saw it in the new releases through the library, so I requested it. I didn't know who McCabe is and thought it wouldn't be very interesting. Thankfully I was wrong and I thoroughly enjoyed this book. McCabe's two decades in the FBI lead to many stories and a lot of context behind many the the major events since 2001. This book, along with Comey's and Clinton's books, paints a fascinating picture of the last few years. Now, I just need a really good biography of Robert Muller, which I doubt will, ever happen. #reading #selfimprovement #books #nonfiction #learning #education #audiobook #politics #law #history #FBI #currentevents

A post shared by Ryan Huckle (@rhuckle) on

 

Permanent Record – Edward Snowden

Despite the subject matter, there is no other word I can think of to describe this book than “awesome.”  And I mean “awesome” in both senses of the word.  The book inspires “awe” at the sheer scope of things, but also a riveting tale of Snowden’s life to date, full of creativity, ingenuity, and technological espionage.  I marveled at the fact that he is only a few years older than me, but what he has gone through is likely to dwarf any contributions I’ll ever make.  I hope he can come home one day, but for the present I hope he remains safe while the effects of his actions continue to simmer in the current political climate.

View this post on Instagram

-/25 – "Permanent Record" by Edward Snowden. Well, by posting this I'm surely going into a government database somewhere, but such is our modern life, I suppose. I've been on a kick recently with wanting to learn more about the history and intersections of tech and government. From books on surveillance capitalism, the FBI, and now on the US government's expansion of bulk data collection, I've been fascinated to read about how much of our lives and control we are giving up to tech for mere convenience. I know as I listened to this book that I'm getting Snowden's narrative, which he controls and chooses what to reveal. This could be a distortion to make him more sympathetic, and yet it is a compelling story that I enjoyed listening to. If what he says is false, then at least we are more aware of what we might be giving up in terms of our liberties. And if what he says is true, then we have a lot to reflect on when we cede this level of control to the government, and we need to decide what we want to do about it. #reading #selfimprovement #books #nonfiction #learning #education #audiobook #memoir #technology

A post shared by Ryan Huckle (@rhuckle) on

In looking over my top books for the year, we see three genres stand out – fantasy, current events journalism, and memoirs.  I would have also included biography in this list, however one book is missing that I unfortunately couldn’t finish before it was checked back in to the library: Hamilton by Ron Chernow.  It’ll get added to my 2020 list when the library finally releases it back to me.

As I said above, I think I’m starting to burn out of the business and productivity genres of books.  When I reviewed the list for the year, I had almost no recollection of the content for nearly all of the books.  It would seem I’ve hit a bit of a block, where I’ve consumed so much content in a short amount of time that I’m failing to hold on to it (or, as a corollary, the content is so superficial that it doesn’t stick…).

I still have a number of books on the go that I hope to finish early next year (such as the first Witcher book that the game and Netflix series was based on, Robert Greene’s Laws of Human Nature, and Working by Robert A. Caro, to name a few).  Once I clear some of the current backlog, I plan to start selecting my reading a bit more intentionally so that I can reflect on the lessons the books have to offer.  Overall, the main themes that stick out in the books that speak to me personally are good moral stories, cautionary tales, and the reflections of/about people over a long period of time to draw connections and lessons from their life and work.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

Being Comfortable with Pain

I’ve been thinking about endurance recently, specifically in two areas of my life.  First, I’ve been experimenting with intermittent fasting since January of this year and I’ll be sharing some reflections on it soon.  By fasting each day, it requires a certain amount of endurance to push through on cognitively and physically demanding tasks while your body deals with the exertion in a fasted state.

Second, as the winter weather hits us, I have to endure colder temperatures while working at the bar.  I’ve managed to push myself over the last two years and use a sufficient number of clothing layers to eschew wearing a coat while on the door position.  I have the coat on hand, but I like the challenge of working without it and standing outdoors for long stretches of time exposed to the elements.

It might seem silly or pointless to put myself in these positions when I don’t have to – I make enough money so that I never need to worry about food scarcity or not owning enough proper clothing to protect myself.  On some level, it’s stupid machismo to willfully deprive myself in this way.  Yet, I like the challenge and the sense of satisfaction that I can achieve some level of control or mastery over myself and my situation.

While recently listening to Oprah’s book The Path Made Clear, I came across a really interesting way of framing this tendency I have.  The specific section runs from 4:53-5:52 of the clip below, where Oprah is chatting with Alanis Morissette about the yearning to seek out a time in the future where all your present problems are solved and you are finally happy.  They discuss that this forward-orientated hope for the future never manifests itself as peace; that money and fame doesn’t bring you happiness or contentment.  Instead, you are always chasing that future where you are free from whatever pain you feel in the present.

 

“One of the big lessons I’ve learned over the last little while has been that if I can be comfortable with pain, which is different than suffering, if I can be comfortable with pain, as just an indication, and it’s potentially a daily thing (in my case it often is) then there won’t be my living in the future all the time; that one day if and when I will be happy.

“And even if I’m not comfortable doing that, I’m very uncomfortable in pain – I hate it – we run from it with all kinds of addictive, fun things (temporarily fun things).  But at least knowing it’s a portal, and that on the other side is this great sense of peace that goes beyond this ego development.”

~Alanis Morissette (lightly edited for readability)

This sentiment spoke to me.  I have an affinity towards stoicism and the idea that one should re-frame their relationship with the external.  To me, I like knowing that I can endure, even when I don’t have to.  It becomes practice for those moments when I need to dig in deep to perform, because life isn’t always easy.  Through this practice, I can also appreciate my comforts all the more.  And, it also doesn’t need to run in opposition of my goal to remove discomfort from my life so long as I remember that I’m not entitled to a life of comfort and ease and instead have to intentionally earn it.

I acknowledge that I’m fortunate not to live with serious pain or suffering.  I have a comfortable life and I wouldn’t exchange it for machismo points.  I don’t think the point of life is to suffer, but instead my goal is to learn to suffer well when life brings me pain.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

History Snippets – Demagoguery

demagogue-2193093_1920
Image by John Hain from Pixabay 

It is sometimes amazing how cyclical social and political problems can be.  While I am not pessimistic in our ability to move forward in something that can be recognized as “progress,” I do have some cynical attitudes towards our collective habit to backslide.  I realized some time ago that while we espouse enlightened positions, such as “never again,” people as a whole tend to by historically myopic and prone to letting fear get the best of them – or to quote Agent Kay “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it.”

As of writing, I’m working my way through Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton.  Around ten-hours into the audiobook, Chernow is discussing the political maneuvering between Hamilton and New York Governor George Clinton over trying to get the newly-drafted Constitution ratified in 10 States in order to bring it into force.  The two sat on opposite sides of the federal government question, with Hamilton believing a strong central federal government was the key to sustaining the American experiment, while Clinton was distrustful of a central government superseding the power of the States.  Hamilton had a poor opinion of Clinton, believing Clinton to be only concerned with consolidating his own wealth and power, and only pandering to the populace when elections rolled around.

Chernow gives a striking description of what Hamilton feared, and in a single line spells out a looming threat we are seeing anew in our own modern political discourse.  Hamilton worried that “American democracy would be spoiled by demagogues who would mouth populace shibboleths to conceal their despotism.”

Chernow penned those words some fifteen years ago.  Whether it’s 1788, 2004, or the dawning of the neo-20’s, the fears expressed in those words caution us that we must remain vigilant against those who seek to exploit our fears to manifest their vision in reality.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

“The Same Fifteen Academic Studies”

Despite my rant a few weeks back on the podcast-book marketing relationship, there are a few authors I will check out when they appear on podcasts I’m subscribed to.  For instance, Ryan Holiday just released his new book and is out promoting it to various podcast audiences.

He appeared on Rolf Pott’s podcast, Deviate, and had a conversation about what it’s like to write a big idea book.  Towards the end of the episode, he makes an off-hand remark on getting ideas from recently published books, and how he chooses not to do this because it tends to result in recycling the same academic studies.  Given how much I rant about animated bibliographies and short term content bias, I was happy to see some convergence in our ideas – that my amateur attempt on commenting on culture is shared by people I admire and hold in regard.

I’ve transcribed his remarks below, but you can go here to listen to the episode yourself.  Holiday’s comments begin at the 50:37 mark:

Potts: And that’s why you should feel blessed not to be an academic, right, because that’s such a useful model from which to write a book.  The academic world has these different hoops to jump through that often aren’t as useful.  And I would think that, sometimes, there’s types of research, like, do you do much Google or Wikipedia research, or is it mostly books?

Holiday: Yeah, I mean, you have to be careful, obviously, relying on Wikipedia, but yeah you do wanna go get facts here and there, and you gotta check stuff out.  I like to use obituaries.  Let’s say I’m writing about a modern person and they’ve died.  New York Times obituaries, Washington Post obituaries often have lots of really interesting stuff.   Then you can be really confident that dates and places and names are all correct because they’ve been properly fact-checked.  So I like to do stuff like that.  I watch documentaries from time to time.  In this book, there wasn’t really a great book about Marina Abramović, but there was some really great New York Times reporting about her Artist is Present exhibit, and there’s also a documentary with the same name.  So I’m willing to get stuff from anywhere provided I believe it’s verified or accurate, but you can’t be choosy about where your stuff comes from.  And in fact, if you’re only drawing from the best selling books of the last couple of years, just as an aside, an example, I find when I read a lot of big idea business books, it feels like they’re all relying on the same fifteen academic studies.  It’s “the will power” experiment, and “the paradox of choice” experiment, and the “Stanford Prison” experiment!  They think it’s new because it’s new to them, but if they’d read a little bit more widely in their own space, they’d realize that they’d be better off going a bit deeper or treading on some newer ground.

*****
(Note: I’ve lightly edited the transcript to remove filler words and some idiolects).

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Podcasts and Book Marketing

I’ve noticed an annoying trend in the podcast marketing of new books.  The marketing itself works quite well – I’ve purchased a number of books based on authors who appear on podcasts I listen to and discuss the main ideas of the book with the host.

The problem I have is when it seems like a significant amount of the content discussed in the podcast accounts for large chunks of the book’s main ideas.  For instance, I picked up a book recently and all of the key ideas (the theoretical framework and main argument for why the topic is important) laid out in the first 70 pages were discussed on a podcast.  I’m curious whether the rest of the book will be similarly spoiled, but I’m holding out to be surprised.  From what I’ve seen so far, though, the next 150 pages are presented as tactics and strategies to apply the main ideas, so I’m not overly optimistic.

I understand that this is part and parcel of the marketing format for these books.  An author is invited onto a show with a certain audience reach, the two discuss the book as a common framing device for the conversation, and everyone is happy – the author gets promoted, the publisher gets advertising, and the podcast generates revenues on sales kickbacks and sponsored content.   The only person that loses is the reader who pays for a book that was effectively summarized an hour-long conversation for free.  This is doubly bad when the book is an animated bibliography, and you’ve read enough books in the genre to get the punchline from the stories cited.

I can’t put all the blame on the author.  After all, they are just trying to sell their book and there is going to be a lot of repetition of the talking points if you do a lot of interviews.  A lot of the blame, instead, falls on the quality of the podcasts.  I find that podcast hosts tend to stick to a common format of teeing up questions based on key points from the chapters.  Sometimes this is handled smoothly, as in cases where the host poses an interesting question that the author uses to circle back to something discussed in the book.  But I have listened to podcast episodes where the host states a thesis from the book without a question, and the author then just elaborates on that point.

In an ideal world, I would want an interview the way it used to be when I watched Jon Stewart’s run of the Daily Show, where the author would be invited as a guest to the show on the pretense of discussing the book, however the conversation would be about whatever Stewart wanted.  Often the conversation was an excuse to catch up, swap stories, and bore little direct connection with what the book was about; the book was usually mentioned as an afterthought as the interview wrapped up.   Maybe this wouldn’t sell as many books, but at least I wouldn’t feel cheated reading through a book I already had the conclusions for.

Or maybe I have too high of expectations of free content, which runs counter to the content farming that needs to occur to regularly post stuff for consumers.

Rant over (for now).

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Short Term Content Bias

I admit that the kinds of videos I watch on YouTube and the kinds of books I read tend to gravitate towards a certain kind of self-help genre, where some productivity or business person is giving me a set of systems and protocols to follow to help me “hack” my way to a more fulfilling work and life.  These kinds of content are usually well-made but suffer from a shallowness of insight.  It’s not that the authors are deliberately trying to dupe me (at least I hope not!) but the unfortunate reality is that the incentive structures that lead to engagement online and sale of products means that in order to publish, you need to publish fast and loose.

Books that get published are usually a small essay that gets padded out with animated bibliography research or a year-long experiment where the author tests out the ideas in the short-term and reports back on what they experienced and learned about themselves.  There might be small kernels of originality and insight in there, but the rest of the book is a repackaging and restatement of the research and writing of others.  It is without irony that I wager that the same 20% of landmark examples appear at least once in 80% of the books out there.

YouTube videos run into some similar issues.  Often, I find that the videos are short think pieces and experiments that people run as a blog series or retrospective.  The editing is fast and smooth, and the experiments are reported on based on impressions from the first week, month, and sometimes quarter.

In both of these mediums, we see a presentation of the short-term result with little follow-up on the long term impacts.  On small occasions, a writer might follow-up on some of the ideas in a second book that is a direct result of the first, but by and large we don’t have insight into the impact the changes had over the long-term.

This bias towards short term content make sense.  Authors and content developers need to create products quickly in order to ensure a viable revenue stream, and once you write about your niche and experience, life moves too slowly for you to be able to keep up with that pace.  As a result, they would start to publish on things that are more nebulous and propped up by the work of others (hence, animated bibliography).

The best books with the deepest wisdom are often, as Taleb notes, ones that have been around for more than 50 years.  I’d add to that that books published as the culmination of one’s life work also fall into that category.

This is not to say that content coming out of the short-term process is worthless.  In my opinion, my life and satisfaction has improved in quality over the last 3 years of intentionally reading these books.  The problem is that after a while, very little surprises you and you start to see the same examples getting recycled.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan