The 5 Best Books I Read in 2018
While I did not read quite as many books as I would have liked last year, (I never do), I did read some great ones. I started the year continuing a divergence into gilded age and 20’s American history. From there, I moved into brain science with some financial crisis, personal finance, and non-fiction mixed in. I try to read several books on a topic that I’m interested in in order to get some varied perspectives.
I heard somewhere that if you read 5 books on a single topic you will know more about it than 95% of the population. I have no idea if that’s anywhere close to the case, but it makes for a good aiming point for me. Sometimes I mix it up a little. And, if I pick up an interest mid-stream I have been better about leaning into those instead of fighting them. I can be much more productive when I go with the flow.
Here are the 5 best books I read in 2018.
What I loved about Robber Barons is that it was written in 1934, the depths of the Great Depression, and in some cases just a generation removed from these subjects. It went beyond the most famous profiles of Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Morgan with studies of other fascinating players like Jay Gould, Jim Fisk, Jim Hill, Ed Harriman, and Henry Frick. Each of these characters had their own peculiar stories but all had some hand in shaping the course of the US capitalist system.
This book is fantastic for people who are already familiar with this time period and some of these actors. The stories in this book are not necessarily the same that are popular today, and the focus on some of the other players will offer a broader picture of the era. That being said, if you are new to these subjects and this time period, you would do well starting on more contemporary work.
Favorite quote: As the rail lines of Henry Villiard started failing, “His securities continued to sink. As his grip weakened his former associates stabbed at him from behind with the stiletto, according to the traditional ethics of their trade in Wall Street.”
This book is a classic of Wall Street history. It opens with the bombing of the JP Morgan offices on Wall Street and ends with the incarceration of Stock Market hero. The stories in here are amazing to read, as this time period was so volatile. It goes from the highest highs of the roaring 20’s to the lowest depths of the Great Depression, with all kinds of good and bad actors playing their roles. You do not need to have much background in order to enjoy the story. The author does a good job of putting all these characters in a place where you can follow along.
Favorite Quote: “But it was not only money power that Morgan & Co. exercised over Wall Street in the 1920’s. In addition it was the style setter, the court of last appeal, and to a certain extent, the conscious of the place.”
All the Devils are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis by Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera
If you want to get to the core of the financial crisis, there are three real must reads. Too Big to Fail by Andrew Ross Sorkin, The Big Short by Michael Lewis, and All the Devils are Here by Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera. Each book has its focus and this one turns more toward the history of the companies and people who were at the center of the crisis. It looks back to see how each of the players got to the role they eventually played. Anyone who thinks they have a grasp of the financial crisis but hasn’t yet read this book is missing key parts.
Favorite quote: “That was precisely the problem. The issue wasn’t actual cash losses. It was uncertainty. No one knew where the subprime problem would pop up next, no one could figure out what any of this stuff was worth, and no one believed that anyone who was supposed to know something actually did.”
Oh and I was thrilled to get a chance to meet Bethany and she was gracious enough to sign my book. Needless to say, it is now a prized highlight of the collection.
This book took me a very long time to read, but was so worth the time. First of all, it is a bit of a monster weighing in at around 700 pages. Next, I took so many notes. Reading this felt like taking a graduate level class on neural biology. Every time I picked this book up I felt like I was getting smarter, and I ended up filling half of my notebook up with notes. I was writing something down from every other page. It is so full of useful lessons on how your brain works and it is organized in a cool reverse chronological order. I starts from a behavior that happens. It then jumps back one to two seconds to the functions that prep the initiation and working back in time minutes, hours, days, months, decades, generations… to how your brain works to get to that behavior. Anyone interested in human behavior (which should be everyone) should read this book.
Favorite Quote: “Repeat the mantra: don’t ask what a gene does; ask what it does in a particular context.”
(I love that line because it speaks to the error people make when asking nature or nurture. Is it your biological make-up or your environment? Like everything in life, it is your biology within a specific environment… in other words, it’s always both.)
This book was a regular recommendation of the fintwit community (for the uninitiated that just means people on Twitter who talk about finance) so got on the radar pretty quick. It is so easy to read full of smart lessons for everyone from professional investors to the novice just trying to get a better understanding of their personal finances. The geometry angle provides a great structure to hang all of this information on, allowing you to better understand and retain it. If you want to be smarter about money and life in general, this is the book you should pick up.
Best Quote: “…if there were a reliable relationship between greater risk and bigger reward, then technically you wouldn’t be taking more risk.”
Also I love Chapter 5 – Yes, Not Really, It Depends. The title to the chapter is the answer to the question “can money buy happiness?”
And if you just want a quick “what should I learn about investing as a beginner?” Pick this book up at Barnes and Noble and read Chapter 7 while you drink a latte at the café.
Finally, follow the author on Twitter @Brianportnoy. He is a super smart, and super nice guy. You will learn a lot from his book and you can learn even more by reading his content on Twitter.
Niall Ferguson is a prolific writer and financial historian. If you haven’t read his book The Ascent of Money, then your education on finance is woefully short. Go see the PBS documentary if you don’t have the book and your short on time (link here). The Square and Tower is similar but instead of profiling the rise of money through history it documents the relationship (and conflict) between network power (the town square) and hierarchal power (the lord’s tower). If you want to understand power structure and understand it in historical context this book is the place you should start.
Favorite Quote: “Indeed our species should really be known as Homo Dictyous (‘network man’) because – to quote the sociologists Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler – ‘our brains seem to have been built for social networks.'”
The first book I am reading in 2019, Social by Matthew Lieberman, backs up this idea of ‘network man’ with a quote that says “Having a poor social network is literally as bad for your health as smoking 2 packs of cigarettes a day.” !! With the need to connect so deep and innate within us you can see how the holders of the keys to the network can amass such large amounts of power.
For the rest of 2019 I think I am going to finally get to revisiting the classics of economic study. Books like Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith, General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money by John Maynard Keynes, Road to Serfdom by Frederich Hayek, and then maybe Human Action by Ludwig Von Mises (to see if I can better understand all my Austrian school, libertarian friends) and Capitalism and Freedom by Milton Friedman. I’m sure that even though I am highly interested in the topic I will need to take a break so will have to insert a fiction book or two to spice things up. I have Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson on order. I have no idea what it is about by it was recommended by a friend so interested to check it.
On a final note, it has been too long between posts and I have fallen short of some goals in that department. Life has been so great, but also very full. I am in a constant state of prioritizing and time managing and go through periods of time where I don’t do as well. Sometimes I just realize the energy and time isn’t there and I simply decide to step away for a while. I appreciate everyone who gives me feedback on these posts when they do come back. I can’t begin to explain how much it means to hear from people who liked a post or have an opinion on one of the books I read. I treasure that interaction more than I can say. Thank You!
So here’s to a healthy and wealthy 2019. Get started with a great book!
Until next time,
“The mind needs books like a sword needs a whetstone” – Tyrion Lannister (Final season opens on my birthday!)
Give the gift of learning —