Reading is my favorite hobby. This year, I finished more than 52 books, which, according to Goodreads, spanned over 14,000 pages. While I’ve always had a soft spot for Wall Street non-fiction, this year I branched out, reading more classics, modern bestsellers, books relating to social issues in America, and even stumbling into what would be considered the self-help category (I wasn’t helped much).
I like great books and bad books. A great book might change my life. Mediocre books usually have intriguing titles, leave me with a lingering sense of emptiness, and are easy to forget. Bad books, however, are an interesting lot. They typically come to my attention because other people read them and like them, so, when I end up disliking one, I must carefully craft and defend my opinion against the masses. I find it rather cathartic.
Here are my strongest opinions from 2016:
A Wonderful Nightmare
El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency by Ioan Grillo (2011)
Stories about drugs, guns, and general lawlessness are great for cheap thrills. That’s why I left Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas off this list. El Narco manages to be wholesome yet so severe that it borders on existentialist. Ioan Grillo’s careful, sensitive reporting shines light through what is a tattered, blood-stained curtain of the world we live in. Covering every angle of Mexico’s drug war, the only hiccups in this story occur when key players disappear and leads dry up. Grillo thoughtfully weighs possible solutions to the chaos in Mexico and provides a useful historical perspective that is too often overlooked. Best read with all the lights turned on.
The Skeptic’s Bane
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander (2013)
In any presidential election year, many issues come to light yet few people take the time to understand their complexities. It’s not a popular argument that mass incarceration is inherently good, but plenty of people are ignorant of its true causes. I was skeptical- is Michelle Alexander going to take all these pages just to make excuses for _____? Are we going to blame _____ on ______? Will her proposed solutions be anything more than laughable far-left rhetoric?
I’d taken the position of devil’s advocate on many of the issues discussed in this book. My opinions were systematically destroyed by Michelle Alexander. This is a seminal work that makes you feel okay about being wrong. It’s hard to even put up a fight. We don’t all have to agree, but our society has a long way to go in developing a greater understanding of the issues we face. I sincerely hope that this book can be a harbinger of meaningful change.
Further Reading: Understanding the implications of slavery in our society is crucial. I highly recommend The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas.
The Big Disappointment
The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds by Michael Lewis (2016)
I predicted that this book would be a “mass-market stupefaction of Thinking, Fast and Slow.” Though my criticism was hyperbolic (this is Michael Lewis), I left the book off my Christmas list. However, early reviews were phenomenal, and I managed to procure a copy and finish it on the last day of 2016.
This is the first time that Michael Lewis has retold a story. He repackaged the (known) brilliant discoveries of the Nobel-Prize-winning duo of Daniel (Danny?) Kahneman and Amos Tversky with a (new) thrilling backstory fit for Hollywood. In revisiting the 4/5 star reviews along with Lewis’ compelling television interviews, it’s as if Thinking, Fast and Slow has been relegated to a footnote. It was a New York Times bestseller and was prominently displayed in the Lehigh University bookstore the day my parents dropped me off for freshman orientation.
I’m happy—genuinely pleased—that Michael Lewis has used his talents to bring renewed focus to this important story. The problem is that it feels like, at worst, plagiarism, and, at best, a cannibalization of Thinking, Fast and Slow. In reality, this is a play for another major motion picture and there’s no doubt that Kahneman closely collaborated with Lewis eyeing that goal. The deeply interesting subject matter is convoluted when compared with the original book and the addition of a backstory ironically makes it less approachable. Upon learning just how intelligent Kahneman and Tversky were, it’s tempting to gloss over the details rather than attempt to understand them.
Further, you’ll have to turn more than 150 pages before you get your first taste of these groundbreaking discoveries. As for the “fast and slow” part, the underpinning of the research, don’t hold your breath. You may think that the rest of the book is spent meticulously crafting the “love” story between two eccentrics, but it’s not. The existence of love is just proclaimed by Lewis on one page and you’re left to mold the rest of the story to fit that narrative, similar to a poorly executed college relationship.
Best Book of 2016
Shoe Dog by Phil Knight (2016)
Most runners go through an obsessive phase. I still have a poster of Steve Prefontaine next to the empty trophy case in my parent’s house. For Phil Knight, that phase was the adventure of a lifetime in which he beat all odds and built one of the most powerful brands in the world. Pre wasn’t just that guy on the poster on the wall but an embodiment of the Nike story, which ranges from humble, to seemingly hopeless, to inspiring, to triumphant through a cycle of emotions. I cried. Before reading the last chapter, you won’t be able to help but channel your contempt for Phil Knight’s success into common criticisms of his company. Nike uses child labor. Phil Knight probably wasn’t a good father! Nike exploits athletes and has a stranglehold on many aspects of professional athletics. In the last chapter, Phil grabs the baton, wins the race, and takes a full victory lap. Among the best books I have ever read.
Revisiting the Recession
Uncontrolled Risk by Mark T. Williams (2010)
People are tired of hearing about the Great Recession. If there is one more book you read, or, if there is only one book you read, this should be it. Mark Williams provides a succinct history of Lehman Brothers from formation to dissolution. Not only does Uncontrolled Risk: Lessons of Lehman Brothers and How Systemic Risk Can Still Bring Down the World Financial System explore the firm’s role in the crash, but it also closely examines the pitfalls of having a hubristic attitude toward risk management. The Boston University professor doesn’t shy away from technical explanations yet manages to keep the story gripping—a remarkable balance as far as financial non-fiction goes. Goodreads had it marked as the least popular book I read in 2016. I am confident that history will show it to be one of the most significant.
Further Reading: The Big Short is great, too, but isn’t as useful for in-depth learning and won’t be as special if you’ve already seen the movie.
The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss (2007)
I’ve warmed up to Tim Ferriss but, while I want to give him the benefit of the doubt, I don’t think the ten years that have passed since he wrote this book have led to him changing his outlook. Make no mistake, The 4-Hour Workweek is terrible. Not just terrible, but toxic. Its success is hinged upon that sliver of hope that everyone in my generation has of being somebody and doing whatever. Lifestyle. Checkmark next to your name on Instagram. The Hamptons are old money. Quit your job. Let’s go to a city with a low cost of living like Munich and make money using the internet and maybe a few people in India because we’re all geniuses and we deserve it.
I’m grateful that we live in a world where any of this is conceivable. It’s just not realistic. Even the baby steps—Tim’s tips on how you can take back your valuable time at work and automate your job—are laughably bad. My friends and I were told we could be anything when we grew up, so of course anyone who isn’t a celebrity, doctor, startup founder, professional athlete, or meme by age 23 feels empty. Tim has found an audience, and if his followers feel empowered by his manic ramblings, then more power to them.
You are the product.
Out of His Element (And Doing Reasonably Well)
But What If We’re Wrong? Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past by Chuck Klosterman (2016)
When I read Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs early in high school, I realized that writing could be cool. At that time, the book was at least seven years old, and I understood little of what Klosterman was talking about. I just liked the way he talked.
My perception of cool has changed. While I would have sat at his lunch table in high school, I probably wouldn’t have been friends with the author in college. But What If We’re Wrong also forced me to accept that while I adore Klosterman’s writing, the big ideas explored within this essay collection, his most ambitious, are limited by what Chuck knows best. Frequent regression to sports, music, and pop culture doesn’t feel wrong, but fall short of intellectual ambitions. Granted, Klosterman might spend more time thinking about these topics than anyone else and the breadth of his knowledge is remarkable. His essay on the Simulation Hypothesis is the best I’ve read, and, like most of this witty hipster’s monology, still brought a smile to my face.
Further reading: Sometimes, good writers are able to transcend their subject matter. This occurs in David Foster Wallace’s String Theory and it’s a thing of beauty. The foreword is by John Jeremiah Sullivan, author of Pulphead, which is another great essay collection.
View All My Books from 2016
Contact me at Timothy.Joseph.OHearn@gmail.com