The Discipline of Reading and Recommendations from 2019

By Ryan Barton | January 15, 2020
Reading recommendations from 2019!

Reading good books is a habit that pays incredible dividends.  It’s an amazing way to learn, relax, study, expand horizons, and indulge curiosity.  It’s a habit that that can be tracked, improved, and shared with others. 

While reading can be a joy, it is also work, in that it takes intentionality.  It takes discipline, it’s incredibly helpful to think of as a discipline.  It’s also helpful to share reading goals and recommendations, as both inspiration and accountability!  To that end…

These are simply the best books I read in the past year, followed by some thoughts on the discipline of reading.  The point of this is not that these are must-read books for everybody – some of them are decidedly not!  But hopefully it encourages us each to pick up an extra title, give a book an extra chance, and prioritize reading just a little more in 2020.

Books to consider reading:

Business

  • The Essential Drucker. Peter Drucker was one of the greatest students of business.  This book is a collection of chapters from various writings, put together by Peter Drucker himself, so it is sweeping in scope.  It is fantastic.  Ever read a business book with a 100-page story that tells 2 points?  This is the antithesis of that book.  Each paragraph in this could be turned into a 100-page light-read business book! 
  • Small GiantsThis book has been around since 2006, but if you haven’t read it, it’s well worth it. Bo Burlingham is a great and thoughtful author, and this book prizes companies that choose to be great instead of big.  Companies that pursue greatness for its own sake.  If you want to build an organization that lasts, that leaves a positive mark in the world, and you occasionally wonder if you’re alone in this pursuit, this book will be inspiring.
  • The Infinite Game.  Simon Sinek is always thought provoking and I recommend everything he’s written. His new book is no exception.  The only problem with recommending one of his books is that he is such a fantastic speaker, you can get the concepts in this 30 minute video!

Biography

  • Leonardo Da Vinci. Ask the average person who they most admire in history, and Leonardo da Vinci’s name comes up over and over. I am no exception, and I often listed him as a figure I admire.  However, I now realize I didn’t know that much about him before reading this…  The biography is by Walter Isaacson, and as usual for his biographies, it is well researched and incredibly engrossing.  It is simultaneously a biography, a testament to curiosity, a class on art appreciation, and a fascinating history book. 
  • Stop-Time.  Frank Conroy’s autobiography (first published in 1967), is not for everyone, as it is a peculiar kind of autobiography: A book of introspection that shares the minute details and memories (including the very personal ones) – in which nothing “major” happens, but a life unfolds.  However, it is one of the most beautifully, poignantly written books I’ve read.  The stories of boyhood and all it entails leave the reader with the shape of his soul.  It is introspective, emotional, sad, troubling, and yet somehow sweeping in its scope despite its single point of view.

Family

  • How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk.  As a father, each year I try to read a handful of parenting books.  Simon Sinek was a speaker at this year’s Microsoft Inspire event and he called this book “one of the best leadership books I can recommend” which made my ears perk up!  No surprise, it’s a great book.  Whether or not you have kids, this will help you understand yourself and others better, and how to communicate.  Practical and thoughtful.

Fiction

  • Cry, the beloved country.  A deeply moving story of individuals living in South Africa in the early 20th century, this book was published in 1948.  Part of what makes it so moving is that the author gave his life to serving those ravaged by racial injustice.  He wrote it to draw attention to what was happening in South Africa.  His tender treatment of the human soul, the picture of devastation that cultural forces wreaked in multiple lives, the personal and up-close look at injustice, and the redemptive threads (the way the heroes go quietly about the work of redemption) make it one of the greatest novels I’ve ever read.
  • Selected Stories of Anton Chekhov.  Checkhov is known as arguably the greatest short storyteller of all time.  This book took me a while to get through because, like so much Russian literature, it can be rather bleak… Yet the writing is beyond beautiful, the depth that is presented in short story form is breathtaking, and the perspective on life thought-provoking. 
  • Exhalation. My sci-fi book of the year is another collection of short stories by Ted Chiang.  The science fiction genre at its finest, superbly written, deeply thought-provoking.

Spiritual

  • The Hebrew Bible. Also known as the “Old Testament” the Hebrew Bible is the foundation of both Judaism and Christianity.  It was written by dozens of authors over hundreds of years and is unquestionably the most remarkable and influential book in history.  It can be simply read but is a book that is worthy of study. You can’t simply pick up a 2,500-year-old writing and expect to understand its depth, context, or nuance immediately.  The link is to an edition without chapter or verse, that I found was much more conducive to reading at length. 
  • Jesus: a Pilgrimage.  The teachings of Jesus make it extremely hard to simply say “He was a good teacher and nothing more.”  Based on what He said, it seems the only logical conclusions are that He was a fraud, a psychopath, or the person He claimed to be (and the claim that His followers simply misrepresented Him for their own ends is a real stretch).  With much wrestling, I believe He was and is who He said.  This book, written by a Jesuit priest who traveled to Israel, paints a rich context around Jesus and helped me understand the teachings, personhood, writings, emotions, and struggles of Jesus in a whole new dimension.  Highly recommend.

Other

  • A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.  David Foster Wallace was an author unlike any I’ve ever encountered.  Rarely has a book forced me to look up so many words, made me laugh aloud, confused me, and been piercingly insightful all at once. Best known for his novel Infinite Jest this is a series of “essays and arguments” by the brilliant Wallace.  He wrote so well that I simultaneously want to start studying how to write better and yet also want to give up all hope of writing (because there’s no way I’ll ever be able to write like this).  Not a book for all tastes, but a serious adventure.
  • Talking to Strangers.  I love Malcolm Gladwell. His books, his podcast, his way of thinking… he follows his curiosity, uncovers everyday mysteries, and forces us to look at the world in new ways. His new book was no exception.  It wrestles with the questions of why we misunderstand people so significantly – why the CIA can’t uncover spies in its midst, why we all think we can detect liars (but can’t), why alcohol has a bigger role in assaults than we think, and so much more.  A read I couldn’t put down.

In 2019, my goal was to not only eclipse the number of books I read in 2018, but to read better books… Books that were more helpful and instructive but perhaps not always what I felt like reading.  It took more discipline, but a few things helped, including:

  • As much as possible, only turn on the TV after I’ve read
  • Read nonfiction in the morning or weekends (at the end of a workday, nonfiction can be more challenging)
  • Set a goal for number of books read by category
  • Track the number of books I read each month, to keep a gauge on how well I was prioritizing reading in each season

My job requires that I learn and grow significantly each year, and reading is one of the most valuable, accessible ways to do both.  The great Warren Buffet recommends reading 500 pages every single day, because “knowledge builds on itself.”  How I wish I could read that much!  It makes the 70 books I read in 2019 seem a paltry few. 

I can’t say it enough: If you are curious about something, get a book on it. If you admire a great leader, read her biography. If you enjoy traveling, read foreign literature. If you want to relax in a way that’s healthy for your soul, turn off the TV and pick up a book.

And I’d love to hear from you on your best reads in 2019 that you’d recommend. Hit me up on LinkedIn.

Here’s to reading in 2020!