Despite the challenging year that was 2020, I managed to read some great books. I started out going down a road on strategy and economics but was quickly taken down another rabbit hole. Here is my list of the best books I read in 2020!
The 33 Strategies of War by Robert Greene
I know a lot of people who scoff at Robert Greene as a wannabe Machiavellian philosopher for ambitious career bros who like to use war analogies and aspire to become “rain-makers” and corporate warlords. This criticism is fair. Greene’s amoral “this is what it takes” message can at times be over the top. He knows his audience and does an excellent job speaking to them. That does not mean, however, that the points drawn out in the book are without merit. On the contrary, there are a lot of salient insights to be found if you look slightly below the surface.
Let’s take the first Chapter – 1. Declare War on Your Enemies: The Polarity Strategy. Some people roll their eyes and think “spare me the machismo”. However, the idea of using “the rhetoric of war to heighten the stakes and stimulate the spirit” is something that anyone who played competitive sports will immediately recognize. The reality is that life is a tough competitive sport, and sometimes it does take upping the stakes, and ‘declaring war’ to get out of a passive funk. Having an enemy to focus on, even if that enemy is just a set of ideals or even bad habits, can help focus and drive you.
The historical anecdotes he uses to drive home his points (a favored strategy of his supposed role-model, Machiavelli) are interesting and well told. He uses Franklin Roosevelt, Napolean, John Boyd, Martin Luther, Mae West, Jay Gould, and a lot of other fascinating figures to illustrate his points.
While I would not recommend this book to a young ambitious professional as a guidebook to climbing the corporate ladder, I do think it’s excellent for people who have a genuine interest in strategy and a fondness for history. The individual strategies as separate chapters make good episodic reading. Each has an anecdote or two and lessons attached. Greene is not for everyone but I enjoyed this book.
Making Things Right by Ole Thorstonsen
I am a firm believer that when you read a book can make a lot of difference on how it affects you. I read this book over the summer while I was deep in the middle of a large home remodeling project and it was precisely what I needed at the time. It is a simple book by a Norwegian carpenter writing about the trade that he loves – the things that excite him and the aspects that annoy him.
I worked in remodeling during summers in high-school and college and I found a lot of sentiments he shared instantly familiar. Like when he talked about bidding on a large project that will take up to 6 months and said “This job, should I get it, will define me during a specific period of my life.” I instantly thought about how my friend Nate and I could be talking about a particular thing that happened while we worked together and we would find the context as “that was while we were painting the hotel.” Just like while 2020 will always be primarily remembered as the year of the pandemic, I will remember the summer as spending weekend days and nights in the garage, frantically trying to get a few last runs of the saw in before the agreed upon “quiet time” of 10pm, and then having a cocktail while cleaning up for the next day.
My favorite line was a pearl he picked up from his former employer “Just because I don’t follow my own rules, doesn’t make them wrong.” I now use that one on my children.
I also just found it fun to read about some of the small things they do differently in Norway versus the US. More importantly, how people here, there, or anywhere, are really more similar than we are different.
The Ride of a Lifetime by Robert Iger
I am not normally a business biography person but I wanted to read this book because of my admiration for the Disney company. I’ve been a fan of the company for a long time but especially since they bought Marvel and Lucasfilm. They are masters of brand development and Bob Iger, as the CEO, has been one of the most impressive corporate executives in a long time.
This book was better than I expected. It was an interesting story that was easy to read with a lot of great lessons along the way. It wasn’t preachy or overbearing. He told his point of view on things with an appropriate amount of humility. Anyone who is a fan of the Disney business will find it interesting and anyone in a position of leadership will find it insightful.
My favorite line from the book is “… my goal for Disney is to be the most admired company in the world, by our consumers and our shareholders and by our employees. That last part is key. We’ll never get the admiration of the public unless we get it from our own people first.” Anyone who has ever been to Disney World has seen this up close. Every single employee in the park (the Cast Members) are all in on the experience. They are the biggest drinkers of the Kool-Aid. That is a great goal to have and it was cool to see that it’s a very intentional approach at the company.
Magnifico by Miles Unger
Lorenzo “Magnifico” Medici was the most influential leader of the most important family in renaissance Italy. His great-grandfather and grandfather built the Medici bank to be the wealthiest in the region. Lorenzo, far from being a great banker, was an incredible statesmen, leader, and patron of the arts. He essentially traded much (many suspect all) of the bank’s wealth in exchange to retain and increase the familiy’s influence and power.
The author does a great job of getting into Lorenzo’s head even if he does show some obvious favorable bias. He like Magnifico and it shows. It’s hard not to. That was part of his power as a leader and a statesman. He was an accomplished poet, athlete (until the gout hit him), and foremost expert on the arts, including architecture and design. Despite his being widely regarded as rather ugly in appearance, he had an unbelievable charisma that allowed him to influence men and made him attractive to women. His mistress, Lucrezia Donati was one of the most beautiful women in Florence at the time.
I read several books on the Medici family over the past year and this one, focusing on Lorenzo, sheds the most favorable light, but it’s a depiction that I like. I plan to buy a recently released book called The Family Medici by Mary Hollingsworth that argues they were not the enlightened defacto rulers over a needy city, but rather more akin to mob bosses who came to power with ill-gotten riches and violence. Unger points out the connection in one passage. “They called Lorenzo maestro della bottega (master of the shop) and sometimes simply il padrone, the boss”. Maybe I’ve seen too many movies but that does sound like the title of a mafia don.
Leonardo DaVinci by Walter Isaacson
The most iconic symbol of the renaissance currently hangs in Louvre museum in France. The most famous painting in the world painted by the world’s most famous painter – the Mona Lisa by Leonardo DaVinci.
As most people know, Leonardo was not just a painter. He was also a scientist, engineer, and architect whose many notebooks (codexes) were filled with brilliant insights that were years, sometimes centuries, ahead of their time. For instance, he wrote “As much force is exerted by the object against the air as by the air against the object.” 200 years before Newton released wrote his Laws of Motion.
Walter Isaacson writes about his subject with a deserving reverence. He explores Leonardo’s works with an air of astonishment, like a sports fan that marvels at the genius and grace of their favorite sports player. If Lorenzo ‘Magnifico’ was the patron of the renaissance akin to a team owner or general manager, DaVinci was its star player. He was the epitome of, and perhaps the reason for, the term renaissance man.
One of the most amazing things I read was that when he returned to Florence after some time away, he and Michelangelo were commissioned to paint opposing walls in the main government hall. My head explodes at the thought of having works by the painter of the Last Supper and the painter of the Sistine Chapel together in the same room in an epic battle to outdo one another.
Be Like the Fox by Erica Brenner
I have to add an honorable mention to this year’s book list to round out the renaissance readings. Most people hear the name of Machiavelli and get an instant picture in their head of a cold and cunning political advisor. It is interesting how this man’s historical reputation is based entirely on a book he wrote, The Prince. And, the other books on the Medici and Leonardo that mention him treat him as that same character. This take by Erica Brenner is a surprising spin and careful look at the man whose name has defined the amoral pursuit, and retention, of power in politics.
While I do not want to present her whole argument here, I will give a clue by sharing my favorite line from the book. She writes “…irony is an excellent weapon…” and then says “Armed with the ironists skill of producing two voices at once a writer can look princes in the eye and whisper, ‘I see you naked’ while loudly feigning admiration for their fine silken robes.” It is this kind of insight and writing style that draws you into the book.
Niccolo Machievelli is a fascinating character and Erica Benner does a fantastic job of putting us in a room with him as he likely was and not just his historical caricature. He was a brilliant statesman and diplomat whose career was cut short due to fears that he was sympathetic to anti-Medici factions. So, in his forced retirement, while still corresponding with friends in the business and wishing he could be back in the political sphere, he also wrote plays which became famous throughout Europe.
I spent a lot of my reading time last year in Renaissance-era Italy and I am not fully out of that rabbit hole yet. I have the above mentioned The Family Medici on my list and I recently bought The Artist, the Philosopher, and the Warrior: Da Vinci, Machiavelli, and Borgia and the World They Shaped by Paul Strathern which I am excited to read. Neither the DaVinci nor the Machiavelli books talk too much about the time they actually worked together for months under Cesare Borgia. It is such a fascinating gathering of historical figures that I am a bit curious why it doesn’t get more press.
I also have a few popular science writing I want to get to. I just bought The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson and The World According to Physics by Jim Al-Khalili. This year I also intend to get more fiction works in. A friend of mine recommended Dan Brown’s books, and I haven’t even read The DaVinci Code, but he said Deception Point was a better place to start anyway, so I am looking forward to that. I also have a few more science fiction books to get into but not sure where I want to start. I have Ready Player Two on the shelf and will read that one soon. We’ll see what kind of mood I am in as the year goes on and I am always subject to change based on good recommendations!
Let me know what great books you’ve read this past year and what you books you’re looking forward to.
Until next time…
“The reading of all good books is like conversation with the finest (people) of the past centuries.” – Renée Descartes
The Best Books
The other books mentioned in the post
Here is the list from 2019!