My Favourite Books from 2019

Published: 20 Jan 2020
My Favourite Books from 2019

Reading is a passion for me. I love it. I’m one of those people who has around 20 books piled up around my bedside table waiting to be read. I seem to order at least one or two new books to read every week. And I even keep a little spreadsheet outlining the books I have read each year so I can remember what I loved, what I didn’t, and why.

A few years ago, Todd Kashdan, an academic researcher I admire, began publishing an annual list of his favourite books. I have read that list with interest every year and purchased MANY of his recommendations. And this year I was determined to publish my own list. In 2019 I read about 45 books, probably less than I might have read, had I not also written a book of my own. Some of the books have rocked my world. Some of them were so good I haven’t stopped talking about them.

And so this is my list of amazing books I would recommend to just about anyone. The books I’m going to share are not all new. Some have been around for quite a while. I’m just sharing the books I’ve loved this year, regardless of who wrote them, when they were written, or what they’re about. (As it happens, this year’s list is actually remarkably current… but that’s just a fluke.) In sharing a book list I’m opening myself up quite a lot. I’m making myself a little vulnerable. I recognise that not everyone will share my interests.

And yet… that’s what I love about Todd’s list.

I have read books that he loved, and those books have taught me, helped me see the world through different perspectives, and opened up alternative paradigms I had never considered. While I haven’t rated all of his recommendations as highly as he has, I’ve read books that have expanded my thinking and knowledge – books that I would never have considered were it not for his recommendations. And I’ve loved many of them. I hope you’ll be open to exploring new ideas as you explore what’s lit me up this year. So… in no particular order (except for the last one on my list), here are my top 10 books for 2019.

Ghost Empire (Richard Fidler)

I may have become obsessed by the history of Constantinople. After I raved about Richard Fidler's Sagaland, my brother-in-law bought me Ghost Empire for my birthday. It was simply outstanding. I loved the book. Reading about the history of this city that was really the capital of the world - and discovering the intrigue, politics, bloodshed and so much more - was riveting. I couldn't put the book down. It was a wonderful, wonderful book. (I wish there had been more about the day-to-day life of ordinary citizens, and Fidler almost ignored the religious history of the place, but there is obviously only so much space to tell the story.) I rate this book as among one of the best I've read in recent years. It was excellent.

Jesus Wars (Philip Jenkins)

After I read Richard Fidler’s Ghost Empire I picked up another book about Constantinople. I couldn’t get enough… and while I stand by what I said about loving Ghost Empire, it appears Fidler omitted a breathtaking amount of information that seems crucial to the story of Constantinople: religion. I had no idea how pervasive religiosity was to these people. Jenkins fills in the gaps.

This was an extraordinary book that covers an incredibly complex period in Christian antiquity with dozens of powerful political and religious players, and thousands (perhaps tens of thousands) of murders. Essentially Jenkins looks into the councils that followed Nicea. He talks about Ephesus, Chalcedon, and the wrangling between Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople. And I had no idea that so much war and death could be waged over such minutiae related to creeds, whether the Trinity was of one or two natures, and one or two wills. I wonder how many Christians know the history of Christianity. This is an extraordinary history that asks more questions of believers than it could ever answer – and it was eye-opening in extraordinary ways. This book has a fast paced and complex narrative that is exciting to read. I loved it and really highly recommend it. Outstanding.

Flash Boys (Michael Lewis)

Flash boys was recommended to me at a workshop I attended, and I was riveted from the first page. Lewis is the guy behind Moneyball and The Big Short, so he comes with credibility. But this book was a blinder. Extraordinary depth but entirely (almost) understandable, the book is an analysis of the "flash boys", the High Frequency Traders who skim billions of dollars from the stock market every year with their highest of high speed data connections, their insanely complicated algorithms, and their lack of anything remotely resembling ethics.

But it's not just an expose. It's a story of a bunch of guys who set out to "right" the system, to make it fairer. I cannot describe how good this book was... if I could, I'd give it 6 stars out of 5. Maybe more. I also cannot say how disgusting the "system" is, and how appalled I am at how much we are being robbed with nothing that can be done about it. The banks, the traders, the market - it's all a sham to make money for liars and cheats. The book left me pretty angry, but amazed at the same time. Honestly don't know what else to say other than wow. I should note that there is a STRONG language warning for anyone who has a look at this book. An absolute standout.

Maybe you should talk to someone (Lori Gottlieb)

I LOVED this book! I’ve recommended it several times since I read it. Lori wrote an outstanding article for The Atlantic a few years back called "How to Land Your Kid in Therapy." I've remembered her ever since and when I saw this book I knew I had to have it. It's essentially a memoir, but it absolutely soars. Lori introduces us, in Chapter 1, to John. According to John everyone around him is an idiot. They're all idiots. He is arrogant, self-obsessed, and rude. And yet Lori helps us to love him and want to help him.

Her obvious compassion and love for her clients is illustrated with warmth as she introduces us to a cancer patient who wants help facing her death, a lonely elderly woman trying to understand why no one loves her, and others. In spite of his obvious weaknesses John (whose language is frequently coarse and it becomes a stain on the book) became my favourite character and each chapter that contained more of his story delighted me more and more.

Lori also describes her own therapy as she crashes through a relationship breakup that she didn't see coming. I laughed out loud. I cried big wet tears. I loved this.

A False Report: A True Story (T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong)

This one came through Todd Kashdan’s recommendations. I don't even like to use the word rape, let alone consider reading an entire book about it. But on Todd’s recommendation I dived in. The book tells the true story of a woman who is attacked, reports it, and is bullied into recanting her accusation. What happens next is mindblowing, tragic, and breathtaking in its impact, and what it leads to is extraordinary, and everything good in the law and policing.

The authors are careful to be accurate and realistic but never gratuitous in their depictions of the crimes they describe. They provoke empathy where it's needed and move things along at a ripping pace. Written by Pulitzer Prize winners, this book took me by surprise in terms of how much I am grateful for it. If you read this book, be prepared for a re-orientation around gender, accusations and investigations, and perhaps best of all, the prehistoric way we have viewed rape for centuries - and why the time has come for a change. I read this book in about four sittings. Just didn't want to put it down

The Coddling of the American Mind (Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff)

It’s hard to think of what to write about a book that is so outstanding. Haidt and Lukianoff are extraordinary. The book is fabulous. Haidt is the author of the Happiness Hypothesis, a book I’ve often claimed as one of the best books in psychology ever written. This book doesn’t reach those heights, but it is still a genuine 5 star book in every way. The authors argue that our world has come to accept three great untruths, and in so doing, has moved from human antifragility to terrible fragility. The coddling and ‘safetyism’ that has occurred through the acceptance of these untruths is leading to even greater concerns and problems for society, and particularly for our young people. Haidt and Lukianoff offer a range of solutions to guide parents, educators, and policy-makers away from the untruths and towards better thinking and living. I think every human in Western Society should know and understand what this book teaches.

Chasing my Cure (David Fajgenbaum)

I love memoirs that are well written and thought provoking. This is both and more. Fajgenbaum was a privileged rich kid who was studying medicine when he almost died from a rare disease (that's apparently not so rare - it's just that no one had heard of it). He didn't just almost die. He endured excruciating multi-organ failure as his body ballooned due to excess fluid and medical abnormalities. His recovery was short. This experience occurred four more times over subsequent years as he endured seven forms of chemo at once (every time he nearly died), finished his medical degree, did an MBA, formed a global research collaborative that has reshaped the medical industry, married, and sought a cure for his disease. And that's barely scratching the surface. Part memoir, part critique of the medical milieu, and part inspiration, this is a remarkable story about a simply incredible human being. I was mesmerised and read the entire book in one weekend.

Talking to Strangers (Malcolm Gladwell)

Gladwell is one of the most compelling authors on the planet. He weaves an incredible story involving top level Cuban double-agents, Brock Turner and the Stanford rape case, police who abuse their power, Guantanamo Bay prisoners and torture experts, and so many more fascinating tales with people who must be impossible to track down to help us understand deceit, trust, and the mistakes we make in our relationships with people we don't know well. He explodes common perceptions about why we do what we do, highlights nuance and depth in every interaction, and absolutely entertains.

Permission to Feel (Marc Brackett)

One of my favourite books this year from a genuinely nice guy (and rock-solid scholar). Marc Brackett runs the Centre for Emotional Intelligence at Yale University. His book outlines why emotions matter, how we think they work, and what we can do (following his evidence-based RULER program) to be better with our own emotions and the emotions of others. I LOVED this book. Powerful illustrations, excellent evidence base, accessible to read, and such valuable take-home messages. Marc is also not afraid to be vulnerable, emotional, and personal. If you want to make your relationships better - and if you want to improve your self-leadership - this is a must read. I rate it as one of my books of the year.

Dark Horse (Todd Rose and Ogi Ogas)

I think that this is my book of the year. Dark Horse unpacks the Standardisation Covenant that most of the world has unquestioningly accepted: the idea that if you follow the standardised route you might attain excellence - if you're better than everyone else.

Then, using research from Harvard's Dark Horse project, Rose absolutely goes to town on why his university and others like it are destroying the fabric of human fulfillment with quotas, equants, and an antiquated system for categorising people based on their potential for excellence when following the standardised route to achievement. Rose is the author of one of my favourite books from last year - the End of Average - but this book is better.

Rose argues that we should let go of our obsession with standardising excellence and offer personalised pathways to fulfillment (and excellence will be the byproduct for ALL rather than just the chosen few who are better than everyone else). The book challenges assumptions, tears down the establishment, and highlights just how flawed our current systems are. I think this book should be compulsory reading for EVERYONE in education, for EVERYONE who is a parent, or for ANYONE who wants more fulfillment in life. Just brilliant.


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