joeltorgeson.com

Books I Read in 2019

books on floor

Today I’m talking about books.

It’s not because I want to brag (that’s just a nice side-effect) about the titles I’ve read, but because enough friends have asked me about what I’ve been reading this year that it seemed like a good idea to write it all out, both to make sure I wasn’t forgetting a great title and to make it easier to make recommendations. I can now just send this link. I’ve done this in the past to recommend books.

Basically, I’m lazy and having the same conversations over and over gets tedious. Hence all this writing.

Some of these were read as physical books, others listened to on audio, and yet others read in kindle form. However they were consumed, I’ve tried to rank them all based on what I found most impactful. If you get something out of it, great! If not, I’m planning on writing lots more on this blog in the coming year, so I hope something I write at some point will tickle your fancy!

Descriptions follow the list.

  1. Atomic Habits – James Clear
  2. Braving the Wilderness – Brene Brown
  3. Stillness is the Key – Ryan Holiday
  4. Ghengis Khan and the Making of the Modern World – Jack Weatherford
  5. Man’s Search for Meaning (reread) – Viktor Frankl
  6. Wisdom from a Tree – Ilan Shamir
  7. For Whom the Bell Tolls – Ernest Hemmingway
  8. The Richest Man in Babylon – George Clason
  9. The Inevitable – Kevin Kelly
  10. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (reread) – J.K. Rowling
  11. Jude – Kate Morgenroth
  12. Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
  13. The Tipping Point – Malcolm Gladwell
  14. The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing – Al Ries & Jack Trout
  15. Essentialism – Greg McKeown
  16. Growth Hacker Marketing – Ryan Holiday
  17. A Farewell to Arms – Ernest Hemmingway
  18. Norse Mythology – Neil Gaiman

(As a note, none of the links in this article are affiliate links)

1. Atomic Habits

Habits. They define us. They give consistency to our day, our character, and really everything. They invisibly control and shape all that we experience. As such, setting good habits is a priority.

I’m probably not telling you anything you haven’t heard hundreds of times before though. We all know habits are important, yet, if you’re like me, few of us make progress on being intentional about them. Maybe you’re perfect at this, but the rest of us mortals struggle a bit. 

One thing to note: I think my comprehension and application of the book was enhanced by having read Charles Duhigg’s ‘The Power of Habit’ prior to buying this book, but that’s certainly not a prerequisite; it stands alone. 

Atomic habits is powerfully succinct, which may be my favorite part. While Duhigg’s tome really knocks the habit science out of the park, Clear’s book felt like it placed a premium on brevity, giving advice in actionable chunks, convincing you just enough that it would be viable, then leaving you to apply it without berating you with details. 

I loved it. 

I will say that having read this book in November may have influenced it’s ranking so highly on this list (recency bias) but even if that is the case, I stand by it being in the top 5, even if you asked me six months from now. 

Grab a copy and give it a whirl if habits are something you’re interested in and/or are looking to improve.

The most actionable thing I took out of it was the 2-minute rule. Basically, any habit can (and should) be boiled down into something you can do in 2 minutes or less. Start there, and always allow yourself the option to just do the 2 minute variant. Starting small with easy wins builds to success in the long run.

If I look at my clock and realize I haven’t done my morning yoga yet, it’s easy to justify skipping it if it’s going to be 15 minutes. There are other priorities, and I’ll just make sure I do it tomorrow, or so I tell myself. 

2 minutes is hard to skip. It’s so easy, why not just do it? That keeps the habit alive and the chain unbroken. 2 minutes of yoga isn’t much, but it’s enough to get the body and the mind involved in building the habit loop. This has been huge for me, especially on the mornings when I feel like I’m running behind the whole day. 

2. Braving the Wilderness

What does it mean to belong?

That’s the thrust of this book, and it’s really wonderfully done. 

For some reason, I chafe under Brown’s writing sometimes, and this was no exception. I think it actually added to the power of the book though, as each time I pushed away from a section that felt a little too woo-woo for my taste I was just as quickly brought back to the fold by arguments that rang clear and true.

Belonging is hard. Seeking belonging to yourself in the metaphorical wilderness is worth it though.

The book, in general, is full of useful takeaways, but the image I will take forward most is that of ‘strong back and soft front with a wild heart.’ Being fierce and kind is not as much of a dichotomy as I’d thought. 

This is an important book, and I look forward to giving it a second read in the near future. 

3. Stillness is the Key

It’s trite, but I’ll say it anyway: in a world of constant distraction and Instagram comparison, this book was a breath of fresh air. 

I’ve been a big fan of Ryan Holiday for a while, so pre-ordering the last of his trilogy (which started with ‘The Obstacle is the Way’ and continued with ‘Ego is the Enemy’) was natural. 

The main thesis of the book is similar to that of many things I read this year: 

All of the important things in life are best done in a state of mental stillness. Achieving stillness takes discipline and practice, but is worth it.

I’m not a master of stillness–I get distracted all the time–but combined with a meditation practice and the other books I’ve read this year, this one resonated a lot.

4. Ghengis Khan and the Making of the Modern World

Most history books are boring. You were thinking it, I just said it.

Not this one.

This almost read as a novel, brilliantly blending historical data with interpretations and implications for how the modern world works. It was a joy to read, at least for me.

History has painted Khan as a bloodthirsty mongrel, and while there’s some evidence of the former (he and his armies did kill a lot of people, no denying that) the latter is put on his head when you learn about the kinds of social reforms and government structures that Khan was responsible for. 

Read the book. If the first 50 pages don’t do it for you, give it to a friend.

5. Man’s Search for Meaning

Viktor, a trained psychologist, also survived the Holocaust in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. His experiences, combined with a mind that is at once both brilliantly analytical and caringly poetic, make for a wonderful discussion of meaning.

There is no objective scale of mental and emotional pain–everyone’s experience is their own–but having endured the camps I cannot help but feel he is more qualified to speak about meaning and how one finds it than most others. 

Not only is the book interesting, but it’s also well-written, with an economy of words that I find inspiring. The whole book took less than 5 hours to read. The impact, at least for me, lasts for much longer.

I cannot recommend this book enough.

6. Advice from a Tree

This one’s a little different. 

At 146 words, this one stands in stark contrast to Tolstoy and some of the other books on the list. Still, it was impactful in a wonderful way. 

It’s a collection of lines–a poem, really–that give bite-sized doses of zen-like advice combined with lovely illustrations. In general, the tiny little book just reminds me to take a step back, slow down, and enjoy all the wonderful things around me. As a fairly driven person, I’m not always great at remembering to do those things unprompted, so this book was a breath of forest-scented fresh air. 

To make matters better, I encountered the book out on a walk in one of the tiny little libraries that some neighborhoods support. It was wonderfully serendipitous. 🙂

Here’s a link to the specific version I had.

You can also find all of the lines together here, though I find it significantly less useful to read in this format. Having one sentence per page really provided clarity.

7. For Whom the Bell Tolls

I enjoyed this book a lot more than I thought I would. Maybe it’s the setting in 1930’s Spain, or perhaps I’m just a sucker for idealistic guerillas. I found this story significantly more gripping than the other Hemmingway book I read this year. 

I can’t say much more than that I thoroughly enjoyed it, would recommend it, and now understand why Hemmingway is such a classic. 

It was also a much-needed respite into fiction after several months of nothing but nonfiction books and podcasts, and kicked off a spurt of other fiction reads through the rest of the year!

8. The Richest Man in Babylon

I probably need to re-read this book again in a few months just to beat some of it into my skull. This classic is a collection of parables, told from the perspective of someone living in Babylonian times, regarding how to create and manage wealth. 

I (really) hate to admit it, but I’ve not been the best at saving and/or investing in the past few years. Starting a business and pursuing a career in dance has not made for the most stable of paychecks nor the most predictable of expenses. Perhaps even more salient, living in LA has a way of causing your lifestyle expenses to creep up.

I could be doing much more, and the clever tales in this book do a good job of pointing out how easy it can be. Complication leads to frustration, so the simple approach advocated for is quite attractive.

Thanks for the recommendation and the copy, Jack!

9. The Inevitable

Kelly’s book is about 12 forces (or trends) that he believes will continue to shape what technology looks like over the coming decades. It was a fascinating book to read because, in everyday life, we tend to spend most of our time with our faces down, just trying to keep up with the current technology, much less thinking about what might be off in the future. 

Admittedly, talking about ‘screening’ or ‘flowing’ is more abstract (and less gratifying) than imagining nanorobots and massive TV’s everywhere, but the concepts he talks about are really interesting and can be seen moving even in the past 10 years of tech development. 

I think the most useful chapters to me were on Remixing and Flowing. Without diving in too far, everything in our world is, at an increasing pace, being recombined into newer and more interesting things. Think of the explosion of ‘fusion’ cuisines all over the world. This will continue to accelerate as the internet allows for increased flowing, where ideas, content, and everything else is copied and shared at an ever-faster pace.

These ideas have helped shape the video projects I’ve worked on in 2019, and make me curious about how dance will continue to change as we charge forward into the third decade of this millennium.

10. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Asking someone to rank the books of the Harry Potter series is an excellent way to spark spirited debates, as it turns out. Be careful, it can get heated! After someone defended a higher position for the 6th book with a fairly good argument I decided to give it another shot.

I was not disappointed. 

I suspect my initial dismissal probably stemmed from memories of the traumatizing death of Dumbledore (Yes, 5th grade Joel cried his eyes out) and the let-down of the first Horcrux retrieval being for naught. 

With fresh eyes, it’s a far funnier book than I’d remembered, especially with Ron being an absolute twit1 for nearly the whole book.

Dumbledore’s death is of course still sad, but with the full context of the series and it’s resolution, everything makes significantly more sense. I did, in fact, move it up in my rankings, though #2 and #4 could not be unseated from their 1st and 2nd rankings, at least for me!

Also, it should be noted that I read the entire 760+ pages in less than 24 hours. I forgot how damn good Rowling is!

1 Changing out the vowel here might be even more accurate…

11. Jude

On a recommendation from a friend, I picked up this title. After the first 50 or so pages, I was swept away by a gripping story!

I generally have a hard time putting down fiction books. Just ask my parents about taking the lightbulbs out of my room when I was a kid. 

That’s not a joke, I would not stop reading. So, they removed my light source when things got really bad. Flashlights were also contraband. Those were the days!

At any rate, Jude is a story of loyalty, ambition, and family. It’s also about a broken legal system and the way that ‘justice’ changes based on context and your values. 

I devoured it in ~5.5 hours, your mileage may vary. 

12. Anna Karenina

This Russian tome took me a good bit of time to read. I didn’t find it wholly engrossing throughout, but the depictions of Russian life, as well as the cool contrast between the temperments of the characters and their outlooks, especially Vronsky and Anna vs. Levin and Kitty, were quite engaging.

I expected to like it less than I actually did, which was great. I am completely positive that I didn’t understand every twist and turn of this incredibly dense novel’s plot, but the general frankness and realness of this fiction was pleasing. That might be an odd way to say it, but that’s how I felt. Immersed in the understandable and yet crazy complications of the characters and their lives, I saw why people idolize Tolstoy.

Ultimately I got the most out of Levin and his character ark, though Anna’s is also quite satisfying in a sick way.

On the whole, I really enjoyed it, other than the eon it took to traipse through!

Still, worth it.

13. The Tipping Point

This is the 3rd or 4th Gladwell book I’ve read, and I have to say that I think I preferred Outliers. Still, the insights were good and the examples entertaining enough. If you don’t need to be beaten over the head (very gently, and with excellent writing) with examples, a summary of the book may do nicely for you.

I think that, as a testament to how popular this book was when it came out, many of the things it discusses have entered our cultural consciousness and have taken on contexts of their own. Discussions of Connectors, Mavens, and Dunbar’s Number, while likely existing before Malcolm’s book, were spurred on to new heights, and that’s worth seeing in person (so to speak).

I’m not a big fan of the broken windows theory of deviance, and while I think he makes some good points there he doesn’t convince me on that example. Then again, that’s probably just my own ax to grind.

On the whole, it’s a good read, and the main takeaway is one that I wholeheartedly agree with all over in life:

We assume things are linear and we’re wrong, they aren’t. Tipping points occur when an accumulation of little things causes a large change, suddenly.

14. The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing

Many people will tell you to go read this book. Even if marketing isn’t your schtick you’ll probably get something out of it.

The two laws I’ve found myself thinking most about are:

  • The Law of Category
    • Basically, try not to enter categories of products (or dancing, or life) that other people own. Define your own, new category, then convince people that it’s the right category to be in in the first place. This is easier than trying to fight a competition battle on somebody unfamiliar turf.
  • The Law of Line Extension
    • In essence, fight the urge to take more products/projects on. Just own one or two things and be really good at them. This pairs incredibly well with the next book on the list.

I think this is a fairly skimmable book, but at less than 140 pages of decently large typeface, why not read the whole thing? Many of the examples come from the ’80s, so don’t be surprised by that. I don’t think applying all 22 laws is reasonable (and they’re totally impossible to remember) so just pick a few that work for you and roll with it.

15. Essentialism

I enjoyed it but had a hard time sticking with it for longer than 15 minutes at a time. Listening to it as an audiobook may have caused that, however.

Basically my takeaways are:

  • Focus on one thing at a time.
  • Get rid of most of your other commitments. Be choosy.
  • Focus on the things that have the greatest leverage.
  • Echoing Derek Siver’s ‘Hell Yeah!’ or ‘No’ policy, don’t do things that you feel lukewarm about.

Basically, when in doubt, eliminate things until you’re left with only that which is essential. I like that in traveling, in possessions, and just life in general.

16. Growth-Hacker Marketing

I’m generally a pretty big fan of Ryan Holiday, as two of his books making this list should suggest! GHM is one of his first books and is very tactical/practical about how one should go about creating marketing that can scale something quickly. The discussions of virality and product-market fit were good, and I’m sure I’ll return to it (in combination with 22 Laws) to reference things for both myself and my business.

17. A Farewell to Arms

For whatever reason, I just couldn’t get into Hemmingway’s supposed masterwork quite as much as I wanted to. The fanfare of generations of people calling it his masterwork may have built it up too far for me as well.

I generally like the way Hemmingway writes (see my comments above!) but this one just didn’t resonate with me nearly as much. I appreciate the sparse beauty of the writing, but to me, the characters weren’t as relatable as those in For Whom the Bell Tolls. That said, I’ve always had a soft spot for the Iberian peninsula, so maybe it’s just that.

I’m happy I’ve read this classic, but I don’t see myself coming back to it.

18. Norse Mythology

I’m a pretty big Niel Gaiman fan, so this one was an easy pick for me. Placing it 18th on the list has little to do with how I liked it (I loved it!) and everything to do with the fact that I regularly used the audiobook to fall asleep to. I remember sketches of many of the beginnings of the stories, and if pressed I could probably relate a good portion of it, but most of it is a bit misty.

I chose to read Norse mythology because, as a person of 50% Norwegian descent, it seemed only right!

In all fairness, Neil is one of my favorite authors (and readers!) and I thought he nailed it in this book. 

Conclusion

Books, books, books. Gotta love them!

Well, since this isn’t a book report for school, I don’t really have to say anything. Still, it’s been a good year of reading. I think one of the most important things I did this year was to start to get back into reading fiction. I used to read it all the time in middle and high school, but as reading became mandatory for classes I largely fell out of the habit. I’m glad I’m back, and I think 2020 will see even more fiction in my hands. 

Additionally, many of the nonfiction books I read this year centered around creating space. Another prevalent theme was setting up habits to make focusing on the important things possible. I’ve met with some limited success on this so far, and I’m definitely excited to keep pushing in 2020. 

Lastly, my stack of upcoming books to read is quite tall! With that said, I’m always looking for recommendations. If you’ve got a book you think I’d enjoy, drop it in the comments below! I’d love to hear what people are reading and, who knows, maybe I’ll take your recommendation on books this year. 

I’ll see you on the dance floor!

– Joel

Leave a Reply