The 15 Best Books of 2015

This year I read 103 books and collected 855,000 words worth of highlights and notes.

Here are the fifteen best books I read, with one sentence describing why, and one passage to gauge (and pique) your interest.

Consistent with my growing believe that it is more productive to read around one’s field than in one’s field, there are no investing books on this list.  While I did read a few good investing books this year, nothing was life-changing. Hopefully you get as much or more from one of these great books.

 

Here are the best 15 books of 2015. For more each month, sign up for the Book Club.

  1. The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (Perennial Classics) by Eric Hoffer

The recipe for a mass movement = frustrated people + near term hope for change + a common devil. I wrote about it here.

There is a hope that acts as an explosive, and a hope that disciplines and infuses patience. The difference is between the immediate hope and the distant hope. A rising mass movement preaches the immediate hope. It is intent on stirring its followers to action, and it is the around-the-corner brand of hope that prompts people to act…The intensity of discontent seems to be in inverse proportion to the distance from the object fervently desired.

  1. Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience by Shaun Usher

A diverse collection a correspondence through history which entertains and enlightens.

This passage is written by Aldous Huxley’s wife following his passing; it describes her talking him to death after administering a hallucinogen. Every time I read this I find worries falling away and I think of my wife and family.

I told him I was going to do it, and he acquiesced. I gave him another shot, and then I began to talk to him. He was very quiet now; he was very quiet and his legs were getting colder; higher and higher I could see purple areas of cyanosis. Then I began to talk to him, saying, “Light and free.” Some of these things I told him at night in these last few weeks before he would go to sleep, and now I said it more convincingly, more intensely—“go, go, let go, darling; forward and up. You are going forward and up; you are going, willingly and consciously, and you are doing this beautifully; you are doing this so beautifully—you are going towards the light; you are going towards a greater love; you are going forward and up. It is so easy; it is so beautiful. You are doing it so beautifully, so easily. Light and free. Forward and up. You are going towards Maria’s love with my love. You are going towards a greater love than you have ever known. You are going towards the best, the greatest love, and it is easy, it is so easy, and you are doing it so beautifully.

  1. The Razor’s Edge (Vintage International) by W. Somerset Maugham

The best fiction I read this year because I’ve never before so identified with a main character (Larry).

“he said that the world isn’t a creation, for out of nothing nothing comes; but a manifestation of the eternal nature; well, that was all right, but then he added that evil is as direct a manifestation of the divine as good. They were strange words to hear in that sordid, noisy café, to the accompaniment of dance tunes on the mechanical piano.”

  1. Walking (Annotated Edition) by Henry David Thoreau

A short, relaxing essay that shows how walking leads to a better, fresher mindset. I wrote about it here (“The Future Is In The Quaking Swamps”).

The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild; and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the World. Every tree sends its fibres forth in search of the Wild. The cities import it at any price. Men plow and sail for it. From the forest and wilderness come the tonics and barks which brace mankind. Our ancestors were savages. The story of Romulus and Remus being suckled by a wolf is not a meaningless fable. The founders of every State which has risen to eminence have drawn their nourishment and vigor from a similar wild source. It was because the children of the Empire were not suckled by the wolf that they were conquered and displaced by the children of the Northern forests who were.

  1. Tragedy and Hope: A History of the World in Our Time by Carroll Quigley

A sweeping and unique history of the world, for hardcore history fans. Here is an example of the writing:

Agricultural activities, which provide the chief food supply of all civilizations, drain the nutritive elements from the soil. Unless these elements are replaced, the productivity of the soil will be reduced to a dangerously low level. In the medieval and early modern period of European history, these nutritive elements, especially nitrogen, were replaced through the action of the weather by leaving the land fallow either one year in three or even every second year. This had the effect of reducing the arable land by half or one-third. The Agricultural Revolution was an immense step forward, since it replaced the year of fallowing with a leguminous crop whose roots increased the supply of nitrogen in the soil by capturing this gas from the air and fixing it in the soil in a form usable by plant life. Since the leguminous crop which replaced the fallow year of the older agricultural cycle was generally a crop like alfalfa, clover, or sainfoin which provided feed for cattle, this Agricultural Revolution not only increased the nitrogen content of the soil for subsequent crops of grain but also increased the number and quality of farm animals, thus increasing the supply of meat and animal products for food, and also increasing the fertility of the soil by increasing the supply of animal manure for fertilizers. The net result of the whole Agricultural Revolution was an increase in both the quantity and the quality of food. Fewer men were able to produce so much more food that many men were released from the burden of producing it and could devote their attention to other activities, such as government, education, science, or business. It has been said that in 1700 the agricultural labor of twenty persons was required in order to produce enough food for twenty-one persons, while in some areas, by 1900, three persons could produce enough food for twenty-one persons, thus releasing seventeen persons for nonagricultural activities.

  1. The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

My favorite book about writing. I’ve read this next passage a good hundred times.

To find a honey tree, first catch a bee. Catch a bee when its legs are heavy with pollen; then it is ready for home. It is simple enough to catch a bee on a flower: hold a cup or glass above the bee, and when it flies up, cap the cup with a piece of cardboard. Carry the bee to a nearby open spot—best an elevated one—release it, and watch where it goes. Keep your eyes on it as long as you can see it, and hie you to that last known place. Wait there until you see another bee; catch it, release it, and watch. Bee after bee will lead toward the honey tree, until you see the final bee enter the tree. Thoreau describes this process in his journals. So a book leads its writer. You may wonder how you start, how you catch the first one. What do you use for bait? You have no choice. One bad winter in the Arctic, and not too long ago, an Algonquin woman and her baby were left alone after everyone else in their winter camp had starved. Ernest Thompson Seton tells it. The woman walked from the camp where everyone had died, and found at a lake a cache. The cache contained one small fishhook. It was simple to rig a line, but she had no bait, and no hope of bait. The baby cried. She took a knife and cut a strip from her own thigh. She fished with the worm of her own flesh and caught a jackfish; she fed the child and herself. Of course she saved the fish gut for bait. She lived alone at the lake, on fish, until spring, when she walked out again and found people. Seton’s informant had seen the scar on her thigh.

Do not hurry; do not rest. —GOETHE

  1. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

A wonderful and short book about humanity. I loved this passage below, and I wrote about the book here.

It was only 400,000 years ago that several species of man began to hunt large game on a regular basis, and only in the last 100,000 years – with the rise of Homo sapiens – that man jumped to the top of the food chain. That spectacular leap from the middle to the top had enormous consequences. Other animals at the top of the pyramid, such as lions and sharks, evolved into that position very gradually, over millions of years. This enabled the ecosystem to develop checks and balances that prevent lions and sharks from wreaking too much havoc. As lions became deadlier, so gazelles evolved to run faster, hyenas to cooperate better, and rhinoceroses to be more bad-tempered. In contrast, humankind ascended to the top so quickly that the ecosystem was not given time to adjust. Moreover, humans themselves failed to adjust. Most top predators of the planet are majestic creatures. Millions of years of dominion have filled them with self-confidence. Sapiens by contrast is more like a banana republic dictator. Having so recently been one of the underdogs of the savannah, we are full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous. Many historical calamities, from deadly wars to ecological catastrophes, have resulted from this over-hasty jump.

  1. Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future by Martin Ford

Explains what skills will be most useful in the age of automation. More here.  A fun example:

In the chain’s 262 restaurants, robots help make the sushi while conveyor belts replace waiters. To ensure freshness, the system keeps track of how long individual sushi plates have been circulating and automatically removes those that reach their expiration time. Customers order using touch panel screens, and when they are finished dining they place the empty dishes in a slot near their table. The system automatically tabulates the bill and then cleans the plates and whisks them back to the kitchen. Rather than employing store managers at each location, Kura uses centralized facilities where managers are able to remotely monitor nearly every aspect of restaurant operations. Kura’s automation-based business model allows it to price sushi plates at just 100 yen (about $1), significantly undercutting its competitors.

  1. The Act of Creation by Arthur Koestler

The best book I’ve ever read on creativity. I wrote about the six best here.

  1. Self Reliance (Illustrated) by Ralph Waldo Emerson

My favorite essay from one of my biggest idols.

There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better for worse as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till.

  1. Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre by Keith Johnstone

The most surprising book of the year on the power of improvisation. More here.

There are people who prefer to say ‘Yes’, and there are people who prefer to say ‘No’. Those who say ‘Yes’ are rewarded by the adventures they have, and those who say ‘No’ are rewarded by the safety they attain. There are far more ‘No’ sayers around than ‘Yes’ sayers, but you can train one type to behave like the other.

  1. The Wisdom of Life by Arthur Schopenhauer

The best self-help book ever.

Further, as no land is so well off as that which requires few imports, or none at all, so the happiest man is one who has enough in his own inner wealth, and requires little or nothing from outside for his maintenance, for imports are expensive things, reveal dependence, entail danger, occasion trouble, and when all is said and done, are a poor substitute for home produce.

  1. The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

A beautifully written post-apocalyptic novel.

Nothing decided, nothing finished. The Dipper wheels back into place. Just one turn. One turn of the wheel and we are different, never the same. Not ever. Not even those stars. Even they, they decay, collapse, coalesce, break apart. Close my eyes. It’s what’s inside. What’s inside moving, swimming in the pain like a blind fish forever swimming. Is what lives what remains. Renews, renews the love and the pain. The love is the creek bed and the pain fills it. Fills it every day with tears.

  1. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes

A preposterous theory (that humans have only been conscious for the past couple thousand years) that is somehow genius and compelling. I wrote about it here.

  1. The Essays of Kevin Simler, Slate Star Codex, and Paul Graham

I group these final three writers as one, because each author writes amazing, thought-provoking essays. Here are three of my favorites (one from each).

From Simler: Honesty and the Human Body

From Graham: What You Can’t Say

From Slate Star Codex: Meditations on Moloch