Around this time last year, for the first time in as long as I can remember, I deliberately set aside the books I wanted to tackle in 2019.
One of the advantages print books, rather than e-books, is their physical nature: I actually lined up the titles I wanted to read on a dedicated shelf next to my favorite reading chair. And they were there, looming over me, all year long, reminding me to dive in.
I picked a mix of classics I’d never read — or had delved into but never fully grasped — and more recent books that I was interested in for work or personal reasons. I also tried to read more novels, as my previous year-end lists have been dominated by nonfiction.
These were my faves, in roughly the order I read them. Note that as always, these are books I read that were new to me in 2019, not books published only during that year.
- “The Upstarts: How Uber, Airbnb, and the Killer Companies of the New Silicon Valley Are Changing the World,” by Brad Stone. (Published: 2017.)
I enjoyed Stone’s “The Everything Store,” about Jeff Bezos and Amazon (corresponding Book Notes post here), and found this one to be similarly instructive for understanding the origins and culture of Uber and Airbnb — and their founders.
For more details, see my Book Notes post on “The Upstarts” here.
- “The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal,” by David E. Hoffman. (Published: 2015.)
This was not something I’d actually planned to read, but happened upon a copy of it while away at the beach. (All that stuff I was saying above about planning what to read? This was a notable exception.)
It’s fantastic: a page turner about successful U.S. efforts, after years of failure, to cultivate a spy deep within the Russian government during the Cold War — and how much that cost all the individuals involved. It’s such a pleasure to encounter new insights about a topic that has so little to do with your daily life, but feels so timeless.
- “How Asia Works: Success and Failure in the World’s Most Dynamic Region,” by Joe Studwell. (Published: 2013.)
I’d been meaning to read this this it was published several years ago, having loved Studwell’s seminal 2007 book “Asian Godfathers: Money and Power in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia” (Book Notes post here).
Why do some countries become rich, while others remain poor or stuck with their middle income status? Studwell shows that it’s really not so mysterious.
There is a proven path to economic development that countries such as Japan, Taiwan and South Korea have undertaken. First, initiate land reform that permits farmers to practice small scale agriculture; then build a manufacturing sector by requiring domestic firms to be globally competitive; and, finally, enforce fiscal discipline.
Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and India (though the South Asian nation is not discussed at length in the book) have not taken this path, and thus have not developed as quickly. (China is a case unto itself.)
- “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business,” by Neil Postman. (Published: 1985.)
The crux of this book: TV ruins everything.
When people communicate important ideas through words (i.e. newspapers, magazines, books), public discourse tends to be more thoughtful. But the rise of TV has brought about sensationalism and shallowness of thought, and discourse has followed suit.
Were Postman still alive, I reckon he would simply point to Donald Trump, the reality star turned president, to prove his point.
- “1984,” by George Orwell. (Published: 1949.)
I must have read this book in high school or college, but I gave it another look in 2019. The dystopian novel is famous for terms like Big Brother and Doublespeak, and for showing (predicting?) how totalitarian states can employ surveillance to stifle dissent and crush individuals.
Especially compelling was just how vividly Orwell renders the personal toll on citizens, describing the suffering endured by Winston and Julia in such horrific terms.
- “Exit West: A Novel,” by Mohsin Hamid. (Published: 2017.)
Last year I read Hamid’s novel “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia” and found it strikingly good.
I also enjoyed “Exit West,” which follows a couple named Nadia and Saeed as they live their lives together in a world of war and global migration.
One criticism: Without giving away too much, there is one sci-fi-related plot point that I found unconvincing, but otherwise I found it to be an excellent novel.
- “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” by Patricia Highsmith.” (Published: 1955.)
I’m not sure how it is I’d never read this Highsmith classic. It is a psychological thriller about Tom Ripley, touching on identity, wealth and class, jealousy, love, and deception.
I loved her beautiful, unadorned prose and perfect pacing.
- “Googled: The End of the World As We Know It,” by Ken Auletta (Published: 2009).
First, yes: this book is a decade old, and that’s about a century in internet years. Google has changed a lot during that time, but I didn’t read it to understand the company’s most recent happenings.
Rather, as I mentioned in reading about Uber and Airbnb (and Amazon), what I’m often looking for is knowledge about big tech firms’ beginnings and cultural makeup. Auletta, who covers media for The New Yorker, delivers on that front.
- “The Billionaire Raj: A Journey Through India’s New Gilded Age,” by James Crabtree (Published: 2018)
Crabtree, who was a Financial Times correspondent here in India for several years, has delivered an excellent book explaining why the ranks of India’s billionaires has risen so sharply in recent years, and drawing comparisons to the American Gilded Age.
He explains how it’s happened in the world’s second-most-populous country, who the billionaires are as people, and mixes in colorful anecdotes from his reporting. Recommended for anyone interested in India, its economy, and its future.
- “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” by Daniel Kahneman (Published: 2011.)
Yes, it’s as good as you’ve heard it is.
I’d put off reading this book for so long because since its publication eight years ago the ideas contained in its pages have been everywhere — conversations, podcasts, all manner of journalistic stories — to such an extent that I felt I’d already understood them.
And, largely, I had. But it’s worth devoting the time to read about them at length. The book is meticulously researched and brimming with insights.
Simply put: Kahneman provides page after page of evidence showing that we just aren’t as smart as we think we are. When we think fast — use heuristics and fall prey to our cognitive biases — we make bad decisions. Even when we know we’re vulnerable.