My 2018 in books

This could have been my bumper year for reading. After all I spent a lot of time in travel and transit this year.

At least in theory, those hours could have been put to better use than dozing, making offline lists, or reflecting.

In practice, well, I dozed, made offline lists, and looked out of the window reflecting (when I was not dozing and it was not dark outside, of course).

My annual self-imposed moratorium on buying books in January resulted in 16 books arriving as gifts. Everyone should have such friends who know what you read, who listen enough to know what you may not have already read, and who stretch to actually buying a book and sending it through!

Instead of echoing books that other lists have already mentioned, I have picked from amongst my readings those books whose core theses and stories have remained with me but that should be known better than they are.

Dreamers by Snigdha Poonam is timely and important social commentary on modern day small town India. Embedding herself in the dusty towns away from the glitz of India’s metros, Poonam tells the story of how economic anxieties and nationalistic fervour are tempering and shaping the ambitions of young Indians in those towns. Riveting read and if India interests you, this is not a book to miss.

Helena Morrissey’s A Good Time To Be A Girl is not the lean-in manual for 2018. Instead of asking women to lean into the prevailing patriarchal system till they are practically prostrate, Morrissey posits the idea that the patriarchy hurts both women and men, and it is time to change it. This is a book for those who are thinking about their own careers, their workplaces, their relationships, and their contribution to shaping the world around them through their choices and their advocacy.

Three business books — all by women — were worth the time spent reading them.

Patty McCord’s Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility about her time as the Chief Talent Office at Netflix recruiting, motivating, and creating a great team is a good story, well told. She underlines the importance of radical honesty in the workplace and the need sometimes to say good-bye to employees who don’t fit the company’s emerging needs, and doing that humanely and by ensuring their transition such that they remain friends and cheerleaders.

That brings me to the second book, Kim Scott’s Radical Candor. Giving meaningful, constructive feedback is hard at the best of times. Doing so consistently is harder. Scott’s simple-sounding advice to “challenge directly and care personally” is a great tool to build great work relationships as well as enable your team to do good work. How do I know? Because this has been my style of giving feedback, with concern for both the giver and the receiver of the feedback. Scott’s framework is something I can easily explain to others I mentor and manage, and if they want detail this is a nudge to them to read the book.

The third business book I liked this year was Lea A Ellermeier’s Finding the Exit, which I reviewed as well. I have read several excellent startup advice books this year including Scott Belsky’s The Messy Middle and Elad Gil’s High Growth Handbook. Both those books are really helpful and have made several lists but I want to especially flag Ellermeier’s book which is the story of her journey from starting her venture to finding the exit, as the title says. It is easy to read and evocative. I viscerally felt her dread of not making payroll and the difficulties of managing relationships outside work. I have recommended it to many founders who often only hear the manicured versions of other founders’ success stories.

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, John Carreyrou’s work of investigative journalism about the Silicon Valley darling that was Theranos reads like a work of fiction. Except it is not. And that is the scary thing one has to remind oneself while reading this saga of half-baked science, MIA ethics, shockingly poor governance and oversight by an otherwise impressive roster of high profile men, outright lies, intimidation and threats. The heartening bit is how the younger and older scientists with their ethical compasses intact decided to do the right thing despite the high personal cost to them.

Two unexpected books I read and enjoyed this year were almost Yin and Yang: Mitch Prinstein’s Popular (sold in the UK by a different name) and Ichiro Kishimi & Fumitake Koga’s The Courage to Be Disliked. The former makes the case why status and status-seeking is often mistaken as popularity while it is likeability that is the key to success and happiness in life. The latter is a twist on Adler, written in the form of a dialogue, where one wise man is making the case for how we could all be free to determine our own future free of past experiences, doubts and the expectations of others. I recommend both. They are easy reads.

Finally I have two picks in poetry.

One is Tony Hoagland’s Priest Turned Therapist Treats Fear Of Gods. Accessible, funny and covering a range of emotions and experiences in the human condition. I am not a professional book critic and I shan’t pretend to be one. If poetry touches your soul, this book will resonate with you.

The second is The Penguin Book Of the Prose Poem. Which does what it says on the cover. It is an anthology of prose poetry from a range of cultures and languages, from 1842 to 2017. It was a salve for the soul in a year when leaders around the world were at pains to tell us we needed to retreat into our narrow nationalistic tribes.

Poetry transcends it all.