This post is as much selfish as it is altruistic. Some of the books listed in this post changed my life in 2015, and I'd love to share with you the insights I gained. But it is equally an exercise to help me recall and comprehend what I learned.
To think you understand something is one thing. To truly do so quite another. Anyone who has ever tried to teach something to another person knows this, and something similar occurs while writing; it’s easy to trick your own mind into believing you totally understand a concept, but only when you try to put those thoughts to paper will you know for sure whether you really got it.
Before we start that process by summarizing some of the best books I came across in 2015, let me first briefly explain how I approach reading, and in particular how I determine what to read.
There are three leading “rules” for which book I pick up next:
What has become especially clear to me in this past year, is that reading is akin to traveling in at least one regard: the more you travel, the more you realize you will never be able to see it all. A similar thing goes on while reading.
Few (good) writers arrive at their ideas in complete isolation. Each at least starts off from existing ideas from other authors, scientists, philosophers and so on. With every book I read, I run into at least two or three other books being quoted I might be interested in. This is why my tickler file is growing exponentially the more I read, and I have to accept I’ll never be able to read it all, meaning proper selection of what to pick next becomes even more important.
Once I’ve pre-selected a few books, I go through the Table of Contents (a strategy I learned from Farnam Street Blog). This gives me a good sense about which of those is the right book for me at this moment. In addition, these days, I increasingly use Amazon’s Send a free sample option, so I can read the first chapter(s) on my Kindle, before committing to the full book.
You’ll find the entire list of everything I read this year at the end of this article, but I’ve picked out and summarized the “five” books that did the most for me this year.
5. The latecomers: Destiny Disrupted, The Impulse Society and Mastery
I’m reluctant to add books I’ve read in the past few weeks, as they’re still so fresh in my mind, I’m probably giving them more weight than those from earlier in the year. Nevertheless, I happen to have read three amazing books in the last weeks of 2015, therefore I’m giving these three a shared fifth spot on this list.
It’s easy to call someone “evil," "the enemy" or “terrorist" and leave it at that. Hardly ever can a situation be explained in such black and white terms, and trying to judge the world by today’s headlines is like interpreting a movie based on only one scene; there is much more to the story.
I was already aware the history of the world doesn’t match up with what I was taught during my Western (Dutch) education; I knew the West had played a role in “messing up” the Middle-East over the past centuries. Seeing it all laid out chronologically in one place in this book, along with much additional stuff I had no clue about, this title was both an eye-opener as well as a source of deep shame for being Dutch, European, “Western.” If you’re truly interested in what’s currently happening in the world, and especially if you want to have an informed opinion on current events, this book should be required reading. Added bonus: it reads extremely well and is funny at the right moments too.
Author Paul Roberts does the impossible: he combines all the current problems American individuals, society and politics face, dissects them, provides possible solutions and does it all in a compelling and relatively easy to read narrative.
This title is definitely not for everyone. It’s heavy on politics, economics and sociology. For me, it was almost a perfect read as it touches on so many topics I’m interested in; why we’re driven to distraction and over-consumption. How American politics has come to such a gridlock. Why inequality is rising to extreme levels in an advanced society such as the USA. Why corporations and their CEOs are driven to extreme greed and shortism. Why most of us don’t seem to care, or at least not take any action, while all of this is happening in front of our eyes. And, perhaps most importantly, why it’s all interrelated.
I’m not well-versed enough in any of these topics to judge how accurate and realistic the assessment and proposed solutions are. But either way, it’s a fascinating read that gets your brain fired up to look at the workings of modern day (American) society with different eyes.
While another book by the same author will feature prominently on this list later on, I feel compelled to add this one too. Perhaps it’s because I’m a sucker for his writing style; deeply researched stories with compelling and inspirational personalities from both classic times and the modern day. Or perhaps it’s the clear structure and grand, venerable tone of voice. Whatever it is, I find Robert Greene’s books fascinating and impossible to put down.
While his other title on this list dissects the inner workings of power mechanisms and social relations, Mastery is a handbook for finding your life’s calling and becoming a Master at it. While the book approaches this in clear steps and guidelines for what to do, it’s by no means a typical self-improvement book. Everything is backed up with inspirational and colorful stories, providing a backdrop of timeless examples to make his points.
A lot of what Greene says isn't backed up with facts and figures, but supported by anecdotal evidence and personal stories. Of course not everything in life can be explained away by science and math, and, like when learning from a true Master, sometimes you should just heed his advice and not question why.
4. Remember me this way
A novel. Different in that regard from all the other titles on this list. Sometimes one needs to relax the mind and read a good story, especially before going to sleep.
Remember Me This Way is one of those books with two separate storylines, running on different timescales, but clearly interrelated and slowly catching up with each other. This brings a feeling of curiosity, excitement and an unstoppable drumbeat rising to a grand climax. In other words; it’s impossible to put down. It’s about love, murder, madness, lust and unsolved mysteries, themes that have been explored by others so many times before. But this story grabs you, it sucks you into the characters’ heads and you will surely go to sleep later than planned at least a few times when this is the book on your bedside table.
This book, by the former Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, is one of the classics of Stoicism. Written as a personal diary, it provides amazing insights into the pondering and motivations of a man in such a position in ancient times.
The reason his book is still around today is because of the timelessness of his thoughts. In fact, his ideas might be more relevant than ever; Aurelius teaches us to live in the moment, not seek applause, and to accept whatever happens to us (amor fati). He suggests to learn to control your emotions and your own thoughts. That most of our troubles come from unnecessary qualifications and opinions we attach to events that happen to us. If you’re new to Stoicism, Ryan Holiday’s The Obstacle is The Way (one of my favorite books of 2014) is perhaps a better and easier starting point. If that one sizzles your bacon, Meditations is a great follow-up to hear things from the horse’s mouth.
2. Reinventing Organizations
You might not have heard of Teal, but you probably have heard of Holacracy. It’s a self-management framework (or “operating system”) for organizations, which truly allows individual employees to make their own decisions by taking most power away from the middle and top management layers.
This book explains the principles of Teal, a new organizational paradigm on which Holacracy is based. It’s therefore possible to implement Teal, without having to implement Holacracy. The premise of the book is that modern day, hierarchical organizations face two main problems:
Because of the these issues, and the way traditional management methodologies try to solve them, all sense of purpose and pleasure is sucked out of work for almost everyone involved in such an organization, especially as it grows bigger. While this book doesn’t provide a clear and readymade framework for running your organization (that’s what Holacracy attempts to do, for example), it is the source of the Teal movement, the underlying philosophy, if you will. And since this is still such a new model, starting off by understanding the core ideas is probably more important than immediately choosing for a specific system. There is still plenty of room and time for other pioneers to define their own ways of implementing and running Teal in their organizations; maybe you will be one of them?
1. The 48 Laws of Power
Once I finished this book, I swore to myself I wouldn’t tell anyone I read it. But I couldn’t compile this list and look at myself in the mirror with a straight face without putting this book at number one. This work will corrupt your mind and soul. It’s a clear case of innocence lost: once you enter here there is no way back. It’s deceptive, brutal, perhaps even evil, but also deeply fascinating, all at the same time. This book describes in honest detail how much of the world works, whether it’s in business, politics or the game of seduction. While some of the laws described were intuitively already known in my subconscious, having it all spelled out and described so extensively filled in all the pieces of the puzzle of power games and strategy for me. There’s no point to go into any of the laws in detail here; what it comes down to is that you will either eat or be eaten. You play the game or you get played. This is not how I viewed the world before reading this book, and by no means have I become a ruthless asshole (I hope!). But once you’ve read this title, you realize you can’t walk around naively, expecting nobody else is operating according to the Laws of Power. Once you’ve read this book, you’ll fear anyone who is familiar with this work, which is why I didn’t want to put it on this list in the first place… beware!
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