James Maskell

Books that influenced me in 2016

06 January 2017

A year ago, I set myself a goal to read more. I was annoyed with myself for repeatedly buying and not finishing books, missing out on classics, and also just wasting my free evenings in front of the TV or on Medium. I got my act together, and in total I read 45 books in 12 months.

The books I read were mostly non-fiction, particularly about business and self improvement. In the summer and autumn I went on a political tangent, and I ended the year with novels. As the year went on, I made an effort to branch out and read a wider variety of books. I’m happy with the progress I’ve made, the sheer amount that I have learnt, and how much my thinking has changed this year.

The books that influenced me most are:

  1. The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves. This book argues that, give or take the occasional blip (which can be major - e.g. world wars), human progress has so far been unstoppable. Despite this, people are constantly pessimistic. This book taught me to take a step back and look at the bigger picture more often.

  2. Meditations. The classic works of Marcus Aurelius. This was part of my dive in to stoicism, after reading The Obstacle in the Way last year. Stoic philosophy says that while you cannot control what happens to you in life, you are responsible for how you respond. Given the events of 2016 (for me professionally, as well as the political climate) this was a timely read. If you read Meditations, I strongly recommend finding a copy of the Gregory Hayes translation. I found this much easier to read than others.

  3. When Breath Becomes Air. Paul Kalanithi is a talented young surgeon who is diagnosed with terminal cancer. This book is about his transformation into a patient and the impact on his family. It gave me newfound respect and understanding of the medical profession. It was the most moving book I read this year.

  4. Red Notice: How I Became Putin’s No. 1 Enemy. A look at how business has worked in Russia since the breakup of the USSR, and how Vladimir Putin transformed the country in to a corrupt authoritarian state. Before reading this book, I didn’t appreciate the level of corruption in Russia. A chilling and eye opening read, given current events.

  5. The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon. A look inside Amazon and the mind of Jeff Bezos. This book, plus Ben Thompson’s analysis on Stratechery, has turned me into a total Amazon bull. It was also particularly poignant as I have spent the past two years working for a traditional multi-billion pound retailer, and gave me lots to reflect on. Similarly, Alibaba’s World helped me understand Alibaba and gave me some insights in to the Chinese market.

  6. The Road to Serfdom. A classic book that I’ve been meaning to read properly since I was at university. Hayek presents a compelling argument for why socialism can never work, and any attempt at central planning will lead to both totalitarianism and poverty. While a timely read due to political events this year, this book also made me think about the role of control, planning and hierarchy in companies.

  7. Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It. This is the single best book that I have ever read on negotiating, and the only one I think most people will need. I’ve put many of the lessons in to practice, and can’t recommend them highly enough.

  8. The Euro: How a Common Currency Threatens the Future of Europe. A scathing critique on the Euro, and a strong argument for either major reform or reversion to national currencies. This book helped me clarify my political opinions on the EU, and understand why Europe has still not recovered from the financial crisis. It also made me think about the danger of burying your head in the sand and refusing to acknowledge bad decisions, no matter how big or how much short term pain may be involved.

  9. Outliers: The Story of Success. Another book that had been on my reading list for a long time. It made me reflect on the advantages that I have had, how I can create more opportunities for myself, and also how I can help create opportunities for others.

This year, I hope to continue reading at my current pace. I also want to take better notes, make better use of Goodreads, and read more fiction.