Top Ten Books of 2014

 

My reading for 2014 was more focused for the same reason my blogging has been reduced — I have a day job. Also, two of the books were real projects, entailing runs to the sources, blogosphere, and Wikipedia for background, context, and understanding. These books were demanding (long and in places technical) and singular — representing a new peak for their genre. I enjoyed both Thomas Piketty’s 696 page Capital and the 21st Century and Andrew Robert’s 976 page Napoleon: A Life enough to work through them both. Piketty is of course the French economist who appears to be famous everywhere except France (a problem he corrected this morning by refusing the Legion d’Honeur, declaring that “it is not the job of government to determine who has honor”.  Spoken like a French historian). Piketty has wrestled more deeply and seriously with the problem of inequality than any previous economic historian. He actually has produced three books: an amazing history of inequality based on European census data rarely deployed for these purposes, an economic analysis of the causes of inequality. He argues that if r, the rate of return on assets, exceeds g, the overall rate of economic growth, family wealth will grow faster than the economy, and can become gigantic. It is a widely derided formulation, but well argued and defended. His third book consists of recommendations for taxing wealth that are largely laughable — as he all but concedes. NapoleonRobert’s book doubles as a history of 19th century France and, for that matter, Europe. Napoleon led not only a remarkable and consequential life, but one that shaped a great deal of modern Europe. He wrote some 30,000 letters during his lifetime, and Roberts is the first scholar to have access to the full pile, lucky guy. The book is compelling and very well-written. If anything, it needed to be longer. Both books are worthwhile investments, even if both will occasionally leave you screaming — Piketty for what he fails to understand about business and technology, Roberts because his subject can be so simultaneously brilliant and boneheaded. (Moscow? Really?) I read from several other categories: books on startups, business and economic history, math and science books, and pulp detective fiction, especially noir. Here are the winners: Startups Running_leanEntrepreneurship is in the air — often comically. Books that fanned the startup flames this year included Brad Feld’s, Venture Deals: Be Smarter Than Your Lawyer and Venture Capitalist, the remarkable Ben Horowitz’s The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There are No Easy Answers, and Sean Ellis’ Startup Growth Engines: Case Studies of How Today’s Most Successful Startups Unlock Extraordinary Growth. All three of these writers are deeply experienced at the trials of early stage companies and all have useful lessons to teach. Feld offers a field guide to the legal aspects of starting a company, to which I would say simply, read his book, then hire a competent lawyer. Horowitz writes excellent columns, which are less compelling when assembled into a book. Sean Ellis has put together a useful set of lessons around specific startups he has worked with. thiel_6_4_frontTop startup books of 2014 were Ash Maurya’s Running Lean: Iterate from Plan A to a Plan That Works. This, finally, is the book that Steve Blank would have written in his groundbreaking The Four Steps to the Epiphany — which instead emerged as one of the worst expressions of great thinking ever put to print. In most cases bad writing is the soft underbelly of bad thinking — but Blank proves that sometimes you just need an editor. Eric Riess, who has built a franchise around “Lean Startups” by rewriting Blank and adding ideas like LAMP, does not come close to producing the how to manual for a startup team that Ash Maurya has written. This really is the go to book for early stage technology entrepreneurs. You won’t get much practical advice from Zero to One: Notes on Startups or How to Build the Future by the estimable Peter Thiel. Parts of this book will delight you, and some of it should outrage you. This book derives from Thiel’s widely followed Stanford course, which was capably blogged by his coauthor, Blake Masters. The book has moments of brilliance however — notably his description of how companies actually compete and his relentless search for companies that go from zero to one (bringing something altogether new into the world) as opposed to from 1 to many (scaling up derivative businesses). Marc Andreesen, who needs to write a book and is smart enough to write a very good one, likes to say that Peter Thiel is always half right. Seems correct — and the half that is right is also highly (Zero to One) original. Business History How_We_Got_to_NowNominations include the aforementioned Dr. Piketty, Anita Raghavan’s The Billionaire’s Apprentice: The Rise of The Indian American Elite and the Fall of the Galleon Hedge Fund, Bryce Hoffman’s well-told American Icon: Alan Mulally and the Fight to Save Ford Motor, John Brooks’, Business Adventures: Twelve Classic Tales from the World of Wall Street, Martin Wolf’s The Shifts and the Shocks: What We’ve Learned-and Have Still to Learn from the Financial Crisis, Robert Litan’s Trillion Dollar Economists: How Economists and Their Ideas Have Tranformed Business, William Rosen’s The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention, and Vaclav Smil’s Making the Modern World: Materials and DematerializationeverythingstoreRaghavan, Hoffman, and Brooks give us well-told tales. The disgusting and criminal behavior of my former McKinsey colleagues, the turnaround of Ford Motor, and the Bill Gates-endorsed collection of New Yorker business essays all make for great and educational reading. Martin Wolf and Robert Litan wrote exceptional books for those interested in financial economics and another post mortem on recent financial crises — although I had quite my fill of those in 2012-13. And I have an obvious soft spot for the sort of well-researched, highly readable economic and technology histories that Rosen and Smil have written. In a competitive year, I pick Marc Levinson’s The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America, Brad Stone’s The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, and Steve Johnson’s How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World as the year’s best books of business history. Levinson’s book does not quite rise to the level of The Box, but is nonetheless a really wellgreatapcoverfinal told tale of retail innovation — a story that Brad Stone picks up with the history of Amazon. Based on my own front row seat at some of the events he describes, Stone gets a lot of things right about Amazon’s culture and history. It is an amazing company, even if not always an attractive one. Steve Johnson exceeded my low expectations for a book made into a PBS show and structured around seemingly random innovations. But the book works and brings with it more delightful insights per page than any in recent memory. You cannot know in advance how the sack of Constantinople will lead directly to telescopes but Johnson traces the path with confidence without inferring causality where none exists. Great read. Math and Science This year’s contenders are Alan Lightman’s The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew, John Brockman’s Thinking: The New Science of Decision-Making, Jordan Ellenberg’s How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking, and Joshua D. Angrist’s Mastering ‘Metrics: The Path from Cause to Effect.SilvermanLightman is an unusual writer, as the first professor to receive appointments from MIT in both the sciences (he is a physicist) and the humanities. He offers looks at the universe from several perspectives — not all equally successful. His opening chapter, entitled the Accidental Universe, is the strongest and by itself a remarkable read. Brockman is closely associated with the Edge, a foundation that brings together thinkers from a wide range of disciplines. His book touches on developmental in neuroscience, decision theory, linguistics, problem solving, and more, but consists mainly of unedited transcripts of informal discussions or presentations, presumably at Edge conferences he has hosted. This gives the book a stream of consciousness feel, and leaves it vulnerable to rambling, repetition, and superficiality. Ellenberg writes well and not especially technically. Fine book overall but, like Lightman, the first chapter (on lessons by Abraham Wald on the value of constantly looking for reasons why you could be wrong) has the strongest material. Angrist’s book on econometrics was wonderfully organized and well written — but the higher math got away from me. I liked it even if I did not understand it all. Best book in this category goes to Nate Silver for The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail-but Some Don’t. The book is not good because Silver famously called the Presidential election correctly — it is a genuinely good summary of the science of prediction, which is a vital part of science and business, not just politics. But prediction is difficult, “especially concerning the future” as Niels Bohr famously noted. We fall prey to cognitive biases and often mistake noise for signal. Silver does an excellent job of walking a general reader through the swamp. Social Criticism china_airborneI am a sucker for books on causes or those written to expound a strong point of view. This year’s pile included Adam Minter’s Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade, two books on the economics of higher education — Elizabeth Armstrong’s Paying for the Party and Joel Best’s The Student Loan Mess: How Good Intentions Created a Trillion Dollar Problem, Megan McArdle’s The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success, Michael Pollan’s Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education, Jonathan Safron Foer’s Eating Animals, and Steve Levitt’s Think Like a Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain. Minter is a great writer, as any New Yorker reader knows. Trash matters — but ultimately not enough to keep me interested. The higher ed books both fail to segment the problem. Some higher education is really valuable and essentially self-financing and much is not. Average data tells you little, except that the debt problem is unsustainably large. McArdle knows her Dylan: “she knows there is no success like failure, but that failure is no success at all”. She fails to deliver a book’s worth of insights — although she is a fine writer and terrific blogger. Pollan’s book is great, period. Safron Foer somewhat crudely attempts to moralize factory farming — a topic that others, notably Pollan, have addressed far more more effectively as an omnivore’s dilemma instead of a vegetarian manifesto. Levitt’s book is Freakonomics II — good, clean behaviorist fun, just like the first one. CowenThe winners in this category are James Fallow’s China Airborne and Tyler Cowan’s Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation. Fallows is a great essayist and social thinker — you can learn from almost anything he writes and when he combines his love of China with his love of airplanes, run, don’t walk to read this book. Tyler Cowan, whose Marginal Revolution blog is indispensable to economic thinkers, has exposed the forces that underlie as much of the inequality problem as r>g — that in many fields, a huge share of the income goes to the top talent and that technology appears to make this problem worse, not better. Pulp Fiction eisler-novels-keanu-740x400Now to the fun stuff. I binge read police procedural and detective fiction, especially noir. In earlier years, I pigged out on the complete Raymond Chandler, Lee Child, and Michael Connelly. This year I happily read the complete Barry Eisler, whose ten or so John Rain novels, mostly set in Tokyo, are terrific escapism and helpfully move noir fiction out of Los Angeles. Rain is an attractive character (evidently to be played by Kenau Reeves in forthcoming movies) who combines the mandatory brooding nature, love of scotch, jazz and beautiful women with a wonderful introspection and deftness at the killer’s craft. Eisler is, of all things, an accomplished Silicon Valley attorney with an obvious love of Japan and the genre. Highly recommended. (Note that Eisler decided unhelpfully to rename all of his novels, so they all have new pub dates and you will need to search a bit to figure out the sequence, which matters. Pro tip to Barry: next time, number the titles).

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