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My 5 favourite books of 2020

Although I managed to avoid catching coronavirus in 2020, I did catch another virus, of sorts.

Its symptoms included:

  • Increasing levels of claustrophobia as my house was slowly invaded with bookcases
  • Payments to ‘AMAZON UK’ metastasising throughout my spending history
  • A virtuous feeling, shared only by vegans, which manifested itself in having the uncontrollable urge to tell everyone how great I was at the earliest opportunity

Maybe it should be better classified as an addiction than a virus (my R-0 was pretty low), but either way, I definitely caught the reading bug in 2020.  

At the end of 2019, my new year’s resolution was to read one book a week. A few weeks in, I realised the pitfall of setting myself a ‘number-of-books’ goal, as anything over 600 pages was instantly deferred till next year, and anything under 200 pages didn’t really feel like it counted. I suppose that’s a good example of Goodhart’s law in action – when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to become a good measure.

Anyway, after a year of reading only medium-length books, I ended up reading 71 of them.

Doing a bit of quick maths, if you’re able to read for an hour a day, then at roughly one page per minute you’ll read 21,900 pages over a year. Goodreads tells me that I read 20,000 pages in 2020, so that looks about right. With an average length of 300 pages per book, that comes to 73 books over a year. I didn’t quite manage an hour per day, but must have been pretty close having read 71.

Choosing favourites is incredibly difficult as, according to Goodreads, I rated 21 of them as 5 stars. To me, 5 stars means “I’d be happy to re-read this every year”, so I read a lot of excellent books. The 5 below could easily be replaced by any of the other 21, but I’ve included the remaining 16 at the end of the post. Hopefully there’s enough variety in these 5 that there should be at least one book that everyone would enjoy.

 

Exhalation by Ted Chiang

 

This is the kind of book that burrows into your brain, and doesn’t come out. Composed of nine short stories, it has a sort of Black Mirror-esque quality, where you’ll find yourself thinking about it in the shower six months later.

The book opens with an Arabian Nights/time-travel mashup, with smatterings of the intrigue which made the Netflix show Dark so addictive. If we were able to time travel, would we be able to change the past? Or would the act of time travelling create an endlessly repeating loop?

 I won’t go into too much detail so as not to spoil the stories, but the remaining stories prompt questions including:

  • As we’re able to make robots increasingly life-like, at what point does a programmed entity become “alive”? Could an AI become a legal entity, or have similar rights to a human?
  • What would happen if we were able to interact with other versions of ourselves who had made different life choices in the past? What price would you pay to speak to a more successful version of yourself? Would you even want to?
  • What would the earth actually look like if it had been created by a higher power 2,000 years ago?

In only 3 pages, another story explores the question of what would happen if humanity developed a gadget which only contained a light and a button – but the gadget flashed a green light one second before you press the button. It’s only three pages long, but packs a free-will questioning punch.

Another one of my favourites explores what would happen if you were able to store your memory in digital format. Given our own tendency to remember the best bits of our history and quietly erase our worst, how would a perfect digital memory affect our self-perception? It contains one of my favourite quotes of the book:

“And I think I’ve found the real benefit of digital memory. The points is not to prove you were right; the point is to admit you were wrong.

               Because all of us have been wrong on various occasions, engaged in cruelty and hypocrisy, and we’ve forgotten most of those occasions. And that means we don’t really know ourselves. How much personal insight can I claim if I can’t trust my memory? How much can you? You’re probably thinking that, while your memory isn’t perfect, you’ve never engaged in revisionism of the magnitude I’m guilty of. But I was just as certain as you, and I was wrong. You may say, “I know I’m not perfect. I’ve made mistakes.” I am here to tell you that you have made more than you think, that some of the core assumptions on which your self-image is built are actually lies. Spend some time using Remem [the digital memory program], and you’ll find out.

               Digital memory will not stop us from telling stories about ourselves. As I said earlier, we are made of stories, and nothing can change that. What digital memory will do is change those stories from fabulations that emphasize our best acts and elide our worst, into ones that – I hope – acknowledge our fallibility and make us less judgemental about the fallibility of others.”

This is Ted Chiang’s second book, the first of which I’ll be reading in the next few weeks. Having scoured the internet for books similar to this one, they’re almost impossible to find. The most heavily-recommended similar book is Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges. But I’ll save you the trouble – it doesn’t come close.

 

The Psychology of Money by Morgan Housel

 

Morgan Housel took the top spot in my post of ‘The best investing blogs’ last year.

The recommendation I gave in that post was:

Step 1) Read this post, called The Psychology of Money.

Step 2) Read everything else he’s ever written.

And I still stand by that advice.

The success of that blog post eventually turned into this book, which combines some of his best blog posts with some brand new Housel mind-blowers. Given the most important determinant of anyone’s returns in investing is their own behaviour, this book’s ability to examine truths of human psychology through the use of powerful stories should be a must-read for all investors.  

I keep a pad of coloured tabs next to me whenever I read, so I can tab up any interesting ideas I come across and make notes on each book afterwards. This book was probably my most heavily tabbed book of the whole year.

It’s impossible to pick a favourite quote, so I’ve flicked through the book and picked three at random:

“When judging your failures I’m likely to prefer a clean and simple story of cause and effect, because I don’t know what’s going on inside your head. “You had a bad outcome so it must have been caused by a bad decision” is the story that makes the most sense to me. But when judging myself I can make up a wild narrative justifying my past decisions and attributing bad outcomes to risk.”

“The most important economic events of the future – things that will move the needle the most – are things that history gives us little to no guide about. They will be unprecedented events. Their unprecedented nature means we won’t be prepared for them, which is part of what makes them so impactful. This is true for both scary events like recessions and wars, and great events like innovation.”

“But good investing isn’t necessarily about earning the highest returns, because the highest returns tend to be one-off hits that can’t be repeated. It’s about earning pretty good returns that you can stick with and which can be repeated for the longest period of time. That’s when compounding runs wild.”

If I had to recommend a single personal finance/investing book to anyone, it would be this one.

 

Letters from a Stoic by Seneca

 

One of the gripes I had with philosophy when I studied aspects of it at university was that it wasn’t useful. It didn’t provide any practical advice on how to view the world or approach life differently. Isn’t that what philosophy’s supposed to be all about? I remember coming out of the lecture theatre thinking I’d wasted an hour of my time examining the logical minutiae of something that I would never need to think about ever again. Perhaps I was just bad at philosophy.

So when I started reading some stoic philosophy this year, I finally discovered what I thought philosophy was supposed to be. Useful, practical insights for how to approach life – things like how to appreciate what you have, how to focus only on what you can control, and how not to compare yourself to others. It sounds obvious enough, but reading Seneca makes you realise that we haven’t been able to get the hang of these simple things in the last 2,000 years – so it can’t be that easy.  

The other two of the three major stoics whose writings have survived are Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus, but having also read their offerings this year, I’ve found Seneca’s style easier to read, with more practicable advice. This is helped by the letter format, which gives manageable chunks of stoic insight in a simple question/answer format.

For those looking for modern interpretations of stoicism which are more focussed on prescriptive “how-to” guides, both Derren Brown’s ‘Happy’ and William Irvine’s ‘The ancient art of Stoic Joy’ are both excellent.

Favourite quotes:

“It is not the man who has little who is poor, but the one who craves more.”

“If you shape your according to nature, you will never be poor; if according to people’s opinions, you will never be rich.”

“What good has travel of itself ever been able to do anyone? It has never acted as a check on pleasure or a restraining influence on desires; it has never controlled the temper of an angry man or quelled the reckless impulses of a lover; never in fact has it rid the personality of a fault. It has not granted us the gift of judgement, it has not put an end to mistaken attitudes. All it has ever done Is distract us for a little while, through the novelty of our surroundings, like children fascinated by something they haven’t come across before.”

“For men in a state of freedom had thatch for their shelter, while slavery dwells beneath marble and gold.”

“Until we have begun to go without them, we fail to realize how unnecessary many things are. We’ve been using them not because we needed them but because we had them. Look at the number of things we buy because others have bought them or because they’re in most people’s houses. One of the causes of the troubles that beset us is the way our lives are guided by the example of others; instead of being set to rights by reason we’re seduced by convention.”

 

 

The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant

 

Husband and wife Will and Ariel Durant dedicated their lives to churning out a Pulitzer Prize-winning 11-volume set of books covering and entire history of Western civilisation called ‘The Story of Civilisation’. It’s one of those monster collections that you proudly display on your bookcase, but never actually muster the courage to tackle.

This book, The Lessons of History, condenses those 11 volumes down into a single 100-page book.

The book is grouped by themes: geography, biology, race, character, morals, religion, economics, socialism, government, war, growth, and progress. Each theme is explored using pertinent examples and lessons drawn from different civilisations throughout history. You’ll soon realise that there’s nothing new under the sun. The problems societies are facing today have all been faced many times before, at various points in history and by many different civilisations.  

One of my favourite aspects of reading non-fiction is the ability to read the very best and most interesting parts of someone’s entire life’s work in just a few hours. This book takes that principle to the extreme by distilling two 40-year careers into 100 pages. Even for those without an interest in history, this book has to be the best bang-for-your-buck possible.

Favourite quotes:

“Nature smiles at the union of freedom and equality in our utopias. For freedom and equality are sworn and everlasting enemies, and when one prevails the other dies. Leave men free, and their natural inequalities will multiply almost geometrically, as in England and America in the nineteenth century under laissez-faire. To check the growth of inequality, liberty must be sacrificed, as in Russia after 1917. Even when repressed, inequality grows; only the man who is below the average in economic ability desires equality; those who are conscious of superior ability desire freedom; and in the end superior ability has its way. Utopias of equality are biologically doomed, and the best that amiable philosopher can hope for is an approximate equality of legal justice and educational opportunity.”

“Co-operation is real, and increases with social development, but mostly because it is a tool and form of competition; we co-operate in our group – our family, community, club, church, party, “race,” or nation – in order to strengthen our group in its competition with other groups. Competing groups have the qualities of competing individuals: acquisitiveness, pugnacity, partisanship, pride. Our states, being ourselves multiplied, are what we are; they write our natures in bolder type, and do our good and evil on an elephantine scale. We are acquisitive, greedy, and pugnacious because our blood remembers millenniums through which our forebears had to chase and fight and kill in order to survive, and had to eat to their gastric capacity for fear they should not soon capture another feast. War is a nation’s way of eating. It promotes co-operation because it is the ultimate form of competition. Until our states become members of a large and effectively protective group they will continue to act like individuals and families in the hunting stage.”

“Generally religion and puritanism prevail in periods when the laws are feeble and morals must bear the burden of maintaining social order; skepticism and paganism (other factors being equal) progress as the rising power of law and government permits the decline of the church, the family, and morality without basically endangering the stability of the state. In our time the strength of the state has united with the several forces listed above to relax faith and morals, and to allow paganism to resume its natural sway. Probably our excesses will bring another reaction; moral disorder may generate a religious revival; atheists may again (as in France after the debacle of 1870) send their children to Catholic schools to give them the discipline of religious belief.

               There is no significant example in history, before our time, or a society successfully maintain moral life without the aid of religion… “As long as there is poverty there will be gods.””

 

 

Shoe Dog by Phil Knight

 

Didn’t think a ‘business book’ could make you cry? Think again.

I usually never buy celebrity biographies – especially those by famous CEOs or businesspeople. They tend to be plagued by survivorship bias (where are the books written by CEOs who took a similar path and failed?), and present their success as a standard hero’s journey – an initial struggle as the business is founded, the hiring of an amazing team to solve the problems, the subsequent transformation of the business, followed by the inevitable success. It’s all a bit reductive.

I took a punt on this book as it’s been recommended by pretty much everyone on the internet. And it’s true, this book is very different to a standard CEO memoir. You won’t find any ‘management checklist’ or ‘conjoined triangles of success’ here. What you will find is a series of incredible stories about a guy who just seriously loves running.

An unlikely founder, Phil Knight started what was then called Blue Ribbon Sports with a $50 loan from his reluctant father, importing running shoes from Japan. The company wasn’t born out of a Silicon Valley incubator, nor founded by an ex-McKinsey graduate. It was created because Knight was a passionate runner, and saw a gap in the market for Japanese running shoes.

We meet a host of colourful characters along Nike’s journey, almost all runners themselves, and hear how a group of oddball running afficionados with no real business experience manage to take a company from something so small they used to box customers’ orders themselves, to what Nike is today. Special mention should be given to Bill Bowerman, Knight’s old running coach, who comes across as the Thomas Edison of running shoe science – converting his garage into a running shoe laboratory, and conducting weird experiments on shoe materials, sizes, textures, and shapes to create Nike’s next big thing. He created the famous Nike ‘Waffle Trainer’, which was responsible for much of Nike’s explosive growth, by filling his wife’s waffle iron with rubber and seeing what happened.

But Knight doesn’t gloss over Nike’s difficulties. The company is on life support for probably the first half of the book. And it’s not just the company that suffers – I particularly liked how honest he was about the toll running Nike took on his family. The descriptions of his difficult relationship with his wife, and his shortcomings as a father are brutally honest. It makes you realise that, yes, Knight ended up making boatloads of cash, but it was never guaranteed, and came at a significant cost.

The book isn’t an ego trip down memory lane, but is more a no-holes barred recounting of the difficulties of founding a business, both professional and personal, alongside some of the heart-warming adventures Knight and his friends/team got up to along the way.

(Unfortunately, I lent this book out and it hasn’t been returned (which I suppose shows how good it is), so can’t give any of my favourite quotes.)

For those curious about my other favourites of 2020, here they are:

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

Origins: How Earth’s History Shaped Human History by Lewis Dartnell

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger

Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling

The Almanack of Naval Ravikant: A Guide to Wealth and Happiness by Eric Jorgenson

Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones by James Clear

Skin in the Game: The Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Simple Wealth, Inevitable Wealth, Revised Edition by Nick Murray

Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction by Derek Thompson

The Quest of the Simple Life by William James Dawson

The Success Equation by Michael Mauboussin

The Winner Effect: The Neuroscience of Success and Failure by Ian Robertson

The Lean Startup by Eric Reis

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

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5 months ago

Thank you for another great post for me to read. Noted a few of the books for me to get into. Happy New Year!