By Peter Neumann, ScD, Director
It was another great year in reading, which made it challenging to select the best books that I read in 2018. After much deliberation, here is my list, alphabetically by author.
Bad Blood, John Carreyrou This is a deeply-reported, page-turning account of Elizabeth Holmes and her company Theranos, which set out to disrupt the laboratory diagnostics market. With its Silicon Valley pedigree and illustrious board of directors (Henry Kissinger, George Schulz, James Mattis) and lawyers (David Bois), the Steve Jobs-emulating Holmes saw her company soar to a $10 billion valuation, with large orders from Walgreens and others. But as Carreyrou grippingly details, Theranos, led by the secretive and messianic Holmes and partner, Sunny Balwani, was built on exaggeration, deception, and ultimately fraud. The company eventually ceased operations amid an SEC lawsuit and ongoing criminal investigations. The story itself is worth the read, but there are also important lessons here about poor governance and the lack of board oversight.
Grant, Ron Chernow A new biography by Ron Chernow (author of Hamilton and exceptional biographies of Washington and Rockefeller) is virtually guaranteed to make my annual list. Grant recounts the general’s remarkable ascendency: in 1860 he was a directionless former officer who drank too much and worked in his father’s leather goods store run by his younger brothers; by 1864 he commanded all Union forces. The book is at its best in describing Grant’s rise to power and his wartime experiences, but it also provides detail on Grant’s presidency and post-presidential years. Chernow highlights the general’s strategic vision and resolve, and his fundamental decency. This is a sympathetic treatment but one that does not shrink from addressing his flaws (e.g., Grant was too quick to trust others and naïve in business dealings).
Ali, Jonathan Eig I purchased Ali after hearing Eig speak at the Boston Book Festival in the fall of 2017. (Eig signed my book and wrote, “You, are the greatest!”) Ali provides a full and balanced portrait of a complex, larger-than-life man. In addition to providing rich detail about Ali’s boxing career (Eig estimates that the boxer received as many as 100,000 blow to the head), the book chronicles Ali’s personal life and politics as he navigated racism, Vietnam, the US courts, and Howard Cosell.
Empire, Niall Ferguson How did the British, with its relatively small population confined to a rain-swept island in a corner of Europe, come to rule the world in the 19th century? Ferguson’s answer is: political agility, industrial might and a strong navy. At one time, Britain, with one thousand civil administrators backed by 90,000 troops, governed some 400 million people in India. Ferguson doesn’t dismiss the evils of colonialism, but he also emphasizes the numbers of individuals who readily served the empire and argues that alternative rulers could have been much worse. Whatever your world view, the book sheds light on the commercial and military forces that propelled the British Empire.
Paul Simon: The Life, Robert Hilburn I feel a deep and personal connection to singer/song-writer Paul Simon: though he is 20 years older than me, we grew up in the same Kew Gardens Hills neighborhood in Queens, and his mother, Belle, was my first grade teacher at PS 164. (Paul once came in and played guitar and sang for the class.) “Me and Julio down by the schoolyard” has special resonance. I also have fond memories of repeated listening to his albums, from Bookends in the late 1960s (Side 2 was better) to Graceland in the 80s. Paul Simon: The Life recounts Simon’s growth and struggles in life and music, covering his creative process, his exacting standards, and his often-contentious relationship with Art Garfunkel (another Kew Gardens Hills native).
Leonardo Da Vinci, Walter Isaacson Like Ron Chernow, Walter Isaacson continues to produce highly readable and informative biographies, so a new one invariably joins my best books list. What characterized Da Vinci was his endless curiosity. Each page of his many notebooks – some reproduced here – are crammed with sketches and musings on all manner of things - birds, machines, optics, etc. Da Vinci was a scientist, painter, architect, designer, and engineer, but Isaacson’s point is that we shouldn’t shoehorn him into any one of these categories, but rather celebrate his surpassing inquisitiveness.
Factfulness, Hans Rosling Whether the world is getting better or worse is a complicated question, as a recent New Yorker article pointed out: certain metrics (e.g., life expectancy) may improve, while others (social cohesiveness) may decline. Factfulness enthusiastically shines a light on the substantial progress the world has achieved in the past generation or two, while bemoaning the fact that this phenomenon is widely underappreciated. In his engaging manner, Rosling, who, sadly, died in 2016, sets the record straight on all manner of trends. A key takeaway: don’t think of the world as “developed” and “developing,” but rather as divided roughly into four income categories, from low income (where a billion people reside) to high income (another billion). Most people on the planet reside in the middle groups.
American Sickness, Elisabeth Rosenthal As a health policy analyst, I assumed I was already fairly well versed about the dysfunctions of the American health system. Still, I learned a lot reading American Sickness. Rosenthal spares no stakeholder, from drug and medical device companies to physicians and hospitals, for how they benefit from and perpetuate troubling and sometimes corrupt arrangements (she calls the US health market a “protection racket”). As one example, she describes how Catholic charity hospitals, founded by nuns, have now morphed into billion-dollar conglomerations with $4 million per annum CEOs, glassy towers, sprawling bureaucracies – and nonprofit status. One may not agree with all of her policy prescriptions, but there is a lot to digest here on the role of money in health care and the limits of markets.
Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker Like Factfulness, Pinker argues, with a great wealth of supporting evidence, that despite the headlines and your own gloominess, the world has gotten a lot better over the decades and centuries. Pinker’s lens here is even broader than Rosling’s, accounting for progress in health, wealth, safety, democracy, education, and quality of life. Pinker points to reason, science, technology, and capitalism to explain the advances. He also reassures us that our existential fears (e.g., about bioterrorism) are mostly overblown and that there is reason to be optimistic about the ability of technology to continue to improve our prospects. Bill Gates called this his “new favorite book of all-time.”
Behave, Robert Sapolsky Sapolsky’s tour de force account of human behavior provides a fascinating and idiosyncratic ride into a multitude of topics – psychology, neurobiology, genetics, economics, ethics, and evolution – with insights and commentary about why people and societies do what they do. Here are just three:
- “Brains and culture coevolve”;
- “Genes have different effects in different environments; a hormone can make you nicer or crummier, depending on your values; we haven’t evolved to be “selfish” or “altruistic” or anything else—we’ve evolved to be particular ways in particular settings. Context context context.”
- “Genes aren’t about inevitabilities; they’re about potentials and vulnerabilities. And they don’t determine anything on their own.”
Americana: A 400-Year History of American Capitalism, Bhu Srinivasan Americana entered my radar via The Economist’s list of best books of 2017. It provides thumbnail histories of American entrepreneurs and inventions, with chapters organized around subjects from cotton and steam to automobiles and computing. Combined, they provide an eccentric and absorbing economic history of the US. There are risks in a project like this: with so many topics, it’s not possible to delve deeply into any one, and while the Horatio Alger stories are uplifting, in the wrong hands they could become tiresome and provide a Pollyanna-ish view of American progress. However, Srinivasan pulls it off, because the narrative is always fresh and compelling – like retelling the Pilgrim’s story as an early lesson in venture capitalism. It’s an elevated read in these turbulent times.
Cutting for Stone, Abraham Verghese I infrequently read novels, but reading Cutting for Stone made me regret that tendency. This is a sweeping story of twins, Marion and Shiva Stone, born in Ethiopia in 1954, to an Indian nun and a British surgeon. Their mother dies and the father abandons the boys, leaving them to be raised by two physicians from Madras working in Addis Ababa. This is an engaging, wide-ranging story of relationships, family, and medicine, set against the political climate of a modernizing Ethiopia.
Educated, Tara Westover As in J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, Tara Westover in Educated describes family dysfunction and survival in rural, red-state America, but with its own pathos and trajectory. Because her father deeply distrusts the government, Tara and her siblings are home-schooled (barely) and treated with home remedies when they get sick or injured (a frequent occurrence). Somehow, Tara makes it to college and then to an Oxford Ph.D. and Harvard fellowship, but not before questioning and rejecting many of her parents’ beliefs.
Honorable mention: Homo Deus, Yuval Harari; I Know This Much is True, Wally Lamb; The Republic for Which it Stands, Richard White; Sticky Fingers, Joe Hagan.
And in case you missed it, here are my top reads from 2017.