My not-so-secret secret? I was an English major. I also majored in Stats and love math and data science, but I have always and forever loved reading. In an effort to read more often, each year I set a goal* of reading 25 books. So, in the spirit of Susan Fowler, and with the hope of getting good book suggestions, I want to share my 2017 reading list (with brief commentary). My top five recommended reads are designated with **.
1. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
I don’t have much to say about The Great Gatsby that hasn’t been said already, but I can say that it was much more interesting than I remember it being in high school — and that I really, really want to go to a Gatsby party.
2. Men Explain Things to Me, by Rebecca Solnit
The word “mansplaining” was coined in reaction to Rebecca Solnit’s titular essay “Men Explain Things To Me“, which begins with a situation women might find vaguely familiar: after Solnit mentions the topic of her most recent book, a guy at a party asks if she’s heard of another *very important* book on the same topic, and it takes her friend’s repetition of “That’s her book” three or four times to sink in and leave the man speechless. The essay is short, and definitely worth a read, and the book does a good job of adding color to mansplaining and other gendered issues through added data and commentary, including a thoughtful, well-researched take on domestic violence that I hadn’t heard before.
3. Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg**
I realize that I’m several years late to the game, but after finally reading Lean In, I would recommend it at the level of “required reading” for women navigating corporate America (and the tech world in particular). Sheryl Sandburg provides solid examples (and data!) on gendered differences in salary negotiations, likability, speaking up, explaining success, applying for level-up positions, getting promotions, ambition, and so much more. Reading this book inspired me to speak up (even about the little things!), and I’ve saved many of the factoids for future reference as I’m navigating my own career. Seriously, ladies, read this book if you haven’t already!
4. Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance
Hillbilly Elegy interweaves two stories: J.D. Vance’s personal story of “making it out” of a Glass-Castle-esque “hillbilly” upbringing by joining the Marines, going to college, and eventually law school at Yale, and a more general look at the problems confronting the modern white working class (in Appalachia and similar regions). The most interesting piece, for me, was a specific example of a town whose blue-collar factory jobs eventually dried up, and the impact this has on the town (focusing on home prices, lack of mobility, and personal pride, to name a few). The book is eye-opening, and I liked that it focused on facts as well as personal experience to paint a picture of the modern-day hillbilly’s plight.
5. Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card
Ender’s Game makes consistent appearances on reddit must-read lists, so I finally gave it a whirl and ended up liking it. This sci-fi novel focuses on a future where Earth is attacked by aliens and specially selected children are given military tactical training through a series of battle simulations (“games”) to fight aliens and protect humankind (all in zero gravity!). The book follows Ender, one of the chosen children, from normal childhood life through battle school, with a twist ending to boot.
6. The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo, by Amy Schumer
While there’s plenty I love about Amy Schumer’s comedy, her autobiography was mostly repetition of stories I’d heard from her standup / interviews / etc. I’d skip it and watch her skits instead.
7. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
Another high school assignment, another worthy re-read. I went through a heavy dystopian novel phase in 2016, and this was the tail end. From gene therapy to pharmaceuticals to race relations to hookup culture, I think Brave New World is still, 86 years later, an incredibly relevant (and surprisingly current!) take on “modern” issues. (It would also make a great episode of Black Mirror.)
8. The Rational Optimist, by Matt Ridley
The central argument of this book is that things are better now than they ever have been (and they’re continuing to get better) — mostly due to trade and specialization among tribes of humans. I read this not long after Sapiens, which definitely colored my thinking (they’re actually “You Might Also Like…” pairs on Amazon). The Rational Optimist doesn’t have the breadth of Sapiens, but it covers the history of trade and specialization in much greater depth, and provides interesting historically-informed commentary on modern-day hot topics like fossil fuels, government, and war. (Full disclosure: this is my boss’s favorite book and there’s something cool about reading your boss’s favorite book and seeing where it might impact their perspective.)
9. The Argonauts, by Maggie Nelson
I discovered Maggie Nelson via Bluets, her poetic lyrical essay about a woman who falls in love with the color blue (which I *loved*). The Argonauts is a completely different “family” of story — a genre-bending take on parenting and romance that focuses on Maggie’s own queer family and relationship with fluidly gendered Harry Dodge. Maggie is open, brutally honest, and thoughtful, and I appreciate her sharing such personal experiences.
10. The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins
Thriller. Girl (woman) on train sees a couple out the train window every day, and daydreams about their “perfect” life — UNTIL one day she sees the woman kiss another man and that woman goes missing…
If this sounds interesting to you, you’ll probably like this book. It’s a quick read, has a few twists, and was perfect for filling time on a flight from Austin to Boston.
11. How to Make Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie
Dale Carnegie’s advice on making friends and influencing people is timeless. This book is still getting updated and reprinted 75 years after its original publication, and still relevant (though some of the original examples are a little — charmingly — dated). If you’re interested in the basic techniques, the Wikipedia article does a good job of describing Carnegie’s basic system, but the book itself is a quick read and one I’d recommend.
12. The Undoing Project, by Michael Lewis
I love Michael Lewis books. The Undoing Project is another good one, focusing on the relationship between Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who together created the field of behavioral economics. Lewis, as usual, does a great job of explaining fairly technical concepts while weaving a really interesting story around the complex relationship between two men. This book is at turns triumphant and heartbreaking, and the research itself was interesting enough that I’d recommend it.
13. It, by Stephen King
My husband and I both read It this year in preparation for the new movie (which was so much better than the original!). This was my first Stephen King novel and won’t be my last.
14. The Heart, by Maylis Kerangal**
I read this book solely based on Bill Gates’ recommendation and I’m so glad I did. This is technically the story of a heart transplant, but it is actually much more than that — a beautiful, gripping look at the fragility of life and family and relationships. The poetic language provides a strong contrast between the family whose life is forever changed with the matter-of-factness for the medical professionals involved in the story (for whom this is a normal “day at the office”). This book is an experience (I cried more than once), but a highly recommended one.
15. My Own Words, by Ruth Bader Ginsburg
There is so much about Ruth Bader Ginsburg that I find inspiring — her drive to make it to the Supreme Court, her work on gender equality and women’s rights, her relationship with her husband, her ability to see beyond political views and build cross-aisle friendships, and even her workout regimen (at age 84!) are all reasons to look up to RBG. Her book focuses on specific court cases and is peppered with interesting details about life on the Supreme Court. I found her book a bit repetitive (as some of the cases are cited multiple times) but overall a good in-depth look at the life of an important women “in her own words”. I’m definitely a fan.
16. Sprint, by Jake Knapp
Sprint is like a time machine for business ideas: a process to get a team from concept to prototype with customer feedback in a single week. I read this book after hearing about the concept from the UX team at Web.com (where I work), who have developed several product features that are the direct result of sprints. If you work on a product team and are interested in ways to test and fast-track development ideas, I’d recommend this book.
17. Option B, by Sheryl Sandberg
Option B is a look at building resilience through loss, disappointment, and heartache. After the sudden loss of her husband, Sandburg took some time off to pick up the pieces — of her family, her job, and everything else — and this book tells that story. Like Lean In, Option B is a combination of experiences and research, and like Lean In, it’s full of interesting stories and practical advice — like how to be there for someone going through a loss (and the importance of questions like “What do you not want on a burger?“. This one resonated for me personally after the sudden loss of my father, and I spent so much time thinking about my mom that I eventually just sent her a copy. If you’ve ever wondered what to say or how to help someone who has experienced loss, check out this book.
18. Switch, by Chip and Dan Heath
The tagline of Switch is “How to change when change is hard”. This book focuses on an eight-step process for making change and introduces the idea of clearing a path for the elephant and the rider — the elephant being your emotions, big and hard to control, and the rider being your rational side, technically “in-control” but sometimes not enough to overcome your emotional side. Creating a clear path that addresses the needs and interests of both the elephant (emotions) and rider (rational thinking) is a means for making change “stick”. My boss and I both read this book and it provided a useful framework and shorthand that we’ve used while trying to make organization-level changes.
19. Mammother, by Zachary Schomburg**
Zachary Schomburg is one of my favorite poets (his book Scary, No Scary is an all-time favorite), and a few years ago, he announced that he was working on his first novel — I have been looking forward to reading Mammother ever since and it did not disappoint. Mammother is the story of a town suffering from a mysterious plague called God’s Finger that leaves its victims dead with a giant hole in their chest. There is a large cast of characters, plenty of magical realism (ala Marquez), and dense, beautiful language to support a surprisingly emotional story (I cried on a plane at the ending). If you like poetry, magical realism, or weird, cool reads, I highly, highly recommend this book (and all of Schomburg’s poetry, for that matter).
20. Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates**
This is one of those books that totally changed my perspective. Between the World and Me is a letter from Coates to his son about the experience and realities of being black in the United States. In addition to being beautifully written, this book covers territory I didn’t know existed — on the relationship between fear and violence, on Howard University, on how different race is experienced in the US than other countries without a history of slavery, on bodily harm, and so much more on “being black”. I wish this was required reading and can’t recommend it enough.
21. A Column of Fire, by Ken Follett
A Column of Fire is the third book in the widely spaced “Kingsbridge” series (which starts with The Pillars of the Earth, written in 1990). I was shocked to find that there was a third book in this series and downloaded it immediately. Each book is engaging historical non-fiction, and focuses on the political intersection of government and religion (and those who exploit either — or both). A Column of Fire is an apt addition — interesting storyline, lots of characters, and a cool take on historical events, particularly Mary, Queen of Scots. It’s worth noting that while this is part of a ‘series’, the books stand perfectly well on their own — though I would still start with The Pillars of the Earth if you’re interested.
22. Dear Data, by Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec
Dear Data is a project created by two women (Giorgia and Stefanie) getting to know each other by sending weekly postcards based on self-collected and visualized data — like “how many times I swore”, “every time I looked in the mirror”, and “how many times I said ‘sorry'”. The data is interesting, and the visualizations and engrossing — so much so that the collection of postcards was purchased by MoMA for display. We kicked off the R-Ladies Austin book club by reading this, and creating our own postcards, which was so much fun — and made us realize that the data collection and visualization process is not nearly as easy as it looks!
23. Milk and Honey by Rumi Kaur
Milk and Honey is a poetry book in four chapters: “the hurting”, “the loving”, “the breaking”, and “the healing”. Kaur provides an intense look at each emotion in turn. I have to admit that I didn’t love this book. While I appreciate brutal honesty in poetry (and there is plenty in here), the translation of feelings to language read as a bit like teen-angst, which was a turn-off.
24. Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathi O’Neil**
Weapons of Math Destruction is a look at the algorithms pervade modern life — and the problems embedded within them. This book does a great job of explaining the ethical implications of collecting and using data to make decisions, and outlines a framework for creating responsible algorithms. After reading this, I’m noticing new algorithms and data issues almost weekly, so it’s definitely had an impact on my thinking and approach to creating algorithms and working with data. I think this will resonate with “data people” and everyone else (the examples jump from teachers to credit cards to court systems). Also, a quick shameless plug: this is the next book for the R-Ladies Austin book club, so if you want to discuss it in person, please join us on Jan 31!
25. A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
I loved this movie growing up, and after my mom bought me the book, I devoured it during Christmas weekend. A Little Princess is a heartwarming story about a wealthy-but-charming girl is sent to boarding school by her loving father (who is her only parent). Soon after, her father dies, and she lives a riches-to-rags story in which she is forced into labor to earn her keep as an orphan and ward of the school — all while imagining a better life as a princess. The book is just as magical as the movie, and I wholeheartedly recommend both.
*Resolutions vs. Goals (or, bonus thoughts on the whole “New Year’s” thing):
About four years ago, I changed my approach to New Year’s resolutions. While I love the theme of self-improvement, I don’t do well with resolutions that require doing something every day, or always, or never. A resolution like “read every day” is uninspiring, doesn’t allow room for the ebbs and flows of varied routines, and seems to be designed for failure — it only takes one slip-up to tarnish a “read every day” track record. Vague resolutions like “read more” are also tough. I appreciate a more concrete number or outcome to work toward so that I can track my progress through the year and know whether I’ve achieved each goal at the end of it.
So, I’ve replaced vague and overly stiff resolutions with quantifiable goals to be accomplished gradually over the course of the year. Now a resolution like “read every day” (or “read more”) becomes a goal: “read 25 books this year”. This allows room for vacations, sick days, and life to happen without making me feel like I’ve “failed” if ever I can’t find time to read. The number 25 was a good goal for me because it felt doable, easy to track (about a book every other week), and I knew I’d feel good about it at the end of the year, which is motivation to keep making progress.
If you were to track my progress towards this year’s goal, it you’d find major spikes around vacations (I like reading on planes) and during weeks where I don’t have lots of events. All this is just to say that if you have a goal of reading more, or anything else that you haven’t been able to find time for, I’d highly recommend goals over resolutions.
Have you read anything moving lately? Have questions or a different take on any of these books? I’d love to hear about it. You can comment here or ping me on twitter.