At the end of each of the past few years, I’ve published a list of top books that I’ve read over the course of the year. I used to write a lot of book reviews, but have gotten away from that, so this is my attempt to answer a question I get a lot: “What would you recommend I read?” Reading lists are deeply personal, and I wouldn’t respect anyone who merely copied mine, but if you’re looking for ideas, I’ve got plenty.
I always have a few people surprised that I don’t read more planning-related books. Why? Jeff Speck’s Walkable City Rules is fantastic and I’ve bought numerous copies for friends (you should too), but reading for me is about exploring ideas where I’m desperately in need of insight. Or where I’m gnawing on a topic that I have urgent need to know better. Planning or urbanism-focused books are generally not that.
There’s very little said today that wasn’t already said better by Jane Jacobs or Lewis Mumford. There’s a little, but you’ve really got to dig. I think our greatest insights lie elsewhere.
There are a lot of technical books I skim for knowledge, and they don’t make this list. Speed-reading a couple chapters is not really reading a book, but I find myself doing that often. I just bought a book called Understanding Chimpanzees because I want to skim the notes. I’ve gotten to the point where I can have a one-way relationship with a book.
Along those lines, I’ve shared my thoughts on sticking with books, but it bears repeating. I typically get through about 50 books per year, mostly non-fiction. I’m 45 years old, and if I can keep up this pace until I’m 95, then I’ve got only 2,500 books left to read. That seems such an unfair number; I could fit that many in my house! So instead of pretending I have 10,000 left to read, I’ve accepted the 2,500 number, and I’ve subsequently become quicker to abandon books that are not worthy of being one of my remaining 2,500. Most of those abandoned books are not on this list either, although I should probably perform a public service and track them too.
So, with that understanding, here are the books I read this year that gave me the most to think about.
I probably had this book recommended to me more than any other this year. I resisted reading it. It felt like it would be gratuitous confirmation-bias, and I do try to stay away from such things. It was only when Deneen appeared on Ezra Klein’s podcast that I finally cracked it open. What a trip!
For those of you who equate “liberalism” in the title with our modern left/right political divide (which was my assumption), you are not only wrong (as I was) but you’re missing out on a fascinating dive into the essence of post-Enlightenment social structures. The book does not validate any modern political approach, although the questions it raises are closer to those that conservatives struggle over, though not exclusively.
I’ve now gone through the book twice and had a deep dive into Deneen YouTube lectures over the past couple months. I have found no shortage of things we’d look at differently, but his book helped me see the water we swim in. I find myself aware of things I had previously been blind to. That’s the hallmark of a great book.
I don’t know how many books I’ve read about Ancient Rome—I’d estimate an over/under of 20—but this one was a fresh, fascinating overlay to those insights.
I’ve described it to people as if Jared Diamond and Nassim Taleb had teamed to write about the decline of the Roman Empire. The discussion on climate is technical, yet utterly fascinating. Some of this I knew, but not in the timeline presented. I also knew vaguely about the pair of plagues during this time period, but again it was the timeline that made it impactful.
I walked away from this book in awe—and a little bit of apprehension—at how such a complicated, yet successful, system like the Roman Empire could be exposed as tightly wound and fragile by a series of calamities. Any one would have been difficult, but it was the series that proved decisive. Very humbling read.
I have no idea what prompted me to do this book, but I’m extremely grateful that I did. I got this one on audio and I remember exactly where I was when he sucked me in. It was a late night and I was taking my dog, Gryffindor, for a walk. Our usual route goes through the park and then over to my church and then we loop back.
As I was leaving the house, Gawande was describing health care from a family perspective, making an argument that a kind and compassionate system would be one where younger family members cared for elderly family members, where our elders could be surrounded by people who love them up until the last moments of their life. This was a vision I could easily buy in to.
By the time we got to the church, he had completed the bait and switch and convincingly explained why this was not only a fairytale, but why we should be happy we have other options. The book continued to overturn my pre-conceived notions of end-of-life in a way that made me feel both frustrated and, given the current state of our medical system, strangely empowered.
With Nassim Taleb routinely described here as the “Patron Saint of Strong Towns Thinking”, I’m sure many of you thought this would be the top book on my list. I’ve read all of Taleb’s books—and far too many of his tweets—and there has been nobody more influential on my thinking. I loved this book.
That being said, the first three books on this list altered my thinking in overt and subtle ways, while Skin in the Game was more like vitamins for my mind. It has a lot of important insights and I got a lot out of it, but it’s a derivative work of his other books.
If you’re looking to get started with Taleb—and I highly recommend that you do—I suggest you start with Black Swan and then read Antifragile. If you ended there, you’d have 90% of it. If you want that other 10%, and it’s well worth the time, read Fooled by Randomness, Skin in the Game, and then wrap it up with the whimsical Bed of Procrustes.
I had to include this book because I’ve talked about it with more people, of more diverse backgrounds, than any other book I read this year. I gave it as a gift at least three times. This book is gratuitous and fun.
I went to school in the time period when Cortez was described as a conquering explorer, someone who might have been a little rough around the edges, but who also was a significant figure in history. I’ve subsequently received the narrative that the Aztecs were native people living in harmony with nature, an advanced society, and an enlightened culture, all of which was destroyed by evil European conquest.
Throw both those narratives away. Then buckle up.
If this book were made into a movie, you’d assume the director was embellishing for dramatic effect. I know how this story ends, yet there were numerous times when I started to think I must have it wrong; there is no way Cortez survives this! From gold lust to human sacrifice, mutiny to slave revolts, political gamesmanship to missionary delusion, this book is a wild ride.
Wait until the Spanish are building ships to sail in a bizarre attack on Tenochtitlan, a city remote from any ocean or major sea. History is more complicated, and fascinating, than any textbook will ever convey.
Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner. For all those wanting big government solutions to local problems, or for those who believe that all our professionals need is a bigger budget, this book is a case study in humility.
Slavery by Another Name by Douglas Blackmon. I’ve been struggling to understand the transition from southern slavery, to Reconstruction, to Jim Crow laws, to the first stages of integration. This engaging, well-researched book is what I was looking for.
Fatal Discord by Michael Massing. This is a book about two reformists—Erasmus and Luther—and their contrasting approaches to changing seemingly unchangeable systems.
12 Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson. This was a fantastic book and, as self-help, I found a lot of applicable insights for myself. I realize that Peterson can be irritating to the political left, but that doesn’t make his insights any less brilliant. He did a lecture series on the Old Testament that—presented from the perspective of someone non-theological or religious—was refreshingly insightful. If you’re on the political left and are hating on Peterson, and you’re simultaneously of the belief that the political right lacks intellectuals outside of David Brooks, you should confront the very real possibility you live in a self-affirming (and self-limiting) thought bubble.
The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist by Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington. I read this before Slavery by Another Name, but it’s chilling to see the link between slavery, the re-enslavement of former slaves using the legal system, and the ongoing injustices that system continues to propagate. If you believe the American legal system is generally just, that people generally get what they deserve, that injustices within the legal process are rare and not systematic, please read this book.
Supernormal by Meg Jay. It might have been the long, snowy car ride to Sioux Falls and back that did this to me, but it’s been a long time since a book hit so close to home in a tear-jerking kind of way. There are a couple close friends I’ve shared this with that I think would benefit from understanding themselves as supernormal, not merely damaged. If that might be you, give it a try.
Abraham by Bruce Feiler. The Old Testament’s Abraham is the common—and potentially uniting—individual of the religions of the Book. The framing of him in that way, and the exploration of different faiths that begin with him, made this an enjoyable and hopeful read.