Last week in Part 1 of this Mega Book Report I wrote brief reviews for books I found helpful in my career in software team management. I don’t always read work-related books, though. After mentally challenging books, I take a break and indulge in some “leisure reading”. For me that’s usually a history book with an occasional sci-fi and literary classic thrown in the mix. Here are my favorites that I read and enjoyed over the last two years.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Harari
As a fan of history, this book blew my mind. It was definitely my favorite book of 2016. I judge the quality of a book by how annoyed my friends are when I keep recounting stories from the book. I kept talking to people about this one. There was an epic battle between Neanderthals and Sapiens 70,000 years ago? And we lost? Whoa. The author’s ambitious scope covers thousands of years, as he draws some challenging conclusions while reflecting on our past. I re-read the epilogue several times, wondering about the promise and horrors that await our species in coming decades. If you enjoy history books, read this one.
Described as "a story of wealth, ambition, and survival", this book is action packed. Entrepreneur and German immigrant John Jacob Astor sought to extend his global fur trading empire by establishing a trading base in the newly charted regions of the Pacific Northwest. Two parties were sent, one over-land party comprised of French Canadian canoeing experts, and the other across the oceans via ship. The men leading the two groups used contrasting leadership styles, one being a strict authoritarian and the other favoring democratic agreement. Both groups tragically suffered major casualties. Fighting through doubt, starvation, insurrection, and attack, the founders of Astoria had a tough job. The book was adapted into a two-part play at Portland Center Stage scheduled to conclude this winter. Read it now before seeing it live!
Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford
Weatherford, a professor of anthropology at Minnesota's Macalester College, argues that while Genghis Khan has been depicted by western historians as one of civilization's greatest villains, his empire’s policies had many positive social effects. I went into this book knowing hardly anything about Mongolian history, and was fascinated by the story of Khan’s conquest of neighboring Chinese, Middle Eastern, and European kingdoms. Especially interesting was the economic progress made when Mongolian rulers fostered trade between nations across the world, and the isolationism and stagnation that occurred when Khan’s empire collapsed.
The Foundation Series by Isaac Asimov
Considered a classic of science fiction and one of Asimov’s best works, this trilogy explores the collapse of a great galactic civilization. Scientist and “psychohistorian” Hari Seldon predicts society’s downfall using advanced math, and creates a group charged with protecting human knowledge. It’s a fun thought experiment about dealing with the apocalypse, and reasoning about free will when our actions are accurately predicted by simulations.
The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene
This book describes stories of ethically questionable techniques some humans use to gain build power, with stories from history as examples. If you’re shocked by the behavior of characters in “Game of Thrones” or “House of Cards”, this book might lead you to believe their Machiavellian plots are typical human behavior. Reading this book and listening to The History of Rome podcast, I was surprised to learn how far people will go in the pursuit or protection of power. Here’s a summary of the 48 laws. It can be fun to identify the “law” used when corporate or political power struggles become public. I’d encourage some lighter reading after this book, to guard against cynicism.
The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli
After reading the “The 48 Laws of Power”, this infamous book of political advice by Machiavelli seemed fairly tame in comparison. I went in expecting to read amoral advice, but ended up finding it filled with the history of turbulent times in post-Roman Italy, and some practical recommendations for new rulers. Ascending to power can be dangerous, and it does seem sensible to consider one’s reputation and public perception during the transition. The introduction in my copy included a letter Niccolo sent his friend while he was writing “The Prince”, and this except stuck with me:
“When evening comes, I return home and enter my study; on the threshold I take off my workday clothes, covered with mud and dirt, and put on the robes of court and palace. Fitted out appropriately, I enter the courts of the ancients and am welcomed by them, and there I taste the food that alone is mine, and for which I was born. I am unashamed to converse with them and to question them about the motives for their actions, and they, out of their human kindness, answer me. And for the space of four hours I forget the world, remember no vexation, fear poverty no more, tremble no more at death: I pass indeed into their world.”
Machiavelli felt reading history was like a two-way discussion with the ancients. I’m fascinated by current events happening today, but love the fact that books let us listen in on conversations that go back several millennia. Which book will you open next, my friend? What questions will you ask?
I’m always on the lookout for my next favorite book. If you have any recommendations, I’d love to hear them! Bonus points for books in my favorite categories: management/leadership, business stories, history, sci-fi, general non-fiction.