I start feeling reflective when something comes to an end, and closing out a decade magnifies the impulse, so I’d like to share some of my favorite reading over the last ten years. The following list doesn’t claim that these books are the best; there’s too much to read and too little time to crown that kind of superlative. These are just a few that I personally found thoughtful, enjoyable, interesting, and worth spending some time with.
I’ve been influenced so much by recommendations from others’ lists over the years, and led to topics and ideas I wouldn’t have sought on my own. I hope that by sharing this, I can do the same for you.
- You are Not a Gadget, Jaron Lanier (2010)
Lanier’s book opened the decade up with prescient questions about the relationship we have with technology, and set the table for several of the other books I listed here. It’s been ten years since I read it, so my recollection of the details are a bit scant, but the rest of this list proves that the book put me on a path of exploring some important ideas: what’s the real impact of internet technology, and is it making us better people?
- Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being, Martin Seligman (2011)
Happiness can be different things to different people, but all of us can benefit from a look at Seligman’s work in the field of positive psychology. This work proposes that mental health is worth our attention just as much when things are going well as it is when times are difficult. Flourish introduces some of the science, and punctuates it with practical exercises you can use to improve your well-being, like the ‘What Went Well?’ journal that suggests writing down three things that go well every day. I tried it out, and soon found myself spoiled for choice when considering all the things I have to be grateful for.
- The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr (2011)
Following a path staked out by some of Lanier’s broader questions, Nicholas Carr dug deep on the effects of internet usage on our brains, and found a variety of not surprising but still alarming conclusions – such as strong evidence that links reading hypertext to significantly diminished memory, comprehension and learning compared to good old-fashioned books. That being said, maybe it’s better to grab a paperback copy of this one instead of the Kindle edition.
- Quiet, Susan Cain (2012)
So I guess I’m an introvert. I had suspicions after I casually self-administered a Myers-Brigss test several years ago, but reading Susan Cain’s work solidified my theory, and gave me a better framework for understanding it. This book impacted how I approach my work, and strengthened my determination to seek environments where I can leverage the quieter aspects of my character to their greatest effect.
- NW, Zadie Smith (2012)
There’s a scene in this powerful novel by Zadie Smith in which a character waits at a bus stop in the neighborhood he’s known his entire life, and sees younger versions of himself, sitting there with him – boarding the bus as a child with his grandmother, sleeping on the bench as a rowdy teenager, meeting his wife for the first time as a young man. Time passes, people change, but places remain fixed in our memory, tying us back to who we were and reminding us of what we’ve been through. NW is a brilliant story about that relationship we have with the places we know well, and each other, and the intersection of the two.
- The Circle, Dave Eggers (2013)
In 2013, before the “Criticism of Facebook” Wikipedia page boasted 564 citations, it wasn’t unusual to feel like an outsider for questioning the utility of the world’s largest social media platform. Fiction was an appropriate and somewhat innocent space to worry about what worst-case scenarios might result, if the Zuckerbergian mindset of “share everything, all the time” were taken to its logical extreme. Dave Eggers’ imagining of a Google/Facebook-like corporation called the Circle still paints a vivid picture of a friendly dystopia that could turn to reality if questions aren’t answered about the role of social media in everyday life.
- The News: A User’s Manual, Alain de Botton (2014)
In 2014, reading de Botton’s critical analysis of the role “news” plays the modern world, it was impossible to know that just a few years later journalism would be turned upside down by a “post-truth” political environment. Retrospectively, I find myself wondering if the current state of affairs might have been avoided, somehow, had more people read this book (or one like it) before things got so bad. What really captivated me was de Botton’s focus on the individual experience of consuming news, and how it shapes a person’s view of the world – instead of retreading for the millionth time the economics of the industry, the effect of technology, the bias of right or left, etc.
- Fates and Furies, Lauren Groff (2015)
I have at times harbored the naive ambition that I might make a writer of myself, someday. Then I land on a book that’s so good, such a masterpiece of craft, it shatters any notion that I might have something to say that this book didn’t just say, and better. What else is there to write? This remarkable story of a marriage, and a character’s quest to make art, are the setting for an exploration of love, family, desire, identity, and truth, brought to life by some of the most beautiful and expressive prose I’ve encountered.
- The Wright Brothers, David McCullough (2015)
If you have a chance to read this book while sitting somewhere on a North Carolina beach, I can’t recommend a better environment to take in the incredible history of the Wright Brothers, and the persistent ingenuity they exemplified while developing one of the most significant technological achievements in human history. With your feet in the sand and the sound of waves lapping, you might glance up and see a kite floating on the breeze, and then imagine Wilbur and Orville standing under it, considering the possibilities.
- Shoe Dog, Phil Knight (2016)
What drew me to this corporate origin story – an interest in entrepreneurship and how companies scale – isn’t what kept me reading once I started. I expected to find a dry, textbook telling of product development and marketing strategy, but instead encountered a candid personal account of Knight’s motivations as he built his little shoe company from the ground up, the story marked by a few hard lessons learned along the way. Refreshingly, what drove him seemed rooted in a simple passion for running, and a sincere desire to share that passion with others.
- Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology, Ellen Ullman (2017)
This book was published in 2017, but contained within are essays written by Ullman as early as 1994 and up to the present day. As a programmer in the early days of the internet, she writes with a practitioner’s understanding of technology at both the micro and macro scale – but also has a poet’s eye for detail and meaning, and a knack for stripping complicated technical ideas down, and kicking the pillars from under them so they tumble within any reader’s reach. In the early essays, her observations seem so ahead of their time that it’s almost frightening, touching on everything from the scary Y2K bug and “code vs. law,” to e-commerce, AI & robotics. Anyone who is interested in, uses or works with technology should not wait to read this book.
- Leonardo da Vinci, Walter Isaacson (2017)
Instead of attempting to summarize this 600-pager in just a few sentences, I’ll instead share one of my favorite Leonardo quotes contained within: “Men of lofty genius sometimes accomplish the most when they work least, for their minds are occupied with their ideas and perfection of their conceptions, to which they afterwards give form.” If you haven’t spent any time learning or thinking about da Vinci, (“The da Vinci Code” doesn’t count) this comprehensive and well-paced biography is a great place to start.
- Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders (2017)
This decade had me aging into my 30’s, so that’s where I’ll place the blame for my tendency to read piles of non-fiction that I sought as learning material, the serious stuff of life and business and money. But getting older doesn’t mean you have to stop having fun, and thankfully, I found Saunders’ novel and ended up having a blast. On the surface, the story of Lincoln grieving the loss of his young son doesn’t sound joyful at all, but through the ridiculously imaginative premise of ghosts in a cemetery trying to shepherd the younger Lincoln on to the “next place,” it’s a romp that vacillates between the hilarious, the heartbreaking, the absurd and the poignant, all in unforgettable fashion.