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The 2014 Digital Tonto Reading List

2014 December 21
by Greg Satell

Every year, in retrospect, takes on a theme.  Usually more by serendipity than by design, events bunch up and collide, forming a trend that almost seems to have been preordained, although, in fact, nobody could have seen it coming.

This past year saw a number of such collisions.  Russia’s actions in Ukraine have upended the European order set in place a generation ago.  The US has moved from being ground zero of the global financial crisis to the epicenter of its recovery.  Energy has gone from global shortage to global glut.

In many ways, it’s been a pivotal year, which may be why a number of very smart, innovative leaders decided to publish books.  I think when we look back, we’ll consider 2014 to be a year that changed our thinking significantly in a number of areas.  As in past years, this list reflects what I’ve read and written about over the last 12 months.  Have a great holiday!

Book of the Year

One thing that made the past year special is the number of extremely talented business leaders that published books laying out their ideas about what it takes to compete and win in the digital age.  In fact, in most years, three or four of them could qualify for the best book of the year.  So, to be honest, it was hard to pick just one.

However, even in such a deep field, Creativity, Inc., by Pixar founder and CEO Ed Catmull stands out.  Pixar, to an extent that very few firms can lay claim to, completely revolutionized its industry.  Every single one of its 14 films has been a critical and financial success and it has won an astonishing 27 Academy awards.

Creativity Inc. tells the unlikely story of how Catmull, an academic, started the company, spent years of frustration trying to find a viable business model and then turned the film industry upside down.  He writes with honesty and clarity, giving the trials and mistakes equal billing with the triumphs and brilliant strokes.

As if all that wasn’t enough, the last chapter focusing on his relationship with Steve Jobs is worth the price of the whole book!

Business and Management

Coming up right behind Ed Catmull and Creativity Inc., is How Google Works by Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg, which gives unprecedented insight into how one of the world’s greatest businesses operates.  Andreessen Horowitz’s founding partner, Ben Horowitz gives outstanding advice for managers in The Hard Thing About Hard Things and Peter Thiel shares his ideas about how to create a successful company in Zero to One.

In most years, any one of those books could have topped my list.  Another great one is Creative Confidence, by IDEO founder David Kelley and his brother Tom, which outlines how their method of design thinking made IDEO the top design firm in the world.  I can’t remember when so many outstanding business leaders offered such important insights all at once.

In a more traditional vein, former Harvard Business Review editor Walter Kiechel delivers an excellent history about the people and concepts that built the management consulting industry in the The Lords of Strategy and Duff McDonald does a great job of getting inside the legendary firm McKinsey in The Firm.

A lot of people like to talk about social media and its impact on business, but to my knowledge, Harvard’s Mikolaj Jan Piskorski is the only one who has deeply researched the area and built a viable strategic framework.  His A Social Strategy is a must read for anyone who wants to build an effective social platform.

Rounding out the list, I finally got around to reading Rework, by Basecamp’s Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson.  I was glad I did.  Ty Montague’s True Story offers important insights on what it takes to market a product today.  Irving Rein, Ben Shields and Adam Grossman give a comprehensive guide to what it takes to run a sports business in The Sports Strategist and Netflixed by Gina Keating, gives a lively and informative account of the rise of Netflix and the fall of Blockbuster.

Science, Technology And Innovation

Two years ago, Race Against The Machine by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee was my book of the year.  Their follow up, The Second Machine Age, is just as good.  In a similar way, Walter Isaacson, who wrote the definitive biography of Steve Jobs, does it again in his comprehensive history of the technology industry, The Innovators.

The always great Steven Johnson works his usual magic is his book about the inventions that helped make the world what it is today, How We Got to Now, which is also now a series on PBS.  If you missed his earlier book, Where Good Ideas Come From, you should definitely consider picking it up.

Celebrity physicist Michio Kaku’s new book, The Future of the Mind, gives a comprehensive overview of the amazing new science.  However, if you haven’t read his earlier two books, Physics of the Future and Physics of the Impossible, I would read one of them first. They are both informative and highly readable.

Charles Duhigg writes about the science of how and why we do things in The Power of Habit and Wharton’s Adam Grant explains why nice guys really can finish first in Give and Take. MIT’s Sandy Pentland shows how he’s merging the digital and physical worlds in Social Physics and Jaron Lanier gives an important contrarian view of where technology is going in You Are Not a Gadget.  All are tremendously worthwhile.

Another great source for books is the Farnam Street Blog.  I got Faraday, Maxwell, and the Electromagnetic Field, by Nancy Forbes and Basil Mahon off of the site’s Charlie Munger list and was amazed how much these two men did to shape our modern world.

Politics and Society

We’re coming to the end of Barack Obama’s presidency and the memoirs of top officials have started coming out.  I read Duty, by Bob Gates and Stress Test, by Tim Geithner.  Both were great and helped me understand the events over the past few years much better.  Another, less noticed book that came out was Treasury’s War, by Juan Zarate, a Bush era official, which I used as a source for my Forbes article on the Russia sanctions.

Ari Shavit sums up his decades of Israel reporting in My Promised Land.  Joseph Nye follows up his classic, Soft Power in his new book, The Future of Power.  Both were tremendously insightful as was Tina Rosenberg’s Join the Club, which explains how social pressures help drive events.

I have been writing quite a bit about the situation in Russia and Ukraine this year and you can see a full list of my articles in Forbes here.  However, for a more in-depth account of how Putin operates, you can hardly do better than Masha Gessen’s The Man Without a Face.  I’ve also heard great things about Karen Davisha’s Putin’s Kleptocracy, but have not had a chance to read it.

For a historical perspective, Anne Applebaum’s new book, Iron Curtain, does a masterful job of investigating the events in Eastern Europe during the early years after World War II and David Remnick’s Lenin’s Tomb remains the definitive account of the early days after the fall of the Soviet Union.

On a lighter note, Norman Lear’s memoir, Even This I Get to Experience, is a great read. Lear was behind TV’s most successful sitcoms in the 1970’s, including All in the Family, The Jefferson’s, Good Times and many others.  Beyond the humor, of which there is plenty, he gives a great historical account of a career that spanned from the early days of television all the way up to his more recent appearance on South Park.

To finish up this year’s list, I was very excited to read Mark Schultz’s Foxcatcher, which inspired the award winning film about the story of how John du Pont corrupted the sport of wrestling and murdered his brother, Dave.  I trained at Foxcatcher in the early 90’s and you can see my take on the events here.

So that’s my reading list for 2014.  As always, I’d be delighted to see great books that you’ve read in the comments section below.

– Greg

8 Responses leave one →
  1. December 21, 2014

    A really good book that I’ve read in the last months is The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith. A great book for those interested in economics and how money work in the economy.

    Now a few books that you’ve just mentioned here are on my list. Thank you !

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    A classic! Glad to hear you like the list.

    – Greg

    [Reply]

  2. Rich permalink
    December 21, 2014

    Two highly readable and informative books: “Theory and History” by Ludwig von Mises; “Basic Economics” by Thomas Sowell and “Who’s the fairest of them all?” by Stephen Moore

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Thanks for the recommendations Rich!

    – Greg

    [Reply]

  3. Alan B permalink
    December 21, 2014

    Nice list and I echo Creativity Inc. I’m curious, do you read many books by women since this list is so dominated by male authors?

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Funny that you noticed that. Actually, I don’t think it’s any bias on my part. In fact, one of my “books of the year” last year was “The End of Competitive advantage” by Rita Gunther McGrath. It’s just that women are underrepresented in boardrooms and in science labs. In the last section of books on “Politics and Society” though, there are four female authors: Anne Applebaum, Karen Dawisha, Masha Gessen and Tina Rosenberg, which is nearly 40% of the author’s in that section.

    [Reply]

  4. Alejandro Segura permalink
    December 29, 2014

    Recommendation : Thomas Piketty´s book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”. A french economist with a very interesting research and point of view regarding wealth and income inequality. Thanks for all your contributions and publications in 2014 and the best to you and your loved ones in 2015. Alejandro Segura

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Good choice. Thanks Alejandro!

    [Reply]

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