Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash
I'm always wondering what my friends are reading, and in that spirit I thought it was worth sharing my book list and some reflections from my top 6 in 2019. It's a bit lengthy, so feel free skip around as you see fit.
This was a good year of reading for me, with the total count at 33: 4 paper, 4 Kindle, 25 Audible. As you can see, I'm a big fan of Audible. While it's a bit less satisfying to tell people that you Audible'd rather than read a book, retention is only slightly lower for me and volume is much higher, so it's a net positive. I listen when I'm running, walking, commuting, traveling, etc., and it really does add up.
The Complete Book of Five Rings
This book is about the philosophy and technique of one the greatest swordsmen ever. He won a record 61 duels and was never defeated, fighting with his own style using two swords. He winds together zen buddhism, budo (the way of war, or just "the way"), and the demands of living in the unforgiving Edo period.
Musashi goes over many tactical details, how to hold the sword, details on stance and footwork, and how to strike. He emphasizes strategy: timing, knowing your enemy, ensuring you have an advantage. The most fascinating parts are when he weaves in Zen concepts: how to remain calm, empty the mind and soul, reject dualism between body and mind, ensure there is "no gap" between thought and mind, and no stopping of the mind on any one detail or action in a fight.
In strategy your spiritual bearing must not be any different from normal. Both in fighting and in everyday life you should be determined though calm.
This was part of a general deep dive on eastern philosophy. I've long been interested in Japanese history, and specifically the samurai way of life. There's a fascinating interplay between zen buddhism, martial arts, and the demands of the brutality of the Edo period. Samurai are as badass as Spartan Warriors, but with more of an emphasis on arts, philosophy, and the sublime. Yes, this book is why I now have a Katana on my mantle.
I would love to gain firsthand experience in Kenjutsu, but one needs full dedication to make progress in the martial arts; an hour session a few times a week will not do. In the meantime, I'll try to be reminded of the link between zen, strategy, and execution on a daily basis.
This book has blown up since it came out a couple of years ago, and it was one of my favorites this year. It's the story of a girl who grows up in an abusive hillbilly family in rural Utah, where survival and fear overshadow any chance of learning, growth or emotional support. Aside from some menial learning from her mother, she received no formal education before her grandmother started encouraging her to take the university entrance exam. Somehow, she studied hard and got into Brigham Young.
To avoid spoilers I won't go any further, but suffice to say that's just the beginning of her unlikely and inspiring rise to the pinnacle of the academic world. Her upbringing and her family both threaten to pull her back to the ugly world she came from, and it's only with grit and, indeed, an education, that she was able to break free and live her own life.
There are so many great themes here:
- The difficulty of changing your thought programming you've been given early on in life
- The difficulty of loving, supporting, and including a difficult family when inhabiting a new, different environment
- Education being about learning how to think, approach the world, and live your life, as much as absorbing facts and knowledge
- Equality of education and opportunity are crucial: great minds exist, undiscovered, all over the world
Man's Search for Meaning
There's a good reason this is a classic. It's a story of a psychologist who uses his experiences in WWII Nazi concentration camps to inform a psychological theory for what provides people with meaning. What he went through is, of course, truly horrifying. They took everything, his family (including his wife), everything he owned, and his in-progress manuscript for logotherapy, the theory he had started working on before the war. His desire to continue working on the theory, and to someday share it with the world, helped provide him with enough purpose to push onwards and survive. Indeed, that's an illustration of the theory that he fleshes out in the second half of the book.
He started taking notice of who lived and who died, and what characteristics the survivors shared. It didn't depend on who was strong or fit, or who resisted with the greatest strength. In many cases, it depended on whether they had something to live for, something to look forward to. It's easy to think that survival is a purely physiological phenomenon. At some point that's true, if you suffer a severe head trauma, you lose enough blood, and so on. But in cases where people are 'merely' in severe pain, starvation, hypothermic conditions, the mind plays a huge role. The mind impacts our body, our strength, and our energy, perhaps more than anything else.
Of course, my experiences are a walk in the park by comparison, but it's interesting relating the concepts nonetheless. I've been in situations at work where I'm drained and burnt out, despite only working 9-5, while in other cases I'm working much more than that and feeling happy and energized. The difference was how much hope, and meaning, I was deriving from the work. I've been in romantic relationships that were great on paper but uninspiring, and others that were hard but motivating and life giving. Our setbacks depend not on the size of the obstacle, but on the strength and courage with which we deal with them.
A full discussion of logotherapy is out of scope here, but it's broadly a form of psychotherapy that helps the person receiving the therapy by helping them identify meaning in their experiences. Many problems arise from a lack of meaning, and many ailments can be mitigated when meaning is found.
According to Frankl, the three primary sources of meaning are
- Creating a work or doing a deed
- Experiencing something or encountering someone (love)
- The attitude we take to unavoidable suffering
The Untethered Soul
I asked Sam Altman for his favorite book of the last few years, and this was his response. It didn't disappoint. The author describes a series of philosophies and thoughts that can lead to happiness, presence, and emotional freedom.
We all experience a stream of thoughts and observations as our default state, but with introspection we also discover that we can observe and detach from these thoughts. We are not our thoughts, we are the observer, and therefore don't need to be blindly pulled along by whatever thought or emotion happens to occur to us.
He also discusses personality, which is simply a defense mechanism for the ego. We are inundated with sensory information, and we selectively absorb, process, and narrativize information through the lens that makes us feel comfortable with who we are and where we stand in the world. We are all very good at doing this, and it's a default state for most people. But again, recognizing this helps us free ourselves from the judgment, closed-mindedness, and unhappiness that it can cause.
A third takeaway is the importance of letting emotionally charged things flow through you. Some of his descriptions were a bit too new-agey for my taste, but the gist checks out with my experience, and is aligned with Zen teachings from some of the books above. Essentially, the mind can get hung up on things, particularly when they have strong emotional associations, or threaten the ego, and this causes suffering and (related) interruption of presence.
His example is as follows: you're walking down the street, and you see a number of shrubs and trees by the side of the road, and take no notice; the perception flows through you, and you remain in the present. Then you see a blue mustang drive by, and it's the same model as the one your girlfriend from college had. Now your mind is flooded with memories of that one time you argued about whether your friend meant to offend her at that party, and so on. (This is a funny example because I did indeed have a girlfriend in college that drove a blue Mustang, and indeed it's a bit jarring when I see another instance of the same model, racing stripe and all.) The path to happiness lies in acknowledging the perception and its significance, but letting it flow through you and staying in the present.
Something was unfair? It's simple: just let it go!
He is hilariously direct. Someone said something disrespectful? Someone isn't returning your affection? Something was unfair? It's simple: just let it go! It's as simple as that. Certainly, deal with the situation, but remember that staying happy and present will only be helpful in dealing with the situation fairly. And, of course, living a happy life is a good end in itself.
The Origins of Political Order
This book was fascinating, and every chapter had some new insight or historical fact that had me talking off the ear of whoever was around. The typical narrative is that societies are on an inevitable, one-way path towards becoming a "modern state", complete with western, democratic institutions and rule of law, but this is not always how things happen in reality.
Politics is messy and seems resistant to generalizations or structure, but this book lays out a theory that appears to back test across history and cultures very well. The foundation consists of our evolutionary impulses, namely kin selection and reciprocal altruism. Then multiple actors vie for power within the society: social forces, religious groups, the aristocracy, the state, and the monarch. Their relative strength can explain important differences between China, India, England, Latin America, etc.
The main takeaway is that the following three elements are required
- A strong, modern state (with a merit-based bureaucracy)
- Strong rule of law
- Accountability to the people
Some fun facts (more here)
- Rule of law was made possible by the precedent set by the Catholic Church separating from the monarch/state in the dark ages
- The Rise of "Evil Empress" Wu Zetian is wild, I encourage you look it up
Fantastic book for anyone interested in how deep learning is going to impact healthcare. We hear a lot of noise about image classification (for radiology, dermatology, etc.), but this technology can impact a dizzying array of other areas within healthcare, including:
- Improved outcome measures
- Clinical Decision Support Systems
- Ingesting and processing medical literature
- Scientific discovery
- Deep "digital phenotyping" to provide deeper understanding and more personalized medicine
- Workflow and work management
- Virtual medical assistants and patient education
- Nutrition (both tracking and recommending)
And many others. I'll need a dedicated post to do this content justice, but suffice to say that if you've ever found yourself googling around and wishing there was a well-researched summary of the latest and greatest in this area, start with this book.
-  The Origins of Political Order, Francis Fukuyama
-  Fall of Giants, Ken Follett
-  The Lessons of History, Will Durant
-  The Story of Philosophy, Will Durant
-  Meditations, Marcus Aurelius
-  Free Will, Mark Balaguer
-  Educated, Tara Westover
-  Leonardo Da Vinci, Walter Isaacson
-  Becoming, Michelle Obama
-  The Untethered Soul, Michael Singer
-  The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle
-  Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu
-  Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, Shunryu Suzuki
-  The Unfettered Mind, Takuan Soho
-  The Complete Book of Five Rings, Miyamoto Musashi
-  The Essential Dogen, Eihei Dogen
-  Autumn Lightning, Dave Lowry
-  The Art of War, Sun Tzu
-  The Book of Joy, Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu
-  Man's Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl
-  Can't Hurt Me, David Goggins
-  Design of Everyday Things, Don Norman
-  Creativity, Inc., Ed Catmull
-  Shoe Dog, Phil Knight
-  Made in America, Sam Walton
-  Range, David Epstein
-  Trillion Dollar Coach, Jonathan Rosenberg
-  The Big Nine, Amy Webb
-  Human Compatible, Stuart Russel
-  Consciousness Explained, Daniel Dennett
-  Complexity: A Very Short Introduction
-  Deep Medicine, Eric Topol
-  Where does it hurt?, Jonathan Bush