The 5 Most Important Books I Read in 2019

Note: I fully recognize the insanity of publishing a post about 2019 in November 2020, and I choose to ignore it. Sorry, not sorry.

2019 held a lot of surprises for me, but one welcome surprise was the return of my voracious appetite for reading. I read 29 books in 2019, most of them great.

Of those books I’ve chosen just 5, the creme dela creme, accompanied by a short summary of the lessons I learned, and a grade of the book. I wholeheartedly recommend all of these books. Read them.

Honorable Mention: When Breath Becomes Air — Paul Kalanithi

What happens when a young, smart, ambitious neurosurgeon is given only a few months to live? This memoire answers the question, but be prepared to cry.

Lessons:

  • Life is precious and limited, don’t waste a moment of it
  • Build the family of your dreams, and pour yourself into them
  • Life and death are what you make them — your death will always be a search for meaning. Be sure you have places and people you think you can look to for the answer.

Grade: A

5. The Armchair Economist — Steven Landsburg

An enrapturing and effective breakdown of economic theory that can be picked up by anyone willing to think critically. The book translates economics into common-sense ideas, and shares a genuine love for economic theory as a social science that guides our understanding of the human condition.

Lessons:

  • A competitive market will always maximize welfare — however there are many possible efficient allocations, and it’s up to us to decide a moral philosophy and economic strategy to reach the one we think is best.
  • Markets tend to produce the most welfare for those who have more purchasing power. (E.g. rich get richer is expected. If you don’t want that, you need to correct for it, hence progressive taxation.)
  • Monopoly power is far more common than you might think. In fact, any producer surplus whatsoever is an indication of some amount of monopoly power, otherwise the price would be lowered by competitors until there is no producer surplus at all.
  • And so many more…

Grade: A

4. A Short History of Nearly Everything — Bill Bryson

Honestly, the title says it all.

Lessons:

  • Geniuses/Polymaths throughout the ages were profoundly weird people. Characters like Newton did things that were fundamentally bizarre, and “wasted” a lot of their time in pursuits that were tangential or entirely unrelated to their ultimate fields of accomplishment.
  • Alot of fundamental science was spurred by the “Royal Academy”. Essentially, a group of elites (composed of Polymaths) decided what everyone’s “scientific duty” should be. Not the market.
  • Geniuses all seemed to spend real time thinking. Hours, maybe days, just reading, writing, and thinking.
  • Removing distraction and leaving time to think is valuable.

Grade: A

3. The Hard Thing About Hard Things — Ben Horowitz

I know it’s cliched in the valley, but The Hard Thing About Hard Things is a brilliant account of the difficulties, celebrations, and hopeless disasters inherent in starting a company. I’ve never read a book that describes what it’s like to be a CEO in such depth — Ben Horowitz captures and communicates that feeling with ease.

Lessons:

  • Building a business is hard, and there aren’t easy answers. If you want this, think hard about how much you will have to give up
  • The job of a CEO is just as similar to a commander as it is to a manager.
  • Hiring and organization matter so much.

Grade: A

2. Order without Design — Alain Bertaud

A seminal book on Urban Economics, Order without Design manages to be the best urbanism book I’ve ever read AND one of the best economics book I’ve ever read. How can it possibly accomplish both tasks in a book devoted to the specific study of cities as labor markets? Read and find out for yourself.

Some lessons (there are too many to list):

  • Planners should handle city management problems, and the market should handle land usage problems.
  • “Resource allocation should evolve on the decisive role of the market” — President of PRC Xi Jinping (if a leader of the most powerful/successful communist party in the world is telling you to use the market to allocate resources, you should consider what he has to say)
  • A city’s effective labor pool is roughly the number of jobs within 1 hr of a worker
  • Increasing mobility and affordability should be the two main objectives of urban planning
  • Markets can rarely provide effective transportation infrastructure because cost recovery is very hard or impossible (this is why design must complement markets in city development)
  • Complex objectives and information inherent in cities make them far too complex for efficient design, but the market is a mechanism that can easily integrate that level of complexity.

Grade: A+

1. Educated by Tara Westover

I can’t give high enough praise for this memoire. Please, just read it.

Lessons:

  • Humans are so strong, and so capable of overcoming adversity
  • The cultural rift between urban and rural America is enormous
  • Personal stories are tremendously powerful writing tools

Grade: A+

Looking to grow.

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