Matt’s Essential Reading List #4

Here is my fourth installment of what will eventually be 50 essential books to read.

A reminder of my guiding criteria:

  • Prestige of the author and/or book
  • Readability/Approachability
  • Subject Matter
  • Quality
  • Perspective

Another reminder: a * denotes that the book is also on Amazon’s “100 Books to Read in a Lifetime”


How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt

Academic/Expository/AnalysisHow Democracies Die

How Democracies Die won numerous book prizes in 2018.  It is particularly relevant now in the aftermath of the recent release of the Mueller Report and the current crisis in Venezuela.  This book is a great analysis of how countries can from democracy towards authoritarianism.  In modern times, this change is usually not sudden, but rather a gradual chipping away at democratic norms and institutions, until they are easily toppled. It analyzes Nazi Germany, Venezuela, and Turkey among others and compares these situations to what is happening currently in the United States.

Admittedly, the book is highly critical of Donald Trump and the Republicans.  However, it is not a manifesto for socialism or a liberal agenda.  It is not critical of Republican policies per se.  Rather, it warns that the methods that Trump and Republican leaders in Congress have used have begun to erode the foundations of the American system of government.

One of the key tenants of the book is that a historical foundation for American democracy has been mutual toleration, that competing political parties view each other as legitimate rivals with different views, rather than as existential threats that must be defeated at all costs.  This is a lesson we all must learn if the republic is to continue.


*The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

FictionThe Sun Also Rises by [Hemingway, Ernest ]

If you have ever considered participating in “The Running of the Bulls” in Pamplona, Spain, this is the novel that brought the San Fermin Festival into the world’s consciousness.  I have been fortunate enough to take part in the San Fermin Festival in Pamplona (and yes, I ran with the bulls as well!)  And while, I had already wanted to do it, reading The Sun Also Rises only increased the desire.

Beyond the excitement of the Spanish festival, the book, in my opinion, best captures the imagined Lost Generation lifestyle: sitting in cafes in Europe with people from different countries, contemplating life, whether it has any meaning, and thinking the next adventure it holds in store.

This is, for good reason, considered one of Hemingway’s greatest works, and it does capture his writing style and his lifestyle rather well.

And if you are still considering your summer vacation plans, the San Fermin festival is in early July and is an amazing time.  Most of the rooms are usually booked by now, but it’s always possible to find something.  When I went, I didn’t book until a couple weeks before and was able to find a nice private room right in the middle of it the action.  The hotel even had balconies overlooking Estafeta, the main street of the festival.


Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success by Adam Grant

Self-Improvement/Philosophical/ManagementGive and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success by [Grant Ph.D., Adam M.]

I came across this book rather coincidentally. During my last month at SpaceX before I left on my trip around the world, Adam Grant happened to come and do a small management lecture on the principles of Give and Take.  He also provided books for the attendees, and I read it during the course of my travels.  The general principle is counter-intuitive at first, but then makes complete sense when you really think about it.

Basically, Grant states that people fundamentally fall into one of three categories: givers, takers, and matchers. Givers are rather selfless and willing to give without expecting much in return.  Takers are the opposite and try to take advantage of every situation and person for maximum personal gain.  Matchers are those that are in-between, people that are willing to help, but expect something in return, and vice-versa; believing in a balance.  In his research, Grant found that over the long-term, the givers are usually the most successful of the three.

The book explains the concepts extremely well, with great real-world examples.  It also provides guidance on how you and your team can develop a culture that encourages the giver mindset, which then is beneficial for everyone involved.


*Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Biography/Memoir[By Doris Kearns Goodwin ] Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (Paperback)【2018】by Doris Kearns Goodwin (Author) (Paperback)

As a history buff and political junkie from Illinois, obviously Lincoln is always going to be at the top of my list of presidents.  This award-winning book goes into great detail about Lincoln’s life and his political career, but also that of his major political rivals within the new Republican Party, who were more established and more likely to be the 1860 Republican nominee for President.

It is a realistic portrayal of Lincoln and his struggles, without as much myth-making.  Although, it does hold him in much higher esteem than his rivals (albeit for good reason.)  However, within the book are numerous lessons about how best to deal with people and stressful situations, and coming together in pursuit of a higher purpose.


A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

OtherA Visit from the Goon Squad

This was another accidental find.  A couple I met while traveling happened to have just finished it, recommended it, and gave their copy to me.  This Pulitzer Prize-winning book is a collection of interwoven short stories told in a variety of different perspectives and methods.  One of them is even told via PowerPoint slides.  It is a unique book, and according to Wikipedia, some critics have called it “post-postmodern”.

The stories are engrossing with interesting characters.  There is no underlying plot connecting the stories, however aspects of a story that are vague in one story often become clearer in a later story as more background information is revealed about particular characters.

It is entertaining and one of the more interesting books stylistically that I have ever read.  Despite the changing styles, which may be slightly unnerving to some, it is very accessible and enjoyable.

I kept the tradition going and passed the book on to a friend in Colombia after I was done.  So who knows where that particular book is at the moment…