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2017 has come to a close and I have never been more fond of reading. This year, I finished my fifty-second book–Grocery–on December 31st at 11:45PM. I made my way through 15,000 pages while working full time and guiding a side project to one hundred customers.
I didn’t actually spend my New Year’s Eve reading about grocery stores. But while I was laying on the beach down in Miami I had a profound realization. Now maybe it’s just me becoming–quite literally–more bookish, but as I reflected on my year, I admitted that a few of my most fond memories transpired between two hard covers. This is an uncomfortable thing to think, never mind vocalize, write down, and publish.
I suppose that what makes any hobby worth pursuing is the eventuality of mastering it. I’m not quite sure what that means in this realm, but I’m confident that I’ve never been closer. Over the last two years, I’ve lived a hundred different lives. I’ve forced myself to face opinions that stood at odds with my own. I’ve found myself enraptured by the same sense of pure wonder that fueled my earliest passions. I can’t wait to do it all over again in 2018. But, before that, here’s what I have to say about my most exciting year of reading so far.
The Rap Yearbook: The Most Important Rap Song From Every Year Since 1979, Discussed, Debated, and Deconstructed
by Shea Serrano (2015)
Shea Serrano amalgamated every barbershop conversation that has ever transpired. Except that Chief Keef one. Writing like a young Chuck Klosterman (who also benefitted from the tutelage of Chuck Klosterman), Shea establishes himself not only as a scholar of hip-hop, but also a preeminent voice of pop culture. Covering each year from 1979 to two thousand and something, Shea shows impressive range in an arena infamous for low quality journalism. He presents two theses that are particularly lucid–his take on the Nas vs Jay Z beef and his praise for Nicki Minaj’s verse in Monster. My only complaint is that he heralded Wale and Kid Cudi as mixtape superstars while hating on J. Cole. Many brainy hip hop writers take this stance (claiming a lack of seamlessness) despite fact being everything but a vagary.
No year was half-assed and no passage is worth skipping. Diehard fans need to read it. For those who don’t like rap, don’t approach this as if it were a coffee table book. I know next to nothing about basketball and I had a blast reading Shea’s follow-up Basketball (And other things). If you don’t believe me, buy it for your coffee table; then invite me over and let’s sit in close proximity to your coffee table.
By James Dickey (1970)
In February, I discovered that the movie was inspired by a book. Since I never ended up seeing the movie, I gave the book a shot as one of the rare non-classical pieces of fiction that I read.
I immediately started wondering why I’d been so stubborn about reading fiction.
Isolation in the woods is a popular theme for guy books. Wooded areas strangely evoke the same images in Rambo: First Blood as they do in Walden. It’s nearly universal and, for me at least, is totally unlike the settings of the beach or the metropolis. The forest in Deliverance, however, might as well be considered anthropomorphic. The images painted by Dickey build a foreboding tension before giving way to outright disturbation and paranoia. I first wanted to describe many of the scenes as “poetic” until I learned that Deliverance was indeed Dickey’s segue from poetry to fiction writing.
When I first watched the dueling banjo scene, I expected the story to be one of those where the characters get stuck in quicksand or are devoured by goblins while they sleep. I can’t hide that I don’t watch many movies and that my knowledge of tropes is lacking. In actuality, Deliverance is a deeply satisfying horror story that literally had me running home from work each day during the week I read it. I see it as a modern classic, but a few well-known scenes are what keep it off any high school reading lists.
Inside the Black Box: The Simple Truth About Quantitative Trading
by Rishi Narang (2014)
There is no question that this industry is secretive. In the fall, I had the pleasure of speaking with many undergraduates who were interested in the firm I work at and even the most enthusiastic seemed to frame their interest in the exact same way. After a while, I realized that it’s because proprietary trading firms have nothing to gain by seeking the spotlight, or, really, sharing anything with the outside world. Truly, much of what we do is a black box. I haven’t figured it all out yet. Reading this book served as an affirmation of my continued desire to solve the problems that I solve, and for the outsider, it’s the perspective you need to understand the fundamentals of the job (and why you will never make it as an independent trader).
by Nick Bilton (2017)
American Kingpin is the story of Ross Ulbricht, the founder of the Silk Road, the notorious guns-drugs-and-hitmen marketplace which was, by many accounts, responsible for bitcoin’s first exposure to varied audiences. The narrative recounts the brilliance and laxity of Ross and his associates who are hunted by the DEA (who are reciprocally brilliant and lax). Bilton seamlessly transitions between the good guys and the bad guys and the effect is that at several points–and you don’t have to be a diehard libertarian to think this–you’re left with an objective uncertainty as to who deserves to win and who deserves to lose. The story is fit for Hollywood and a movie is apparently in the works. I voted this book for the Goodreads nonfiction book of the year. It finished basically in last place because the demographic of people that 1. Uses Goodreads and 2. Votes in year-end lists on Goodreads does not have the same tastes as me. This is my pick for the nonfiction book with the widest appeal.
Hello, Startup: A Programmer’s Guide to Building Products, Technologies, and Teams
by Yevgeniy (Jim) Brikman (2015)
Software engineering is difficult to write about. It is even more difficult to teach. Many universities churn out students who can solve difficult engineering problems. I have noticed a shift in the industry where there has been much more focus on the interpersonal aspects of being a software engineer and the hybridization of the modern developer to encompass product development. Not to say that nobody is looking for top quality engineers anymore, but rather that it’s relatively easy for an engineer, when trained properly, to become exceptionally skilled at job functions that were previously cordoned off.
Especially due to the proliferation of cloud technologies, there are so many more startups (loosely speaking) that are spun up in a fraction in the time with a fraction of the resources that were required just five years ago. Jim’s book takes you through every aspect of the new creation process as concisely as possible.
The lasting value of reading a quality educational book is that it inspires you to take action. Hello, Startup, in addition to putting a unique spin on the concepts from some of the most relevant software books of our time, also provides cautionary advise regarding why startup life might not be for you. Recall the real estate investing books that all make you believe you’re a genius and that you’ll be living off passive income before you know it. Hell, recall the dominant perspectives in Soft Skills. What makes this the greatest educational book that I read in 2017 is that Jim practices what he preaches and so carefully applied many of his principles to the discipline of writing–the result was a terrific first book.
The Diversity Myth: Multiculturalism and Political Intolerance on Campus
by Peter Thiel and David O. Sacks (1996)
The Diversity Myth is one of the most controversial books you can read today. Many news outlets (and the book Move Fast and Break Things) want you to believe that Thiel is a villain–and an ignoramus.
I’m not saying that his arguments, prepared with David Sacks and published in 1996, weren’t at times sophomoric. But the truth remains that The Diversity Myth is the most significant rebuke of the political correctness movement that has come to dominate plurality of thought at college campuses throughout the United States. Much of what occurred at Stanford two decades ago, when viewed objectively, could be confused for Saturday Night Live sketches.
This isn’t a fun topic to approach at house parties or in the workplace and there’s a good chance that wherever you fall on the spectrum is tightly bounded by the opinions of those who you spend the most time with. In the way I see things, there’s right, there’s wrong, there’s gray area, and there’s comically ridiculous–and this book will help you form opinions on how you classify each.
by Winston Groom (1994)
Forrest Gump had a peripheral presence in my life that I never understood. For years, my childhood best friend begged me to watch the movie. It sounded like a dumb concept. So I never did. In high school, people used to yell “Run, Forrest, Run!” from their car windows as I pranced around town with the cross country team. We never figured out a proper retort, and I’d imagine the hecklers drew some pleasure from seeing us continue to, well, run. One time, I cried while listening to Forrest Gump by Frank Ocean, but that’s another story entirely.
By the time I realized that the Forrest Gump in the novel wasn’t a runner at all, it was clear that I was reading more than just a funny adventure. On the surface, the situational irony was delivered so well that I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. It was juvenile but hilarious. Re-reading lines and entire paragraphs–something I rarely do–became common practice. Thinking about each of Forrest’s escapades within the context of when they were written, though, reveals a much more grim social commentary. This is probably why people who saw the movie don’t seem to like the book very much. Not because their imaginations have been warped by Hollywood but because it took an overhaul to reduce Forrest Gump to a PG-13 screenplay. I can’t begin to speculate on how different the two are.
Forrest Gump is a story about the retainment of innocence. Even as Forrest tumbles through two of the ugliest decades in American history, he ends up just the same. Some may argue that this just means his character wasn’t developed very well. Instead, I would liken him to a superhero. He’s a constant in a dark, cruel, tumultuous world. A clash between the simple and the complex, a juxtaposition of the idiot and the savant, a paradox of boyhood and manhood combined.
Maybe, in calling this novel brilliant, which I am doing, I’m really just admitting that my life has been overcomplicated. That a semblance of purity is still intact and so is the sense of wonder I feel when embarking on a new adventure. Why fart jokes still amuse me yet the tic-tac-toe game at the end of the book is one of the most powerful scenes I have encountered in western literature. To read Forrest Gump without having seen the movie is an experience I will cherish. And while I’m still grappling with the ephemerality of this feeling- I’m reminded of all that could be right in the world. You know what I mean?