Twice a year, Bill Gates puts out a list of the best books he has read. In it, he describes his motivation for reading the books and a brief description of each. Trying to learn from idols, I thought that this year I would do the same (don’t you love it when a self-aggrandizing MBA blogger compares himself to Bill Gates)? Unfortunately, Bill Gates is an unqualified genius and I’m just a struggling business student, so I am going to recap five books I read for the entire year, not the back half.
After enrolling in business school, I got really interested in decision-making. Most of what business school graduates do is “build a case” (that’s why we study, you guessed it, “Cases” constantly) for changes and improvements we are making to systems and organizations. There’s a lot of recent research that shows that humans are not as skilled at decision making as we might think, which is why I picked up (and highly recommend) Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, and Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind.
Next, it was hard for anyone to ignore politics this year. The noise was overwhelming, and I wanted to take a deep dive into issues, both on the left and right side of the political spectrum, that are often reduced to sound bytes. So, I made my way through Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, and J.D. Vance’s timely Hillbilly Elegy. Some might think these both fall to the left of the political spectrum (Vance is a Yale Law School graduate who often appears on CNN), but reading about his formative years gives crucial insights into the plight of many middle American Republican constituents.
Finally, I picked up the critically acclaimed The Underground Railroad from Colson Whitehead. The writing is fantastic, and although it weaves in bits of historical truths that are sometimes hard to discern from the fiction, I found it an incredible on-ramp to further research on African-American historical topics like the Underground Railroad, Jim Crow laws, and the Tuskegee syphilis study.
Rather than editorialize about each book individually, I’ve copied in the Amazon descriptions below (and included a link to Amazon Smile – go pick a charity of your choice!) If you get some time this holiday season, these are definitely worth the read.
Thinking, Fast and Slow. In the international bestseller, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman, the renowned psychologist and winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, takes us on a groundbreaking tour of the mind and explains the two systems that drive the way we think. System 1 is fast, intuitive, and emotional; System 2 is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. The impact of overconfidence on corporate strategies, the difficulties of predicting what will make us happy in the future, the profound effect of cognitive biases on everything from playing the stock market to planning our next vacation―each of these can be understood only by knowing how the two systems shape our judgments and decisions.
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. As America descends deeper into polarization and paralysis, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has done the seemingly impossible—challenged conventional thinking about morality, politics, and religion in a way that speaks to everyone on the political spectrum. Drawing on his twenty five years of groundbreaking research on moral psychology, he shows how moral judgments arise not from reason but from gut feelings. He shows why liberals, conservatives, and libertarians have such different intuitions about right and wrong, and he shows why each side is actually right about many of its central concerns. In this subtle yet accessible book, Haidt gives you the key to understanding the miracle of human cooperation, as well as the curse of our eternal divisions and conflicts. If you’re ready to trade in anger for understanding, read The Righteous Mind.
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. In Evicted, Harvard sociologist and MacArthur “Genius” Matthew Desmond follows eight families in Milwaukee as they struggle to keep a roof over their heads. Hailed as “wrenching and revelatory” (The Nation), “vivid and unsettling” (New York Review of Books), Evicted transforms our understanding of poverty and economic exploitation while providing fresh ideas for solving one of 21st-century America’s most devastating problems. Its unforgettable scenes of hope and loss remind us of the centrality of home, without which nothing else is possible.
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. From a former marine and Yale Law School graduate, a powerful account of growing up in a poor Rust Belt town that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class. Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis—that of white working-class Americans. The decline of this group, a demographic of our country that has been slowly disintegrating over forty years, has been reported on with growing frequency and alarm, but has never before been written about as searingly from the inside. J. D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hung around your neck. […] A deeply moving memoir with its share of humor and vividly colorful figures, Hillbilly Elegy is the story of how upward mobility really feels. And it is an urgent and troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large segment of this country.
The Underground Railroad: A Novel. Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hell for all the slaves, but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood—where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned—Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her. Though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted. […] Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom. Like the protagonist of Gulliver’s Travels, Cora encounters different worlds at each stage of her journey—hers is an odyssey through time as well as space. As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre–Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.