2019 was a productive reading year for me. I got through the equivalent of 27,679 pages over 75 books, audiobooks, and ebooks. Some of them were very inspirational and some less so. I often get asked for book recommendations, so this post serves to go through the best books of 2019 for me. Note that the books may be of an older date, but I read them in 2019. Some of the books were new to me, others are books I had already read previously.
When looking back, the 20 best books can be grouped into four categories:
- Philosophy and psychology
If you prefer, I have added all the books to this shelf on Goodreads to make it easier for you to add the ones you like.
The first books require a little more explanation due to their nature, so don’t be scared by the longer descriptions!
Philosophy and psychology
12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Jordan Peterson). This book was fantastic. I started by listening to the audiobook, but immediately after finishing it, I ordered a physical copy so I could re-read it armed with a highlighter and a pen. This is one of those books (like Zero to One) that is so dense with insights that every chapter could easily have been a book of its own.
The premise of the book is that as a consequence of the modern scientific and fact-based society, only things that can be measured objectively are considered truly valuable to society. Therefore, virtues and personal values, which are subjective, are no longer important and, consequently, have lost importance. This means that people end up without a compass that can provide order in the surrounding chaos of the world, leading to despair and other mental challenges.
The book addresses a number of mental issues in our modern world and suggests ways to return to a number of guiding principles – the virtues that have gotten lost in the modern world.
This book is by far one of the most thought-provoking and concise (particularly given the incredibly intangible topic) books I have read in recent years. A must-read for anyone interested in understanding their own psyche and the big trends influencing (western) society.
Meditations (Marcus Aurelius). This is one of the few books I return to repeatedly. The book is a fantastic reminder of the core principles of stoicism on how to live a fulfilling life and how to be a better person: How we perceive the world, how we interact with others, and how we deal with things beyond our control.
The one quote that always stands out to me is “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”
Stillness is the Key (Ryan Holiday). For me, Ryan Holiday is one of the best modern writers on the principles of Stoicism. I was a big fan of his previous books (even back to before they were concerned with stoicism). Stillness is the Key is the final book in Holiday’s trilogy on stoic principles and I’d recommend all three to anyone seeking to understand stoicism better (The Obstacle is the Way and Ego is the Enemy).
The Bhagavad Gita. This book is a cornerstone of the Hindu faith. It was recommended by a friend. The book describes the battle between the Pandava and Kaurava armies. Krishna, the god of compassion, tenderness, and love, provides a warrior, Arjuna, spiritual enlightenment to realize that the battle is for his own soul.
I am new to Hinduism and found it very interesting to see so many similarities to stoicism.
The Inner Game of Tennis (Timothy Gallwey). I find this book fascinating. It was originally written to address the mental sides of playing tennis but it doesn’t take much imagination to see how this can apply to other aspects of life. The concept of the four different playing styles translates easily into different strategies to life and business.
Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (Robert M. Sapolsky). A rarely comprehensive and holistic read covering the patterns of behaviour, all the way from individual genes to something as complex as how humans act during a war.
The book is excellent for anyone interested in the biochemical side of behaviour. But before you start on the almost 800 pages, note that firstly, sometimes the book is unnecessarily and overly technical in the biochemical explanations (and this is from a reader who is a student of biochemistry!). I went through this as an audiobook which is not a suitable format for all the explanations of the chemicals. Secondly, the very long chapters make the book harder to split across multiple sittings.
Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus (John Gray). This book was a bit of an eye-opener to me. Before reading it, I thought that most of the differences I have experienced in relationships were due to idiosyncratic differences between two specific people. This book changed that. It described generic differences between males and females that I always thought were unique to my own situations. Apparently, I am not alone.
Having since then shared the book with multiple people, the feedback is very consistent: Everybody feels like it describes patterns of misunderstandings between men and women that they thought were unique to them and their relationship.
The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers (Ben Horowitz). I re-read this book. There is no easy way to describe this book. It covers the entrepreneurial rollercoaster ride of building a company including all the ups and downs. The book is filled with gems. It was just as good this time as the first time I read it.
Building a StoryBrand: Clarify Your Message So Customers Will Listen (Donald Miller). This is a short read and brings an interesting perspective to building a brand – like a fairytale! The long and short of it is the right positioning, strong consistency, and a good story.
The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (Robert A. Caro). After many recommendations from people with good taste in books, I decided to embark on the extensive journey of getting through this 66 hrs audiobook (or 1344 pages of paper if you prefer).
It is a very thorough documentation of the career of a man with incredible achievements and a very visible fingerprint on New York as of today. A story about how Robert Moses navigated the political systems to get an absurd amount of power and the many ways he used to keep hold of it. A power that wasn’t intended to reside with one, unelected individual.
As for most other books of this length, the story could have been told in far fewer words. That said, it resulted in a thorough description of Moses, his motivations, and how he played the system to get (and keep) what he wanted.
The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics (Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith). Besides from a humorous description of various dictators (often an inherently sad topic), the book brings about the inherent challenges of various societal structures. Through examples, the book also explains some of the aspects of our western societies and why they are the way they are (e.g. I have often wondered why many parliaments seem to be so unnecessarily large).
The New Confessions of an Economic Hit Man (John Perkins). An entertaining and novel view on geopolitics and how (allegedly) the west keeps the rest of the world in an iron-grip through aid, international institutions, supporting local unrest, and military intervention. While I am not sure how much of this to believe, there is rarely smoke without fire.
Stress Test: Reflections on Financial Crises (Timothy Geithner). This year, I decided to get a better understanding of the events during and following the great financial crisis. Stress Test is a very educative, humble, and (seemingly) honest description of the final financial crisis from an insider. The considerations, reflections, and tradeoffs between short and long term consequences, between what is best and what is popular are interesting and go much further than I had imagined.
Besides this book, I also read Ben Bernanke’s The Courage to Act: A Memoir of a Crisis and Its Aftermath which I would recommend for people seeking another perspective. It offers a good explanation of opinions on monetary and fiscal policy during the financial crisis, but I prefer the style of Geithner’s biography due to the style which comes across as more honest and less censored.
The Most Important Thing Illuminated: Uncommon Sense for the Thoughtful Investor (Howard Marks). A book on investments without any numbers is a rarity. That said, it raises a number of alluring and unique points. Whether all the points are described in other books is hard to say, but they are concisely described with a clarity and insight that I haven’t seen before.
A must-read for any investor who favors a fundamental or value approach over technical analysis.
Mastering the Market Cycle: Getting the Odds on Your Side (Howard Marks). An excellent book describing the mechanics of the multiple cycles influencing the financial markets.
For readers of The Most Important Thing, many elements in this book may seem repetitive. If I had to pick one of the two only, I’d go for The Most Important Thing, but in my opinion, both are worth reading.
The Alchemy of Finance (George Soros). A dynamic alternative to the classical models of macroeconomics. It is clear that the dynamic/reflexive model is of more relevance to investors than the classical static ones. A lot of overlaps with Soros on Soros (also by George Soros), though I prefer this one as it is both more practical and stronger on the philosophical part.
I hope you will enjoy these books as much as I did! Please feel free to send me book recommendations or feedback!