The Five Best Books I Read in 2019

This past year in books was a good one.  The number of books was fewer than I had planned but the quality was great.  I spent a lot of time on history, which will continue into 2020, but more on that later.  Here is the list of the best 5 books I read in 2019.

The Vikings by Robert Ferguson

The list of popular books on Nordic history have a pretty narrow scope – dominated by the Viking age.  This period of history runs from roughly 800 A.D. to 1100 A.D.. What I found fascinating, that I did not know, is that the arc of Viking history is mainly a story of religion.  It started with the raiding and plundering of Christian monasteries and ended with the large-scale conversion of the Nordic people to Christianity.

The author is a little dry, and despite not being a history professor, it does come across a little like a text book. I found it somewhat amusing because the violence is shocking, even though you know the reputation.  The author reports all this brutality in a very matter-of-fact fashion. Take the following excerpt as case-in-point:

“During the attack on the church at Trevet 260 people who sought refuge in the oratory were burnt alive. Cinaed was finally captured and executed by drowning, ‘in a dirty stream’ according to a source, though the quality of the water can scarcely have mattered to him.”

I’m sure there are more exciting books about the Viking age out there, (and I will get to them at some point) but I loved this book’s factual, event and trend reporting approach.  If you are interested in the Vikings, their evolution as a people, and their significance in the history of the greater region, this is a great book.

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

I honestly had no idea what to expect from this book when I first picked it up.  I just knew that a lot of tech people I follow on Twitter have recommended it as a classic work of science fiction.  My feelings about the book evolved as I read it.  I started with eager curiosity, moved to straight confusion, but by the end of the book I was immersed into the story.  

I could not help but think about all the more modern works that obviously get some inspiration from this book.  It was a fun and trippy ride and anyone who likes science fiction and hasn’t gotten to this book yet, should get there quick.  I will definitely read more Stephenson in the future.

Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant

This book should be mandatory reading for people in the later parts of college.  For those that are unfamiliar, Will and Ariel Durant wrote an encyclopedic series of world history that I plan to start collecting as I find them in used book stores and estate sales.

This book is a reflection of the major themes and lessons learned from all those works. It is short, to the point, and reads easily.  Even though it was short, it took me a while to get through because, page for page, this was the most note taking I’ve done on a book.  It starts with Chapter 1: Hesitations “Most history is guessing, and the rest is prejudice”.  It moves quickly into a stream of profound, quotable insights, like this from Chapter 3: Biology and History “The first biological lesson of history is that life is competition.”

I’m glad that I got to this book when I did. The extent of historical reading I have done to this point has made this book even more enlightening as I am familiar with far more of the examples than I would be if I read this book years earlier.

If I were making an All-Decade list of books, which I might at some point if the mood strikes, this book will certainly be on it.

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond

This is yet another history book on the list.  This one examines the question – what made some societies thrive and others die off?  The short answer is in the title, but there is so much more to learn here.  For instance, I was fascinated to find out all the health, cultural, and geopolitical consequences of the innovation of farming.  This observation about children is a great case in point “In practice, nomadic hunter-gatherers space their children about 4 years apart by means of lactational amenorrhea, sexual abstinence, infanticide, and abortion. By contrast, sedentary people, unconstrained by the problems of carrying young children on treks, can bear and raise as many children as they can feed.”

Algorithms to Live By by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths

The most famous example of this book is how to answer the question – how many potential marriage suspects should I date before selecting a spouse?  The answer, according to these authors, is 37% of all the possible prospects.  This is based on a computer science theory called optimal stopping theory.  In order to find the best possible spouse (apartment, employee, etc…) you need to establish some sort of baseline as to the quality of the pool, but at some point you need to pull the trigger and make a decision.  In the look vs. leap dilemma, it turns out that 37% is mathematical percentage to minimize regrets of both ‘the one that got away’ and ‘the stone unturned’.

The book is full of interesting insights like this.  It also made me feel a lot better about the piles of work on my desk.  I have always thought of my work space as my form of organized chaos, while my coworkers would simply call it messy.   The authors, on the other hand, use a term used for computer memory systems and call it caching.  So now my desk is not messy, it just contains a lot of caches.

Honorable Mention

The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

I had high expectations for this book given a lot of people that I admire have mentioned that this was a life-altering read for them.  It is about the ‘hero’s journey’, and explains many of the common tropes in mythology and story-telling from the reluctant hero, refusing the call to action but eventually acquiescing, to the atonement with the Father (Star Wars, anyone?) and eventually the transformed hero’s triumphant return.

I am a firm believer that when you read a book can be very important in terms of how it impacts you.  If I were at a different place in life it could have had a different impression.  It was interesting, and the philosophy behind it made sense, but it was a bit too ‘meta’ for me.  

“…for the hero as the incarnation of God is himself the navel of the world, the umbilical point through which the energies of eternity break into time.”  What?

Overall, I would recommend it for people to give it a try and make their own conclusions.  Perhaps it will prove a fount of inspiration, or maybe you will read and think it sounds too much like mystical mumbo-jumbo.  It was an interesting book and worth the read.

The Year 2020

This year I have started a journey into the topic of strategy.  I started Robert Greene’s 33 Strategies of War and have the Art of Strategy by Dixit and Nalebuff on deck.  The biography of fighter pilot and quite possibly the greatest modern military strategist, Boyd by Robert Coram is also in the queue.  

Finally, I am looking forward to shifting my historical focus over to the most famous (infamous?) family of Renaissance Italy with The Medici by Paul Strathern and the biography of Lorenzo d’Medici – Magnifico by Miles Unger. Should be an enlightening year.

Let me know what great books you’ve read and what you have lined up.

Until next time…

“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” – Dr. Seuss