What I Read in 2019

In which I continue to review my approach to reading and think about the books I read last year.

10:55 · 10th May 2020 - 3104 words about review

In 2018, I read 18 books. Of those books, only two were written by women.

Reflecting on that, I thought that it seemed problematic so looked at addressing it in my reading habits for 2019.

I want to make sure I never read for the sake of quantity but instead focus on quality, even it means reading fewer books. I also want to read from a broader set of perspectives, by consciously reading more books by minoritised authors and less by white guys—who often get away with writing mediocre books because of their privilege anyway.

This entry is me holding myself accountable to those intentions by asking, “Well Carlos, did you?”

Last year, I read 27 books in total.

Of those books, 9 authors were people of colour and white women. 18 were white men.

So an increase from 11% to 33% which is a great improvement, but not good enough and I still have unlearning work to do.

Carlos Eriksson as a Disney character, reading books.
Learning is the gift I keep giving myself.

The books are listed in the order I read them in. The order matters (at least for me) because there are a few things I consciously keep in mind when reading a book:

  1. I read to expand my mind and learn
  2. I don’t repeat a subject back-to-back
  3. I cross-examine the lessons from one book with another
  4. I read at least 3 books on the same subject
  5. lived experiences influence the perspective each author has, so representation matters

What follows, aren’t reviews, but instead little explanations as to why I decided to read a book, and how it changed my perspective coming out of it.

At least where I can remember. As you’ll see, one book taught me how I was reading wrong.

Happy: Why More or Less Everything is Absolutely Fine by Derren Brown

Back at the beginning of 2019, happiness hadn’t quite turned into the well-being it would later become—see the Vitruvian Man entry—so when I saw Happy on Derek Sivers book recommendations I quickly added it to my “want to read” list.

Happiness is being fine with the situation you’re in unless it’s abusive in which case change it to one which you’re fine being in. Derren Brown’s Happy feels like a great introduction to the journey through time and happiness, from Buddha and Seneca to Stoicism and mindfulness today.

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

Do singularities of spacetime exist in black holes as general relativity predicts it should? We don’t know. How amazing is that? We think we’re so fucking clever and despite knowing so much, we also know so little.

Curios side fact: Stephen Hawking and I shared the same hairdresser at one point.

This book reminded me of how incredibly small and unimportant I am in a massive indifferent universe, and how amazing that is.

Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection by A.J. Jacobs

I was on a journey of self-improvement and when I stumbled on a book by someone who had done a similar journey with a similar try-everything-twice approach I couldn’t resist stealing all of A.J. Jacobs shortcuts. It was entertaining, funny, and relatable. But I also felt like the journey only served the purpose of writing the book.

The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science by Norman Doidge

Do I have brain damage? I probably do. Can I change my brain enough to make up for it? This book says I can and backs it up with science I’m inclined to believe (but then bias says I would say that so hey ho).

To a larger degree than we suspected, culture determines what we can and cannot perceive.

Our brain is incredibly flexible, and new research is showing that we do grow new brain cells as well—something which is still controversial—but if we didn’t, how would we be making memories?

Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig

Some sections of this book made me so anxious that I had to stop reading for moments.

It’s a good little book with reminders that we’re not alone, although from the perspective of white and male privilege—which I have so double relatable for me.

Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design by Kat Holmes

For better or for worse, the people who design the touchpoints of society determine who can participate and who’s left out. Design shapes our ability to access, participate in and contribute to the world.

I love Mismatch because of its careful deconstruction of how we maintain a society which excludes people from participating using very arbitrary lines, whilst pretending they’re not arbitrary. It continues by acknowledging the reality that it will be hard work to change it.

This is a great introduction to systemic exclusion.

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell

I’m a big fan of the idea of cultivated intuition. But we are the collective momentary reflection of our conscious and subconscious experiences, and they are error-prone as fuck.

Malcolm Gladwell makes it sound like we should all learn to trust our intuition, but second nature thinking can be dangerous (to you and other people) when it’s coming from a place of entitlement and privilege.

Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado-Pérez

I already knew that the world is biased against everyone who isn’t a man, but I had no idea just how much.

This book forever changed how I view kitchen cupboard heights and voice recognition software—two more things which haven’t been designed with women in mind. Filled with thorough research, footnotes and things to convince—if you weren’t already—that the design of this world is biased.

Note: Invisible Women is a transphobic and enbyphobic book, and it excludes women just for not being cisgender (cis).

The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli

Time is a construct which doesn’t exist. everything is relative and the universe is pretty fucking amazing in its barely observable spectacle.

This made me feel insignificantly small in the vastness of the universe at the same time as I felt incredibly connected to every probability of quanta. In one word, transcendent.

Carlo Rovelli is a motherfucking poet. Credits to Erica Segre and Simon Carnell for the amazing English translation. I would learn Italian simply to be able to read this as Rovelli wrote it.

Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig

Similar to his first book, Notes on a Nervous Planet hit me in a very familiar place at times. I didn’t have to stop and put it down this time though so I suppose that’s progress—more for me than Matt Haig.

The Year of Less: How I Stopped Shopping, Gave Away My Belongings, and Discovered Life Is Worth More Than Anything You Can Buy in a Store by Cait Flanders

More a “how I helped myself” guide than a self-help guide. I really enjoyed this memoir. Many aspects of Cait Flander’s life were relatable and found myself nodding along in recognition many times.

The Making of a Manager: What to Do When Everyone Looks to You by Julie Zhuo

I went into this thinking, “If I become a manager, I’d like to be a good one”.

At the time I was considering trying to move into a more managerial position.

What I ended up getting was a phenomenal book in people management and interpersonal skills which for me, is almost on-par with Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.

Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion by Sam Harris

Undergoing a complete callosotomy illustrates how our consciousness is divisible.

An answer consistent with the hypothesis of mental duality in the normal human brain suggests itself. The non-speaking hemisphere has known the true state of affairs from a tender age. It has known this because beginning at the age two or three it heard speech emanating from the common body that, as language development on the left proceeded, became too complex grammatically and syntactically for it to believe it was generating: the same, of course, for what it observed the preferred handwriting down in school throughout the years. Postsurgically, little has changed for the mute hemisphere (other than the loss of sensory information about the ipsilateral half of bodily space)… Being inured to this state of cerebral helot, it goes along. Thankless cooperation can become a way of life.

This book aims to understand consciousness and spirituality, but for me, the biggest takeaway becomes the importance of writing things down because in part, doing so accesses a different part of our consciousness.

17776: What football will look like in the future by Jon Bois (fiction)

I don’t like football and I’m not particularly interested in satellites so when I stumbled on to this embracing-the-web-as-a-medium story I was only going to see a little what the fuss was about. A few days later I had read the entire thing, gripped by the idea itself and how it weaved sci-fi with a future idea of football—which I would play.

This is the only fiction I read in 2019 and I enjoyed every moment of its free-to-read wild ride.

How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler

There’s more than one way to read a book and apparently, I’ve been doing it all wrong! Well, not all wrong, but mostly wrong.

This book confirmed a few things I was already thinking, showed me a few I hadn’t even thought about and illustrated the importance of a good table of contents—which as it turns out, many good books lack. I can now spot a Great book a mile away which makes it hard to read mediocre books anymore.

Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger by Soraya Chemaly

Anger has a bad rap, but it is actually one of the most hopeful and forward-thinking of all our emotions. It begets transformation, manifesting our passion and keeping us invested in the world. It is a rational and emotional response to trespass, violation, and moral disorder. It bridges the divide between what “is” and what “ought” to be, between a difficult past and an improved possibility. Anger warns us viscerally of violation, threat, and insult.

In a society where men are allowed to express anger for every little fucking grievance and women are shushed regardless, it seems vital that I learn what things I have every right to be angry about, and what things are little fucking grievances.

Company of One: Why Staying Small is the Next Big Thing for Business by Paul Jarvis

When thinking about starting my own company I knew I wanted to approach things my way, which meant being more of a stay-up, as Aral and Laura would say, than a start-up.

“On Apple’s television show Planet of the Apps, one contestant admits, “I rarely get to see my kids. That’s a risk you have to take.” Is it really? That kind of hustling, putting work above everything else, is inconsistent with the mind-set of running a company of one.”

This book reassured me that I can define my idea of success and measure against that, instead of someone else’s idea of success.

Your Brain Is a Time Machine: The Neuroscience and Physics of Time by Dean Buonomano

Buonomano rambles a bit too much about things he doesn’t seem to understand—I’m aware that I’m the pot to his kettle—which ultimately is the let-down of this book. It’s interesting but a bit too Gladwellian.

We are only ones who plant seeds (I don’t believe that) and build structures to last across the centuries. and yet, many of the most serious problems facing us today (and other species) are a consequence of human shortsightedness.

Through stories, passed down from generations, we can send a message to the future.

Posh Boys: How the English Public Schools Ruin Britain by Robert Verkaik

The figures speak for themselves. Only 7 per cent of the population attend a private school. Yet private school pupils represent 74 per cent of senior judges, 71 per cent of senior officers in the armed forces, 67 per cent of Oscar winners, 55 per cent of permanent secretaries in Whitehall, 50 per cent of Cabinet ministers and members of the House of Lords, and a third of Russell Group university vice-chancellors.

Britain has an educational caste system which it’s refusing to acknowledge or address.

Resting on the laurels of a dying empire, until it changes, it will continue to lose its relevance in the 21st century.

Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone by Brené Brown

Most of the time we approach life with an armoured front for two reasons: 1) We’re not comfortable with emotions and we equate vulnerability with weakness, and/or 2) Our experiences of trauma have taught us that vulnerability is dangerous. Violence and oppression have made our soft front a liability, and we struggle to find a place emotionally and physically safe enough to be vulnerable. The definition of vulnerability is uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. But vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our most accurate measure of courage. When the barrier is our belief about vulnerability, the question becomes: Are we willing to show up and be seen when we can’t control the outcome? When the barrier to vulnerability is about safety, the question becomes: Are we willing to create courageous spaces so we can be fully seen?

I learned to live my life with a strong back, soft front and a wild heart.

Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution by Peter Kalmus

Kalmus conclusion is that the climate crisis is a failure of humanity’s collective imagination.

I agree with this.

He continues to say that, “Cynicism and inaction at the national level is nothing more than the collective expression of cynicism and inaction of individuals.”

I don’t agree with this.

His focus is misguided on individual carbon footprint, which although important, is a drop of rain in an overheating ocean of corporate greed. Corporations and colonial capitalism is the source of our climate crisis and if you want to spark a climate revolution, those old structures of power need to be dismantled.

Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny by Kate Manne

Manne defined misogyny, “as primarily a property of social environments in which women are liable to encounter hostility due to the enforcement and policing of patriarchal norms and expectations.”

I can’t recommend this enough. Read it.

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

I wanted to understand race relations in Britain. Reni Eddo-Lodge expertly deconstructs both past and present in her exploration of why Britain looks the way it does today.

Another must-read.

Brief Answers to the Big Questions by Stephen Hawking

There was a young lady of Wight
Who travelled much faster than light
She departed one day
In a relative way
And arrived on the previous night.

The timescale for evolution in the external transmission period is the timescale for accumulation of information. This used to be hundreds, or even thousands, of years. But now this timescale has shrunk to about fifty years or less. On the other hand, the brains with which we process this information have evolved only on the Darwinian timescale, of hundreds of thousands of years. This is beginning to cause problems.

In the eighteenth century, there was said to be a man who had read every book written.

In 2010, according to Google’s algorithms, there were around 130 million books.

Our brains haven’t evolved to manage this level of detailed information but life is lived in the details.

Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism by Safiya Umoja Noble

“Black girls need to learn how to code” is an excuse for not addressing the persistent marginalization of Black women in Silicon Valley.

And saying it’s a pipeline problem, is like saying the Flint Water crisis is a pipeline problem. Racism and white supremacy is the problem.

Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class by Owen Jones

Welfare fraud is estimated to cost the Treasury around £1 billion a year. But, as detailed investigations by chartered accountant Richard Murphy have found, £70 billion is lost through tax evasion every year

people must realize that, although they may have their differences, the differences between them are far less significant than those that separate them from power; and that if they organize together, their collective power can transform society.

Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith

Peter is very into octopuses. And as fascinating as creatures they are, especially for consciousness and the many similarities we share with them, it feels like the book never manages to get to its point. Unless the point is simply to marvel at octopuses.


I’ve continued into 2020 with greater clarity and a more strategic approach to my intentions.


Theme: review

Topics: reading, books