The 16 Best Books I Read in 2017

2017 was a good year for reading things.  I completed 49 books, a personal best, and I may be able to squeak one more in before year-end.

For this, I must thank the Kindle, and the in-laws who gifted me with it last Xmas.  For years, I had resisted this modern convenience on sketchy grounds: I like to highlight my books!  And write in their margins!  And dog-ear their pages!  But the Kindle allows me to do an electronic version of all those things.  And what it lacks in tactile satisfaction, it more than makes up for in storage and portability.  It’s a well-traveled Kindle.

Here’s how I compiled this list for you:

  1. My threshold was this: Would I recommend this book to a friend, knowing that any book represents a significant investment of time?
  2. This list is not restricted to business books, because there’s more to life than business. Nor does it only include books released in 2017.
  3. I did not rank these in any way. I simply listed them alphabetically by author, a cop-out if there ever was one.
  4. I’ve provided links to Amazon for each. This is for your convenience – I’m not an Amazon affiliate and I’m not here to make money off your clicks.

With that, here are the 16 best books I read in 2017; the ones that moved me, made me laugh or otherwise added a wrinkle to my brain:

The Content Trap: A Strategist’s Guide to Digital Change, Bharat Anand.  Anand’s thesis is simple: Connections, not content, are what matter most in the digital world.  That sounds straight-forward, but the depth of his examples will get your wheels turning.  The strategist in me was particularly intrigued by the case studies showing the different successful approaches of media companies.  (Note: Offering a few free articles per month to your readers, and hiding the rest behind a paywall, is first-level thinking.)

Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong, Eric Barker.  A fascinating book that lives up to its title.  You’ll learn, among other things, why valedictorians tend not to be millionaires, and why cheaters tend to trade short-term gains for long-term happiness.

Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, Carrie Brownstein.  If you only know Carrie Brownstein from Portlandia, you are missing entire chunks of her genius.  She’s a co-founder of Sleater-Kinney, one of the two most important punk bands of the last 30 years (along with Fugazi).  This memoir is ultimately about finding, developing and asserting one’s voice.

Be the Best at What Matters Most, Joe Calloway.  Calloway and I share similar philosophies about business and branding.  It’s right there in the first chapter: “The winners in business aren’t the ones who do the most things.  The winners are the ones who do the important things.”  Even a celebrated brand like Zappos is just executing the basics exceptionally well.  This book is the antidote for flavor-of-the-month gimmicks.

How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times, Roy Peter Clark.  A very necessary book for these times.  It’s packed with examples and exercises, and Clark’s love for writing shines through.  (I’m currently reading Clark’s Writing Tools, which will certainly be on my “Best Books I Read in 2018” list.)

The Obstacle Is the Way, Ryan Holiday.  Feeling frustrated?  Doubting yourself?  Been betrayed?  This modern take on Stoicism posits that you need three things: Perception (see clearly), Action (act correctly) and Will (endure and accept the world as it is).

We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, Samantha Irby.  I will read anything Samantha Irby writes.  Yes, it can be hard dealing with family issues, or being single or not single.  But Irby opts for self-deprecation over self-absorption at every turn.  You’ll laugh hard and often.  Also check Irby’s blog, “Bitches Gotta Eat.”

Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock, Jesse Jarnow.  It certainly helps if you’re a frothing-at-the-mouth Yo La Tengo fan, which is what I am.  But this is really the tale of people that stuck to their guns and realized success on their own terms.  Bonus: Lots of depth about ‘80s “college music” (that’s what it was called back then); you’ll want to check out a number of bands after reading.

The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, Michael Lewis.  This was my first Michael Lewis book, and there will be more.  He has a gift for simplifying complex topics.  And he tells a story, which is rather different from reporting the facts. Warning: The Big Short won’t make you feel any better about our institutions.

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg McKeown.  A guide to defining your essential intent and shaping your life accordingly.  If you ever find yourself saying “I don’t have enough time for…”, you need to make time for Essentialism.

Paddle Your Own Canoe: One Man’s Fundamentals for Delicious Living, Nick Offerman.  TV’s Ron Swanson is a man of many talents: Acting, woodworking, bone-dry humor, and writing.  This was the funniest book I read this year.  And there are life lessons in there, but not ham-fisted ones.

Do the Work, Steven Pressfield.  If you’re trying to do something difficult, Do the Work offers inspiration.  But it’s not that fluffy, shallow inspiration, like “You can do it, rock star!”  It’s more along the lines of “It’s your life, so create something of it, and recognize that there will be resistance.”  Pressfield’s approach is infinitely more useful.

Your Strategy Needs a Strategy: How to Choose and Execute the Right Approach, Martin Reeves, Knut Haanaes & Janmejaya Sinha.  You know those “experts” who say “You MUST do X to grow!”, without knowing anything about your business?  This book exposes them for the charlatans they are.  More importantly, the book introduces the concept of the Strategy Palette, which makes clear that the ideal strategy depends on the conditions in which it will be executed.  This is the rare business book that made me say, “I wish I had written that.”

Anything You Want: 40 Lessons for a New Kind of Entrepreneur, Derek Sivers.  On one level, this is about Sivers’ ten years of growing a small business, CDBaby.  On a deeper level, it’s a philosophy of business.  I read it in a single evening because I couldn’t put it down.  If you feel you might need a reset button for the path you’re on, try Anything You Want.

The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More and Change the Way You Lead Forever, Michael Bungay Stanier.  It’s a simple, self-intuitive premise.  Where The Coaching Habit wins is by offering a detailed framework for seven questions that will make you a better leader.  And Stanier is one of the few business authors who writes with humor.

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life From Dear Sugar, Cheryl Strayed.  This is a “best of” collection of Strayed’s writings for The Rumpus under the nom de plume “Sugar.”  Advice columns are decidedly not my genre, but this came with my wife’s highest recommendation, and she was right, as usual.  Strayed writes with warmth and humor; she may even convince you that, against much evidence to the contrary, empathy is still a thing.

I’m always looking to add to my reading list… What did you read and love in 2017?  Please let me know in a comment below.

About Matthew Fenton: Matthew helps challenger brands to focus, grow and win.  Since founding his consultancy, Three Deuce Branding, in 1997, he’s helped hundreds of brands, including Wrigley, Valvoline and Fidelity Investments, to achieve “brand clarity.”  His consulting services and speaking engagements help brands to focus on what matters through positioning, strategy and ideation.  Contact Matthew here.  He calls Chicago home.

Copyright 2017 – Matthew Fenton. All Rights Reserved. You may reprint this article with the original, unedited text intact, including the About Matthew Fenton section.

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2 Replies to “The 16 Best Books I Read in 2017”

  1. Glad to see you hopped on the Kindle bandwagon. I love having my choice of 500+ books to read (or re-read) with me wherever I go, and it weighs less than a paperback!

    My favorite this year was “Hillbilly Elegy” by J. D. Vance (though it was published in 2016). It opened my mind to worlds I’d never considered before.

    I’ll have pick up a copy of “Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times.” I’m working on my brevity, but there are so many glorious words, yearning to make prose sing.

    Thanks for the recommendations!

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