I'm 42 years old. If I can get through 50 books a year on average and I optimistically live another 40 to 50 years, then there are only roughly 2,000 books left that I get to read. Compared to everything that's out there that is worthy of exploration, that's a pathetically small amount. Yet, unless I'm going to quit my job and just read full time -- the only pursuit I may enjoy more than doing this -- that is the upper bound.
What this realization has done is given me little tolerance for books that don't profoundly interest me. A book has got to give me something or I just move on. Or don't even start. That means that my reading list has very, very few books about cities, planning, engineering, etc... and all kinds of other stuff that I actually feel compelled to explore.
I also enjoy a good bit of fiction now and then, but typically only when I'm on vacation, it's a favorite author or I just want a quick diversion. I'm really the kind of person who locks into a topic that fascinates me and then drills down as far as it continues to capture my interest.
All this means that my list is not going to be for everyone, but I am asked frequently enough that I know there are at least a few of you that would be disappointed if I stopped sharing it. So, without further delay, here are my top recommendations from the books I read in 2015.
I read this early in the year and knew immediately that it was the most important book I was going to get through in 2015. Following the developments in Ferguson and previewing Black Lives Matter, this book gives a lot of sober, non-hysterical context to what is often considered by many to be a fringe matter. As one of my family members is fond of saying, "If you've nothing to hide, what does it matter?" As an American who has actually read the constitution and some history, I reject that notion. If you read this book, you will too.
Balco's is to an unease about police militarization as Strong Towns is to our unease about municipal finance. That is: you know something isn't right, but it takes someone who gets the details to explain exactly why. If you read one book off this list, I would make it this one.
The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins
My modest obsession with behavioral economics has pushed me into areas where I never thought I would go. Many of these paths led to or through this seminal work by Richard Dawkins. This year I finally delved into it and I'm kicking myself for having put it off so long.
In my non-expert view, this is a book that explains -- or perhaps clarifies -- Charles Darwin. A pop culture rendition of evolution is survival of the fittest yet any observant person can see that nature often takes the best and the strongest and leaves the weak and the vulnerable. We also witness, in humanity and in nature, acts of altruism that defy a dogmatic application of evolutionary theory.
Dawkins brings it down to the level of the gene and explains why the quest of our basic wiring is to pass along the building blocks of life. It's a powerful, liberating and humbling read.
The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined by Steven Pinker
This is another book where my interest in behavioral economics intersected with my studies of the origins of last century's two global wars and brought me to a unique place. I was aware of Steven Pinker because I've heard him interviewed, but I'd not read anything of his. This was an amazing book.
In the context of Balco's book on police militarization, it is particularly profound. Not only are we in a time of unprecedented tranquility, but there are some very good reasons to be optimistic that this trend will continue.
Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time by Jeff Sutherland
A hat tip to our friend John Anderson of Anderson|Kim on this one. I would not normally include a book on working more productively, but this one was so good and has mattered so much to me that I feel compelled to add it to the list.
Those of you that get my skepticism of large, complicated, top/down systems will appreciate that I am not a fan of the Affordable Care Act. Yet, when the rollout of the website was going disastrously, I found myself really frustrated by the media coverage -- and the political spin -- that tried to paint it as a failure of one or two individuals. This was clearly a systems problem, one that was actually solvable (a website is complicated, not complex).
Scrum explains how to solve it. Or, more precisely, how to approach complicated problems in an iterative way that will help you develop a solution. We now use Scrum here at Strong Towns to organize our workflow. I have spent hours thinking about how cities could use these principles to run day-to-day operations more effectively. If you're trying to do something complicated, read this book.
You can get all the rest on my Pinterest page, including last year's list. If there's something there you'd like to discuss, let me know.
(Top photo by Ginny)