The Best 10 Books I read in 2019
Happy New Year!
I can't believe 2019 went by so fast. It has been a year since I posted my 10 Best Books of 2018! I'm thankful that I was able to continue reading in 2019. While I continue to index almost entirely towards non-fiction, I was able to cover a reasonable variety of topics: biographies, autobiographies, politics, leadership and science. Here are my favorite books from 2019:
This is the Elizabeth Holmes/Theranos story. An absolute page-turner. The sheer audacity of the protagonists here is breathtaking. From a distance one looks to signals to decide whether a person or a company is legitimate. We might look at the board for example to decide a company's pedigree. Theranos had the biggest names on its board - George Shultz and Jim Mattis to name just two - and yet, it was a house of cards all along. Carreyrou's book is a fantastic piece of investigative journalism and is a must-read.
I first heard of this from Bill Gates' book recommendations. It's the autobiography of a young woman who grew up in rural Idaho and worked her way up to Oxford. The real draw is in the characters in the story rather than the story itself and is a powerful reminder of the influence of family in all of our lives. There are echoes of Hillbilly Elegy by J D Vance in this book.
In 2018, I read Scott Kelly's book with the same title about his year in space aboard the International Space Station - the ISS. Shackleton's voyage was made over a hundred years ago with none of the high tech of the ISS. Shackleton's voyage is an inspiring read with lessons on grit, determination, faith, team work and leadership. Anytime I think I am having a rough day, it's helps me to think about what Shackleton and his crew went through and it all comes into perspective!
Most of us know the Edward Snowden story from the day after he became a public figure. In this book, Snowden takes us back to his childhood, his family and educational background, 9/11, his start in the Intelligence Community and eventually the NSA. It is well written and quite chilling to read. If you aren't already paranoid, this book will make you at least a little bit paranoid!
Admiral McRaven is a 4-star admiral and a Navy SEAL. In this autobiographical book, he recounts some of his most memorable missions - from searching for a lost airplane in a remote area of Canada to planning the operation that eventually got Osama Bin Laden.
Another book by Navy SEALs Willink and Babin. They apply the lessons of military operations and preparation to the business world. Several key leadership principles are articulated: first in the context of a battlefield and then in a business situation. An unusual management book to be sure. The part that struck me the most was the amount of time these SEALs put into power point presentations before every mission!
In the early 1990s, India went through some momentous events that led to it moving from a firmly socialist, state-controlled economy to a much more open and free market based one. I've alway been fascinated by the primary architects of that change: Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao and his finance minister Manmohan Singh. Manmohan Singh went on to become the prime minister himself through an interesting set of circumstances and this book is by his media advisor and chief spokesperson recounting those events in his time with the PMO. Unlike in the US, where former high ranking cabinet or White House officials almost always write a book after their tenures, this kind of a tell-all is relatively rare in India and provides a behind-the-scenes look in the corridors of power during those tumultuous times. The book got enough attention that it also got made into a movie in 2019.
While some major events in history can seem inevitable in retrospect, in the moment, it can be hard to figure out how seismic they are. This book is a sobering read about how Germany went from being one of the most advanced countries in Europe to the depths of Nazism. It's a scholarly look at how institutions which we all assume will never wither away can in fact be meticulously dismantled - and much, much, faster than one would imagine. And that, at the end of the day, institutions are really just a facade over us, the people who eventually have to decide what happens. It certainly gave me plenty to think about. Definitely worth a read for history or political buffs.
On the surface this book is about the Los Angeles Public Library and the fire there in 1986 - but it really is a book about books and reading and libraries. A love story almost. It starts with the fire and how it quickly got overshadowed by the Chernobyl disaster but then goes into the history of libraries in general and weaves in the author's own memories. For anyone who loves libraries, this is a book to to really enjoy.
This is a biography of Bill Campbell who served as coach and mentor to many leaders in Silicon Valley and to many technology boards in his time - and did all that without apparently any immediate or direct monetary gain. There are several good management principles here and it is also an interesting read about how someone who can act as the glue in executive teams - be they boards or a level or two lower - can really help the whole be much greater than the sum of its parts.
As always, I would love to hear any book recommendations you may have. Or, if you have read any of the above books and have your own thoughts or reviews, please let me know!
To more reading and more books in 2020!