Justin’s summer reading list

I’m making an effort to double-down on the amount of “productive” pass-times this summer. As Emerson asked, “How much of human life is lost in waiting?” I go further and wonder how much life is lost watching TV and diddling away at the day.

If you’re interested, here are some of the books I’ve read in the last few months you may enjoy. At the end is my upcoming list of books I’m starting soon.

The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World by Adam Gazzaley

I started to look at distractions after hearing Tristan Harris talk about brain hijacking. Harris doesn’t have a book, but Gazzaley does. This wasn’t as eye-opening as I expected, but can see how it might be for someone just thinking about the level of distraction in their life. There is a lot of background on human brain development that can be a chore at the beginning.

 

Principles: Life and Work by Ray Dalio

I had high hopes for this book. It’s new, the waitlist to get it at the library was lengthy, and everyone seemed to be talking about it. The writing is approachable and easy, but it’s about Dalio’s life as an investment manager. It’s a huge tome that left me annoyed. He started with access to money, went to Harvard, and continued to have money afterward. It’s hard for a frugal Hoosier like myself to get interested in hearing about how great it was his son could study abroad in China.

 

Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg

I had low expectations for this book because of its spammy title. But it’s easily one of the best books I’ve read recently. Each chapter is a story unto itself. It’s full of fascinating anecdotes I hadn’t heard before from inside Disney, Pixar, Google, the military, and more. Each with their own point and details about goals, processes, and achievement.

 

Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing

In 1915 a group of 7 British explorers set out to cross the Antarctic from west to east. It had never be done before. Their ship, the Endurance, became logged in the ice and sank. This story details how these 7 men spent 2 years in the dark, miserable, cold of the South Pole searching for rescue. It’s like a real-life Hobbit movie except it’s real.

 

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard

Another of one of my very rare 5-star reviews. This book covers the Presidency of James A Garfield, a man you haven’t heard much about because his entire presidency was spent dying. Criss-crossing between the story of his assassin and Garfield, you get the real sense of how the country felt in 1881. You also get a feel for how infuriating medicine was in 1881. As one physician later reported, “Nature did all it could for Garfield, which would have been enough.” He spent two months “basically rotting to death” as the country mourned and screamed for justice. Even more fascinating is how the country mobilized to cure the President, including Alexander Graham Bell and the race to invent the precursor to the X-Ray.

His legacy is one we don’t talk about: a man who was trusted by everyone because he never wanted to be President reunited the North and South as the country rallied behind him. Ulysses S. Grant, General Sherman, and Jefferson Davis all agreed Garfield brought them closer together.

 

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester

This book is unapologetically British, so it’s cumbersome and pretentious. But the story of how the dictionary came to be and the insane man behind the idea is fascinating. It’s the original crowd-sourced project where 6 million slips of paper, each with a different word were mailed to one man. Sorting, sifting, and organizing all those pieces into trays, tracing their etymology, and fact-checking each would take 20 years. The initial estimate was 2.

 

What it Means to be a Libertarian: A Personal Interpretation by Charles Murray

This is the best book I’ve read so far on Libertarian principles and how it would look in the United States as a governing principle. It may seem farcical to some, but it pulls data from a variety of respectable sources and looks to history as a means of determining what the country might look like. (For what it’s worth: I read a lot of books on lots of political philosophies. That’s what thinking people do.)

 

The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard

This is the first book of Millard’s I read (and is what drove me to Destiny of the Republic). Her writing fits my preferred style and tells a good story. This one is about Theodore Roosevelt’s post-presidency expedition into the jungles of South America. The goal: explore the River of Doubt, which had never been mapped before. He and his team encountered hostile tribes, dangerous wildlife, scarce food, impossibly thick brush and forest that blacked out the sun, and intense heat. This is the trip that nearly killed the Colonel. A story so fantastic, once Roosevelt returned many Americans didn’t believe him or his son, Kermit, because it seemed too impossible that he returned.

 

Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House by Peter Baker

Now that we have enough history between now and Bush 41, it’s worth looking back. This book blew a lot of things I believed out of the water (like Cheney being the real puppet master). I also have more respect for Condoleeza Rice as being one of the smartest people in the country. We were lucky to have her. This book also covers the lead up to every major decision in the Bush White House. I came away thinking a lot of decisions were just unknowable, a 50/50 coin toss that the country lost time and time again.

 

Coming up on the list

  • Creative Mischief by Dave Trott
  • Managing the Professional Service Firm by Davis Maister
  • Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War by Robert Coram
  • 1776 by David McCullough
  • Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek
  • Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Becoming a (Web)Master

Jason Ford:

Read what interests you in your new field and pay attention to the authors. Find the ones you truly learn from, then track down their sources and read those. Continue this process and you will steadily move closer to the irrefutable truths of whatever it is you want to master.

Sounds like good advice for becoming a master of any kind, especially a webmaster.

Book Review – Innovate the Pixar Way

It’s been a while since we’ve talked book reviews, but we finished reading “Innovate the Pixar Way” by Bill Capodagli and Lynn Jackson this weekend. To summarize in a few points as possible:

  • The book was pretty light on the history of Pixar
  • The artwork, pull-quote text and some chapters come across almost condescending, but mostly it sounds like they’re trying too hard.

The whole premise of the book when I picked it up was to get an inside look at Pixar Animation Studios, to really have in-depth interviews with their staff or past employees. It wasn’t so much that as it was a compilation of quotes and tidbits compiled from other video and text interviews conducted with key staff over the years. And while it wasn’t the job of this book to run you through the whole history of Pixar, the amount of text supplied to educate the reader on Pixar could be picked up from Wikipedia.

To be honest, I didn’t like this book. It read very vaguely with whispy high-flying ideas on how to innovate and be creative by having fun at work and letting employees be creative with their office space and not getting tied up in your failures. All good ideas, but not practical if your business has less than a few million in the bank.

One good takeaway was a look at Disney and Walt Disney himself, alongside Ed Catmull and Jon Lasseter of Pixar. The concept of scrapping work that was merely “good enough” to take advantage of “great work” is valid, important and arguably the most important lesson of the book. The authors give good examples, accounts and stories to further this concept well.

In all, a pretty light book on Pixar from a detail standpoint; there’s nothing new to be read here that can’t be surmised from articles, videos and interviews already on the Internet.

Review – Good to Great, by Jim Collins

It’s an intriguing question: “What makes good companies great companies?” Actually, all of the things you normally think of are in there, plus a few others, with some careful analysis.

Good to Great, by Jim Collins, is written without a lot of marketing speak or buzzwords. It takes a hard, centrist look at several large companies that were considered “good”, in that they were profitable, but at one point became “great”, by beating market expectations. In most cases, these “great” companies later deflate to being “good” again. Generally after the departure of a CEO or manager. Some of the companies they followed include Circuit City, Gillette, Fannie Mae, Walgreens, Wells Fargo and Philip Morris, among others.

The gist of the book is that good companies hire someone who either helps the company re-focus its attention, simplify to a core set of duties they can excel in or provide some level of discipline.

Much of it is common sense: be disciplined, work hard, make the right decisions instead of the easy decisions and so on. Although, the act of becoming a simplified company caught my attention.

Collins focused on Walgreens as an example, saying that the original Walgreens franchise had included small restaurants in the stores (my guess is to bring the era of small town apothecaries with them), and while they were profitable, they realized they could be a good convenience store with a restaurant, or they could be a great convenience store by refocusing their energy. Clearly, becoming a great convenience store worked well for them. I never shop there or CVS because I’m too cheap to pay the extra dollar for a gallon of milk, but I guess some people are just impatient and it works for them.

In short, it’s a good read, but ironically not a great read. The focus is clearly on large companies and corporations, which puts it out of my league for gaining any earth shattering insight. But, it’s easy to skim with chapter summaries and clearly defined titles, which makes it a great weekend read.

Book Review – Delivering Happiness

Tony Hsieh, founder of Zappos.com, wrote a book called Delivering Happiness. It’s an amazing book. In fact, it’s probably my third favorite book ever (it’ll take a lot to knock Holes and Wayside Stories off the top two spots from my childhood).

I enjoy reading biographies and Tony’s book is just absolutely fascinating and he takes us through his whole life. I had never heard of him before I read the book, but his life and mine seem to be similar in several ways. Not a lot, but enough times I caught myself drawing parallels.

Go download the first chapter from Amazon to your Kindle device and read it. You’ll be hooked. Then, either buy it ($11 for Kindle!) or pick it up from your local library (for free!).