Very short book reviews for most of the books I’ve read in my adult life. If a book has particularly influenced or helped me, I’ll review my notes and write a one page summary of the most important ideas and concepts (this can be months or even years later, after a lot of reflection).
This page is constantly being updated – be sure to check back every few months to see what I’ve read.
[My reviews are currently undergoing an overhaul – please be patient!]
The Durants wrote the 11-volume Story of Civilization – afterward, they went back through and pulled out the most important lessons about human nature, politics, and human society. The Lessons of History was the result. Some of the vocabulary is dated, but every thinking person should read this book.
The foundational text to Taoism. The only way I can think to review the Tao Te Ching is to say this: the Tao that can be named is not the true Tao – reading a review of the Tao Te Ching is not the same as reading the Tao Te Ching.
Interviews with 100 highly accomplished “billionaires, icons, and world-class performers.” Divided into three sections on how to be healthy, wealthy, and wise. As far as I’m concerned, this is required reading for anyone with any goal.
The life story of bodybuilder, actor, and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Three books in one as he takes you through his early life in Austria, his three wild careers, plus the lessons he’s learned and mistakes he’s made. Engaging, hilarious, and a book I recommend to everyone.
Tells the history of Genghis Khan, the Mongol empire, and their effect on the civilized world in narrative form. Makes the case that Khan/the Mongols were surprisingly enlightened for nomadic raiding warriors in the 13th century. Has quite a lot to say about leadership, legacy, and the creation of dynasties. One of my favorite books of 2018.
Advice from billionaire entrepreneur mega-investor Peter Thiel about how to make the next Google. He wants entrepreneurs to not just make incremental improvements – 1.0 to 1.1 – but to go from 0 to 1. Think for yourself, avoid competition, be a Definite Optimist with definite plans, understand that the majority of profits go to the minority of ventures, and get the foundations of your startup right from the very beginning. Required reading for entrepreneurs.
A book on learning anything, written around learning to cook. It has everything: how to cook, how to be a memory master, how to learn a language, how to catch and grill a squirrel, and more. There’s lots of good stuff, but especially check it out for the meta-learning parts.
Orwell’s allegory for the Soviet Union, told using farm animals. Powerfully illustrates how movements with the best intentions can have their principles corrupted, until they’re unrecognizable. If you didn’t read this in high school, you definitely need to read it now.
The classic text on strategy and warfare. Obviously much of the text is dedicated to ancient Chinese warfare (you’ll never guess what the chapter “Attack by Fire” is about) – but even so, the Art of War is absolutely timeless. Required reading, no matter what your goal in life is.
One of the most important books ever written for dealing with depression. While there are many factors that go into mood disorders, this book focuses on the role dysfunctional/negative thoughts play, and combating them. Even if you don’t suffer from depression, there’s a huge amount of value in this book.
One of the most profound books I have ever read. The unit of selection in evolution is not the group or individual, but the gene – and while genes are selfish, effecting human behavior to reproduce and protect themselves (and copies of themselves) as much as possible, we can fight against selfish genes for higher purposes. Doesn’t just talk about genes, but is also the origin for the idea of memes. Any thinking person – who wants to understand the world, or change the world – needs to read this book.
Pillars explores the foundations of self-esteem, and the obstacles towards healthy self-esteem. The fundamental message: you are enough, you have the right to exist, and you have value. Echoes other great books I’ve read (especially Models by Mark Manson). If you’ve ever struggled with self-esteem, I highly recommend this book.
Quite possibly the best dating advice book for men that currently exists. Manson’s “method” is based on a three-legged stool of honesty: honest living, honest action, and honest communication. No lines. No crazy charts or jargon. No bullshit. Just dealing with your emotions, desires and with intimacy in an honest and attractive way. I recommend it to all men, and if you’re a woman with a single man in your life, you should recommend it to them.
Teachings on strategy and combat from master swordsman Myamoto Musashi. While it’s similar to the Art of War where much of the text is about ancient martial arts, the parts about strategy and conflict in general are timeless. But don’t take my word for it – in the words of Musashi, “You must study this.”
The approved biography of evil genius billionaire Elon Musk. Covers his life growing up in South Africa, immigrating to America, co-founding PayPal, his bizarre relationship problems, and his crazy ventures to create electric cars and reusable rockets when literally everyone was telling him these were terrible ideas. Will need to be updated in a few years though, doesn’t cover the flame throwers he sold to fund digging tunnels under L.A.
Dale Carnegie presents his timeless principles for winning friends and influencing people – make people feel good through things like compliments or sympathy, avoid making people feel bad through things like criticism or arguments, and be indirect when trying to influence people. Probably the most famous self help book of all time, and essential reading for anyone looking to improve their social life. Just read responsibly – people have used these principles to make friends wherever they go, and have also used them to become master manipulators.
The private thoughts of emperor Marcus Aurelius, the real life philosopher king. Pursue goodness; be rational, clear-minded, and have self-control. Have a cosmic perspective, and recognize that anxiety and offense originate in your mind. Read it, and then read it again.
Another monster tome from master guineau pig Tim Ferriss – this time, after turning 40, he got life advice from as many wise and successful people as he could, and collected them in one book. Similar format to Tools of Titans, but with plenty of new faces not featured in Titans. I recommend it, along with Tools of Titans.
The most famous dystopian novel of all time. Government surveillance. Historical revisionism. Perpetual war. Big Brother. Totalitarianism. Doublethink. Propaganda. The last third is especially intense. You probably read this in high school, but whether you read it or not you need to read it this year.
Health and fitness advice from human guinea pig/wrestler/dancer/martial artist Tim Ferriss. Has everything from gaining muscle, to losing fat, to raising your testosterone, to learning how to swim as an adult, to jumping higher. If the idea of “biohacking” yourself appeals to you, pick this up. I’m not a doctor, he’s not a doctor, self-medicate and exercise responsibly.
A book – really a long-form essay – about lying. In short: don’t lie. All of the reasons given for lying are suspect at best. You will make your life far less stressful – and your relationships more satisfying – simply by avoiding lies at all cost, even white lies designed to avoid discomfort. That doesn’t mean being a jerk – or evading topics you’d have to tell the truth about – it means becoming skilled in diplomatically stating the objective truth. I will say that while he does deal with extreme situations suggested by Kant and others, I would have liked to see him go into more detail.
A book on accurately predicting the future, particularly around economics and geopolitics. If you’re at all interested in politics, economics, world events, or becoming a rational person more generally, this is the book for you.
Quit your job, delegate everything possible, cut meetings and email down 95%, fire the 20% of your customers giving you 80% of your problems, deliver on time, and travel the world on a shoe string budget. The book that launched a thousand entrepreneurs and digital nomads, and a must read for anyone interested in entrepreneurship or productivity.
The ultimate book on power – how to get it, and maintain it. Greene looks over the history of business, politics, and war to distill the lesson of the past into the 48 Laws of Power – following them will make your more likely to gain power, and opposing them will more likely lead you to ruin. Can be read as a manual for manipulation and evil, or a guide for not getting taken advantage of. Also great if you like history or biography. Highly recommended.
The first novel of the classic sci-fi trilogy. When the future Galactic Empire is on the verge of collapse from it’s own structural failures, psychohistorian Hari Seldon creates an organization – the Foundation – to guide the galaxy towards reunification into a new empire over the course of 1000 years. A must-read for sci-fi fans, and a favorite of Elon Musk.
Billionaire hedge fund manager Ray Dalio’s principles for success. Radical openness, radical honesty, constant self-improvement, and effective decision making, among other principles. It’s not perfect – skip the biographical section unless you’re really interested – but it’s one of the best books that I read in 2018.
A warning from entrepreneur (and now presidential candidate) Andrew Yang about a simple truth: automation is coming for people’s jobs, and the world is completely unprepared for it. It’s data-driven and not “alarmist” or hysterical in the slightest (but it is alarming – Chapter 15 presents a scarily plausible scenario of complete societal breakdown initiated by mass automation).
The autobiography of comedian and Senator Al Franken. Covers everything from his start as a comedian, to running for office, to a recount that hinged on a few hundred votes, to the 2009 battles over healthcare, to how much he (and everyone) hates Ted Cruz. Awkward to read now that Al Franken has been exiled from U.S. politics in the #MeToo era. Still, I gave it a 9/10 at the time, Franken is genuinely funny man, and Giant is an interesting read on the last several years of U.S. politics and legislation.
Essential reading on marketing. Get into your customer’s mind, focus your efforts on a few areas, take the long-term perspective, and recognize that marketing is war. Pretty much everything holds up even though it was published in 1994 (although any Trump references in old business books are always going to be weird, no matter how relevant they might be).
Compared to a lot of business and entrepreneurship books, this book is pretty idealistic: don’t sell out, do what makes you happy, focus 100% on helping people over funding or expanding. A short book, and should probably be on the reading list of any aspiring entrepreneur – you can read it in an afternoon.
I read this book because I’ve had a question for years: “What the hell’s wrong with my generation? Why is everyone depressed, anxious, or suicidal?” This book attempts to find an answer. Between paranoid parenting, social media, political polarization, toxic identity politics, accepting several well-intentioned but unwise ideas, and an overall obsession with safety, the youngest generation of Americans are woefully unprepared for college and adulthood. I went into this not sure if I would agree with the premise, but thankfully it turned out not to just be a book hating on social media or social justice. If you went to college in the 2010s, or know a recent college student, I highly recommend you read this book.
A book of advice on how to be more creative – steal and copy from others (gracefully), create the things you want that don’t exist yet, explore as much as possible, and live your life so that you can dedicate your energy and efforts to making things. Parts of this remind me of something I watched many years ago called Everything is a Remix. Thankfully, the advice doesn’t just apply to traditional artists, but also to anyone looking to create something new. It’s short and sweet – only about 150 pages – but ends up containing very little filler or fluff. If you’re interested in creating something new (or something “new”), read this book.
Jacobs goes on one of his year long quests, this time to explore how all human beings are related to each other and throw the largest family reunion in human history. Turns out A.J. Jacobs is a distant cousin of mine (he’s also your distant cousin).
If you want to lead a movement or create a successful business, it’s not enough to tell people what you’re doing – you need to tell them WHY you’re doing it. Most businesses talk about themselves in the wrong order, unlike the businesses and leaders we praise most (Apple, the Wright Brothers, Martin Luther King). Good stuff, the part about the Law of Diffusion of Innovations is especially interesting.
An up to date brief exploration of astrophysics and the cosmos for the layman. Everything from the Big Bang, to space and time, to dark matter and dark energy, to the search for life in the universe. Read it even if you didn’t do well in Physics class.
Insights into love, sex, and the human condition from the founder of OkCupid. The parts that use data from OkCupid are AMAZING, and the charts are even better! The parts about Big Data in general are less stellar. Buy it for the charts.
Another of Jacobs’ lifestyle experiments – after Jacobs’ bout with severe pneumonia, he goes on a two year quest to become the healthiest man in the world. Hilarity ensues. He tries to improve each part of his body one at a time to make it into the healthiest possible version (every part of his body), all while talking to different experts. The info is great, the pictures are great, you’ll laugh and then you’ll be saddened by some of the people Jacobs loses along the way. Read it even if you’re not a health/fitness buff.
A book about improving your life using principles from video games (and other things from nerdy media) to radically improve your life for the better. Create a secret identity, start taking on quests, and go through your own Hero’s Journey. Pretty solid advice for gamers and other nerds. If you love video games and want to pursue self-development, this would be an excellent place to start.
Paul Proteus is the CEO of an industrial in dystopian future where all low skill jobs have been automated, and only the construction, management, and engineering jobs are left. Mind the fact that it was written in 1952 and that the main character’s wife is a horrible person. If you’re interested in AI and machine learning, read just for the part where Vonnegut predicts Deep Blue and AlphaGo decades beforehand.
A pop science book on habits and habit formation. Also includes some discussion about Big Data and free will. I know Duhigg probably didn’t intend it this way, but some parts felt like ads for Target and Starbucks. Surprisingly good.
A book on improving your mindset to be more like rich people, for the purpose of becoming rich. Includes “wealth files” which describe the key differences in how rich people think vs poor people. Light on discussion of socioeconomic mobility, like the rest of the genre. Some parts sound like an infomercial, but coming back to it the advice is surprisingly sound. Read it.
One of the classic texts of Zen Buddhism, and one of the first written by a European for a Western audience. Pretty short. Presents Zen Buddhism as something closer to a self-development philosophy than a traditional religion, as a contest against the self and illusions rather than the forces of evil. Might be of most benefit to the reader if they already have some introduction to Zen and Eastern philosophy.
An interesting little book on personality. Rather than creating an overall framework (e.g. the MBTI), Rubin creates a framework of Four Tendencies around the question “How does a person respond to expectations?” Not academic or rigorous at all (and she says so), but I still think about the framework every now and then. Interesting stuff for fans of MBTI, OCEAN, Enneagram etc.
Mark Cuban’s advice for entrepreneurs. How to get started, how to get ahead, how to handle the challenges of business, and Cuban’s rules/mantras for success.
Culture starts at the top, and unless leaders create healthy organizations where trust is possible, dysfunction is inevitable. Your job as a leader isn’t to take care of the numbers – your job is to take care of the people, so that the numbers take care of themselves. The central message is great, but it might be a little fuzzy on the scientific details.
Frankl uses his experiences from surviving the Holocaust to present his philosophy for finding meaning and purpose in spite of suffering. Incredibly profound. If you struggle with depression or finding meaning in your life, I highly recommend it. When I was looking into the background of the book, it turns out it has some historical issues that forced me deduct points – but I think people should read it anyway.
Short read on habits and mindsets for success/life fulfillment from a retired admiral. Emphasis on short. Based on the viral 2014 commencement speech that the author gave.
Read in preparation of the full book. Note that I’m talking about the 2011 pdf, and not the full book. Great content, but very condensed. If you want to quickly get Dalio’s principles, read this. If you want the full explanation, read the full book instead.
EXTREMELY short read on mindset and the importance of thinking. If you haven’t read much self-help, it’s great. If you’ve read a lot of self-help, it’s OK.
One of the must-reads for anyone interested in business or self improvement. The fact that it’s a little out of date (Drucker is skeptical that AI will ever outclass humans, and Australia is referred to as a developing country) made me enjoy it less.
Medium length read on the author’s journey from political science major to successful investor, and on philosophy being useful for investing. Still not sure what to think about the part where he talks about his daughter’s fanfiction.
Classic book on Foer’s quest to become a memory champion. The narrative is great – I would have liked if the book was more practical, and spent more time than it did on how to learn the techniques. Also some parts of Moonwalking are not going to age well, even if you don’t find those parts offensive.
A book about sexual polarity between men and women, and how to become a spiritually aware superior man. I have mixed thoughts. On the one hand, there are some interesting ideas, mirroring other books I’ve read, and I can see why this was recommended to me. On the other hand, this book is far more spiritual and poetic/flowery than books I usually read. Plus there are some parts that are just… weird. What do I mean? There’s a part where Deida describes casually talking with your bros about cheating on your spouse, but it’s more than that. There are other parts where you’ll go “Huh? Where’d that come from?” or “Why is he even talking about that?” With all that said, here’s my overall take: if you’re a man interested in relationships with feminine women, there’s going to be some value for you, even if some parts are kind of weird.
One of the best-selling books of all time, which I never read growing up. Honestly? I’m not sure I “got it” – part of me says it’s a zen koan about adulthood and loneliness, while another part of me says it’s a children’s story that doesn’t mean anything at all. Disregarding that, I feel like I’m going to offend a lot of people just from not giving it a perfect 10/10. I’m still not sure what to make of it, other than being kind of bummed out about the ending.
Good information and ideas about the process of mastering skills and mastering your life. Also includes sections about energy healing and other things not relevant to mastery.
A book by Jungian psychologist Robert A. Johnson exploring masculine psychology, primarily through the the Camelot myth. It starts off with an interesting discussion of childhood psychological wounds (the “Fisher King” wound) before getting bogged down by weird interpretations (not to mention unsupported assertions and free-association) of old meanings of words, comparative mythology, and numbers. This really put into perspective what I find frustrating about Jungianism: lots of interesting concepts, but too often it relies so heavily on myth and interpretation that it eventually gives up on logic or rules of evidence. Read if you really like Jungianism and Jungian psychology.
Clinical psychologist/internet sensation Jordan Peterson gives his 12 rules for life based on a viral Quora post. This ended up being one of the most frustrating books I’ve ever read. I went into this with high expectations, and ended up stopping somewhere in Rule 8. While there are parts about self-help or evolutionary biology I found interesting, and other parts I found frustrating, the thing I found most frustrating was that Peterson is basically trying to use Nietzsche/Dostoevsky/other authors to create a secular/existential/pragmatic Christianity, thus preventing metaphysical chaos in the West. It doesn’t matter if God or Jesus exists, be a Christian anyway. This isn’t an idea I (or many of the authors Peterson quotes) can support, and Nietzsche especially would have scratched their head at Peterson’s bizarre theology. Maybe I shouldn’t be so blunt – but Rule 8 is “Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie.”
Change is difficult, but when things change in your life you need to change with it. The end. The book is incredibly condescending, telling a preschool level story of mice and little-people in a maze, and from what I can tell is often bought in bulk by upper management to “prepare” departments for layoffs. Then, it puts critics in a box where not liking the book means you’re afraid of change (if your book puts skeptics/critics in a box, I’m going to become more skeptical/critical). The lessons might be good or important, but there are better ways to tell those lessons and better books to get them from.
A young Spanish shepherd named Santiago goes on an international adventure in search of treasure, meeting a cast of characters along the way. Lots of talk about destiny, omens, alchemy, the power of love, and listening to the language of the universe. It’s supposed to be profound and moving, but ultimately amounts to nonsense. If you’re spiritual-but-not-religious, you’ll probably like it. If you’re either very religious or very irreligious, avoid at all costs.
The second most famous self-help book of all time. Absolute bullshit. Surprisingly the worst part wasn’t all the magical thinking (not to mention telepathy, quantum mechanics, “infinite intelligence,” etc.), it was the part where Napoleon Hill forbids his deaf son from learning sign language based on Hill’s belief in the magic of thought. See this article for more on Napoleon Hill.