Best Books of 2016: Part 1

Best Books of 2016: Part 1

2016 is half over! Which makes today a good time to do a mid-year review of the great books from this year. As a result of my decision to read books for understanding and wisdom back in January, my reading selection and habits have changed, and when I look back at the reading list, I actually like almost all of them. Here are the best books of 2016 so far. Part 2 of this list will cover the favorites from the second half of the year. Wait for it in early 2017!

If you’re curious about what I’m reading right now, visit my Goodreads profile.

 

1. How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading by Mortimer Adler

This book marked a turning point in my reading experience. I decided to read better and no other book could teach reading better than this book. Adler outlines the 4 levels of reading, namely elementary, inspectional (with a brilliant section on how to skim a book effectively), analytical (understanding what the ideas are and how they are connected), and syntopical (synthesizing ideas across multiple books). The goal is to extract as much wisdom as possible from the book you are reading, to understand what the author is trying to communicate. This book should be a must-read for all high school and college students, as well as everyone else who takes reading seriously. The ideas in How to Read a Book inspired these essays in this blog:

Mortimer Adler: The Art of Reading

Before Learning: The Role of Awe in Life and Learning

After Learning: The Role of Reflection in Gaining Wisdom

How to Be an Excellent Student

 

2. Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future by Peter Thiel

Thiel is a Silicon Valley giant who co-founded PayPal and invested early in Facebook. This book was compiled from the notes of a student from his entrepreneurship class. He describes two kinds of growth. Zero to one refers to a step growth, a radical invention that changes the world, as opposed to a “one to n” growth, where a great idea is being replicated many times over. We see this phenomenon a lot. Something revolutionary comes out, then a hundred imitators build something similar to it. This book is about the first kind of growth, the radical changes, which according to Thiel is how we make progress in society.

 

3. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Everyone who has read this book loves it. It is a profound and moving piece by a dying man. Kalanithi was a neurosurgeon resident when he was diagnosed with lung cancer. In between the diagnosis and his death, he produced a remarkable reflection on medicine, excellence, and the true meaning of life. To get a flavor of what he wrote about, check out these posts:

Consciousness of Time: Wisdom in the Sabbath

Excellence: Why It Matters

 

4. Gratitude by Oliver Sacks

Some of my favorite writers are medical practitioners. Perhaps their close connections to human lives inspire a special depth of understanding in humanity and our existence. Sacks was a neurologist and a prolific writer. This small book is a collection of 4 essays that he wrote towards the end of his life. There’s something special about reading an octogenarian reflects about his own life. The Consciousness of Time essay above was also inspired by this book.

 

5. The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why by Richard Nisbett

This was probably the most fun book I picked up this year. I obliterated it with notes, dog ears, and highlights. I didn’t necessarily buy into every conclusion of Nisbett’s experiments, since a deeper reading of the actual journal papers was warranted for this, but the general trends of how Asian thoughts differed from Western thoughts were observable in real life, especially in mine, being Indonesian in the US. This book fit perfectly into the essay series on worldview that I had been working on since last year. If you just wanted to know the key conclusions of this book without reading it, I’ve summarized them in these posts:

Asian and Western Minds, Part 1: Why They Differ

Asian and Western Minds, Part 2: How They Differ

I also wrote a narrative of my own cultural experiences in these posts:

A Child of East and West, Part 1

A Child of East and West, Part 2

 

6. Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

I absolutely love this memoir! Jahren is a geobiologist, which is a fancy way of saying she studies plants. This memoir is about her journey as a woman in science, academia, her love of trees, and her friendship with Bill, her longtime lab partner. Their adventures are the stuffs of storybooks. What is most magnificent about Lab Girl is Jahren’s language. She has a knack of putting words together poetically, whether it be on the life of a tree or on the joy of discovery. Highly recommended for women (and men) who love science.

As a side note, it is also thrilling to see that science writing has been having a good run in 2016!

 

7. Believer: My Forty Years in Politics by David Axelrod

Axelrod was one of the key minds behind President Obama’s revolutionary campaign in 2008. He was the strategist for both of Obama’s campaigns and an advisor in the White House in Obama’s first term. Politics is usually associated with bad sentiments: skepticism, corruption, hypocrisy, etc. Which is why it’s refreshing to read about someone who has been in the thick of it for 40 years and still believe in the power of politics in bringing good to society. Axelrod believes that politics is and should be a calling, and this book is a frank review of his choices in working with candidates who did and did not emulate this value.

I love political memoirs because they give me a different picture of reality compared to what the media depicts. Part of being informed is examining the sources of our information. The media is one source and they have their take on reality. But this is far from the only one. Books like Believer and other political memoirs lift up the curtain a bit and let you see what goes on behind the scene. One thing I’ve learned is this: I may or may not agree with the writer’s politics, but the work ethics of many public servants in the White House is laudable.

8. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales by Oliver Sacks

This is the scariest book I have ever read. It tells stories of patients with neural degeneracies. Because something goes wrong in the brain, a person can not recognize his own hand or leg, hear a constant song in her head, not able to recognize faces or objects, or think only in prime numbers. These are not stories of despair, though. Quite the contrary, Sacks brings out the humanity in these cases, helping us see them as fellow human beings rather than just patients. For one thing, it teaches me that it is a gift and privilege to have a brain that works properly.

 

9. The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nicholas Nassim Taleb

Taleb is one of the best contrarian thinkers of today. He couldn’t care less about intellectualism; it’s all about practical wisdom. This book proposes a contrarian philosophy in investing and probability by focusing on blind spots, the events that you deem highly unlikely to happen, but if they do, will radically impact your life or your organization. The proverbial black swan refers to this: if you believe all swans are white, it only takes one black swan to obliterate your belief system.

This is not a book that one can read lightly or quickly. It’s instructive because it teaches you to think differently. Taleb also recently gave a graduation speech, something he doesn’t do often. You can read the script here.

 

10. Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance by Atul Gawande

Another doctor on the list. Gawande is a general surgeon, recipient of the 2006 MacArthur “Genius” Grant, and a writer for The New Yorker. This book is about what it takes to be successful in medicine. Gawande is an effective writer and the book is almost like an anatomy lesson in excellence.

[Update] Based on this book, here comes the densest article on this blog so far. It’s not for the faint-hearted. But if you’re driven enough to read 3500 words on how to excel, click the link below.

 

 

Anatomy of Excellence

Great books let you meet and spend time with inspiring people. I’ve noticed that there’s one thing that these people have in common that inspires me again and again. Read about this unique trait in this post:

The One Trait Inspiring People Have in Common

 

 

Other best books lists

2018: Best Books of 2018 Part 1, Best Books of 2018 Part 2.

2017Best Books of 2017 Part 1, Best Books of 2017 Part 2.

2016Best Books of 2016 Part 1Best Books of 2016 Part 2.

2015Best Books of 2015 Part 1Best Books of 2015 Part 2.

 

*Amazon Product links on this blog are Amazon Affiliate links, which means that each time you purchase something through those links, I get a small commission without you paying any extra. Of course you don’t have to use them, but if you want to chip-in towards content creation for this blog, I’d really appreciate it!

 

Best Reads of 2015: Part 2

Best Reads of 2015: Part 2

This post is a continuation of the Best Reads of 2015 list. See Part 1 here.

 

6. Lelaki Harimau (Man Tiger) by Eka Kurniawan

Eka Kurniawan is an Indonesian author whose two works, Man Tiger and Beauty is a Wound, have been recently translated and published in English (and other languages too). All the reviews worldwide have been raving about Eka’s work, which make me so extremely proud.

 

I read this book in Indonesian, my native language, and was not surprised by all the raves. It’s such a stunning novel. From the folksy language he uses, the plot, and the arrangement of the narrative, I can honestly say I have never encountered any literature like this before. From the first words of the book, right to the very end, readers are kept in suspense to what actually happens in the central event of the novel. Breathtaking.

 

7. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

This book made the Best of 2015 lists everywhere. It won the National Book Award for Nonfiction, rightly so. Here, Coates reflects on life in a black body, poetically. For me, I felt the impact of this book even more afterwards, when certain phrases and sentences from the book would come to mind unexpectedly during a newscast, for example, that was replete with racial issues last year.

 

 

 

8. Beloved by Toni Morrison

Chilling. Powerful. Mysterious. Beautiful. Like a painting. Beloved is a work of art. And like many pieces of art, there are aspects of it that I don’t understand. I’m not too left-brained, however, to miss the beauty of Morrison’s words and phrases. I would consider this book a must-read if you want to understand humanity, particularly the impact of slavery to the psyche of generations of men, women, and children.

 

 

 

9. Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays by Abraham J. Heschel

This book is a collection of essays and speeches that Heschel made during his life, compiled by his daughter, particularly on the meaning of being a Jew. Heschel was already one of my favorite authors, but this book gave me so much food for thought that sparked many personal reflections in 2015. This book was the source of inspiration to my Why I Love Being an Adventist post, as well as the worldview series I noted in my 2015 in Review post.

 

 

 

10. The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich by Timothy Ferriss

Tim Ferriss came as a guest speaker when I took an Entrepreneurship class in Princeton. He’s probably one of the people with most unconventional lives in the 21st century. I love how this book (and his philosophy in general) teaches me to view the world and its “constraints” as pliable. We don’t have to succumb to society’s expectations of work and success; we can carve our own lives. The book is filled with very practical advice, and is an important reference for anyone who wants to master the art of living free.

 

Other best books lists

2018: Best Books of 2018 Part 1, Best Books of 2018 Part 2.

2017Best Books of 2017 Part 1, Best Books of 2017 Part 2.

2016Best Books of 2016 Part 1Best Books of 2016 Part 2.

2015Best Books of 2015 Part 1Best Books of 2015 Part 2.

 

*Amazon Product links on this blog are Amazon Affiliate links, which means that each time you purchase something through those links, I get a small commission without you paying any extra. Of course you don’t have to use them, but if you want to chip-in towards content creation for this blog, I’d really appreciate it!

 

Best Reads of 2015: Part 1

Best Reads of 2015: Part 1

2015 was (is) a good reading year. I was able to return to a decent pace (i.e., pre-wedding planning pace). These are the top 5 of my personal best reads of 2015.

 

1. Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Just Mercy is a powerful account of Stevenson’s lifework in the criminal justice system. He represents those on death row, women, children, and the mentally disabled—those who wouldn’t otherwise have access to good defense. It is both a hard criticism to the criminal justice system, as well as a hopeful voice for change, for giving mercy a chance.

 

I’ve written a lot about this book—this one was the most impactful book this year for me.

 

 

2. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

This is one of the best books I’ve ever read! And the best one in its genre—psychology and neuroscience—too, I think. Thinking deconstructs how we make judgment and how biases and heuristics influence—sometimes negatively—our decisions. I highly recommend this book for anyone who cares about his/her thoughts being coherent.

 

 

 

 

3. It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War by Lynsey Addario

Addario works in conflict regions of the world as a war photographer. This book is an impassioned account of her experiences—including 2 kidnappings—that she went through, her commitment to tell nuanced stories of war, and her reflections on the relationship between her work and life. She was a recipient of the “Genius Grant,” the MacArthur Fellowship in 2009.

 

Her photographs are absolutely stunning and provoking. Check them out here.

 

 

4. Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande

Being Mortal is Gawande’s reflection as a medical professional on mortality, a given fact of human life, and end of life care. His insights on how we do medical training are profound, how it often treats human lives and dying as technical problems instead of human problems. Consequently, doctors, while skillful in prescribing treatments for the elderly or terminally ill, are not as well-versed in talking patients through deeper life questions, such as what matters to them the most at the end of their lives. The most admirable part of the book for me is Gawande’s courage in exposing his own personal experience with his father—his end of life care and death—that encapsulates the essence of the rest of the book. I highly appreciate the message of this book!

 

 

5. What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe

Nerdy and hilarious! You can’t have a better combination than that. Munroe, ex-NASA roboticist turned cartoonist, is exceptionally skilled at combining absurdity and science. In this book, he answers those ridiculous questions that we used to generate while we were kids—and as adults too—using physics and true principles. The result: something really awesome.

 

What were your best reads of 2015? Would love to hear your recommendations! List them out in the comments below.

 

 

Other best books lists

2018: Best Books of 2018 Part 1, Best Books of 2018 Part 2.

2017Best Books of 2017 Part 1, Best Books of 2017 Part 2.

2016Best Books of 2016 Part 1Best Books of 2016 Part 2.

2015Best Books of 2015 Part 1Best Books of 2015 Part 2.

 

*Amazon Product links on this blog are Amazon Affiliate links, which means that each time you purchase something through those links, I get a small commission without you paying any extra. Of course you don’t have to use them, but if you want to chip-in towards content creation for this blog, I’d really appreciate it!