Top Books of 2019

BUSINESS/SELF-IMPROVEMENT

Three books in this category had a big influence on me in this year: deep work

Deep Work by Cal Newport left me with one powerful word for 2020: FOCUS. After reading it I deleted the only remaining social media app from my phone (Twitter) and all internet browsers. This quote from a guy who makes his living on social media summed up the power of this decision (bold emphasis mine): 

“I wanted to curb my instinctive reaction to grab for my phone as soon as there was a lull in my life. I found that I was using my phone for over 5 hrs each day. Most of that time was on the Instagram app consuming and not creating. Since I find I’m most happy when I am creating, not consuming, I deleted all social media apps from my phone for the month [of December]. I still checked in on my laptop when I needed to engage. Here was the challenge from Cal Newport ‘Use your smartphone only for the following activities: calls, text messages, maps, and audio (songs/podcasts/books).’”

I wanted to retake control of my habits and eliminate the tendency to choose the easiest thing in life instead of the hardest thing. I try to read many books a year (100 in 2019), but I feel like I’m leaving more on the table. I want to take back every intentional moment I can. I plan to read his follow up work Digital Minimalism in 2020.05DB-SORKIN-2-jumbo

Principles by Ray Dalio renewed my hope that an organization can serve the people that work for it and not merely serve its own purposes. It’s clear the author is not a Christian (he believes evolution is the greatest good known to man, though it seems his definition of evolution focuses mainly on the positives), yet the way he writes about caring for his co-workers and treating them with respect is more Christian in practice than many churches and ministries. I compiled about ten pages of notes from the book and sent it out to a few friends I thought would find it interesting. Dalio is founder and head of the largest private company in the US. So he has much insight to share. If you are interested in the notes, reach out to me and I’ll send you a copy. Make sure to get the hardback of this. You’ll enjoy the design and layout of this book much better than a digital version.

How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big by Scott Adams. The creator behind the Dilbert comic tells his life story with the intent of showing how he went from a series of failures to finally breaking through to success. The chapters on affirmations, happiness, and systems vs. goals were my favorite. Be forewarned, there are a number of views in here I don’t find compelling, like his belief in hypnotism, but he does give a fair warning in the book, saying that he doesn’t recommend taking life advice from a cartoonist.

FICTION

James Michener: I went on a Michener kick this year and couldn’t read enough of him. I read The Novel, Mexico, My Lost Mexico, Miracle in Seville, Bridges to Toko-Ri, his Writer’s Handbook, Literary Reflections, and his memoir, The World is My Home. The things I liked best about his writing were his story telling and how much he wrote about his writing.

For instance, in his book My Lost Mexico, he included a number of photos from his journals that show various stages of the development of his manuscript for the book Mexico. I felt like I was attending an exclusive writer’s seminar and was exposed to so many inspiring ideas. That and the fact that he wrote his first book at 40 (mine was at 44) were of great encouragement. I’m looking forward to continuing to work through a number of his other books in 2020. When it comes to learning about writing, I also greatly enjoyed Working by Robert Caro. This interview and this article introduced me to Caro’s work and made me want to read everything he’s written. I do hope he has time to finish a longer book on his process before it’s all said and done.

For read-aloud books, our family enjoyed reading through twelve of the books in the fantasy dragon series Wings of Fire. I read them aloud to my two youngest (the oldest had already read many of them) and then our middle daughter re-read them on her own, some multiple times. We started 2020 re-reading Hatchet about a boy stranded in the woods with only a hatchet to survive.

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PARENTING

Years ago, How We Love had a huge influence on our marriage (please read it this year if you haven’t). How We Love our Kids applies those same concepts to parenting. Reading these two books will open a window into every single relationship you have and help you see people through a new lens, one that I’ve found made me more forgiving and compassionate.

POLITICS

Never been a fan of politics, but I stumbled on to two books and the timing and gripping nature of them both surprised me. Thirteen Days was so well written and a compelling vision of calm leadership under immense pressure. I wrote about some of the lessons learned from that book here. This one made for a great audio book.

If you have followed recent impeachment news, and have taken interest, you’ll definitely want to read Impeachment. I read it a year before the current iteration hit the news and really enjoyed surveying the history of the political activity surrounding impeachment. The authors tried to wrestle to the ground what the original framers of the constitution deemed to be an impeachable offense. One thing was for certain, doing a poor job as President (however one defines that) or disagreeing with a President (from either side of the aisle) were not impeachable offenses. It also seems the founder’s driving motivation was to hold all future presidents to the standard that was meant to define all other presidents: George Washington.

CULTURE

Two books on culture blew me away this year. The Year of Our Lord 1943 gave some insights into post WWII influences that shaped our modern education system. I promise it’s ten times more interesting than I just made it sound. Leisure: The Basis of Culture is a must read for anyone that has to spend time thinking as a substantial part of their job. Bottom line: you have to have space and mental margin to create anything of value.

OTHER

Paul Johnson’s very short biography of Churchill is the best I’ve read to get a quick overview of his life. I re-read Effective Executive and The War of Art this year and can’t recommend either enough. I’ll likely read them both again this year.

C.S. Lewis: After several years of plodding, I finally finished reading through all of his roughly 4,000 pages of published letters this year when I completed Volume One of the collection. I then followed it up with his published journal, All My Road Before Me (years 1922-27), which, to my surprise, I enjoyed more, though I realize others may not. If you like Lewis, I’d recommend starting with Volume Two of his letters. You won’t be disappointed. 

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