Books I Read in 2021
6 min read

Books I Read in 2021

This is my second public "books" post, last being being a recap of 2020.

So what did 2021 look like? In 2021, I read 23 total books, comics, and related publications.

In 2020 I read 33 total. In 2019, that was 26. In 2018, I read 38.

That rounds to almost one book every two weeks, which isn't bad but not great compared to previous years. I started and stopped way more books than I finished. Some of them were technical books where I stopped midway through, while others I made a quarter's progress and either got distracted or bored. There were months when I did not read anything at all, and there were months when I wrapped up a four books in a single week.

This is because alongside continued covid-related precautions, I found myself traveling more than ever this year. I moved across the country and took advantage of the proximity to so many national parks. I also visited many of the cities in the Southwest that I've never been to. In addition to that, I spent a lot of time doing work-related research – I read a mountain of articles and papers, listened to endless podcasts, and wrote another mountain of internal memos, reports, and guides. That translated into not wanting to write or read as much for pleasure.


Ben Thompson of Stratechery once noted that he has no interest in consolidating his blog posts into a book because a book is static, while his work and continued development of the "aggregator theory" framework was dynamic, constantly evolving. He references and revisits previous articles and assumptions and uses the dynamism to draw lines between previously disconnected ideas.

In this same sense, I've found that much of my technical reading was driven by articles and newly published content. It's not that new content is better (in fact, the Lindy effect would suggest otherwise), but reading older technical/business content highlighted the flaws of their times.

I found that overly technical guides might might be referencing long-unused frameworks and paradigms, while business books might be holding up as a case study a business that has aged extremely poorly. Branding agency Red Antler's Emily Hayworth alluded to the speed with which her examples might fade out of relevancy in the first pages of her book – 'Some of these brands might be under fire or pariahs due to missteps of their founders by the time you read this' (and it was true - Away Luggage was under fire while other startup brands had faded from relevance) and that made me question the core principles that were being communicated. After all, why trust the premise of building towards longevity if the examples you use don't last more than a year's worth of time?

Even older 'classics' such as "Built to Last", "Good to Great", "Positioning", "22 Laws of Marketing", and others of that vein have not aged particularly well, and I found myself putting them down with some disapointment as to the value of insights they purported to offer. Part of this is natural – it's a process of cultural reflexivity and raising standards. Michael Mauboussin calls this the "paradox of skill":

As people become better at an activity, the difference between the best and the average and the best and the worst becomes much narrower. As people become more skillful, luck becomes more important.

I see this happen every day in marketing and product development, where things that might have been differentiating factors one year are table stakes the next year. So the search is constantly on for the most innovative solution, because today's innovation is tomorrow's best practice and next week's commodified standard.

But part of it is that sometimes examples and theories just don't age well. I similarly followed with some sadness as many popular science books fell into the grinder of time and scrutiny. Counterfactuals, reproducibility issues, and panaceas-as-snake-oil kept coming up in the years after publication. We all want to believe in a good story, especially the kind told in books like "Thinking Fast and Slow" or "Why We Sleep", but I am now extra wary of when those stories crumble under the weight of their own ambitions to help you improve your life through the wonders of science. It's not that these books are completely wrong or bad, but that they want to be bigger than they are and so they overreach – then, like poor Icarus, the claims and promises are stretched and collapse under their own weight.

I found myself gravitating to older books (such as Dale Carnegie's "How to Win Friends and Influence People"), to books that tell a narrative about the development of history and development of the science (John McPhee's Annals of the Former World was breathtaking in this regard), or to a focus on statistics. Michael Mauboussin's "Success Equation: Untangling Luck and Skill in Business, Sports, and Investing", which I referenced above, was fantastic in the regard. I'm slowly absorbing the tooling there and it will make its way into my 2022 summary list. Nassim Nicholas Taleb's books continue to inspire as well and I find myself constantly flipping through the Incerto series for particular references and a good turn of phrase. Frans de Waal's "Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are" continues to come to mind regularly in this regard as well, especially when I begin to catch anything that smells of scientific hubris. David Graeber's "The Dawn of Everything" likewise challenges a number of assumptions through a careful balance of highlighting known historical facts, things we don't know but make assumptions on, and how popular/political culture warped historical narratives based on specific political needs, and how that has translated to our view of the past. If you enjoyed his "Debt: The First 5000 Years", this is a similar sort of tour-de-force.

I've also found myself coming back to biographies and autobiographies. Rather than focusing on sweeping generalizations with cherry-picked justifications, these books allow you to understand the specific contexts within which someone operated under, why they made the decisions they did, and what the outcomes were. For anything that seems exceptional, biographies tend to be antitodes to mythologization. In aggregate, they tend to highligh the importance of supportive communities, the importance of persistance over years and decades, and (more often than not) the importance of humility and introspection. Doubts, mistakes, fears, and failure to to line the roads of the people and stories we idolize. Bob Iger's "Ride of a Lifetime" and Ray Dalio's "Principles" were two that I kept coming back to my notes from, while the biographies of the businesses of GE and Ubers were great examples of what not to do.


With all of that said, I was also mindful to try to continue pushing myself to explore writers and stories from backgrounds unlike mine. I don't think I did much better this year than I did last year, but it's something I continue to be extremely conscious of and I've not yet regretted the pleasant change of perspective brought about by reading the thoughts someone unlike you.

Thirty percent of books I read were by not by men, and only thirteen percent were by nonwhite authers. Last year, only six percent were not by men, and twelve percent by nonwhite authors. It's progress, but it's not great.

While I tried to reign in my spending on books this year, that's always balanced against an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and I continued to seek out different perspectives. My annual reading is not yet "balanced", but my continually growing "antilibrary" (as Umberto Eco and Nassim Taleb call it) is getting there.

What is antilibrary? Well:

... the others—a very small minority— get the point is that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means allow you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books.

It reminds me of a similar quote by physicist Marcelo Gleiser:

As the Island of Knowledge grows, so do the shores of our ignorance—the boundary between the known and unknown. Learning more about the world doesn’t lead to a point closer to a final destination—whose existence is nothing but a hopeful assumption anyways—but to more questions and mysteries. The more we know, the more exposed we are to our ignorance, and the more we know to ask.

And so plenty more questions remain this year for me, than they did last year.


And now, the list. Organized somewhat arbitrarily. Books marked with an asterisk are highly recommended.


The Business of Business

The Almanac of Naval Ravikant by Eric Jorgeson (2020)*

What You Do Is Who You Are by Ben Horowitz (2019)*

The Five Disfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni (2002)*

Legacy: What the All Blacks Can Teach Us About the Business of Life by James Kerr (2013)*

Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber by Mike Isaac (2019)

Lights Out: Pride, Delusion, and the Fall of General Electric by Thomas Gryta and Ted Mann (2020)

How to Fight a Hydra by Josh Kaufman (2018)

Managing Technology

The Phoenix Project by Gene Kim (2013)*

Kill it With Fire: Managing Aging Computer Systems by Marianne Bellotti (2021)*

Personal Stories & Essays

Freedom by Sebastian Junger (2021)*

Rising from the Plains by John McPhee (1986)*

World of Wonders by Aimee Nezhukumatathil (2020)

Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA by Amarylis Fox (2019)

The Longing for Less: Living with Minimalism by Kyle Chayka (2020)

Pulpy Science Fiction

All Systems Red by Martha Wells (2017)*

The Consuming Fire by John Scalzi (2018)

The Last Emprox by John Scalzi (2020)

Comics & Art/Related

Kabuki, Volume 7 by David Mack (2007)*

bubble by Morris, Morgan, Cliff, Reiss (2021)*

Hellboy, Volume 1 by Mike Magnolia (1994)

Hedgehog in the Fog by Sergey Kozlov and Yuri Norshtein (2017)

The Lost Soul by Olga Tokarczuk & Joanna Consejo (2017)

The Past in Focus, 4th Edition by Diana Metzinger (2021)


Thank you for reading.

Was this useful? Interesting? Have Something to add? Let me know. Seriously, I love getting email and hearing from readers. Feel free to send me an email at hi@romandesign.co with your thoughts.


If you're interested in reading more, I encourage you to sign up for emails as well. It's really easy:

Thanks,
Roman