A Year of Books: 2017 Edition
At this time of year it's natural for people to reflect on the previous twelve months and how they might make improvements and changes for the next year. This time last year I wrote about the books I had read - the idea being that you can learn a lot about the type of year someone has had by looking at the topics that drew their attention and what stood out to them most. I think it was useful then, and so I am doing the same this year.
In 2016 I read 21 books, and set a relatively modest goal of reading 27 in 2017. However, I ended up finishing 32 books this year which was a huge improvement. I think that just goes to show the power of having a specific goal and setting up a way to track your progress really easily. Having an easy way to see the running total at any time is a great way to keep yourself on track.
I’ve embedded a list of all the books I read in 2017, along with my rating of each one in a table at the bottom of this page. Scroll to the end to see it if you can’t wait!
Like last year, I have given my personal rating on all the book I read. However, this year I added the ratings as I went along, rather than doing all of the ratings at the end of the year. Here is the breakdown of the ratings:
Number of books at each rating:
1: 0 books
2: 0 books
3: 0 books
4: 1 book (3%)
5: 1 book (3%)
6: 5 books (15.6%)
7: 7 books (21.8%)
8: 11 books (34%)
9: 4 books (12.5%)
10: 3 books (9.4%)
One concern I had was whether my ratings would remain consistent over time. If my grading gets more and more generous each month then the whole system becomes worthless, so I did my best to avoid the trap of giving higher ratings to books simply because they were more fresh in my memory.
Fortunately, it looks like I have mostly managed to maintain my ratings standard from year to year as you can see in the chart below. The only exception is that there were significantly fewer 9 out of 10s, and more 8 out of 10s than in 2016.
Overall, this means that only 22% of the books I read were a 9 or 10, compared to last years 38%. Looking back over the ratings that I gave, I actually think this is a good sign that my ratings are more objective this year than they were before. When I thought about giving a book a 9 out of 10 it was useful to be able to go back and look at the other 9s to compare and decide whether I felt the latest book really deserved to make it into the very top ranks.
It makes sense that there would not be many rating in the lower half of the scale because a) I wouldn't start reading a book I wasn't pretty sure I would like, and b) I certainly wouldn't finish a book I wasn't enjoying that much, and I'm only including books I finished in this list.
It's reassuring to know that this system produces more of a normal distribution since that makes me think the whole rating system is more trustworthy!
The good thing about reading so many more books this year was that I was also able to read much more broadly on different topics. While in 2016 I read books from 15 categories, this year I reached 24 different topics.
The graph below shows the top 10 subjects I read about in 2017:
As you can see, there is some overlap - Business and Psychology were the top two most popular topics I read about in 2016, and yet I still managed to read almost as many books in those categories this year without them being in the top 2 again!
Of course, the biggest difference is that 2017 is the year I discovered how great biographies can be, and rediscovered my love for history. This for me indicates the power of what Ryan Holiday has referred to as ‘Quake Books’ - books that are totally full of some great new ideas that really change your views on a topic or about how the world works.
A few of the books I read this year were certainly quake books, and have changed my thinking in ways that I wouldn’t have expected. Having that happen inevitably leads you down new avenues and exploring books that I would never have considered in the past.
My favourite books of 2017
You can see all the books I read and my ratings in the table at the bottom of this page, but here’s are my top 5 picks and a bit of explanation on each.
Magellan, Stefan Zweig
"One who wishes to act heroically, must act unreasonably."
I was only vaguely aware of Magellan as a historical figure before reading this book, and had never heard of the author Stefan Zweig, but I am so glad I checked it out. This was, hands down, one of the best books I have ever read.
It turns out that Zweig was, at one time, one of the most famous writers in the world, but my impression is that he has been largely forgotten by most people in the English speaking world (he was German and ended up fleeing the Nazis in the 1930s). He wrote a number of biographies of famous historical characters, and although I ended up reading a few of his others this year, I think that this was the best I’ve read so far.
In a nutshell, it’s the story of how a Portuguese refugee convinces their greatest rivals (Spain) to invest the equivalent of millions of pounds on ships, supplies and men to achieve something that no one had any certainty was even possible (the circumnavigation of the globe).
Imagine if a Chinese refugee convinced the American government to give them money to build and then command a spaceship to colonise Mars. That’s probably a modern equivalent of what Magellan managed to do - and that’s all before they’ve even started the journey!
Of course like many people who have achieved great things, there’s lots to criticise about Magellan’s actions, from murdering the locals to colonising distant islands. He doesn’t come out well from a 21st Century point of view.
Nevertheless, that’s partly why Zweig’s account is so fantastic. It’s impossible not to be truly curious about the type of man who can take on the goal that he did, and actually manage to pull it off. It’s an incredible story of a momentous achievement, told masterfully by a forgotten genius.
Shoe Dog, Phil Knight
“The cowards never started,” he’d tell me, “and the weak died along the way—that leaves us.”
This book is so well written that it makes me suspicious that Phil Knight wrote it himself.
Who would have thought that the CEO and founder of Nike had such a fascinating life? In many ways it has many of the same elements of the Magellan biography above, but this time told from the first person point of view.
It’s about how a young man came up with an improbable, unreasonable goal and that he chased with such focus and dedication that he actually managed to pull it off. It’s the story of a real entrepreneur, before being an entrepreneur was fashionable, who is constantly moving from one crisis to the next to keep his dream alive.
Of course like any autobiography, you’ve got to assume that it’s not entirely neutral in it’s perspective, but he certainly doesn’t ignore the darker periods he had to go through, and you certainly get the impression that it was always about more than money for him.
Like Magellan, it was about doing a 'Difficult Thing’ and doing it well. Unlike Magellan, much of Shoe Dog is about the relationships needed to make Nike the success it has been. For anyone early in their career, or thinking of starting their own business, this should be recommended reading. There is an enormous amount of wisdom in a relatively short book.
Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari
"Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations. as time went by, the imagined reality became ever more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States and Google."
It’s hard to underestimate how popular Sapiens has been over the last few years, with thousands of people singing its praises, so I’ll keep this short.
If you’ve not read it, you should. You’ll likely not find a more concise and readable history of the human species. People have wondered for millennia what it is that makes humans unique, and explains why it is our species that has come to dominate the planet as opposed to some other one.
There are animals who are stronger and quicker than us, and there were species of humans before homo sapiens who were not as successful as us - so why have we come so far? Harari’s explanation is that it is our ability to believe in fictions.
From religions to money to nation states - all of these things are tools that have allowed us to build the modern world. However, these things don’t exist in the same way that trees or dogs really exist. They only exist because we all agree that they do. It is these shared fictions that allow very large groups of homo sapiens to co-ordinate and co-operate towards the same goals.
This book has made a big impact with so many people for good reason.
Shooting Stars: Ten Historical Miniatures, Stefan Zweig
"Chance success and easy achievement kindle only ambition, but the heart rises in response to a human being’s fight against an invincibly superior power of fate, the greatest of all tragedies, and one that sometimes inspires poets and shapes life a thousand times over."
After I read Magellan and loved it so much, I started investigating this Stefan Zweig person and discovered that he had written a whole series of biographies of various historical characters.
Unlike Magellan, this book is a collection of ten short profiles of people or events in history. The broad theme is about success and failure, but each chapter is completely unconnected to the others.
So, for instance, there is the story of Handel who recovered from a stroke to write some of the most beautiful music ever written, an account of the battle of Waterloo that turned on the failure of one French general, and the trial of Captain Scott and his comrades who attempted to reach the South Pole first, but were beaten to it by just days.
What this book does have in common with Magellan is Zweig’s incredible ability to make you appreciate the greatness of the successes, and the devastation of the disasters. In each story you learn something about the type of people who achieve immortality, and the role that fortune plays in whether or not you’re remembered forever.
Hiroshima, John Hersey
I read this book because in June 2017 I went on a trip to Japan for the first time. Like I did with China the year before, I decided to read some books about the country in advance in order to learn as much as I could about it’s history and culture.
As you may have guessed from the title, this is a book about the dropping of the first ever nuclear bomb on Hiroshima in 1945. The book tells the story of what happened to 5 or 6 different people who all ended up surviving that day, and the awful things they had to go through. No one would imagine that it was exactly easy, but I certainly didn’t have a real appreciation for how truly horrific it must have been to be there.
I didn’t manage to make it to Hiroshima on my trip, but I’m certainly going to return to Japan to visit one day. With the recent concerns mounting over North Korea’s first successful nuclear tests, it’s a sombre reminder of exactly how terrible something like that would be.
Here is the full list of books I read in 2017.