in Reading Notes

Books Read in January ’15

In order to gain a better understanding of how I choose what to read, I’ll be doing monthly recaps of the fiction and non-fiction books I finished, and why.

January was a month split in half: I was traveling for two weeks (finishing up Europe, plus a long weekend in Northern California), and moving forward on projects for the other half. In other scheduling oddities, a job which should’ve lasted for a month lasted for a week, throwing off a few plans but allowing breathing room for others. One of those others resulted in a friend and I launching a greeting card company. Another other: this month, Connect A Book will begin beta testing. Because of that, the focus of my reading continues to revolve around startups, including user acquisition and product management (I believe the Steve Jobs biography falls under that umbrella).

This monthly post has been a great exercise for tracking my reading: the benefits of thinking about why I’m reading are many, and I believe that making connections between books that we read implants those books more firmly in our minds. One thing I’d like to try is pre-selecting the next month’s reading from that great pile (that I’ve picked up, been given, had on wish lists, that are relevant to what I’m working on) beneath my desk, and by putting in the effort early on to intentionally select them, have a better sense ahead of time how they might play off of each other.

I will still seek out recommendations, add books to my to-read lists, and grow the great pile. Those books will then, assuming this practice is fruitful, contend for spots in March’s reading. It may end up that this practice is too rigid, or that, in the time I assume I will have available to read, I should leave one or two slots available for impromptu selections, but I’ll address variations next month.

But enough about next month. Let’s talk about the books I read in January.


Stoner by John Williams – Given my brother’s own career path I am probably predisposed to a story about the life of a philosophy professor. At any rate, this book captures the unflinching cruelty of a life lived in academia, where even one’s driving passion can be turned against him. This makes the main character’s few,  passing moments of happiness all the more vital, and all the more powerful. I picked this up at a Danish book store while traveling.

How to be both by Ali Smith – This book has a wonderful conceit: it’s two stories, tied together by many similar themes, and half of the editions published start with one of the stories, and the other half of the editions start with the other. The writing, the characters, their story, and the book’s construction all add up to one of the most enjoyable and engaging reading experiences I’ve had over the last year. This was our January book club choice.


Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson – There isn’t much I can say about this biography that thousands haven’t already said, so I’ll focus on the part I enjoyed the most: the development of Pixar. Seeing it from the perspective of Steve Jobs, who at one point had invested so much in his belief in the artistry of those who made up Pixar that he owned 70% of the company, makes you truly understand what Jobs’ operating system was, and what he wanted to accomplish with each of his companies. In that way this biography pairs very well with Ed Catmull’s Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, as you get the whole origin story of Pixar, complete with Catmull’s portrayal of Jobs, which is, similar to Isaacson’s portrayal, of a fallible man worth our admiration.

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman – This book challenges your intuitions and impulses and judgments in a way that’s constructive and (almost) enjoyable. I highly recommend it.

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert – Each chapter in this book is an exploration, a field trip, an adventure, which Kolbert uses as a jumping-off point to discuss the extinction of a certain species. In that way, she allows the readers to build up the narrative and argument in their own minds: human beings are responsible, and have been responsible for the length of their existence, for pushing other species to extinction. What is remarkable about her writing is that she maintains a sensibility, refusing to become alarmist. Many of the extinctions she references are the unintentional results from our unconscious actions, from times before we could’ve been aware of our power. Our responsibility now lies in acknowledging what we are able to do and raising the consciousness of humankind’s impact on our completely interconnected world. Also highly recommend.

Traction: A Startup Guide to Getting Customers by Gabriel Weinberg – In doing research for several upcoming launches, including Connect A Book, which will rely on getting and keeping users, this was a home run. I plan on applying the strategies and ideas immediately. Pairs well with Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products.

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown – A nicely synthesized treatise on why we should do less by picking the areas in our lives that are most important to us. It reminds me of Warren Buffett’s strategy for writing out a list of what you think you’d like to spend your time on, and how to narrow that down to the most impactful. A thing to think about: priority should never be plural. Don’t think about priorities. Pick a priority. I came across this on Audible, and had my decision reinforced by Ryan Holiday’s reading list.

On Dialogue: An Essay in Free Thought by Robert Grudin – One of Grudin’s other books, Time and the Art of Living, is one of the best I’ve read in the past few years, so I’m working my way through his other work. This book addresses liberty in thinking, and how to approach our lives, our problems, and other people from multiple perspectives.

Inspired: How To Create Products Customers Love by Marty Cagan – This product management book was recommended to me indirectly through family. I’m considering product management as a next move (and also believe that the skill set would be generally useful for the projects I’m launching) so this illuminated the path for me. The book is more of an introduction for those who already work in a business, or who’ve had similar experiences, and I found it heavy on office place examples, while being  light on real world ones. This also pairs well with Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography.

Makers: The New Industrial Revolution by Chris Anderson – I enjoyed this overview of 3D printing and the advent of personal robotics, and how both of those fields are subsets of where the whole Maker movement is heading. The focus on physical products was refreshing after all of the marketing and conceptual business books I’ve been reading, and I’m considering playing with some arduino boards to get a better sense of it all. Pairs with Cory Doctorow’s Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age for a primer on the new internet-enabled age, and establishing yourself in that community.

The Wisdom of Failure: How to Learn the Tough Leadership Lessons Without Paying the Price by Larry Weinzimmer – This book starts off strong with examples of failures, but drifts into theory and no-no’s that aren’t well-supported. This was selected as the first book in our Taking Care of Business Book Club.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat: And Other Clinical Tales by Oliver Sacks – An enjoyable listen with a wide range of neurological curiosities. Often the stories dealt with the philosophical and civic issues of how and when to introduce these types of cases and patients back into society. It was recommended to me by science friend and #nerdbrigade member Cara Santa Maria.

MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction by Chad Harbach – It stands to reason that a book about writing industries would have well-written arguments supporting both sides, and plenty of long-winded diatribes to boot.

If you have any recommendations of books to read, either based on the books above, or on your own experience, please let me know.

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