2017 in Books (Non-Fiction Edition) 

I’ve read a pile of great books in 2017. More than one a week on average throughout the year for the first time in ages. I track everything on Goodreads and there’s something undeniably satisfying about looking back at a long list at the end of a year. 

To me, reading is something that you just have to make time forLike so many (e.g. Seth GodinNaval Ravikant), I’ve always seen books as one of the most powerful and valuable technologies in the known universe. Because it only takes one book to change your life entirely, setting you spinning off down a new and exciting path in life. So there’s little chance I’ll voluntarily choose to address my current book addiction anytime soon.

Looking down the list, 2017 has brought a good mix of non-fiction, fiction, poetry and a few scripts. It’s amazing how the few words in a book title can catapult you instantly back to a time and place when a new idea made its mark. Some on the list left little trace but thankfully the letdowns were few and far between. More interesting to me is the fact that only a small proportion of the content was actually published this year.

These days, I avoid a daily diet of ‘breaking’ news as far as possible. There’s too much going on, in so many areas. Viewed through the window of our ever-present smartphones, the world is now so visibly complex to each one of us that an addiction to the news translates to a life wasted on the minutiae of global chaos that you’re mostly powerless to influence. Sometimes we need to carve out solid blocks of time and take in the bigger picture. In a similar way, a book often needs a few years to pass before you can really assess the quality of its ideas. And so, for me, it’s some of the oldest, forgotten books retrieved from the depths of bookshelves during a move this year that have brought the greatest rewards.

So instead of attempting to share a list of the top books of the year, I thought I’d instead share a few quotes that grabbed me. Make of them what you will – but if they’re here, they’re worth reading in my opinion. 

1. The Sovereign Individual: Mastering the Transition to the Information Age – James Dale Davidson & Lord William Rees-Mogg

A book written back in the mists of time (1997) that was recommended to me a few years ago by a couple of people in the cryptocurrency scene. If anything, the passing years have only made the content more prescient. It foretells the death of the nation state as it comes under attack from networked technology over the coming century. If even 50% of the predictions in this book (their third) come true then the seismic changes that we’re facing in our near future are way beyond those that most people could ever be prepared for (or in some cases, will be willing to accept).

“Private competing currencies circulated in Scotland from early in the eighteenth century until 1844. During that period, Scotland had no central bank. There were few regulations or restrictions on entry into the banking business. Private banks took deposits and issued their own private currencies backed by gold bullion. As Professor Lawrence White has documented, this system worked well. It was more stable, with less inflation than the heavily regulated and politicised system of banking and money employed in England during the same period….Michael Prowse of the Financial Times summarised Scotland’s free-banking experience. “There was little fraud. There was no evidence of over-issue of notes”

And just maybe we’re focusing too much on goals…

“For human beings, it is the struggle rather than the achievement that matters; we are made for action, and the achievement can be a great disappointment”

2. Lying – Sam Harris

Read this book and the next time your nearest and dearest asks you to tell them whether they look good, you’ll find your mind flashing back to this extended essay from Sam Harris.

“In many circumstances in life, false encouragement can be very costly to another person….False encouragement is a kind of theft: it steals time, energy and motivation that a person could put toward some other purpose”

“When we presume to lie for the benefit of others, we have decided that we are the best judges of how much they should understand about their own lives – about how they appear, their reputations, or their prospects in the world. This is an extraordinary stance to adopt toward other human beings, and it requires justification. Unless someone is suicidal or otherwise on the brink, deciding how much he should know about himself seems the quintessence of arrogance”

3. On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century – Timothy Snyder

Wouldn’t it be nice to think that we’ve finally reached Peak-Trump? Nice, but delusional. So this book, pulled together only a few hours after the 2016 US Election result filtered through by a renowned historian, lists a few early warning signs from history to look out for seen in other countries that slid towards disaster after falling under the power of demagogues.   

“What the great political thinker Hannah Arendt meant by totalitarianism was not an all-powerful state, but the erasure of the difference between private and public life. We are free only insofar as we exercise control over what people know about us, and in what circumstances they come to know it”

“You might one day be offered the opportunity to display symbols of loyalty. Make sure that such citizens include your fellow citizens rather than exclude them”

4. Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman

In a nutshell: a book that demonstrates just how wrong humans are so often about so many things. One with interesting connections to the Black Swan and definitely one to reread.

“Declarations of high confidence mainly tell you that an individual has constructed a coherent story in his mind, not necessarily that the story is true”

“The social norm against stereotyping, including the opposition to profiling, has been highly beneficial in creating a more civilised and more equal society. It is useful to remember, however, that neglecting valid stereotypes inevitably results in suboptimal judgements”

“Our mind is strongly biased toward causal explanations and does not deal well with ‘mere statistics’. When our attention is called to an event, associative memory will look for its cause – more precisely, activation will automatically spread to any cause that is already stored in memory.

And perhaps all those success stories that sell so many business books focused on ultra-successful tech entrepreneurs are somewhat misleading, to say the least. 

“Although hindsight and the outcome bias generally foster risk aversion, they also bring undeserved rewards to irresponsible risk seekers, such as a general or an entrepreneur who took a crazy gamble and won. Leaders who have been lucky are never punished for having taken too much risk…A few lucky gambles can crown a reckless leader with a halo of prescience and boldness”

5. Sapiens – Yuval Noah Harari

A great overview of where we’ve been, I read this one mainly because I wanted to read his follow-up (Homo Deus) about where we might be going. 

“Despite the astonishing things that humans are capable of doing, we remain unsure of our goals and we seem to be as discontented as ever. We have advanced from canoes to galleys to steamships to space shuttles – but nobody knows where we’re going. We are more powerful than ever before but have very little idea what to do with all that power…Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?”

6. The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill – Alone (1932-1940) / The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill – Visions of Glory (1874-1932) – William Manchester

A number of weeks this year were spent on the first two 1,000 page volumes of William Manchester’s magisterial biography of Churchill. It’s a work that justifies the word ‘epic’ in every sense of the word, making it impossible to quote – and I’ve not even made it to World War II onwards yet. Looking forward to diving into Volume 3 in the New Year.

“In the House, he spoke frequently, with wit and apparent ease – few know in those, early days of the excusing rehearsals in Mount Street, the infinite pains that went into each polished performance…Already he was displaying a puzzling contradiction which would endure throughout his public life. He could not address the House without intensive preparation. Yet no member could be quicker on his feet. He said ‘Politics is like waking up in the morning. You never know whose head you will find on the pillow’.” And of politicians, he once said, ‘He is asked to stand, he wants to sit, and he is expected to lie”.

One of the areas that fascinates me about Churchill is his prodigious work ethic as a writer. The quantity of written content that he produced for publication (on top of his political work) was frankly incredible, and at one stage (pre-WWII) he was possibly the best paid writer in the world. Hence the late nights – every single night – spent writing (more accurately, dictating before an audience). 

“Most writers regard the act of creativity as the most private of moments, but for Churchill it is semipublic; not only is the staff on hand, but any guest willing to sacrifice an hour’s sleep is also welcome”

7. How to Fail At Almost Everything and Still Win Big – Scott Adams

The Dilbert creator often splits opinions but there are some real nuggets of wisdom in this semi-autobiographical book that are well worth taking onboard. 

“Another huge advantage of learning as much as you can in different fields is that the more concepts you understand, the easier it is to learn new ones. Imagine explaining to an extraterrestrial visitor the concept of a horse. It would take some time. If the next thing you tried to explain were the concept of a zebra, the conversation would be shorter…Everything you learn becomes a shortcut for understanding something else”.

“Dealing with experts is always tricky. Are they honest? Are they competent? How often are they right? My observation and guess is that experts are right about 98% of the time on the easy stuff but only right 50 per cent of the time on anything that is unusually complicated, mysterious or even new”

8. The Death of Expertise – Tom Nichols

I loved this book. Short and to the point, it rails against the trend in modern society to shut down any hint of reasonable debate online and the fact that we’re building a culture which values the opinions of armchair Wikipedia skimmers as somehow being of equal value to career experts. On top of that, not only do people believe they now know more about more topics, they’re happy to revel in their ignorance (check out the parallels to the Dunning-Kruger Effect).      

“…the protective, swaddling environment of the modern university infantilises students and thus dissolves their ability to conduct a logical and informed argument. When feelings matter more than rationality or facts, education is a doomed enterprise”

“To faculty everywhere, the lesson was obvious: the campus of a top university is not a place for intellectual exploration. It is a luxury home, rented for four to six years, nine months at a time, by children of the elite who may shout at faculty as if they’re berating clumsy maids in a colonial mansion”

And, in the age of Trump:

“As the writer Susan Jacoby put it in 2008, the most disturbing aspect of the American march towards ignorance is “not lack of knowledge per se but arrogance about that lack of knowledge”

Boom.

“This fusing of entertainment, news, punditry, and citizen participation is a chaotic mess that does not inform people so much as it creates the illusion of being informed”.

9. The Complacent Class – Tyler Cowen

I’m a big fan of Tyler Cowen’s Marginal Revolution blog. But I’d never actually read one of his books before. In this one, he argues that, far from being in a period of unparalleled dynamism and innovation, Americans are in fact working much harder than ever before to either postpone change or to avoid it altogether. Meanwhile society is becoming ever more homogenised as algorithms increasingly try to match every aspect of our life (Spotify, dating, and many others) to things that they believe we’ll like – whether we like it or not.

“That said, ‘better matching’, for all its pleasures and virtues, is also in some regards uncomfortably close to the concept of ‘more segregation’ as we will see. Very often we match to what we already like, or what is already like us”

“A lot of our biggest social problems, such as unemployment, are in large part problems of matching….That said, the gains from matching are distributed very unevenly, and they accrue mainly to people who are better at using and handling information, a group whom elsewhere I labeled infovores…Some people are simply not so good at manipulating and interpreting digital information, so they don’t gain nearly as much from the internet and the matching capabilities it gives us”

10. The Black Swan – Nassim Nicholas Taleb

I’ve written about this before and, whilst it’s hard for me to name a book of the year, this unquestionably hits the top 3 for me. Here’s a couple of quotes to whet your appetite:-

“If you want a simple step to a higher form of life, as distant from the animal as you can get, then you may have to denigrate, that is, shut down the television set, minimise time spent reading newspapers, ignore the blogs. Train your reasoning abilities to control your decisions…Train yourself to spot the difference between the sensational and the empirical”

“We grossly overestimate the length of the effect of misfortune on our lives. You think that the loss of your fortune or current position will be devastating, but you are probably wrong. More likely, you will adapt to anything, as you probably did after past misfortunes. You may feel a sting, but it will not be as bad as you expect”

“Professions that deal with the future and base their studies on the non-repeatable past have an expert problem” 

The Naivety of Expertise

We all have them. Those books that just sit on your bookshelf, unbroken spines catching your eye from across the room. Berating you, each one a silent personal challenge – a demand that you prove that no, you weren’t so naive enough as to believe that by simply buying a book you’d also somehow be purchasing the time required to read it.

For me, one of those books was ‘The Black Swan‘ by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Like many, I picked it up in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 financial collapse. And it’s only taken about 9 years for me to determinedly take it down from its shelf for the purpose for which it was intended.

As is often the case, once you’ve committed to read something, by the time you actually get between the covers, you remember why you bought it in the first place. It would be wrong to claim that there aren’t disappointments on occasion – and life’s too short for bad books of any genre – but not this time. I was immediately sucked in by Taleb’s original (and surprisingly witty) style.

I’ve read many books that hurt my brain. It’s not hard after all. And this one definitely falls into this category – in places. But stick in – the payoff is huge.

For me, there’s a few things that I still find myself mulling over the day after finishing it:-

Narrative Fallacy

Humans have a weakness (stop the press…). We’re unable to see data and accept it for what it is without rushing to create an explanation. Why? Because stories help us to remember and it’s always possible to build a narrative when looking back. However all stories are inevitably simplified – very much a case of inserting a fiction after the fact. As a result, after major events, we humans are great at agreeing that we now understand things – when really, we still have no clue and no ability were we to face a similar situation in the future.

Predictions and Experts

For proof, take a look at predictions made by those that we pay (in terms of salary, time or attention) to be experts. In many areas (say politics or economics, to name a couple), the reality is that these predictions are often totally wrong. Indeed, the evidence shows that experts often get no better results than the rest of us.

The Grateful Turkey

Say you run a farm in which you breed turkeys. You keep them for 99 days and ship them to the butcher on the 100th day. If you asked any of those turkeys how they felt their lives were going on Day 99 and also to predict the future, I suspect you’d get pretty positive feedback (in turkey-speak of course). Nice food, well-looked after, big social circle…

But then ask the last one standing the following day. He’d be (understandably) shocked at the day’s events (no doubt pyschologically scarred also). After a great life, the slaughter came from nowhere, there was no advance warning.

A true Black Swan event. An unknown unknown (for turkeys).

To grossly oversimplify his point: Taleb points out that the more we continue to predict the future from a position in society of being on the 99th day (our standard method of prediction, through reliance which is what we’ve grown accustomed to over the years, by a lazy reliance on such models as the standard Gaussian (Bell) Curve, the more we’re going to have problems.

Speaking Without The Full Knowledge

The final thought that struck me was that I’ve been using the term ‘Black Swan’ to describe an unforseen significant event for a number of years now. Yet it took me until this week to actually read the book. So at what point did the terminology actually cross that tipping point and make it into the popular lexicon?

And more importantly, how many other concepts and points of view are inadequately wielded by others with less than complete knowledge of what it is that they’re talking about across many different fields of society?

Thankfully, plenty of people have written plenty of words about Taleb’s Black Swan theory. Indeed, amazingly Mark Suster released a blog post (‘Don’t Be Fooled By Your Own Expertise‘) on this ‘old’ book yesterday on the day that I finished reading it.

A recent article told of the books that so many of us have claimed to have read but never ploughed through. When it comes to fiction, I don’t think I’d be too bothered if you’d claimed to have read ‘War & Peace’ because you felt it made you sound erudite. Whatever. But as the General Election approaches and once again the country considers appointing representatives, some of whom you would hope to be ‘experts’, perhaps our standards need to be higher.

Or expectations lower.

Because this is a narrative in which we accept individuals expounding on concepts that they may have never fully (or partially) digested. And in a modern world, where knowledge is becoming increasingly specialised and the possibility of Black Swans is increasing, not reducing, that has to give us all some food for thought.

Turkey sandwich anyone?