The Five Best Books I Read in 2017

The 5 Best Books I Read in 2017

Last year was a great year for reading.  Even if I fell short of my goal for number of books read, the quality of books was excellent and a few of them were pretty massive in length so I think it evens out.  I am still working on assessing my resolutions from last year and forming new ones for 2018, but I think one adjustment I am going to make is to not have a goal for reading a specific number of books, but instead just work on habit of reading and variety.  For starters I want to read more fiction in 2018.  I sometimes get too over-obsessed with reading non-fiction to gain knowledge that I forget that fiction can offer insights into the human condition just as deep, if not deeper, than any non-fiction effort.  I am sure there will be more to come on that.

Without further delay, here are the 5 best books I read last year.

PreSuasion – Robert Cialdini

This book is a follow up to his first book, Influence.  For the unfamiliar, I highly recommend you read Influence first, and then read this one.

While Influence covers broadly the tactics persuasive people use to gain compliance – “weapons of influence” as they are referred to – this book covers setting the stage to help prepare your intended audience to receive a message.  One of the first examples Dr. Cialdini gives is someone trying to get people to agree to give their email address.  Predictably, in most situations compliance with this request is very low. Only 33% of people stopped agreed to give this information.  However, once the experimenter began asking “Do you consider yourself an adventurous person?” the rate jumped to 77.5%.  Apparently, by getting people to think “I suppose I am a pretty adventurous person” they were then more willing to agree to go out on a limb and offer up their contact information.

Great Quote: “The basic idea of pre-suasion is that by guiding preliminary attention strategically, it is possible for a communicator to move recipients into agreement with a message before they experience it.”


The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis

This book is a no-brainer for anyone who is a fan of Michael Lewis (Moneyball, Blindside, The Big Short) or familiar with the work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky.  Lewis again shows off why he is a master at story-telling by combining intimate portraits of these men with the lessons their insights provided to the world of social psychology.  The book illustrates how their work paved the way for what has become known as the field of behavioral economics.

Great Quote: “With the passage of time, the consequences of any event accumulated and left more to undo.  And the more there is to undo, the less likely the mind is to even try.  This was perhaps one way time heals wounds, by making them feel less avoidable.”


Scale by Geoffrey West

This was a fascinating study on the way everything changes as size changes.  The book’s 2nd chapter opens with why Godzilla would be a physically impossible manifestation.  There was also a terrifying anecdote about how veterinarians not familiar with the laws of scaling gave an elephant a lethal overdose of LSD.

While it is primarily rooted in physics, the book has relevant application to the worlds of business, investing, biology, sociology, and urban planning.  Why is 4 a magic number?  How many gas stations does it take to sustain a city of 2,000 people compared to a city of 200,000?  What is the difference in heart rate between a mouse and an elephant?  You have no doubt heard about a business refer to ‘economies of scale’ but this book will change your perception of what that really means.

Great quote: “So what was irrelevant at one scale can become dominant at another.  The challenge at every level of observation is to abstract the important variables that determine the dominant behavior of the system.”


A Man for All Markets by Edward Thorp

I’m really surprised I had known more about Edward Thorp before reading this book.  He definitely deserves a spot in the annals of investment history.  From beating blackjack, to inventing the first wearable computer to beat roulette, to creating one of the first quant hedge funds, the book goes through Thorp’s thought process on how he approached each of these problems.

Great quote: “For most academic theorists, (the 1987 crash) was as close to impossible as anything can be.  It was as though the sun suddenly winked out or the earth stopped spinning.  They described stock prices using a distribution of probabilities with the esoteric name lognormal.  This did a good job of fitting historical price changes that ranged from small to rather large, but greatly underestimated the likelihood of very large changes.”


Titan by Ron Chernow

This massive tome covers the life and legacy of John D. Rockefeller.  I did not know much about him outside of what I knew from history class, saw on the History channel, or read in random articles or other sources.  The size and scope of Standard Oil was well known, along with the legacy of his Rockefeller foundation, but there were so many anecdotes and lessons starting with how he approached getting a job. “I was working every day at my business – the business of looking for work.  I put in my full time at this every day.”

Going into his late 20’s and early 30’s he was already one of the most ice-cold operators in business and was pushing competitors out of business and buying up their assets.  The dichotomy of his life between the ruthless oil baron, and the pious, churchgoing family man was fascinating to read about.  This book is often featured on the reading lists of great executives, and for great reason.  There are many lessons to learn from this Titan of American business.

Great Quote: “He was golfing at Pocantico with Father J.P Lennon from the Tarrytown Catholic church when he learned of the decision (of the court’s anti-trust ruling against Standard Oil) and he did not seem particularly perturbed.  ‘Father Lennon’ he asked, ‘have you some money?’  The priest said no, then asked why.  ‘Buy Standard Oil,’ Rockefeller said – which turned out to be sound advice.”


Bonus Features

The Most Important Thing by Howard Marks – This book definitely deserves a place in the top five of the year but I figured a lot of serious investment people have already read it.  It is an absolute staple in the investment curriculum and if you have not read, you should move it up the list.

1776 by David McCullough – it was amazing to me to find out how close that rag-tag band of rebels were to annihilation and this little experiment called the United States was so close to ending before it began.  An engrossing and near unbelievable narrative, well told.

Deep Thinking by Garry Kasperov – This was a really interesting book about artificial intelligence from the man who lost to IBM’s Deep Blue chess machine.  One interesting insight was the “sacrificing the queen problem”.  It appeared that many chess machines upon studying thousands of chess matches had trouble separating cause and effect.  Since sacrificing the queen was such a rare move for chess masters, and was only done when there was a huge advantage to do so, computers would interpret that as sacrificing the queen is always a brilliant move.

On Deck for 2018

I am still deep in the middle of House of Morgan, another Chernow epic.  After that, I plan to continue my gilded age education a little further with The Tycoons by Charles Morris for a broader picture of the era, and Money Lords by Matthew Josephson.  My next deep dive is to go through some of the classic economic texts.  I want to read Wealth of Nations, Road to Serfdom, and General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money but will add in a couple of other books that I had been meaning to get to in between.  I still have Drive by Daniel Pink and I’m also dying to read Behave by Robert Sopolsky.  That one may move up the queue since it’s been staring at me from the shelf for the last six months.

A friend of mine also recommended Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann so I will try and read that this year as well.

In regards to reading more fiction as mentioned above, I did recently pick up The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu after seeing and hearing multiple recommendations for that book.  It is a Chinese, science fiction novel and I am excited to check it out.

As always, plans might change.  I called a few audibles in 2017 on the reading list and I’ve learned that that’s ok.  The important thing is to just read, whatever it is.  I have come to accept my tilts in interest and lean with them instead of against them.

Let me know the best books you read last year.  What is on your bookshelf for this year?  I’m always happy to hear about more ideas.

Until next time…. “The more that you read, the more things you’ll know.  The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” – Dr. Suess