The Best Books I Read in Q3 2020

“Some Books Should Be Tasted, Some Devoured, But Only A Few Should Be Chewed And Digested Thoroughly.”
Sir Francis Bacon

I read a lot. Always have. In high school, you'd often find me walking around with a book in hand. I love to read big, meaty books. The ones that you need to carefully walk through, with pencil in hand. I read in order to see different perspectives and to address the flaws in my own life. I read in order to learn from people who’ve been dead for centuries and to be transported to faraway lands.  Reading allows us to understand life. It allows us to learn from the past and the future, how to thrive in the modern world, and even how to get rich.

Reading is the highest-leverage activity known to man. Deeply understanding a field and writing a book can take years — if not decades. Most books will only take 10 hours to finish. Reading allows you to leverage time. More specifically, other people’s time. When you want to learn about physics, you can stand on the shoulders of giants. Thousands of bright minds have dedicated their lives to the discovery of nature’s secret. And you can read all about it in just a single book.

“You’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with” has become widely accepted. Note that it doesn’t say anything about needing to physically spend time with a person — let alone if they should be alive or not. You’re not limited to your personal circle. With books, you can build your own circle. You can learn philosophy from Epictetus, military strategy from Napoleon, politics from Thomas Jefferson, and philosophy from Nietzsche. With enough time and effort, we can internalize their thoughts and ideas. They become a part of us. We can start to think like them and ask what they would do.

Reading is the ultimate superpower.

That said, here are the best books I've come across in the past few months. Your tastes might be different to mine. You might loathe what I massively enjoyed. That's fine.

Finally, don’t forget to sign up for my Friday Favorites newsletter, where I usually share books that I’ve recently read and enjoyed.

Collapse by Jared Diamond

With the world going up in flames around us, it seems there’s no better time to read this book. Jared Diamond, the author of ‘Guns, Germs, and Steel’, gives a potentially life-saving guide to navigating the modern world which features a global pandemic and clashes between China and the US —making it's easy to think that we might be coming up on the decline of the United States and the West as a whole. Diamond manages to perfectly capture what makes civilizations wean and collapse. Whether it's self-induced ecological collapse or the increasing power of detached elites, Jared Diamond gives us a wide range of examples that illustrate how nations have fallen in the past and can fall in the future.  

He rightly points out that we can already see the symptoms of collapse. Terrorism and overpopulation, mass emigration and civil wars. But he also provides a ray of hope in the form of countries who are actively combatting the decline through political reform and ecological measures. Diamond provides a great overview of both what can be done and what we should be doing to avert catastrophe in the future. Honestly, this book is worth reading if only for the first chapter, covering the Easter Island civilization.    

Lying by Sam Harris

Lying is something we all do, whether we like to admit it or not. We all know it's bad. And yet we all do it. Whether it’s to cover up an affair or to avoid detention for being late, lies can serve a variety of uses. But do we really understand the repercussions of simple white lies and acts of omission? George Washington may have said “I cannot tell a lie”, but it’s highly doubtful any of us can say the same. Even though it hurts in the short-term, telling the truth always trumps the cost of lies — not only ethically but also for the sake of our own happiness. Committing to truthful communication opens the way for more authentic relationships, built on deeply-rooted trust. Lying on the other hand allows others to build up a false worldview, often with disastrous consequences.  

This book is ridiculously good. Despite it’s short length (less than a 100 pages), it packs a massive punch. It's honest. Brutally so. It's the 'spit-in-your-face-and-tell-you-like-it-is'-type of honest. It’s one of the few books that I started rereading as soon as I finished it. Because of its brutal honesty. I promise I'm not lying when I say that it's in the top 3 best books I've read this year.

How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler

Originally brought to my attention by the folks over at Farnam Street, this book completely changed the way I approach reading. The number one lesson is that good reading is an active process: reading with pen in hand, taking notes in the margins, and stopping to ponder a paragraph every so often. Adler thoroughly dissects the hows, the whats, and the whys of good reading. Chief amongst them why you often don't remember a thing about certain books you've read.

Speed reading is the latest trend in reading, a fad that I was a big proponent of as well. With it, you race through a book, ingesting as much as possible as quickly as possible. It's done out of a misplaced belief that more reading equals more knowledge. How many people go around bragging about reading 75+ books per year? But we shouldn't focus on how many books we read. We should focus on how thoroughly we read our books. The goal is to permanently cement wisdom. After all, if you've read a book but don't remember any of it, have you really read it?

I really cannot recommend this book enough. It has a place on the book shelf of every self-respecting reader. Go and read it!

Working by Robert Caro

I adore Robert Caro's work. There's no author out there who manages to write biographies like he does. He weaves together politics and intrigue, ego and power. But most of all the impact of power upon the average man and woman. His scenes are gripping and filled with detail. Caro’s writing style is unlike anyone else’s. Subscribing to the age-old adage of “show, don't tell”, Caro gives us the most beautiful, sweeping descriptions. Whether it's the exact make of the alligator clips of New York’s architect, Robert Moses, or the small town Lyndon B. Johnson grew up in, Caro show his craft in the meticulousness of his research and his willingness to turn every page.

‘Working’ offers an insight into his process. At a short 200 pages compared to his normal 1000-plus page doorstoppers, this book is something you can quickly blitz through to get a peak behind the curtains. Robert Caro is one of a kind. Foregoing computers, he writes his first draft in longhand, physically copying and pasting paragraphs into his drafts. Caro’s methods might be unique, but there's something in this book for everyone. If nothing else, it’s a wonderful testament to good craftsmanship and perfectly illustrates why Caro has won two Pulitzer Prices.

The Unschooled Mind by Howard Gardner

Our teaching methods are flawed. Most schools are in the business of rote memorization rather than teaching kids how to ask the right questions. In his 1991 book, Gardner says that the knowledge school purports to teach is completely at odds with what students will need to know to prosper in the real world. His solution? Less force-feeding of information, more exploration. Gardner argues that student must learn how to ask probing questions and evaluate the answers themselves.

Furthermore, he sketches an image of the school of the future. Classes structured around the ideas and intuitions of children. Learning taking place through narratives and stories. An enormous emphasis on first-principles. And above all, more time be allocated for creative expression and learning through making — like apprenticeship programs and projects. Thirty years after its publication, this vision of the future still seems a long way off. But it seems change is now slowly starting to seep into the school system. If you ever want to teach or work in education, this book is invaluable. Gardner shows that learning can be fun and significant more effective. All we need is the right approach.

There you have it, the cream of the crop. If you only had to read one book, it has to be ‘Lying’ by Sam Harris. No lie. It's a potentially life-changing read. Plus we all could do with a bit more honest communication

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