My Favorite Books of 2017
January 15, 2018•2,337 words
I read more books in 2017 (46) than any other year that I can remember, nearly 17,000 pages and the average book length was over 400 pages. 2017 was also the first year where the amount of ebooks outnumbered the physical books I read. While I still prefer something that you can hold in your hand, feel the paper and turn the pages, it is practically impossible to get over the deals, storage and convenience offered by Amazon and others. Overall, I read at least twice as much as previous years and spent almost half as much to do it.
My strategy in purchasing books is to pretty much buy anything that jumps out — books are the world's cheapest form of education — denying yourself ten or twenty dollar purchases for something that can take you to a whole other world or level of intelligence is silly. Thanks to the never ending supply of Kindle deals, most of my books in 2017 cost less than five dollars and included things I would have likely never bought at a bookstore like the biographies of Elon Musk and Richard Branson and Jade Dragon Mountain, a mystery set in 18th century China.
Many of my physical books were purchased at our fantastic local bookshop, Bookshop Santa Cruz, where I also attended events from authors like Cory Doctorow, John Scalzi, Andy Weir and Robin Sloan. Additionally, I am always on the lookout for used copies of books I've always wanted or books I love to gift, like The Diamond Age by Neil Stephenson, which I bought two copies of in 2017. Finding a great book to share is one of my favorite things and my experience this year also sparked a potential idea for a passion project.
My increased reading habit was molded having spent too much time in a hospital and months of intense recovery in 2017—by the time I was finally in the clear, I was spending an hour a day minimum in good book. As I go back over my list, I am reminded of the year's journey and it makes me even more excited for the year to come to think of all that I will learn thanks to other people's hard work, research and imagination.
Natural Born Heroes: Mastering the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance by Christopher McDougall
I am not sure I would have ever read this unique book by the author of Born to Run had it not been for a couple of other "rules" I have for buying books – if the physical copy is close to the same price or less than the Kindle book, go for the real thing and when I am buying things on Amazon, I will often dip into my wish list and add a book to my order.
Natural Born Heroes is really two books, one following the footsteps of a band of World War II resistance fighters in an attempt to do what no one in that great war could accomplish, rattle Hitler and kidnap one of his generals. The other story, interwoven into the journey, is a search to understand the extraordinary human potential that allows some folks the ability to accomplish heroic feats.
Annapurna: The First Conquest of an 8,000-Meter Peak by Maurice Herzog
I spent an abnormal amount of time (for me) reading biographies and stories of people who have accomplished incredible things in the time they were given. Annapurna is a first-hand account of a French climbing team attempting to be the first to climb a peak over 26,000 feet. The story is perhaps the most jaw-dropping and gripping human tale I've ever heard of. Not only were Herzog's team the first to climb this eleveation, they did it in 1950, without the modern gear, sensors and data now available. What struck me the most from their story (and many of the others I gravitated toward in 2017) was no matter how destructive the end result was – and for the two that summited, it would be the last climb of their lives – the accomplishment was not just the highlight of their life, but they would go back in a heartbeat to repeat it, even facing the same consequences.
The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee and Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
Both books were on most people's top reads for 2016 and they did not disappoint. Each takes an incredibly complex subject and creates a vastly informative and entertaining read. I read The Gene while in Stanford Hospital having procedures related to an autoimmune condition and had just finished Sapiens before going in. Talk about an intimate genetic and human story!
I don't have highlights from The Gene as I have the physical book and read mostly in a hospital bed (I suspect I will re-read these books often in the years to come), but here are some "stop dead in your tracks" statements from Sapiens,
"Having so recently been one of the underdogs of the savannah, we are full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous."
"Just try to imagine how difficult it would have been to create states, or churches, or legal systems if we could speak only about things that really exist, such as rivers, trees and lions."
"We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us."
"The idea of progress is built on the notion that if we admit our ignorance and invest resources in research, things can improve."
"Millions of years of evolution have designed us to live and think as community members. Within a mere two centuries we have become alienated individuals."
"Lasting happiness comes only from serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin"
Science Fiction Favorites
Death's End (Remembrance of Earth's Past) by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu
While I did read and enjoy fiction books from other genres, I will almost always choose something that leans toward "hard" sci-fi. I read fiction almost exclusively in the evening or on the weekend as the fantastical nature decouples most of our "thinking" processes and engages our default mode network, imagination and dreaming, which is perfect before bed, or when you want to relax and not think about work or projects. Death's End is the conclusion to the Three Body Problem, which is one of the most ambitious works of fiction ever written — Imagine Neil Stephenson and Frank Herbert were one person from China and that should get you in the mood. The Three Body series was also my first time reading science fiction from a different cultural perspective, which, having spent time working with and traveling in China, was a real treat. These books also introduced me to Ken Liu, who's translation work alone should win awards, and has his own body of work which I devoured in 2017.
Binti by Nnedi Okorafor
Okorafor was born in the US to two Nigerian immigrants and while classified as a "young adult" novella, Binti captures a world of spectacular imagination with crystal, technicolor clarity in under 100 pages. The third book in the Binti series will be released in 2018 and I look forward to reading much more of Nnedi's work in the coming year.
Walkaway by Cory Doctorow
Doctorow is one of my favorite humans (which I was able to tell him at a book signing this year), with his thinking on the future and pop culture, his activism at the Electronic Frontier Foundation and his pragmatism with the Creative Commons work. Walkaway is not your run-of-the-mill post-apocalyptic novel, but instead offers hope and humanity despite the collapse of society. This book has echoed through my thoughts regularly since finishing it, calling me to read it again and I have even gifted it to my teenage daughters.
Nexus (the Nexus Trilogy) by Ramez Naam
Nexus is one of those "how did I miss this?" books that was completely off my radar until a Kindle deal offered all three books for just a few bucks before I went in for surgery. One thing that does not happen in a hospital is rest – you are woken every four hours to check of your vitals – and during a two week stay, where I underwent eight procedures under anesthesia, I read Naam's razor sharp trilogy. Despite being in my own altered state, I could not put these books down and was totally absorbed by Naam's deft storytelling and the incredible depth of knowledge he brings to his writing as a technologist.
The Telomere Effect by Dr. Blackburn and Dr. Elissa Epel
Telomere length is one of the most important indicators of health and resilience and has been found to correlate strongly with life expectancy. The Telomere Effect is a totally approachable text by the women who have done most of the research on the subject and Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn received the Nobel Prize for discovering telomerase and the role of telomeres in the aging process.
The biggest takeaways from the book is that your reaction to stress, the environment you choose to live in and the relationships you cultivate are the key to "enduring wellness" and thus longer life. The length of our telomeres — the primary protection for your cells — is directly affected by these factors and can actually be built back up by making changes to your life and well-being.
"[damage to your teleomeres] is not just from experiencing a stressful event, it’s also from feeling threatened by it, even if the stressful event hasn’t happened yet."
Someone once told me "worrying is praying for what you don't want", and that is proven in the length of your telomeres. Things like having a life purpose and volunteering also relate to longer telomeres, lower insulin sensitivity and less belly fat. As you can imagine, exercise plays prominently and aerobic endurance and High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) had the most effect on telomeres, but perhaps most importantly,
"the more categories of exercise—from walking to biking to strength training—that people engaged in, the longer their telomeres."
The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Living by Steve Phinney and Jeff Volek
I have been in and out of ketosis for over two years after finding it had a massive impact on my Crohn's disease, inflammation and even my athletic performance on a bike. This book took everything to a whole different level, offering some serious science on how to craft a diet with little reliance on carbs while being very active.
Here are some mind blowing things to think about in the context of all of the other "conventional wisdom" on diet and exercise,
"Peak aerobic power, also called VO2max, is negatively associated with biomarkers of inflammation like interleukin-6 and c-reactive protein. This implies that reducing inflammation facilitates cellular energy metabolism and increases work performance."
"Consuming even small amounts of carbohydrate after exercise rapidly decreases the release of fatty acids from fat stores and oxidation of fat in the muscle, thereby interfering with keto-adaption, plus also diminishing the beneficial effects of exercise on insulin sensitivity and other cardio-metabolic risk markers."
"A provocative way to think about ketones is that they are a clean-burning fuel, in that their production and oxidation appears to result in less generation of reactive oxygen species (ROS) compared to other metabolic substrates like glucose and glycogen."
More recently in the news, research is coming out showing exercise and low fat diets will not increase weight loss, this statement from the book was published in 2012.
"What would happen if the public was told that, for many of us, exercise doesn’t speed your metabolism and that it doesn’t do that much to speed weight loss?"
Head Strong by Dave Asprey
I went into 2017 predicting the year would be focused on mitochondrial health which proved to come true, with Google showing nearly twice the search traffic compared to only a few years ago and dozens of new books on the subject of neurology and mitochondria. If you are familiar with Bulletproof Coffee or The Bulletproof Diet book, you won't be surprised by Asprey's style as he tackles how to increase your mitochondria and thus your energy, focus and health. As Dave himself would say, "if you want to kick more ass in all areas of your life", this is a great resource.
It is difficult to stop listing books that I enjoyed as there were only a few that felt like weren't worth reading. As with all of the content I consume, I try to find the best sources from people that I believe are smarter than me and are really putting in the work of their craft. If you want to see what else I got into in 2017, from mysticism to startups and personal development, you can see the whole list here.