The books I read in 2019

Here are all my extracted answers from our monthly Basecamp check-in question of What are you reading? for 2019. (See also my answers from 2016, 2017, and 2018).

The Sane Society
Another Fromm tome! This one starts from the premise of evaluating the different social characters of various societies. But not from the abstract, pretend objectiveness of “everything is equal; everything is just different”, but from a bold perspective of “some societies truly do better than others at promoting human health and flourish. That’s potentially a dynamite perspective, but Fromm handles it with utter grace and respect.

I particularly enjoyed the concept of mental illness or malaise as an act of rebellion against societal pressures and norms. Particularly the refutation that “the sane person” is whoever is performing their productive function in society. Yeah, fuck that.

I also really liked the depiction of a country’s social character to be an expression of what that society thought it needed. A German reputation for stinginess/savings as virtuous? A reflection of what the country needed in order to rebuild after 20th century devastation. It’s a fascinating recast of “stereotype” as something intellectually productive, and not just lazy othering.

Greatness and Limitations of Freud’s Thought
It’s fair to say that I’ve been on a Eric Fromm kick ever since discovering Escape From Freedom. His analysis of the human condition is deep, profound, yet utterly approachable. He writes in a plain, well-sourced, and fluid manner that makes it hard to stop, but you really should. Fromm’s thoughts are so provoking that I often need to force myself to take breaks to truly digest the lessons.

This book is no different. It provides a guided tour through the psychoanalytical method that Freud invented with great depth. Whether it’s the exploration of the unconscious, dream analysis, the Oedipus Complex, and character classes. But what’s so brilliant about Fromm’s tour is that it’s a critical presentation. Fromm clearly has great respect for Freud’s discoveries, but has no time for his patriarchal, bourgeois, 19th century nonsense – nor his obsession to explain everything from a root of sexual drives.

What follows is a master class in a critical reading of a great master, without neither being overcome with disgust of his fallacies or try to excuse or pave over them. Really good.

Sapiens
That whirl wind tour of the history of our species. I’m liking it, but not uncritically so. There’s a lot of definitions, like that of religion, that seem hurried, if not outright glib. But I do really like the repeated emphasis on just how much of human society is a collection of shared myths that we’ve simply all decided to believe. And that things got the way they are through an endless series of historical accidents, unlikely events, and forks in the road. Not through some deterministic path. That’s a great story of both hope – and fear! – that we can make a better society, yet that history does not “bend” or “arc” towards that intrinsically. You have to do the work.

Kubernetes in Action
I don’t read a lot of new technical books these days, but Kubernetes seems like enough of a fundamental step in cloud computing that it’s worth being literate in its basics. Understanding the differences between images, pods, and coordinations. It’s pretty good!

The Great Mortality
The story of the plague that ravaged Europe from, primarily, 1347-1351. It’s like a real-life 28 Days. A third of Europe’s population was wiped out. Just unfathomable scale of societal destruction.

It’s really well-told too. Even if there’s a bit of repetitiveness to the “and then the plague hit the next city, and the result was DEATH”. It’s a constant reminder of just how fragile humanity actually is.

The insight into the catholic church’s management of affairs is scathing too. And the pogroms that blamed the jews for the plague, and lead to mass murderings, is a sober reminder of how genocide is never too far away when a society is brought to the brink.

Really enjoyed this one. 

Making Sense of the Troubles
I remember seeing stories about the IRA in the 1980s on Danish television. The bombings, the conflict. But I never really understood the underlying dynamics. This book lays it all bare.

And the story it tells might be from Northern Ireland, but it could just as well be set in Iraq or Israel. A religious group takes control of politics, uses the force of government to subdue the other group, and refuses to engage in power sharing until after years of blood sheath.

And this was all very recently. Right there in Europe. Long-running campaigns of insurgence, counter-insurgence, and a fragile peace. Given what’s going on with Brexit right now, it feels like just the time where you want to understand the history of Northern Ireland.

When Prophecy Fails
On the surface an exploration of cults, but beneath, really an exploration of how the mind bends to rationalize beliefs of any sort. We can learn a lot about our own stubbornness and filter bubbles and segregation of society by studying these cults and what made them double down on end-of-the-world claims, even after proven wrong.

Life without Principle, Henry David Thoreau
Thoreau’s thoughts on work and calm is right up the Basecamp alley. Reading through this short book, which is a recording of a lecture he gave, and I can see the root source material for much of our opposition to overwork and protecting attention.

An enjoyable reminder that there is little new under the sun, and that much of what we must do is to continue repackaging eternal truths for a new context.

Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World
Economic win-win thinking has taken over the world of politics and charity, and we’re all worse of for it. Three-plus decades of reverence to McKinsey-type thinking, the abandonment of faith in government to fix big problems, and an elite establishment bent on peddling Everything Is Actually Great You Know stories is coming to a clash with reality. A reality where 90% of the population has seen stagnant wages and shrinking opportunity.

You might feel like you’ve heard that story before in a NY Times piece on “let’s understand why rural American voted Trump”, but this is a much broader and much more interesting story. Told in large part by examining not just the plight of the dispossessed, but the complicity of “the globalists”. Even just examining that term from outside a right-wing media slant is fascinating.

Anand Giridharadas uses a series of vignettes with doing-well-by-doing-good insiders who share their doubt of how they’re really going to “they’ll dismantle the master’s house using the master’s tools”. It’s a brave exposition of friends and acquaintances, and you occasionally cringe at the savage moral verdicts, whoever gentle they’re delivered in terms of disappointment rather than rage.

Really good.

Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche
A lot of my reading list as of late has come from Eric Dodson’s philosophy channel on Youtube, and the recommendations he offers. The majority has been great, but I’m having quite some trouble with this major work by Nietzsche.

It’s funny, because of all these older philosophical texts, it’s somehow quite modern in that it almost reads like a series of blog posts, at times even tweet storms. But it’s so all over the place. Yes, there are some general themes of striving for a better humanity (the superman), but it’s wrapped with all sorts of seemingly trivial or banal observations. It’s not an easy treasure chest to open.

It’s also just long. Anyway, nibbling at it. Maybe it’s just an acquired taste that’ll click. But this is the opposite of “oh, older works are so accessible and immediately poignant” experience I’ve had otherwise.

The Uninhabitable Earth by Wallace-Wells
After three years of wildfires near our home in Malibu, it’s intimately clear that climate change isn’t some far away, far future phenomenon. The effects are here, they’re scary, devastating, and yet, so utterly minor compared to what we have in store.

I thought I was pretty up to date on climate change. I follow the news, read articles, and remember watching The Inconvenient Truth when it came out. But still, I was shocked by the most recent data, science, and projections presented in this book. Just the fact that HALF of all the greenhouse gasses that are warming the earth were released since Seinfeld aired on TV. That’s my life time!

The consequences of climate change are already destined to be profound and dire. That’s just based on where we are now. But as this book dives into what a world of not +2C looks like, but +4C or +6C or even +8C, the towering calamity that is of our own making becomes both utterly real and surreal at the same time.

Discipline and Punish by Foucault
Tracing the history of punishment from the Middle Ages and forward tickles both an interest in history, philosophy, and the concept of punishment. Why did we stop torturing people in public? When did intent and mental state become such a big part of the picture? Foucault explores all of it. If you liked the Hardcore History episode on Painfotainment, this gives that show a much deeper ballast.

Permanent Record by Snowden
Snowden’s memoir is at once both gratifying and slightly frustrating. His stories of growing up with technology, “hacking” bedtime, and discovering the early internet overlaps almost entirely with my own timeline. But there’s also a little too much “just so” justification for the anecdotes and Snowden’s later heroic acts. Either way, the description of how the NSA/CIA inner world actually works, the role and freedom given to contractors, the implosion of accountability, and just what you can do with nation-state level surveillance systems is stunning, almost required reading. May a future president see the courage, wisdom, and self-sacrifice Snowden committed to and give him the pardon and the parade that he so rightly deserves.

The Tyranny of Metrics by Muller
This is one of those books where the title is worth more than the content. I just love the concept and the taste of those words put together. And, as someone prone to overanalyzing, it was a welcome reminder of not all that can be measured is worth measuring and much that it is worth measuring can’t be. But this should have been a blog post. It’s repetitive and the examples somehow appear weak and overworked at the same time. I didn’t make it all the way to the end.

The Divide by Hickel
Three books have already opened my eyes to the fallacy of the neoliberal economics program that I was thoroughly indoctrinated with as a business school graduate and long-term Economist reader. That is Debt: The First 5,000 Years, by Graeber, Capital in the 21st Century, by Picketty, and this book. Wow.

Hickel debunks the entire concept of “developing nations” by examining both the era of colonization and in particular the coups and interventions of the 20th century. It exposes with unique clarity the hypocritical way the global north have disposed the global side with the bludgeoning hammer of “free trade”. How both the EU and America kept protectionist barriers for their own economics and industries, while systematically opposing and stripping them from the so-called “developing nations”. He traces the money flows and exposes how the global south continues to send much more money out of their economics than what they receive back. How the idea of international aid serves as a justification to keep a corrupt status quo in place. And how, while corrupt indeed, the strongmen (that the global north mostly installed and supported!) might be plundering their own economies, but nothing to the scale of what’s being doing via trade, transfer mispricing, and other shenanigans. It’s eye opening reading, and it explains so much. Hickel was on the Citations Podcast for one of my all-time favorite episodes: The Neoliberal Optimism Industry. Good place to get a teaser for his work.

Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism by Trungpa
Stoicism and Buddhism shares a lot in their diagnosis of the human condition. How it is our ego, desires, and wants that lead us astray and to misery. But I actually came to this book by an off-hand recommendation in one of Fromm’s books, and the title immediately resonated. This sense that escaping the materialism of things with the materialism of beliefs struck me as a profound idea that I wanted to explore deeper.

It’s a bit of an uneven journey with this book, though. The endless tales of Buddhist masters and their cruel student selection process, the weird euphemisms like “my spiritual friend”, and a lot of other baggage that seems pretty foreign in 2019 is difficult to navigate. But as soon as I want to put it down, I keep getting to a passage that does seem relevant and apt, and I keep going.

I particularly like the emphasis of developing “personal truths” in interaction with teachings. The idea that you can’t just read something profound and then expect to be profoundly changed. That you have to engage with the material, stretch it, push it, and make it your own. There are some very strong ideas in the notion of teacher/student collaborations.

To Have Or To Be? by Fromm
Fromm’s diagnoses of the modern predicament is unrivaled in my readings so far, and this book strikes directly at the material obsession with things, achievements, and competition. He places this in opposition with a development of the self, a theme that echoes the stoic teachings directly.

But the way Fromm manages to combine his diagnoses of our predicament with a historical critique of both capitalism and communism is something else. His disappointment with communism is particularly potent for anyone sympathetic to Marx’s own diagnosis of what’s wrong with the world. The fact that communism still ended up focusing on production, consumption, and the material life, rather than embracing the socialist ideals of community and its flourishment. As Fromm puts it, is the worker doing mindless assembly work at a factory really any better off whether the plant is owned by a capitalist or the state?

Another fascinating section of the book is the contrast of conformity with community. The idea that the two are not the same, and that overly confirming communities can be just as suffocating as the hyper individualist pursuit is fascinating, if a bit flimsily argued.

Man for Himself by Fromm
Yes, another Fromm book! This one dives deep into the idea of character orientations and a defense for self-love. I particularly like his premonition of The Marketing Orientation, and how it commodifies life and persons. It’s almost like he knew that Influencer would be a 2019 phenomenon, writing, as he were, in 1947! And yet, he rejects the supposed virtues of complete self-sacrifice, as simply another escape. He redeems the idea of having self-love. Of being capable of loving who you are as a precondition for being capable of loving others. And to express that love for yourself by making the most of the human powers you are endowed with. It’s a beautiful, simple, yet counterintuitive notion.

Radical Candor by Scott
This is another modern management book that I wish had just been a blog post. I really like the fundamental premise, which is expressed as an opposition of two terms: Radical Candor vs Ruinous Empathy. The idea that you aren’t helping someone you work with by shielding them from criticism and feedback. If you pack all of that into so much soft cotton that they miss what’s being said, and actually think things are going well, you’re doing them a terrible disservice.

At the same time, Radical Candor isn’t just “brutal honesty”. It’s emphatic honesty. Telling people where they stand from a position of care, not disinterest. It’s a great frame to think about feedback in the workplace (and, really, life!).

Unfortunately this lovely dichotomy is tortured to book length with a series of ever more fawning anecdotes from the halls of Google and Apple. The constant name dropping, the constant excuses for bad behavior, and the inherent corporate worshipping that goes on in these anecdotes is simply too much. So too is the fact that the anecdotes just don’t really add much to the basic framework. Anyway, lovely dichotomy, would have made a great blog post, can’t recommend the book.

Simulacra and Simulation by Baudrillard
I’ve only just started on this, but already wrote a bunch of notes that have me eager to finish it. Here are a few choice ones: “Our entire linear and accumulative culture collapses if we cannot stockpile the past in plain view” and “Prisons are there to hide that it is the social in its entirety, in its banal omnipresence, that is carceral” and “Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real”.


10 thoughts on “The books I read in 2019

  1. Re: “Hey, have you tried Basecamp lately?” Which is found on this page is a bit confusing.

    Is the “Hey” referring to your new email service.

    Is “Hey” referring to you in-app Notification Center for basecamp.

    Or as intended, slang for “hello”.

  2. Have you read “Utopia for Realists”? That‘a a book that seems inline with your ideas on capitalism and has some historical examples of Universal Basic Income from centuries ago.

    Also, I can’t recommend enough “Operation Manual for Spaceship Earth” by R. Buckminster Fuller. It’s short but pointed. It’s also about 50-60 years Old now but still relevant. He makes several points about how the human race needs to take care of the planet and how we can afford anything we decide to do as a society. It’s relevant to healthcare, education, and climate change today in my opinion.

  3. Dude, I really like your style, your work and life philosophy-as much as I could discern from your public speeches. I dare say they are pretty much like mine. But your comments on “The Uninhabitable Earth” really brought me to tears. Of laughing. If you’re such a contrarian when it comes to software, please read also the climate warming/changing/weirding enemy’s writings 😉

  4. I’ve always like to read the books that you read/recommend in this and previous posts, but I’ve always wondered what’s your read habit and frequency. Do you use to dedicate to read a couple of minutes per day, read when you have time/commuting, read on weekends?

    I used to do most of my reading while commuting to work, but you seem to read a lot every year!

  5. In 2019 I read, among others books, it doesn’t have to be crazy at work :). While I found it good read, I will continue to offer copies of Rework to friends (and sometimes to managers-from-hell too!) around me.

  6. Given that most in the UK are almost completely oblivious (or ignorant) to the history of the troubles that played out on their own doorstep, it’s nice to hear that the Danish co-founder of a US company has been reading up on the modern history of Northern Ireland. If you have a thirst for more, try ‘Bandit Country’

  7. I try to include a “Classic” in my reading list each year. In 2019 I would recommend Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and Lord Jim (the Patna episode) by Joseph Conrad both detail the human condition in different ways and speak to us in how we treat others and our own failures.

  8. Have you read “Catch Me if You Can” by Frank William Abagnale, Jr? Yeah, it already had the movie version but I think the novel is more interesting. If you interest with Simulacra and Simulation by Baudrillard, this novel seems inline with your interest on this area. I recommend you to read this analysis too, http://repository.unair.ac.id/27552/ , thus you can obtain new perspective that hyperreality often appears among our neighbourhood

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