What I’ve been reading and listening to

My spring and summer book and podcast consumption so far:

Books:

The Triumph of Christianity by Bart Ehrman – Good insight into how a small, outlier religion took over the Roman Empire in just four centuries.

The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle – Really good. The subtitle is “The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups”. The book is filled with great examples of organizations and teams that have crafted the kinds of culture that set them apart. The chapter on the San Antonio Spurs and Coach Popovich especially keeps coming to mind. I’m afraid the vast majority of organizations either make no effort to prioritize culture (which really just means prioritizing people), or they think they do but do it in a forced, inauthentic way, more as a means to an end rather than a meaningful end in itself.

The Inner Citadel by Pierre Hadot – A very deep dive into Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations by the foremost scholar on the subject.

Mastery by Robert Greene – I’m rereading this for a book club with the students I work with. It’s worthwhile just for the many vignettes of the lives and work of past masters.

11/22/63 by Stephen King – This is the first Stephen King novel I’ve ever read. It’s a wonderfully done time-travel story that completely pulled me in. It’s about a guy who goes back in time intending to prevent the JFK assassination, but it’s the side stories that make this so compelling.

Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea cycle — A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Autuan, and The Farthest Shore – I do like an occasional fantasy novel, and these books were influential for an entire generation of writers. You can see where J.K. Rowling got some of her key ideas.

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman – Light, fun, imaginative, and not as dark as I’d expected.

Next up: Circe by Madeline Miller

Audiobooks:

Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson – I learned a lot, but this is one where the actual book would have made more sense than the audiobook. So much of this book relies on seeing da Vinci’s creations. Isaacson goes into great detail on the nuances of his art, and it’s hard to fully appreciate it without seeing the art that’s included in the book

Born To Run by Bruce Springsteen – Bruce reads this himself, and that takes this one up a notch. He made his name in rock and roll as a writer of songs rather than on his voice or his musicianship. And this book is poetic in many parts. It’s beautifully written. He also stood out as a compelling on-stage presence, a true star as a charismatic, high-energy frontman. That all comes across in this telling of his story.

The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe – This is Wolfe’s classic account of the beginnings of the U.S. space program. It’s a rollicking, hugely entertaining story told with a winking flair that really captures the courageous and often reckless vibe of those first astronauts. The actor Dennis Quaid reads this, or, more accurately, performs this, and shows the right stuff, himself, in delivering a compelling and fun story.

Rocket Men by Robert Kurson – I was on a NASA kick. This one is all about Apollo 8, which was a bold effort to get American astronauts to the moon before the Russians. This one mission flipped the space race and set up Apollo 11. Apollo 11 gets all the glory, but Apollo 8 is a much more dramatic story.

Next up, Napoleon: A Life by Andrew Roberts

Podcasts:

Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History – Episodes are few and far between because Carlin clearly puts so much research and planning into each one. His latest series on imperial Japan is off to a great start. So, so good.

Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History – Gladwell is killing it now that he’s started podcasting. This is a great format for his passionate and clever storytelling.

My reading routine is like this: First thing in the morning I sit down with a cup of tea and focus for around a half-hour on something heavier—non-fiction like Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, Ehrman’s book on Christianity, and the Hadot book on Marcus Aurelius, for example.

At lunch I read something a bit lighter and often related to work, like Coyle’s book on organizational culture.

At night and on weekends I opt for fiction.

The audiobooks and podcasts fill my drive time and walks and yard work.

Books are important to me. Reading has shaped my life like few other activities. It’s too easy now to “read” the drivel that scrolls across our screens and think we’re accomplishing something. I have to make books a priority in my life and build routines around them to make sure reading time doesn’t got lost to the frivolous and empty distractions of 21st century life.

My recent reading

A8F08853-75D8-443D-84BF-13D060FF54CBI chipped away slowly (usually no more than 20 minutes a day in the morning while my kids were still asleep) at Steven Pinker’s 453-page long Enlightenment Now and finished it recently. It’s a thorough—and I do mean thorough—survey of the key measures of human well being. And his convincing conclusion, backed up by charts and graphs galore, is that humans have made remarkable progress over the last few centuries, and we are living in the best of times. The daily news and your social media feed may make you think otherwise, but life right now for most humans is better than it’s ever been.

As I closed the book each morning I did so with a bit of gratitude for the heroes who came before us and made the world a better, safer, gentler place. And I came away more optimistic about the future. If you need a potent dose of good news, get this book.

D82CB049-A71C-4CF7-82FB-0AC7F1A829D3I also finished the audiobook version of Ron Chernow’s biography of George Washington. At 42 hours, it occupied my dog walks and daily commute over a span of a few months. It started slowly, and Washington was not as endearing a personality as my favorite audiobook subjects from last year—Lincoln and Grant. But he grew on me as he grew into his role as the linchpin of the founding of the American republic.

Washington wasn’t the most brilliant military strategist, but he was courageous and heroically steadfast and inspired others by his charismatic presence. That he endured more than eight trying years outlasting the British army, often just barely keeping his army together and viable, is a greater military feat than any single battle he won.

And he was the indispensable man as the nation’s first president. His character and restraint set the standard for what a chief executive in a democratic republic could be.

He could be prickly and thin-skinned and vain. And though he wrote the emancipation of his own slaves into his will, he will always be tainted for what he didn’t do to move the nation away from slavery at its founding.

I toured his home, Mt. Vernon, shortly before I finished the book and took it in with a deep appreciation for what this one flawed but truly great man accomplished.

I typically have around three books going at any one time—non-fiction in the morning and at lunch, an audiobook for on the go, and a novel in the evening and on weekends.

E1FF8C29-45C3-449E-A009-FEF9A05F9787.jpegThe novel I most recently finished is The Three Body Problem, an award winning work of science fiction by Chinese author Cixin Liu. It’s a challenging read, especially in the early going, but it comes around to an intriguing concept. Imagine humans making contact with intelligent life far away in the galaxy. They’re coming, and they won’t come in peace. Some on Earth are throwing in their lot with the aliens, and others are preparing to resist an invasion that will be centuries in the future. This book is the first in a trilogy. I’ve got book two in my stack already.

Reading is a fundamental habit to build into your daily routine. Good books are transformational. Making deep reading a priority has made my days richer and more meaningful.

My favorite audiobooks of the past year

Listening to books became a more regular thing for me last year. I’ve got a monthly Audible subscription and download a new book each month. I favor biography and history for audiobooks. I’m not sure why, but I’m not as interested in listening to fiction. I would rather read it.

It does feel kind of like cheating to “read” books by listening to them. But the oral tradition of storytelling goes way back before the printed word ever existed. So, I’m treating my recent audiobooks obsession as getting back to our ancient roots sitting by a fire listening to the tribal storyteller.

Plus, it’s a very efficient way to consume more good books in an otherwise busy life. I listen as I drive and as I walk the dog and while doing work in the yard. Some of these books were such a delight that I was inclined to drive the long way or go slower or sit in the driveway for a few minutes to get to a natural break in the story.

And I wore my dog out while listening to the truly remarkable books on Lincoln and Grant I list below. “Come on, Mosley, let’s go for another long walk and hear how Mr. Lincoln wins the nomination for president…”

I was even extra enthusiastic about working in the yard: “Honey, I’m going to go outside and mow the lawn and learn how General Grant captured Vicksburg. See you in a couple of hours…”

Here are my favorite audiobooks from the past year:

  • Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin – So good! I was already on team Lincoln, my favorite person from history, but this book took my affection for him even higher. Goodwin (who wrote a couple of other great books I’ve enjoyed about the Kennedy family and the Roosevelts) makes a fairly familiar story come to new life by weaving in the stories of the key people around Mr. Lincoln. The narrator was excellent, and the story, though we all know how it ends, was so moving. Got a lump in my throat at his death. 41 hours of audiobook/history-nerd bliss.
  • American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant by Ronald White – What a nice surprise. I knew very little about Grant other than what everyone knows about his military accomplishments and that his reputation seemed a bit sullied by his tenure in the White House. This book rocketed Grant up near the top of great Americans in my view. He was a leader of unparalleled character, steely determination, and endearing humility. He came practically out of nowhere to be the indispensable man in securing the Union’s victory in the Civil War. His leadership as President is underrated. He was ahead of his time in pressing for civil rights and opposing racism while standing up to the Ku Klux Klan. He had the misfortune of being surrounded by some unscrupulous friends and subordinates, though, who took advantage of his trust. The story of his race to write his memoirs to save his family from financial ruin while he was dying of throat cancer and spurred on by his friend Mark Twain… Remarkable. And those memoirs turned out to be one of the great pieces of autobiography in American literary history. (Also, the narrator for this audiobook was particularly good. A good narrator makes a big impact on the listening experience.)
  • The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt – A little bit of Roman history and philosophy inside the story of a Catholic Church bureaucrat from the Middle Ages who discovers a long lost and transformational manuscript.
  • The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution by David Quammen – I knew little about Darwin’s life before listening to this relatively short biography. It focuses mostly on the slow and careful approach he took to grasping his theory and then, finally, sharing it somewhat reluctantly with the world. Darwin comes across as a genuinely thoughtful and kind man who loved his wife and children dearly. His meticulous methods in his work allowed him to see patterns in nature that led to arguably the biggest breakthrough in the history of science.
  • SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard – This one starts slow in detailing what can be known about the founding of Rome and its early history. But it picks up steam in describing the Republic and the beginnings of the empire.

This one wasn’t a recent listen, but I can’t mention audiobooks without a plug for one of my favorites: Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life by Steve Martin. Martin reads it himself and even plays the banjo between chapters in telling the story of his career as a stand-up comic. Aside from sheer entertainment, it’s worth a listen as a primer on what it takes to craft a great career.

Currently, I’m back and forth between two audiobooks: Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow and Henry David Thoreau: A Life by Laura Dassow Walls. The Washington biography was a slog early on. He’s not as endearing as Lincoln or Grant. But it’s picked up as the story moves into the Revolutionary War. I’m putting Thoreau on hold until I finish with Washington.

Reading has shaped my life more than any other habit. When I was frustrated at the lack of time I was making for books last year, turning to audiobooks salvaged my year as a reader. I still read traditional books and keep a novel on my nightstand. But getting more books into my life through audiobooks has been a delight.

What I’m reading: Ron Chernow’s Hamilton 

 
I’ve been missing a compelling read in my life. 

I’m starting Ron Chernow’s acclaimed and hefty biography of Alexander Hamilton. There’s a lot of hype right now around the new Broadway show that was inspired by this book. And I enjoyed Chernow’s similarly epic biography of Rockefeller. 

Some of my favorite books have been biographies. A masterful author, like Edmund Morris or David McCullough, matched with a fascinating character, like Theodore Roosevelt or Harry Truman, can produce works that rival the best page-turning fiction. 

Good evening, Mr. Hamilton (and Mr. Chernow). Let’s get started. 

My two favorite books of 2015

The best book I read last year was Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. It’s an effectively audacious survey of all of human history. It’s grand scale doesn’t overwhelm and is remarkably concise.

Harari fills the narrative with fascinating facts and profound insights (and some whimsy) as he details where we came from and hints at where we might go from here. This is one I’m tempted to read all over again to better process the many insights into what it means to be a human.

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The best novel I read last year was Seveneves by Neal Stephenson. It begins with the destruction of the moon by some unknown cause. Scientists soon discover that means the Earth is doomed, and there are two years to come up with a plan to save the human species by sending a select few into space.

The engineering details Stephenson describes can be mind-boggling and tedious. But the technical insight adds credibility to the grand and emotionally stunning, and ultimately satisfying, narrative.

I felt a persistent twinge of sadness as doomsday approached for Earth as we know it. Part two wasn’t as moving as the epic first part, but it offered a clever and hopeful conclusion.

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Bill Walsh’s leadership and life lessons

  
Ryan Holiday had this book on his recommended reading list, and I was intrigued enough to put it on my holiday wish list.

Bill Walsh was the cerebral, stoic coach who created the San Francisco 49ers football dynasty. He wasn’t known for sideline bluster or emotional outbursts. He was John Wooden-esque in his sage-like approach to leading his team as well as in his remarkable success. 

He set an expectation of excellence within the whole organization, from the receptionists to the star quarterback. And he didn’t put his focus or his team’s on anything out of their control. Do your absolute best in this moment, repeat that approach continually, and “the score will take care of itself.”

This approach just makes sense. Focus on systems, not goals. Refine the process that brings out your best, and let the results take care of themselves. Don’t get attached to outcomes. 

I’ve just started reading and can already tell that there is a lot of wisdom here. Walsh, whose public persona was one of the complete calm and control, begins the book with a story about his second season coaching the 49ers and his emotional collapse after losing yet another game in a disappointing season. He cried uncrontollably on a cross-country flight with his team after losing a heart-breaking game in Miami, with his assistant coaches shielding him at the front of the plane to keep the players from seeing him in such a state. His response to that emotional breakdown led the way to his first Super Bowl title the very next season. 

I didn’t expect Bill Walsh to open the book with such vulnerability, and that let me know this was not just another superficial leadership pep talk from an ex-coach. 

I’m looking forward to gleaning some wisdom from this book that I can take back to my team and be a better resource and leader for those I serve.