The 2018 Anti-Reading List

We’re bombarded with reading lists lately, as year comes to an end. The best books, the best sellers, even the most anticipated books for next year! Certainly there isn’t a lot to gain from these list suggestions. Lots of via positiva. Instead, this post is focusing on via negativa: this is the list of books I advice you not to read in 2018.

Why an anti-list?

First, because recommending books is easy. I’ve read something, most people recommend books with a complete disregard for what could be best for you, or what you could like, but what is best for them, and what they like.

Second, most lists are pervaded by today’s herd mentality: the best sellers are those that most people find good enough, and you’re probably looking for something that makes you ecstatic, regardless of what everyone made of it. It’s an odd loop of people only reading New York Times bestsellers and recommending those books to people who are only willing to read those books, that prevent a critical mass of people from finding the actually good ones. For quality has lost the battle for attention in the age of viralisation.

Third, because some people recommend some books as virtue signalling: I’m smart, and I read what I think smart people read, even if I despise them. That’s why you hated book assignments in high school; you didn’t choose them, but had to read them anyway.

And fourth, because some are simply trying to sell you the books on those lists. Are you claiming that publishers are willing to pay Forbes magazine to have their books included in their click-bait reading lists? You might very well think that, I couldn’t possibly comment.

These four reasons share one commonality: in all cases, the people making the recommendations do not have skin in the game.

‘If you recommend not reading books, then you don’t like reading’. Well, but that isn’t true: After reading How to Read a Book, I realise that there is no time to waste on poor quality books from which you can’t learn anything. If you ever find a bad one, put it away. It may be you, it may be the book itself, but don’t bother in carrying on if, once skimmed, you have gained everything you think there is to gain from reading it.

Most of the books on these list are well known, to some extent: either the author had authored some good books before, they were interviewed in a well-known podcast, or simply the book hit the top of any news aggregator with a wide audience. Again, probably the main takeaway from this post is that virality doesn’t entail quality.

Of course, some potential backslash from the publishers of these books that made this list is expected. To them, I say: there is no such thing as bad publicity.

In ascending disgust, I present you the list of 10 books that I strongly encourage you not to buy, not to read, and not to give away as a present this Christmas.

10 - The Undoing Project, by Michael Lewis

He is one of my favourite authors, he is engaging from the first page, and has a unique style that captivated me in ‘Liars Poker’.

However, this book is pretty much useless: an excuse for a layman reader to read about psychology in a lab environment. As much as he tries to convey an aura of heroism to Tversky and Kahnemann, they’re simply humans, researchers, in an area that has gained traction only recently. While Liars Poker has aged well, I don’t expect that from this book.

Instead, go straight to the source: Thinking, Fast and Slow.

9 - The 100 year life, by Andrew Scott and Lynda Gratton

Drawing on the unique pairing of their experience in psychology and economics, Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott offer an analysis to help you rethink retirement, your finances, your education, your career, and your relationships to create a fulfilling 100-year life.

— Amazon’s book description

Shortlisted for the FT/McKinsey Book of the Year Award, this book tells you absolutely everything on the cover, and expands very very little in the sheets: everyone must be prepared for a world in which we cannot retire, so we have to eat well, we have to save, and we must be aware of the potential risks for our society as a whole. I’ve seen arguments like these before, so it isn’t even an original book, and the idea of encouraging childbirth can be rooted back to the Nazis.

Skimming this book is more than enough. Instead, I would recommend to go to Mr Money Mustache, which is my go-to resource for all things lifetime management.

8 - Start With Why, by Simon Sinek

Don’t buy the book; watch his TED talk instead.

7 - Don’t pay for your MBA, by Laurie Pickard

Unspecific, all things considered: he could have built an entire case against education, but instead went for “I did this and it went well, so I’m broadcasting my cognitive dissonance to the entire universe”. The author makes deep suggestions such as “you need to plan your MBA yourself” and “you can learn at your own pace”, which to be fair are true, but not mind-blowing.

6 - The 10x Rule, by Grant Cardone

You’ve heard of it, I heard of it: we’re in a race for increasingly scarce jobs. Automation, globalisation, gentrification, the world beneath our feet is moving. This book is all about addressing that anxiety: how to perform better.

Couldn’t read through the first chapter. At some point, I wondered if running fast trumps running somewhere, and the book wasn’t addressing that question at all. Alas, the author assumed that you wanted to go fast, regardless of where. Reading it, like the mindset it builds upon, doesn’t get you anywhere. A perfect example of what is wrong with our modern society.

5 - Brotopia, by Emily Chang

Silicon Valley is the place where anyone can change the world. Unless you’re a woman. Building on both named and anonymous sources, the author presents a vision of the big tech companies in Palo Alto that diverge from the moral high ground that they present to the public. The idea is powerful, because it hits on two pervasive ideas that have been around for a long time: that rich and powerful people don’t go to Heaven, and that women, if only they were treated equally, would do better than men.

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.

Mark 10:25

I simply don’t buy it. Like most journalists, he addresses what people say, not what people mean. If a Sequoia partner says that they’re not lowering their standards to hire women, that’s sexist. But looking more closely, that sentence only means that he is not willing to include women on their workforce just because they are women, which is a respectable position, in my opinion.

The feminist movement is filled with these kind of arguments that help very little to move our society forward. How most people addressed the Google manifesto scandal without reading the manifesto never ceased to amaze me. For some, it’s only a matter of “men equals women, so men and women must be equally present in x”, for any x that they would admire to be in. That more men are working low paying, ‘women’ jobs is hardly taken into account.

Full disclosure: I am the father of two daughters, who are smart, strong, compassionate and independent women, so any biases that might appear in this post are purely intentional.

Ed Diokno, on Views from the Edge

4 - The Startup Hero, by Tim Draper.

This book was free for 24 hours, and became the top Hacker News story of that day, 8 months ago. A huge hit, provided that the whole point of giving away a book is exposure to an audience of early adopters that would recommend it to their mainstream friends.

Well, it backfired:

I’m a few chapters in and it’s hard to keep going.

The idea that I’m left with is that Tim Draper is absolutely insufferable to be in the same room with. In every story, he is the “hero”, an amazing crusader who never makes a bad decision and is prescient about tomorrow. Some of the stories are interesting, but if you took Guy Raz’s question on How I Built This and asked Draper about how much of his success was luck versus skill, the impression is that he does not believe in luck.

If you want to read stories of an age gone by, where he is the star of the story for being in the right place and the right time, with lots of privilege (including family money to start a venture fund, and a HBS degree), then this is the book.

I just can’t imagine that he didn’t know someone who had the courage to take him aside and say, “Tim, this is a dreadful idea. Don’t put poetry in your book.” But having money means you get to do stupid things and people won’t stop you.

I love Hacker News because of the comments.

3 - Scrum, by Jeff Sutherland

An outdated topic and a study on megalomania combined. Hardly anything interesting. Scrum is now mainstream in tech environments and has proven that the focus in software shouldn’t be being fast, meaning doing more things, but being agile, meaning being able to change direction. I have no time for someone who calls everyone who doesn’t agree with him stupid, and the best ideas are sometimes being communicated by their worst preachers.

2 - 48 Rules of Power, by Robert Greene

I listened to an interview with the author and rushed to buy the book. Maybe it’s the story teller in me, but there is no structure; 48 stories served to you in the most pretentious manner, with no argument. Just some stories about people in history in most cases I’ve never heard of, with an attempt to work the mystique of The Art of War in the author’s advantage (lots of stories about Chinese rulers no one has heard of) and the sense that he could be possibly making everything up, as almost no roots to real, modern life are given, not even research studies.

Avoid these book, and if 20 years on there’s still people talking about it, pick it up again. My bet is you won’t.

1 - A Man for All Markets, by Ed Thorp

The climax of our list, the apogee of the atrocious, the crest of the dreadful. From the man who taught us how to play 21, probably the most pretentious man alive (and for good reason, because he is wicked smart), his autobiography. A collection of stories in which he portrays himself as way smarter than anyone else around him since he was a kid, even smarter than you. The American Hero that struggles against everyone and everything from the early beginnings of life in poverty to become famous, rich, and handsome.

Thorp seems to take great pleasure in describing what a special snowflake he is. His self-aggrandising way of reflecting the past makes him come across as a braggart, which makes for a rather painful read.

Amazon Reviewer

A bad joke compared to Surely you’re joking, Mr Feynman, the book that obviously this one tries to replicate. I’m not in a habit of lending books, and I lent this one with the hope that the one who borrowed it never gave it back.