Note: my rating scale is not quite what you may have encountered before; a 5-star book is truly exceptional (I wouldn't expect to have found more than 5-10 such books in my life), while a 1-star book makes me indifferent between reading it and not reading it. Any book worse than that simply doesn't appear on the list: I don't finish what's not worth finishing.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind: A rare combination of great scientific rigor and truly remarkable insights woven together by a clear narrative and a great conceptual framework. Unlike the writing of Gladwell, who makes you feel you’ve stumbled on a deep a-ha, this book builds a strong case for several. One of the best "histories of everything that matters” I’ve read, and I’ve read many.
American Kingpin. Life crafts the best stories, but Bilton's writing is a perfect form for this real-life Breaking Bad story. The painstaking research has paid off manifold. This is by far my favorite non-fiction-that-reads-like-fiction.
Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974. Surprisingly engaging history told mostly as an interplay between various U.S. Presidents and the rapidly evolving media. Although the TL;DR isn’t shocking (last 4 decades are a constant escalation of how divided we are as a nation; individuals and small groups led to change that almost always had a powerful counter-reaction) but it is enlightening to witness the themes constructed right on front of our eyes.
Out of Your Mind. A surprisingly approachable description of the practical essence of Buddhism. Alan Watts is an engaging, funny, erudite lecturer whose lectures feel like sermons but without the guilt or dogma. The collection of 12 lectures includes just enough repetition to really drive Watts’ point home.
Enlightenment Now. Uplifting and convincing. Exactly what I needed in times that make me fundamentally doubt my optimism about mankind. You'll encounter Pinker's usual (at times incisive) wit, high degree of opinionatedness, commitment to evidence and pulling of diverse sources from the Greek classics to hip hop.
Wizard and the Prophet. The author found the ideal individuals to represent two wildly different views on our future on Earth and make a compelling argument that neither is obviously superior. Engaging biographies interspersed with a high quality synthesis.
The Square and the Tower. Superbly well-written journey through history and the issues of the modern times through the lens of the interplay between networks and hierarchies. Unlike many books where the thesis is a bit too much of a stretch, I thought the author had a solid insight in reducing a lot of historical complexity into these two concepts. Dense at times, but his proficiency in both world history as well as analysis of contemporary events is impressive.
The Coddling of the American Mind. Lays out, in an impartial way, a description of a phenomenon, connects the dots on its origins, and presents a compelling case for why it is dangerous. Offers some hope and advice on what to do about it. An eye-opener in that it pinpoints a "values drift" which can lead to unintended consequences.
The Road. A terrific (and terrifying) novel set in a plausible yet eerily nondescript post-apocalyptic world. Presents a chilling picture of the breakdown of humanity. It fortunately skimps on the explanations (which are always tempting yet invariably cheapen the work). It draws in through economical but powerful depiction of the relationship between a father and a son, their demons and their growth.
Lost at Sea. High-quality, engaging journalism that still has a way of feeling nonchalant and reluctant. I enjoyed the vague theme (extraordinary people and their foibles), the creativity of topic selection and the portraits of deeply flawed successful humans. And Ronson's voice!
1776. I’m not a history book person but McCullough comes as close as I can imagine making me one! He does an excellent job of making the first year of the Revolutionary War come to life with judicious quotes from letters and other sources. His account is fair and I emerged with a much more nuanced understanding of Washington as early Commander in Chief.
Radical Markets. Able to convincingly present a viable alternative to capitalism, supported by ample economic theory. Great thought experiment prefaced with a clear articulation of what is not working today (a combination of stagnation, deflation, and inequality). I wish the authors spent more time on implementation (since that is the hardest part of any seismic shift like this).
Don't Think of an Elephant!. Debate and persuasion is all about the framing and the choice of language. A powerful and insightful explanation of the common mistake we make (applied primarily to the liberal/conservative discourse) and actionable advice on how to avoid it.
Elon Musk. Offers a vivid and real glimpse into the mind of Elon Musk. The book does a fantastic job painting the nuanced picture that includes the strength of Elon's vision and his discipline of execution, but also his demons. (upgraded from ★★★)
The Girl with All the Gifts: I generally detest the genre, but this book is so well written, so engaging, and so different in many aspects, that it single-handedly redeems the genre for me. It's particularly engaging as an audiobook, with excellent narration.
Stories of Your Life and Others: A diverse collection bound together by an expression of a kind of longing. The early stories are particularly captivating, vivid, and original. I'm glad I read "Story of Your Life" before I saw the movie.
How the Mind Works. While certainly an investment of time and mindshare, the book is a wonderful excursion into the human mind and a survey of what we know about this precious organ. Some of that knowledge will no doubt come as a surprise. Despite its length it never gets dry or monotonous, helped by the author's wit. Pinker is masterful at reasoning through extremely complex topics.
The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: Captures the essence of what science is all about. Not afraid to be opinionated. A book about philosophy, but the most approachable kind. You gain appreciation of Feynman's sheer genius.
Butterfly Effect. A self-contained miniseries that deeply explores an original topic. The host and his casually inquisitive demeanor is a perfect match. The series offers truly surprising insights into a world few of us think about.
Think of a number. Writing is excellent – a rare combination of engaging and rich. The novel is a cross between Red Dragon and Sherlock Holmes, and the puzzle is captivating, but the protagonist struck me as less brilliant than his career may be suggesting.
How to talk so Little Kids Listen. A straightforward and actionable application of the "treat little kids with respect like you would an adult" principle with lots of real-life case studies.
The Hard Thing About Hard Things: In a world of autobiographies-turned-pats-on-the-back, this book is surprisingly insightful and authentic. Horowitz paints a great picture of what's actually hard about what he had to deal with (even if he should have attributed a little more of the failures to himself). Inspiring decisiveness and guts.
A Short History of Nearly Everything: We know so much. We know so little. Good theories struggle to get adopted. All that with a bit of dry humor.
Never Let Me Go: Delightfully dreamy, engaging and relatable (perhaps because I went to a British boarding school). The storytelling had a refreshing lightness to it. At times formulaic but did a good job convincing me to forgive that weakness.
In Cold Blood: Draws you in from the very start, and doesn't let go until it's over. If only all nonfiction read that way.
Brad Feld’s Burning Entrepreneur
Big History: An investment of time, but if “big history” – a study of cause and effect that encompasses everything from humans up to the Universe – is something you’re drawn to, you’re in for a treat. Builds on a wealth of scientific information, with emphasis on connections between the different levels of complexity.
Contagious: Why Things Catch On: A clear framework for what makes ideas spread with great examples to make these abstract concepts more tangible. A great read for anyone considering designing work that is meant to become contagious.
Free: Refreshingly engaging in the era of cliché- and business-speak literature. An economist's view on business models that have taken over the world. A great survey of the tech industry, behavioral economics and marketing through the lens of gratis.
The Success Equation: Despite an off-putting biz-y title, a surprisingly solid treatment of luck. Good survey of scientific work, connections to other work in behavioral economics. Well-written, easy to follow. The occasional math seems a little out of place.
The Intention Economy: A vision I buy into. Searls paints a compelling picture of what an economy where consumers take charge should look like. A little repetitive in the second half, but I give kudos to the inspiration the book was able to give me.
The Language Instinct: Informative, engaging, and reflecting Pinker's extensive research. Loved his analogies and more than occasional tongue-in-cheek statements.
The Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Murakami
Motion Mountain: The only physics textbook you’ll ever need, and you will need this one. It explains in a well-structured, highly conceptual yet approachable way everything we know about the Universe today. Puzzles that get you thinking
Verne's Mysterious Island: The first “big” book I ever read. It awoke my imagination and kept me in suspense throughout the whole story. Wonderfully crafted, engaging
Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
Nine Stories by Salinger
The Foundation by Asimov
Lessons of History by Durant, W and A: The Durants were able to synthesize forty years of their research into one 100-page essay.
Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline. Enticing, almost tempting, contrarian thesis. Highlights the difficulties of doing any sort of projection, let alone something as complex as population projections, in a dynamic, accelerating world that has never looked the way it looks now. The author made me doubt the prevailing “explosive growth” hypothesis but I’m not convinced the population will shrink quickly. I was also hoping to see the author venture more into the consequences of such a shock, should one happen.
How to Change Your Mind. Solid, well-researched, balanced between historical accounts, philosophical ruminations, and deeply personal experiences (which read squarely like a 64-year-old trying drugs). Pollan does a good job of tackling a broad space without getting lost in it.
Measure what Matters. The all-star cast is impressive and between the high profile examples and the breadth of applications, I was sold on OKRs, though the CFRs felt a bit like an afterthought. I also found the flow somewhat confusing – I would like the mechanics and practical matters separated from the selling points.
Brave New World. A brilliant vision of a future, which inspired a cultural following and inspired many others, not just in science fiction. But, having returned to the original after reading it earlier in my life, I found its style and the story to have aged.
The Righteous Mind. Too much: a history of psychology, philosophy and anthropology; a long-winded argument about a framework for moralities; and a set of application to politics and religion. I didn't need a full account of the revisions of his theory or a rigorous proof of his position (most of the evidence for which should be a bibliography). I would have enjoyed a much shorter treatment of the theory with more focus on the applications.
Our Mathematical Universe. I loved the focus in the beginning on fundamental questions that a child may ask. What followed was a lengthy but helpful overview of the fundamental theories in the science of large scale. The last third of the book was a convoluted argument based on questionably abstract reasoning.
Happy City. Urban design is something we all experience every day, but rarely think about. The book offers a rich view on some counterintuitive aspects of city design, interwoven with vignettes from travels to actual cities. One big takeaway? Mixed-use zoning.
The Startup Way. This book is great for a very specific niche: senior managers and executives who believe their (large-ish) companies are not innovative and who are willing to try things that are likely unorthodox for their organizations. The author's insights from his time consulting large companies (but mostly GE) are interesting, but it's unclear whether this book will be enough to break through corporate inertia (and corporate incentives – which the author acknowledges but doesn't address).
Weapons of Math Destruction. A very important call to action and an "eye opener" as big data starts to manage increasingly more of our lives. A good reminder that technology isn't inherently neutral – it often reflects the biases of its creator
The Paper Menagerie. Dreamy, fantastical, fresh – unlike any set of stories I've read as of late. A very clear theme throughout the anthology, which makes it a consistent albeit narrowly-focused one.
The Road Less Traveled. It hasn't made a lasting impression on me, perhaps due to the themes that have been repeated in other sources since the book's publication. I did appreciate the soft, non-patronizing tone.
Simplicity Parenting. Based on commonsense principles which most of us fail to apply to parenting, this book offers helpful advice for how to raise children who are less stressed and more connected. It's an easy read that avoids feeling preachy or patronizing.
Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. A solid framework that helps the reader hone in her persuasive skills. The book is a little too repetitive but, while the six components of persuasion are easy to intellectually grasp, they are difficult to internalize to the point where they effect behavior change.
The Industries of the Future. A good synthesis of what's to come, not in the pie-in-the-sky way but in a way supported by evidence and logic. Many of the "future industries" make sense and are talked about in the media a good deal, but it's valuable to have them all juxtaposed to enable a future-thinking mindset.
The Inevitable. A novel way to think about the future of technology via component "verbs" such as screening or remixing. Because of this framing, it's not a helpful guide to innovation or business, so don't expect that. But it was refreshing to see an optimist's view in an era where it's tough to feel anything but optimistic about technology.
The Undoing Project. Lewis' track record and my admiration of Kahneman and Tversky made me eager to read the book. It was a good biography, but not in the same tier of writing as Lewis' other books.
Night of Fire. I thought I would enjoy the format – stories converging on a predetermined event – but I found the stories to be too convoluted and not engaging enough.
The Second Variety. A good, compact story with a guessable twist. The plot development towards the end could have been made more believable.
Everybody Lies. I really appreciated the author's brilliant insight to look at Google search statistics to find the true and surprising versions of lies we tell ourselves and others. But that's really the strongest aspect of the book – other than that, the book didn't quite pull its weight.
Algorithms to Live By. Starts strong, providing easy to grasp heuristics for what may otherwise seem like unsolvable problems. Then meanders into an intro CS class with relatively little practical value, capped with a few general pointers for the society at large.
The Bell Jar: I know that it is generally a highly regarded book, but I just couldn't get into it. Maybe it was the character of the heroine–reminded me of some of my intellectual misanthrope writer friends.
Well-Designed. I enjoyed the format (a case study interwoven with theory and interviews), but there was heavy emphasis on the "motions" of product design and management, perhaps lending itself too much to cargo cult design process.
French Kids Eat Everything: Made me realize I don't spend enough time seeking inspiration from how other nations do things better than we do. The author presents a very clear case for how to make small part parenting more commonsense, fun, healthier, and less stressful.
Quiet: A welcome treatment of the topic that isn't talked about. For the longest time I've certainly felt like being an introvert was a deficiency – something I was "unfortunately" born with. The author presents a convincing argument for why introversion is valuable. The book allowed me to build a stronger foundation of my personality, embracing rather than apologizing for my introversion, yet augmenting aspects of myself with elements of extroversion. On a personal side, I found the chapter on extroverted children or introverted parents particularly helpful.
Sprint: A good comprehensive guidebook to running a sprint. It's true; one cannot meaningfully cut corners and arrive at the same result. In places I wish they had stopped at the principle rather than expanded on the same idea to death. Wherever you work, there is probably one important project that would benefit from a Sprint.
The New York Trilogy: Writer detectives (or detective writers?) Falling apart. Lost and found. And what's in a name?
The Power of Habit: A believable thesis supported with solid evidence and good storytelling that kept me engaged. I liked the practical application at the very end, wished there was more of it and less of the discussion of organizational and community habits. I felt there was a lot of overlap between this book and Contagious.
The Story of Philosophy: As I’ve come to expect from the Durants, this piece is extremely well-written and provides a great synthesis of the basis of philosophy. I wish I could retain more of this information – by the virtue of what this book is, it probably lends itself well to being a starting point to a lot more literature, rather than being a standalone piece.
On the Road: Paints a vivid picture of a kind of freedom I’ve never had the courage to claim. Meanders…but maybe that’s the point. In any case, very likely deserves more kudos because of the culture it inspired, which I now take the granted (and evaluate this book against).
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World: Has a bit of that Vonnegut quality to it. Describes beautifully that feeling you have as you start falling asleep while working late, late at night. Wish the Wonderland story was a little toned down, a little less like a video game.
Orbiting a Giant Hairball: A quick escape out of routine, process, rigidity, into common sense, creativity, and playfulness. Lots of playfulness. Some ideas really worth integrating into our day to day work.
High Output Management: An engineer’s (and a scientist’s) view on management – crisp, lean, sensible yet rarely practiced in the industry. I’ve found it to equip me with fewer insights and tools than I had expected prior to reading the book, but I wonder if a part of it is that I’m already familiar with many of the methodologies pioneered by this book.
Originals: Starts strong – challenges some myths about what it means to be original. The most powerful insight: “Idea generation is not the problem. It’s idea selection”. Gets a little distracted towards the end.
The Innovators: An impressive attempt to trace the lineage of the personal computer, but focus on attribution and shallow takeaways regarding collaboration and individual genius distracted from enjoying the chronicles.
Gone Girl: A solid plot (though the diary style got tiring at times). Does a good job of making you want to keep reading.
The Everything Store: (Read it about two weeks before the NYT article came out, great timing...) A good chronicle backed by impressive research, but I wish it didn't read so much like a business school case study. A little too much tell, not enough show. Separately, a great example of a kind of successful leader I do not aspire to become one bit.
Fooled by Randomness: Too scattered, a little too judgy (I didn't care for chips on Taleb's shoulders). I preferred The Black Swan.
Inside the Tornado: Quality work of a business academic. Effective metaphors and examples, but the second half of the book fails to inspire.
The Martian: I was craving a modern Robinson Cruzoe tale. The novel engages the engineer in me, but it's not particularly well written.
Ready Player One: For me, the novel withstood the test of time. What I initially saw as trite cliches right out of a journal of a nerdy teenager has acquired a certain mythos. The imagery of the book is still incredibly vivid in my mind. (upgraded from ★★)
Fist Stick Knife Gun: Memoir (and the promo of his organization) is fine, but it fades comparing with Geoff Canada's persona that one can infer between the lines of the book.
Great by Choice: Good case studies, valuable insights. Somewhat repetitive. Examples seem overfit to framework.
Nightfall. A clever short "long ago in a distant galaxy" story, which creatively succeeded to build a compelling story around around a scientific phenomenon.
Traction: Good compendium of channels and a good repository of tricks. Worth running your startup idea through.
Think Like a Freak: Kudos for being different than the other two books. Take-aways were good to internalize, but at times the supporting "evidence" was weak and the thesis seemed like a stretch
The Black Swan: Convincing thesis, engaging mix of story and analysis. Yet, part 3 was somewhat illegible, made way too obscure, chaotic. Some personal vendettas, especially at the end, were distracting. But I would love to meet the author
Howl by Allen Ginsberg
Crime and Punishment: At times brilliant (Porfiry's monologue), at times tedious and soap opera-y
Steve Jobs biography
Lubiewo by Michal Witkowski
If on a Winter’s Night a traveler by Calvino
Grimm’s Fairy Tales
Kazuo Ishiguro’s “A Village After Dark.”
Letters on Life by Rilke
Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt
Will You Please By Quiet, Please by Carver
Cathedral by Carver
Tears of Autumn by Charles McCarry
Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano
Oracle Night by Paul Auster
Three Body Problem. I appreciated my first experience of Chinese Sci-Fi writing, and enjoyed most of the story and its setting amid the backdrop of Communist bureaucracy and politics, but the book jumped the shark at Two Protons, where it moved from the realm of science fiction into the fantastical and the plot development and the writing got markedly worse.
Evil has a Name. The true story is good, but not good enough to justify a 6-hour production. And it shows – the show meanders into rabbit holes seemingly just to fill time. I appreciated the mixed narrative/news/interview format but the audio effects cheapened the experience.
The Subtle Art of not giving a F*ck. Catchy premise which I quickly intuitively agreed with. But later on the book fell short of its promise and doubled down on shock value. How many f*cks does it take to numb the reader? Apparently less than a f*ckton.
Start with Why. Clearly written by a marketer. Mostly a single thesis which is both unobjectionable (better to have a purpose) and unfalsifiable (is it really true that the Wright brothers or Southwest succeeded vs contemporaries/competitors because they started with Why?). At times, a shallow analysis. Very much could have been a pamphlet.
Thirteen Reasons Why. I can imagine it as a solid young adult novel, but I haven't been able to suspend judgment of shallowness of characters and oh the drama.
Punch Escrow. I really, really wanted to like this book: teleportation, after all, is a treasure trove for fiction. But the author failed to explore anything remotely interesting about the subject – to the point of disbelief. The protagonist is that prototypical loser college roommate you've found so frustrating. His personality distracts me from enjoying the book. The novel's scenes feel to beg a cheap movie adaptation. The author, unable to visualize the complexities of a world 150 years from now, cops out by depicting a character in love with everything 1980s – the music, movies, "vintage" neighborhood bars. It's like reading a contemporary book whose protagonist lives a live of late Baroque.
Artemis. It's tough to follow the Martian, but Artemis falls significantly short. The plot is too implausible and action movie-y, the characters shallow and the protagonist's internal monologue annoying.
Road to Character. I respect Brooks' op-eds, even if I don't agree with them, and so I was looking forward to reading his book which part of me was hoping would be a great counterbalance to my usual media and writing exposure. I did enjoy the last chapter, which summarized aspects of character central to Brooks' thesis, but it was painful to get to that last chapter. The format (biography-analyses of lives of people of character) reminded me of required reading for an English Lit class; the heroes were too dissimilar and the themes too disconnected for me to internalize Brooks' points.
Mobilized. The book was widely publicized and marketed (at least in my Silicon Valley Product circles), but I found it to be too formulaic and buzzword-y. I didn't feel I learned or retained much after reading it.
The Blockchain Revolution: The book lists lots of examples of benefits, but it doesn't explain the blockchain technology. Also, most of the "innovations" presented in the book do not require the blockchain technology. Authors don't seem to understand what makes products viable.
Thank you for Being Late. Not one book, but a handful, loosely coupled, but better done separately. The title and blurb made me expect something different. The closing chapter, a semi-autobiographical plug, failed to inspire me.
The E-Myth Revisited. I appreciated the initial insight (a business started by a "technician" often dies because of the technician's biases) but the rest of the book didn't age well, was repetitive and overdid the sermon.
The Four Disciplines of Execution: A frustratingly formulaic business book that should really be a pamphlet. The framework is actually helpful, although as the authors point out, it's all about building the habit (rather than the dead knowledge).
Life as we Knew It: I feel I would really enjoy it as a 17-year-old. A couple of decades too late, I didn't find the format (a teenager's diary) or the science behind the book that engaging.
Creative Confidence: Doesn't feel fresh; recycles a lot of concepts from other books on creativity, habits and behavioral science. At times feels like a heavy promo for IDEO. To its credit, it contains a good number of actionable techniques to foster creativity.
Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution: A little dated by now. Too focused on relating facts and quotes and telling, rather than showing what the original hacker culture is all about. I picked the book up longing for the genesis of the movement that I am a part of, but finished it oversaturated with characters, plot and details.
Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters: one-sided, somewhat patronizing, and failing to account for approaches other than the traditional, Christian, right-wing values
Managing Humans: just a collection of random insights (of which I'm not sure many have really been tested by the author), the book is lacking any structure of framework that would make its takeaways salient
Utopia by Thomas More
Bold: How to Go Big, Create Wealth and Impact the World, by Kotler and Diamandis: a disappointing hybrid of business and self-help book, with a sprinkle of behavioral economics and biographing. After a short time you find the authors are trying to shove their exponential-everything thesis down your throat. Read Abundance instead.
The Five People you Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom
New York 2140. A disappointing and limited visualization of the world 125 years from now, heavy on twentieth-century references and mindset. Weak, chaotic plot – random coincidences, shallow heteronormative characters with late 20th Century biases and mentalities. On top of that, focus on the 2008 financial crisis feels out of place and the financial explanations are poor. I should stop reading sci-fi that's set that far into the future; I haven't had much success with it.