Here are the 20 best books I read in 2018. These books weren’t necessarily released in 2018. And they’re not just business books, because there’s more to life than business.
Instead, these are the 20 books, of the 38 I completed in 2018, that I’d recommend to a friend or colleague. My hope is that you’ll find a few of these intriguing enough to check out.
I read several of these for the third or fourth time. Given the oppressive awfulness of the daily news, this is one way I sought out “comfort food.” (Another: Plenty of ambient music.)
They’re listed alphabetically by author. And 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 20 books that moved me, changed me or comforted me in 2018:
Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes From the American Indie Underground, 1981-91, Michael Azerrad. Our Band Could Be Your Life is a close-up look at the Minutemen, Fugazi (one of my all-time favorites), the Replacements and 10 other bands that redefined what indie, punk and rock music could and would be. Best enjoyed with each band’s music playing in the background, as loud as you prefer.
Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, John Carreyrou. This was my most-discussed book of 2018, since several friends share my fascination with this sordid tale. Bad Blood is the well-researched story of Theranos, the one-time Silicon Valley unicorn whose founders, Elizabeth Holmes and Sunny Balwani, are now facing wire-fraud charges. The psychology behind it is gripping, both by those who perpetrated the fraud (sociopathy is not out of the question) and by the big-name investors who went along for the ride. This one cut into my sleep cycle, as I found it very hard to put down.
Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, Roy Peter Clark. Clark made my list last year with How to Write Short. Writing Tools is broader in scope, and the equivalent of having a writing coach within arm’s reach. Favorite quote: “If you want to write, here’s a secret: The writer’s struggle is overrated, a con game, a cognitive distortion, a self-fulfilling prophecy, the best excuse for not writing.” If I write poorly, it’s not Clark’s fault.
Principles: Life and Work, Ray Dalio. Dalio is a legend in the investing world, but that’s not the draw here. The draw is that, in a world awash with tactics, Dalio has built a successful life and organization on a bed of principles. There are a lot of them; many won’t be new to you and some you will disagree with. But Dalio possesses a very organized mind, and I found the overall framework (especially the “life” principles) extremely valuable.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion. To my great shame, I’d not read Didion before this year. But after watching the Netflix documentary “Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold,” I read these two books in a matter of days. Apart from being an exceptionally gifted writer, Didion is one of the sharpest observers of the human condition I’ve come across. Slouching Towards Bethlehem is a collection of essays about American culture, originally published in 1968. The Year of Magical Thinking is a reflection on the passing of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, in late 2003. I wish I had this latter book when my mother became terminally ill, but three years later, it was still a great comfort.
Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts, Annie Duke. Most of our decisions are made with incomplete information. In Thinking in Bets, Annie Duke shows us how to get better at these decisions (and thus better at life). Duke, a world-class poker player, identifies the cognitive traps we often fall into, and provides pathways to better habits. You’ll learn about “resulting” (retroactively equating the quality of the decision with the outcome), as well as two of my favorite strategic tools, backcasting and premortems. Favorite bit of wisdom: “In most of our decisions, we are not betting against another person. Rather, we are betting against all the future versions of ourselves that we are not choosing.”
The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, Atul Gawande. This is not another book about a better to-do list. Gawande writes in service of a much larger question, namely: How can professionals best deal with the ever-increasing complexity of their roles? Stories of pilots, doctors and architects – roles where failure can literally mean death – serve a deceptively simple conclusion. A fascinating read.
This Is Marketing: You Can’t Be Seen Until You Learn to See, Seth Godin. Seth & I view marketing and branding very similarly. Even if you read his blog regularly, as I do, I recommend this book as a succinct summary of his thinking and writing over the years. It’s rooted in a philosophy and theory, and our profession would be more effective and more trusted if its practitioners followed these rules.
Driving Eureka!: Problem-Solving With Data-Driven Methods and the Innovation Engineering System, Doug Hall. Full disclosure: I’ve known Doug since 1992, and was one of his hired guns (“Trained Brains”) for about 15 years. He’s easily one of the ten people I’ve learned the most from in my career. Driving Eureka! aims to address the problem that the vast majority of organizations simply do not have a reliable system to create and commercialize new ideas. Driving Eureka! is a kind of capstone of Doug’s nearly 40 years working in innovation; as such, it addresses some topics at a high level. But when someone presents such depth of knowledge in a clear and applicable way, it’s kind of foolish not to take advantage of it.
Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions, Johann Hari. Hari has suffered from depression all his life and found that the typical prescriptions (drugs or “just get over it”) weren’t working for him. So he investigated the root causes. In Lost Connections, Hari presents a set of disconnections (from meaningful work, other people, status and respect, etc.) and reconnections. As such, the subtitle of the book may actually do it a disservice – whether you (or someone close to you) is suffering from depression or not, this book points to a richer, more connected way of living. “You aren’t a machine with broken parts,” Hari writes. “You are an animal whose needs aren’t being met.”
The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds, Michael Lewis. Lewis is one of the best detectives and storytellers we have. The Undoing Project is his account of the friendship of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, whose theories of the mind created the field of behavioral economics. As with everything Lewis writes, you’ll take an enjoyable ride and learn a ton.
Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs and Binion’s World Series of Poker, James McManus. I believe this is the fourth time I’ve read this book since its release in 2004 (back when I was playing a lot of poker). McManus, a fellow Chicagoan, was sent by Harper’s magazine to cover the 2000 World Series of Poker and the murder trial of Ted Binion (of the famous Vegas family). While there, “rank amateur” McManus wins his way into the WSOP Main Event… and then makes the final table, earning a quarter of a million dollars. McManus’ writing is full of personality and his mind is curious; themes of desire, greed and self-destruction abound. Read this even if you’ve never played a hand of poker.
Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain. From the ground-breaking Velvet Underground and Iggy Pop & the Stooges to the ‘70s New York acts that followed (the Ramones, the Dead Boys, Blondie), this oral history is at times lurid, sensational and sad. I was too young to experience this in real time, but I’m also still alive, unlike many of the players in these pages.
Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling Disruptive Products to Mainstream Customers, Geoffrey Moore. This book was recommended to me by Ron Wilson, a member of the client team at Yello.co, and for this he has my thanks. Crossing the Chasm is a terrific framework for bringing cutting-edge products (especially, but not exclusively, tech products) from early adopters to the mass market. You’ll get an in-depth look at the differences between types of buyers, the challenges of each phase in the life cycle, and a lot more.
Eating the Big Fish: How Challenger Brands Can Compete Against Brand Leaders, Adam Morgan. Originally published in 1999, and thoroughly updated since, this is the bible of challenger branding. The “eight credos of successful challenger brands” are the pillars of Morgan’s thinking, and you’ll find plenty of exercises to help you turn thought into action. Tip: Trying to act like the market leader, but with fewer resources, is a suicide mission.
Scramble: How Agile Strategy Can Build Epic Brands in Record Time, Marty Neumeier. I generally dislike the “business fable” format, because everything is stacked just-so to make the author’s points. Neumeier, perhaps the most accessible writer on branding, avoids this trap by embedding models and exercises throughout. It’s the kind of book you can finish on a Friday and begin applying on Monday.
Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done, Laura Vanderkam. I often come across Vanderkam via the various newsletters I subscribe to, and I’ve always found her writing to be conversational and actionable. This is my first Vanderkam book, and I suspect there will be others. Her premise – “There is enough time for anything that truly matters” – means this is ultimately a book about deciding what those things are. And her seven principles for getting there are in the sweet spot where “counter-intuitive” meets “common sense.”
If This Isn’t Nice, What Is? and Timequake, Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut is among my very favorite authors; I love how his vivid imagination and absurd sense of humor support his moral premises. If This Isn’t Nice is a collection of his commencement speeches, where he imparts his wisdom in a more direct fashion than he does in his fiction. The premise of Timequake is that a glitch in the space-time continuum forces everyone to re-live the last ten years of their lives exactly as they had the first time. How will they act when free will kicks in again? Vonnegut’s resolution to this question is hardly neat & tidy, but that’s kind of the point.
What did you read and love in 2018? Please let me know in a comment or via email. And here’s to expanding horizons further in 2019.
Interested in my list from 2017? You’ll find it here.
Want 10 quick resolutions for a better brand in 2019? That’s right here.
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 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 2019 – 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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