On January 19, the 44th president, a genteel, well-read man with scrupulous diction, was succeeded by the 45th, a blustery, utterly dishonest vulgarian who hasn’t likely read a book in his adult life. (It’s hard to read you watch as many as 8 hours of television a day.)
For the first time in my life, I was questioning the future of liberal democracy in the United States.
If ever there was a year to read books, it was 2017.
I set a goal of completing 52 books – a book a week – by the end of the year. Though I only made it through 22, I don’t consider the effort a failure. This was, after all, a major uptick in the amount I’d read since college, when I had the privilege of reading an average or three books a week and was constantly reflecting on and writing about what I had read. (And to think there were times when I complained about this!)
In a year where the news cycle swirled viciously fast, I took much pleasure in the slowness of books. Looking back, here are the ones I enjoyed most:
On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder (2017)
I first learned of this slim but weighty work when its author, Timothy Snyder, was interviewed on Sam Harris’s “Waking Up” podcast. I was impressed with Snyder’s thoughtful, measured way of talking about the grave threats facing the American republic as the country’s institutions are defamed and the presidency’s norms are ignored by Trump and his sycophants.
I ordered On Tyranny immediately.
The book is made of 20 aphoristic chapters, each built around a lesson for how to resist the creep of authoritarianism into liberal democracy. Each chapter is colored by examples, largely European, from the 20th century.
On Tyranny is as much a how-to manual as it is a history lesson, and I have tried to adopt many of its principles – from defending institutions to respecting truth to establishing a private life. This may be one of the most important books yet written in the worrisome populist era in which we find ourselves. [NOTE: An excellent companion to this text that I read late in the year is Cass Sunstein’s Impeachment: A Citizen’s Guide, which describes the levers within our constitution for removing a tyrant.]
The Algiers Motel Incident by John Hersey (1968)
This year marked the 50th anniversary of the three tumultuous days in the summer of 1967 when the rage of Detroit’s downtrodden black residents, kindled by decades of white racism, discrimination, and police brutality, boiled over into a violent uprising. When order was restored, 43 people were dead (30 killed at the hands of Detroit police, National Guardsmen, store owners, and private security officers), hundreds more were injured, and thousands of businesses and properties were destroyed.
A popular narrative today, particularly among suburban whites, is that Detroit never recovered from the events of these three days, though the city’s long decline had begun two decades earlier. Few have paid close attention to the underlying cause of the uprising – white racism and discrimination against blacks.
With the 50th anniversary of this landmark event in Detroit history upon us, and with a nation seething from dozens of instances of black men dying at the hands of police (and those acts being caught on camera and spread around the world via social media), it seemed necessary to me to read this book.
Published just one year after the Detroit riots, The Algiers Motel Incident focuses on a ghastly episode that occurred within the tumult – the execution of three young black men who were waiting out the riot at the Algiers Motel by white police officers (and one black security guard) who were drunk with power. The book is structured like an oral history, informed by interviews with survivors of the incident, family members of the deceased, and police officers who were involved in – and acquitted of – the murders. It’s an impressive work of journalism and an insightful examination of how the racism of whites in power, from police officers to jurors, belies justice for black Americans.
Unlike other accounts, including a recent movie, The Algiers Motel Incident does not try to find heroes in this story but rather searches for larger truths about the ingrained challenges of racism in America. “Perhaps the whole point of this book,” writes Hersey, “is that every white person in the country is in some degree guilty of the crimes committed at the Algiers.”
This book is as relevant today as it was in 1968.
Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire by Kurt Andersen (2017)
In this sweeping work of American history perfectly timed for the start of the Trump presidency (though it was conceived well before most of us imagined such a thing possible), Kurt Andersen shows how Americans’ predisposition to embrace the fantastical, irrational, conspiratorial, and downright wacky is deeply embedded in our country’s psyche. The book draws a line through the scatter plot of American exceptionalism that connects Cotton Mather’s witch trials with Alex Jones’s conspiracy theories, the rise of homeopathy and quack medicine with the pseudoscience of Dr. Oz, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s idealization of prairie life with the faux-rural life of modern American suburbia.
The roots of America’s penchant for unreality, Andersen claims, are in the Protestant Reformation, when Luther freed man from the strictures and hierarchy of the church by declaring everyone to be a priest guided by the inner light of Christ. America was the first place where men could truly exercise this freedom. Its first settlers were radical protestants who helped establish an American tradition where, according to Andersen, “holders of any belief about anything, especially and incontrovertibly if those beliefs are ascribed to faith, are…expected to be immune from challenge.” This tradition, coupled with enshrined freedoms of speech and association, has resulted in a country where wacky beliefs are not only tolerated, they are celebrated.
Fantasyland does much to dismiss popular nostalgia for the free-spirited, fun-loving 1960s, instead ascribing many of the most pernicious and enduring aspects of fantasyland to that decade. “In America from the late 1960s on,” writes Andersen, “equality came to mean not just that the law should treat everyone identically but that your beliefs about anything are equally as true as anyone else’s.” By the 1980s, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s notion that you are entitled to your own opinions but not your own facts was already quaint. By 2017, Kelleyanne Conway’s assertion of the existence of “alternative facts” was the new normal.
What a book to read on the 500th anniversary of the Protestant reformation and the first year of the Trump presidency!
Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport (2016)
Every day, my mind (and surely yours) is buffeted by incessant distractions – beeps, buzzes, banners, and push notifications – that prohibit me from engaging deeply in work that I find meaningful. As Silicon Valley develops new and evermore insidious ways to monopolize our attention, I long more and more for better ways to engage deeply in producing things that matter.
So when I heard Cal Newport interviewed on Ezra Klein’s podcast about his amazingly titled book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, my curiosity was immediately piqued. This guy was an old soul despite being only 35 years old. He gets his news each day from the radio and a paper copy of the Washington Post and doesn’t use social media. This is all intentional, of course, because it allows him to focus on producing meaningful work, and it’s paid off. He’s an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University, has written five books, and published dozens of academic articles in a few short years. Did I mention he’s only 35?
I find the idea of “self-help” books nauseating, so I approached Deep Work with a bit of healthy skepticism. My concerns evaporated in a matter of pages. Deep Work is high-minded and philosophical, yet completely practical. Thanks to Newport’s seamless style, it was also a joy to read.
Newport structures the book into two parts: the first lays out the idea of what it means to work deeply and why such practice is valuable, and the second provides rules and advice for doing so.
In part one, he defines “deep work” (a magnificent term of his own coinage) as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.” He posits that deep work is becoming increasingly rare at the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in today’s economy. Unfortunately, however, our ability to work deeply is being continuously undermined by inundations of distractions (social media, news alerts, etc.) and shallow work, defined as “noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted” that don’t create much value (think non-essential emailing). Shallow work pulls our attention in many directions and exhausts our ability to focus, and therefore must be assiduously avoided.
In part two, Newport hands out many helpful rules and guidelines for ignoring the shallow and immersing yourself in deep work. Among my favorites is the recommendation to ritualize your deep work routine to give it significance. “To work deeply is a big deal and should not be an activity undertaken lightly,” writes Newport. “Surrounding such effort with a complicated (and perhaps to the outside world quite strange) ritual accepts this reality – providing your mind with the structure and commitment it needs to slip into the state of focus where you can begin to create things that matter.”
Perhaps my favorite of all of Newport’s recommendations is that you “become hard to reach.” Email, he writes, is the quintessential shallow activity that dominates the time and attention of most knowledge workers. But it does not have to be. He offers three clear solutions for lessening the burden of email. First, create a “sender filter” that sets the expectations of people emailing you and asks them to do more work regarding the specificity of their message. Second, be more direct when replying to email by giving the recipient specific information and avoiding open-ended questions (Have you ever received an email with the dreaded question, “Thoughts?”). Finally, simply do not reply. It is, after all, the emailer’s job to convince you, the recipient, that their message warrants a response.
Deep Work is a hopeful book for frantic times. The methods Newport recommends can help you realize your capacity to create things that matter. I have adopted several of his strategies (though, or course, I could do better) and plan to revisit this book periodically to refocus my work habits.
Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari (2017)
In 2016, I read and loved Yuval Noah Harari’s first book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, a sweeping overview of how homo sapiens came to dominate the planet over their 100,000-year existence. Naturally, I was excited to learn Harari was publishing something of a sequel to Sapiens in 2017’s Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow.
Sapiens challenged me to rethink truisms about human history like, for instance, that the rise of agricultural was an immediate benefit to humanity. While agriculture did allow human populations to settle and expand, Harari argues that it also increased their suffering. Before the agricultural revolution, human foragers lived in small, intimate bands that subsisted on varied diets and suffered few diseases. Sure, life could be treacherous, but forager humans were ultimately healthy and peaceful. With the rise of agriculture, humans clustered into larger settlements and became dependent on single crops, which made their diets less varied and made them more susceptible to famine and disease, and more likely to war with other human factions over scarce resources. It would take millennia before refined agricultural practices, modern medicine, and sanitation would finally improve humanity’s quality of life.
Homo Deus picks up where Sapiens leaves off, making bold predictions about the future of our species that challenge commonly held beliefs. Among the subjects Harari tackles in Homo Deus are the increasing significance algorithms play in influencing (eventually determining) the choices we make, how data will give rise to new religions, and the rise of techno humanism.
Homo Deus is a book that demands a re-read in 2018.
I find Harari to be one of the most interesting thinkers around. If you’re interested in learning more about his writing, check out this recent Intelligence Squared interview.
Evicted by Matthew Desmond (2016)
This is the best written, most humanizing work of social science I’ve ever read.
Set in Milwaukee in the late 2000s, Evicted chronicles the lives of housing unstable individuals and the landlords who threaten to (and eventually do) evict them. Desmond does an amazing job of using the stories of real people – a mother of two who’s struggling to pay the rent on her modest wages, a disabled elderly man living on disability, a drug-addicted former nurse trying to put his life back together, a landlord from the neighborhood trying to get paid – to illustrate the national housing affordability crisis.
There’s a reason this book won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize. Read it.
Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble by Dan Lyons (2016)
I discovered Disrupted after reading a 2016 New York Times opinion piece by Dan Lyons titled “Congratulations, You’ve Been Fired.” It was hilarious, so I ordered Lyons’s book. It, too, was hilarious.
Despite never having worked in such an environment, I’ve long disdained the manufactured (i.e. fake) corporate culture of the tech world. In my hometown of Detroit, this culture is best exemplified in the Quicken Loans empire of billionaire Dan Gilbert. Quicken is a mortgage sales operation where thousands of mostly millennial workers wearing headsets pace around brightly colored office spaces adorned with oversized printouts of their heads (made by Fathead, another Gilbert company), zany furniture, slushee machines, and arcade-style basketball hoops. They are periodically issued books of Gilbert’s “isms” that are supposed to guide their approach to their work. Sound a little culty to you?
In Disrupted, Dan Lyons chronicles his nightmarish sojourn into the tech world as a writer in the marketing department of HubSpot, a “marketing solutions” firm based in Boston. His reasons for taking the job are both practical and cynical. A career journalist who was recently laid off from Newsweek, Lyons, 52, needed a paycheck to support his young family. He also smelled an opportunity to get a piece of an emerging unicorn company’s IPO – if that moment came. Little did he know he would be gifted choice material for a book that would lead him to become a writer on HBO’s Silicon Valley series.
From his first day on the job, Lyons’s tenure at HubSpot is hilarious and horrifying. It doesn’t take him long to realize that he’s twice as old as almost every one of his new coworkers, including his supervisor. Everyone around him is ebullient, effervescent, and earnest, possessing not a hint of irony about the work they do in service of HubSpot, which they sincerely believe is changing the world…through marketing.
Everyone who works at HubSpot is a “rockstar” who’s “crushing it.” They’re all convinced they are truly elite marketers, though few have any prior experience in the field. Lyons masterfully depicts the hubris of a generation (the millennials, duh!) whose members have always been told that they are special and gifted. His co-workers send each other cringeworthy compliments (copying everyone on the team, of course) with phrases like “Ashley for President!” and “You’re a Rockstar!” Every sentence is an exclamation because everything is AWESOME!!!
Apart from his hilarious depiction of the cult-like culture embraced (indeed mandated) by many startups, Lyons’s greatest accomplishment in Disrupted is revealing how most tech companies receiving high valuations are not actually doing much of anything. In a brilliant, short chapter titled “Escape Velocity,” Lyons exposes how for most companies, pulling off an IPO is nothing more than executing a caper that makes the founders and a handful of investors rich without creating much value for workers or the public.
Many of the books I read I learned about from podcasts like Sam Harris’s “Waking Up” program and Vox’s “The Ezra Klein Show.” I find this to be a much more interesting way to learn about new books than reading reviews. Others were recommended by friends.
For the first time ever, I began tracking my reading habits in 2017, something I plan to continue in 2018. I also established what I think is a good habit of using 3″x5″ index cards as book marks upon which I can take notes as I read. Once I complete a book, I leave the cards in it so that when I revisit the text, my notes are handy. (This practice proved very helpful in writing this blog post.)
It’s a tall task, but I will try to for 52 books again in 2018. It, too, is shaping up to be an excellent year to read books.
Whoa, a comment section! In 2018! Let me see if I remember how to use this.
I loved your reading recap, Matt! Thanks for posting it! I recently put Deep Work on my list but now I’ll have to add more. Disrupted sounds a little too real for me but that’s probably a reason to make it a priority. And thanks for sharing your spreadsheet for tracking your reading. Bold of you to have shot for 52 with a Robert Caro book on the list.
Ha! Forgot that I had the comments section enabled. Thanks for reading my post! Looking forward to catching up this week.
Appreciate the reflection. It makes me feel like there could be a book club not where everyone reads the same book, rather everyone reads something different but related to a specific topic. Everyone shares their reflections, better conversation ensues.
I like this idea. Everyone could make a short presentation/lecture on their selection with the goal of convincing the others to read it.
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