2021 Annual Reading List

Wow! It’s been another year, and this time we spent the first half in the pandemic (until June-ish), the second half in a weird hybrid-pandemic (until November), and now we’re back in a pandemic for December!

This year I read far fewer new books - I noticed that if I picked up a book that I didn’t find particularly interesting, I would just drop it (in contrast to last year where I was so bored that I’d read it anyways). That’s not to say I didn’t read - I actually reread a lot, rereading titles like Steve Jobs, Outliers, The Lords of Discipline, and the entire Percy Jackson series yet again think this was primarily because I was either working a fulltime job this year or in a hybrid-non-pandemic state for most of the year, and so didn’t fully rely on books to pass the time.

I also found that I read mostly business and leadership books, and generally read male authors. This is something I’m hoping to change more of next year, so if anyone has any book recommendations (fiction or business leadership) by women or bipoc authors, I’d love to hear about them!

At any rate, this is this years annual reading list.

The Top 5 Books

  1. Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

    Andy Weir once more knocks it out of the park with an incredible narrative, bringing the same dry-wit-humor combo I loved from The Martian but with the interesting world concepts I loved from Artemis. This is his strongest novel yet, and introduces some really interesting concepts. Spoilers ahead, but I want to talk about some of the specific things I loved in this book.

    (Spoilers) Specific things I loved about this book. Meeting Rocky was probably the coolest experience of the book, especially with how nice the buildup was. Rocky's presence in the book sparked countless questions, making the story even more interesting. Questions like "how would you communicate with a species that speaks in a biologically different way from you" and "how would another species see the universe" (via math) were really cool to explore, and I found the interaction between Rocky and Ryland to be really amazing. I also really loved seeing the ingenuity of humanity at work - seeing how we as humans used a huge problem (Astrophage) to actually invent an entire suite of brand new inventions.

    Overall, Project Hail Mary tops the list for it’s unique blend of really interesting questions (as sci-fi often prompts us to do) and a strong protagonist (Ryland is just so much fun).

  2. The Innovation Stack by Jim McKelvey

    Jim gets it. This book, which tells the story of Square’s founding, explains why innovative companies actually succeed. The key idea Jim talks about is this idea of a innovation “stack”, or a combination of innovations, that when in tandem, result in a strong competitive advantage. It’s this combination of innovations that make innovative companies so strong - oftentimes competitors can copy a facet or two of their innovative upstarts, but can rarely copy the entire stack.

  3. Circe by Madeline Miller

    Taking me by surprise, Circe is a first person narrative biography about the Immortal Circe, daughter of the Titan Helios. I’ve known a little bit about who Circe was from prior classes where I studied Greek mythology + countless times reading the Percy Jackson / Heroes of Olympus / Trials of Apollo series’, but reading this book from the perspective of Circe herself was something brand new altogether. The emotional journey Circe goes through + the feeling of slowly recognizing a big event (when I realized we were about to meet the Minotaur I got really excited) made this an absolutely incredible read.

  4. The Ride of a Lifetime by Robert Iger

    Disney has transformed itself more than perhaps any other media company in the last 20 years, and has proven itself to be the ultimate home for good content. This could not have happened without the clear vision put forth by CEO Bob Iger, and this book gives us an inside look into how he made the decisions he did.

    But what made me really love this book was the detail it gave to the steps Iger took to reach the position of CEO. It’s honestly pretty inspiring, following Iger’s journey from a studio supervisor (performing menial labor on sets) to helping book shots for ABC Sports, eventually leading ABC Sports and after (many) other steps, becoming the CEO of Disney. I skipped a lot of Iger’s journey here (because it’s more worth for you to read the book and learn about it), but Iger’s telling of the past allows you to see the lessons he took along the way, and he earns his place as one of the most likable CEOs out there.

  5. Creativity, Inc by Ed Catmull

    Pixar is one of the world’s most innovative companies, and Ed Catmull tells us how it came to be. It’s worth noting however, that Creativity, Inc was published in 2014 - 3 years before shocking allegations of workplace sexual misconduct were levied against John Lasseter, and 6 years before other articles detailing systemic racism and sexism at the company.

    Horrifying facts about problems about Pixar aside (something that I can only do since I have never worked there), the commercial success Pixar enjoyed cannot be denied. Something about the company allowed them to have a 14-film streak of consecutive box office successes.

    Creativity, Inc follows Catmull’s personal journey through leadership, as he lead small teams at the Computer Graphics Lab at NYIT to starting the graphics division at ILM (a Lucasfilm company), which eventually became Pixar. Catmull’s leadership journey is fascinating to follow, and the vehicles and processes he sets up to ensure Pixar’s creative success are good models to follow. It’s really worth reading this in tandem with A Ride of a Lifetime, since Iger details how he resolved issues involving integrity and workplace sexual misconduct.

    I don’t think Pixar is a perfect company or even a company to be fully idolized, but I think completely dismissing the company’s creative success would be a mistake - Creativity, Inc allows you to get a glimpse of what helped Pixar succeed (while keeping in mind that all the while, there were severe problems brewing in the company.)

Honorable Mentions

  1. The Unbanking of America by Lisa J. Servon

    One of the most revealing books, it furthered my belief that existing industries often need to be re-examined. I picked up this book after spending some time at the Nearside offices, and was shocked to learn about the dismal state of banking in America today.

    Highly recommend reading if your even tangentially interested in finance, or even if you’re just curious about how people start small businesses / try to get by in 21st century America. Warning - kinda depressing to read (there is a ‘hope’ section of the book which is nice, but the book does make it painfully clear that stuff needs to change). This book definitely was a key factor in my decision to commit full time to work at Nearside.

  2. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins

    I absolutely love reading things from the “other” perspective, and Colllins knocks it out of the park with this biography of the villainous President Snow from the Hunger Games trilogy. Learning about how the Hunger Games got started + how the Capitol looked in the early days is super interesting, and I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoyed the world of the Hunger Games.

  3. (re-reading) Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

    Okay, this is kinda cheating since I’ve already read this (it made last year’s reading list!), but rereading this after reading the leadership books by Bob Iger, Ed Catmull, and Jim McKelvey, was seriously worth it. It’s easier to see a method to some of the madness of Steve Jobs, and I really enjoyed rereading this. It’s 100% a book that I think I’ll continue to reread, as I recognize more of the problems Jobs faced (whether I experience them in my own personal career, or in reading about the careers of others).

What’s on my Radar

I’m adding a new section to my annual reading list posts - what I’m reading next! This is to hopefully better inform readers what I’m about to read, so that I can get more suggestions on what genres I’m interested in (since I don’t always highlight all genres I enjoy in my reading lists).

  • My Life in Full by Indra Nooyi
  • Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg
  • Brotopia by Emily Chang

Generally, I’m looking to read more about

  • business leadership / startups
    • I’d like to read more from diverse authors, since my current reading experience here has been mostly from white men (nothing wrong with that, but I’d like to get more people’s perspectives)
    • I’d ideally like to read from people who have actually started or done the actual work of leadership. I’ve really enjoyed reading Malcomn Gladwell in the past, but after reading The Innovation Stack I realized I greatly prefer reading from the perspective of an actual founder or leader.
  • novels from the “bad guy side”
    • I really enjoyed Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn, primarily because it was really cool to see the Empire’s perspective during Star Wars as well as the political journey of Arihnda Pryce.
    • Also Star Wars, I loved Inferno Squad, since Iden Versio’s perspective as an elite Imperial squad was really revealing about structures + how to hold true to your own beliefs + it’s really cool to see the Empire’s perspective (similar vibes to Thrawn)
  • political thrillers with worldbuilding
    • I really love anything that gives me information about how a world works + how things work in that world. Referencing Thrawn, I enjoyed it quite a bit since both Thrawn and Eli Vanto both know very little about the Empire, and they reveal how it works through their own experiences.
    • I’m not limited to just Star Wars books (despite what I seem to be quoting), just to be clear 😅

If you’d like to recommend me anything, feel free to send me a line via email to ronak.manish.shah@gmail.com, or send a tweet to @trulyronak