The Absolute Best Books I read in 2017

The Wright Brothers 

The best lesson of the Wright Brothers is that people who do great things usually get there because they love the thing they’re working on for its own sakeThe brothers’ primary motivation wasn’t fame or money. They liked inventing and fell in love with a problem.

Best startup book I’ve ever read: persistence, resourcefulness, ran a bike shop full-time to pay for their research, mocked by the press for years, etc.

When Breath Becomes Air

This book is like a huge siren with a big sign shouting at you: what’s actually important in your life? It’s the posthumously-published autobiography a doctor who died of cancer at 37… just as he was starting to reap the return on investment of years and years of research, school, etc.

It’s a quick read and worth every page.

Enemy at the Gates: The Battle for Stalingrad

Stalingrad was one of the ugliest battles in the ugliest war. The “best” takeaways are the stories about how desensitized people were to death.

I wrote myself a note I try to remember: “When you don’t feel like working, remember the Battle of Stalingrad.”

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

It’s possible that some poverty in the US can be as much about culture as it is about opportunity. This book helps you understand that point of view.

Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood’s Creative Artists Agency

CAA was at one time the most powerful agency in Hollywood. It was founded by 5 different guys but the one you’ve probably heard of is Michael Ovitz.

I read this to understand how someone becomes as powerful as he did in an industry as emotional and relationship-driven as show business. The format of the book is awesome: all verbatim quotes from hundreds of interviewees… so it’s really easy to jump around if you’re looking for a specific topic or person.

Sam Walton: Made In America

See: People who do great things love the thing itself, not the fame or money.

Fun story: when he started Walmart Sam was already was a private pilot with his own plane. So when he was looking at opening a new store he’d fly around the area he was considering to scout for the best possible locations.

This is the best example I know of of an early competitive advantage that many big businesses start with that you never hear about in the mythical founding story retelling.

The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King

Ignore the weird title because this book is fantastic. A guy who came from nothing and ended up dominating the entire banana business.

He was utterly determined to succeed and would not be stopped, example 1: the US government was trying to collect additional taxes on bananas (mostly imported from Honduras) that would destroy all of Zemurray’s profits. Faced with an opponent as formidable as the United States government you or I would likely give up & go home. Not this guy!

Instead he recruited an exiled Honduran General and successfully staged a military coup in Honduras.

The new government then gave Zemurray the tax deal he wanted. Ethically dubious perhaps, but the determination and relentlessness is remarkable.

The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life

Even if you’ve studied Buffett you should read this, it has great little stories and details you don’t see anywhere else.

Fun example of his determination: putting on a bathing suit and getting in the ocean to build a relationship with Katherine Graham.


And here’s every other book I read this year:

Biographical/Historical 

Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage
Humans are capable of overcoming almost anything.

Napoleon: A Life
To have a place in history you need to be in the right place at the right time, but Napoleon was also incredibly talented. His memory was 2nd to none, in that he’d remember people he’d met in crowds from 10 years prior.

The Johnstown Flood
Amazing story about a flood that took out entire towns that I’d never heard about until this year. Also David McCullough’s first book.

Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA
Stories of CIA secret agents who died while serving that the CIA can’t talk about.

Business History

Eccentric Orbits: The Iridium Story
Great story about how one entrepreneur negotiated a deal to buy a bunch of satellites that Motorola was going to burn up in the earth’s atmosphere.

Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco
Too long, but great coverage of the beginning of private equity in the 80s.

100 Baggers: Stocks That Return 100-to–1 and How To Find Them
This showed me that it’s impossible to predict what companies are going to 100x based on the company itself: it’s all about the people.

A Payment History of the United States: From Bills to Bitcoin
A concise and readable history of how payments in the US work. Credit cards and ACH finally explained!

Dear Chairman: Boardroom Battles and the Rise of Shareholder Activism
Fun stories of investors taking over companies.

The Upstarts: How Uber, Airbnb, and the Killer Companies of the New Silicon Valley Are Changing the World
Worth reading to get a better sense of the inside of Uber. Not as horrible a place as you might think.

The Outsiders: Eight Unconventional CEOs and Their Radically Rational Blueprint for Success
Stories of CEOs who achieved amazing returns for their investors and how they did it. Not really actionable advice since every story is so unique, but the meta takeaway is almost always: people who do great things like the thing for its own sake.

Misc. Good Books

The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal
The story of the most valuable intelligence asset the American government has ever turned: a Russian engineer.

The City & The City
A work of fiction! A murder mystery that takes place in “two” cities that geographically overlap, but whose citizens by law aren’t allowed to see members or buildings from the other town.

The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason
The most eloquent book on why believing in God is silly.

The Little Book That Still Beats the Market
Great beginner read for on investing: Joel Greenblatt talks about the 2 things that make a company a good investment: it has high returns on capital, purchased at a good price. Makes a great stocking stuffer for all your relatives who want to invest their life savings into Bitcoin.

The Quest of the Simple Life
You can be happy with what you have today, as told by a man in the 1st decade of the 1900’s.

From Impossible To Inevitable: How Hyper-Growth Companies Create Predictable Revenue
Actionable advice on growing a SaaS business.

Finite and Infinite Games
Still wrapping my brain around this one but basically: life can be a game to be explored if you know what to look at.

Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation
Not just about the Internet, but it could be.

The Radicalism of the American Revolution
WOW I did not realize how inaccurate my perception of American and English society in the 1700s was. Social hierarchy was everything, making money was seen as taboo or lesser class, and the government was run by the elites because they had the social authority to do so.

The Systems Bible: The Beginner’s Guide to Systems Large and Small
Witty author about a dense subject: don’t create systems unless you absolutely have to. And if you do create a system, start with a simple one or you’re doomed to fail.

Thinking, Fast and Slow
Your brain has two modes of thinking: automatic & conscious. Make sure you’re applying the right one when you’re trying to solve a problem.

Business/Advice Books that Should Have Been a Blog Post

Don’t Read These

The Zurich Axioms: The rules of risk and reward used by generations of Swiss bankers
Hocus pocus stories about what works in investing

Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior
An apparently bitter author who repeats himself 200 times saying consumers are driven by sex & status and that companies know this.

Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley
It turns out some crazy stuff goes down in places where there are many rich and powerful people.

Dune
Best example ever of how a piece of work should be judged by the standards of its era: Dune is so slow, and there is so little plot, I don’t see how any person raised on YouTube could stick through it. I finished the damn thing expecting a huge payoff at the end but it never materialized. 1


  1. If you love Dune I’d genuinely love to understand why… I tried going through forums and reddit after I read it but never got it.