I complete this year self-isolating after catching a very flu-like Coronavirus infection. A foggy head tries to impede me from writing an article I’ve wanted to write since last year this time: a review of the books I’ve read. My reading lapsed in 2020, but this year saw it back on track. Here is what I’ve learned from it over the last two years.
Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker
Walker’s book is dense. It took me many months before I turned the final page, but it gave me a deep appreciation for sleep’s vital role in a healthy lifestyle. Rather than struggling to adopt the recommendations, my more significant challenge was not becoming despondent when life got in the way of a consistently perfect sleep schedule. At length, Walker discusses all of the various ailments you can look forward to by sacrificing sleep, and it’s enough to scare you into making drastic changes. But as with most things, there’s a balance to strike.
The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman
Unlike Why We Sleep, I completed this book in a few days. I was in a young relationship, and two friends recommended learning more about love languages to iron out the kinks my partner and I were inevitably facing.
The book covers five mechanisms for communicating love to your partner. It’s your job to understand the languages that your partner speaks and expects, and then make a sincere effort to fulfil their needs through them. Perhaps I missed the point, but I cannot penetrate below the surface on these languages. They seem like bandaids for insecurities. The book targets married couples, and I’m not in that demographic. Maybe I will draw a different conclusion from the book in years to come.
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
Every event is the right one. Look closely and you’ll see.
Mediations had been on my reading list for a long time. My last yearly book review introduced me to Stoicism and Ryan Holiday with Ego is the Enemy. My subscription to Daily Stoic mailing list was just as old. Ryan talks at length about Marcus Aurelius’s teachings. On his recommendation, I picked up the Gregory Hays translation.
Nothing I read in Meditations was profoundly new to me. I had already subscribed to Stoic teaching and read blogs about it. What Meditations did offer was a distillation of the ideas at their core. There’s no cruft, no interpretations, just the thoughts and writings of one man. Take it or leave it; it was him laid bare.
I devised all sorts of methods to crystalise what I learned from Meditations. I plastered my walls with index cards of particularly pertinent quotes. Later, I discovered Zettelkastens and created a digital web of Stoic thought. I made copious notes from the book and cross-referenced them with ideas I’d heard before but didn’t tie to Stoicism (looking at you, The Chimp Paradox).
But now, after more than a year since I finished reading it, none of those stuck with me. I haven’t returned to the notes. I don’t read the index cards. Instead, it left me with a changed mental model. I plan to talk more about this in an upcoming blog post, but, in brief, it taught me to keep gratitude, perspective, and effort front and centre in all that I do. It’s second only to The Power of Now in books on this list that have impacted me the most.
The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk
The greatest sources of our suffering are the lies we tell ourselves.
Much like Why We Sleep, I struggled to keep pace with this book. It explores and edifies the neuroscience behind trauma with support from poignant case studies. Starting with the history of brain research and the modern take of the brain’s anatomy, it then examines social, parental, and relationship issues. It concludes with six practical strategies to cope with trauma and promote a healthy relationship with one’s mind.
The first third of the book was revelatory for me. Meditations is full of aphorisms with limited justification. This book explains why having strong communal ties is beneficial, why we must pause before we react to situations, and why loving your fate is essential. It explains the neural mechanisms behind all of these.
Things get more personal as the book progresses. It turns from description to introspection. It then rounds that off with six self-help strategies to implement yourself. For me, its legacy is assuring me that Aurelius’s anecdotes aren’t just tricks of the mind. They’re real, and science supports them.
Rich Dad Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki
If you find you have dug yourself into a hole… stop digging.
Kiyosaki’s book was another recommendation. My only real investment at this point in life was purchasing my home. Knowing that Kirosaki espoused real estate investing, I thought this book was as good a place as any to learn more about the investing game.
It’s surprisingly philosophical. I expected the intermittent pep talks, but not the commentary from Rich Dad on life pushing you around to make you learn things or on the nature of greed. Kiyosaki mixes these lessons from his Rich Dad with his own experiences in his formative years to set the stage for his advice later on. Much of it is general principles: be a life-long learner, work to learn, know a little about many different subjects, cultivate good habits, and don’t fall victim to your emotions. He concludes with ten calls to action to get started.
This book gave me confidence because it explained the game’s rules in simple terms. I read it as the S&P 500 was setting frequent record-highs. The stock market seemed the place to be investing in, but I didn’t have the confidence to invest in stocks yet—at this point, I didn’t even know about index funds. That changed by reading the next book.
How a Second Grader Beats Wall Street by Allan Roth
Roth’s book gave me the practicalities that Kiyosaki’s book lacked. It includes a deeper analysis of performance combined with commentary on investor psychology. The result is a strong argument for a simple idea: own the world with index funds. Rich Dad Poor Dad set the stage, but this book started the journey.
After finishing the book, I immediately opened up a Vanguard account. I bought several regional index funds and ETFs weighted by market capitalisation. So far, they’ve yielded over 12% in those nine months. Even if they hadn’t, Roth’s advice makes enough sense to me that I would stick with it. After all, he promotes the long term game.
The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle
The past gives you an identity and the future holds the promise of salvation.
This book was yet another one recommended to me, but one I had dismissed for some time. The descriptions I read about it come across as overzealous. But walking through Tesco during a particularly low period in the summer, this book was on sale, so I picked it up.
I devoured it over a few days, and my mindset changed. I loved the idea of disidentifying from the mind by seperating your mind from you. It was new, liberating, and it gave me this from the start. As the book progressed, I drew so many parallels to the discussions of trauma from The Body Keeps the Score. Tolle repeatedly references Buddhism, yet there are so many parallels to Stoicism as well. It gave me further motivation and justification for making a sincere and consistent effort to keep perspective and stay in the present.
What Everyone Needs to Know about Tax by James Hannam
Rounding off the trio of personal finance books, this book distils the UK tax system into something manageable. Hannam does a good job adding colour to what would typically be the dry subject matter. I tried to blitz through this to keep momentum since my goal was to understand how tax law would influence my current and future investments, nothing more.
There are many interesting tidbits, like which foods are subject to VAT and which aren’t. Over the years, you could save a substantial amount of money by keeping this in mind and prioritising VAT-free food purchases. There weren’t any big revelations, though, which shows that the tax system is transparent enough if you do your research. Much like the other two personal finance books, this book furthered my confidence in how I’m allocating and implementing my investment strategy.
Deep Work by Cal Newport
Great creative minds think like artists but work like accountants.
Once again, a recommendation, but indirectly. A friend recommended the Lex Fridman podcast to me, and one of the first I listened to was the interview with Cal Newport. I consider myself someone that struggles with focus. This book made clear to me that much of that is habitual. Focus can be trained. The brain is a muscle to be exercised with resistance training, the resistance being the discipline not to let your attention wander and tackle the task at hand—only that task.
Newport draws a similarity with meditation. After reading The Power of Now, this was only more striking to me. Focus isn’t just a tool for the knowledge worker. It’s a means to contentment.
What I’m Currently Reading
It was precisely this newfound appreciation of focus that has led me to tackle Robert Greene’s Mastery during this holiday period. Because I couldn’t resist getting a piece of the action in our current bull market, I’m also reading Mark Minervini’s Trade Like a Stock Market Wizard. That’s me taking a cautious step into the world of active investing.
This year, I littered my notes across multiple repositories. Recently I decided to focus on practicalities. I chose not to take notes in fiction books. They are to be enjoyed, not analysed. I also decided to allow myself breaks in reading technical books. I take notes as I go for those, rather than at the end. As long as I complete a chapter and write up my notes, I figure that I have enough context should I wish to return to the book later.
More than other books in this post, this book lends itself to being dipped in and out. A recent shift in my career means I expect to write much more Python in the future. The first part of this book has served as an excellent refresher.
The first section of this book led to multiple toy projects. Though I’ve used SQL for years, I learned it mainly through Google searches. This book was the first formal introduction to it since university, and it filled in a lot of knowledge gaps.
CSS In Depth
Toy projects backed by a database often need front-ends. This was a natural complement to Practical SQL. I combined this with the official React tutorial to acquire a firmer grasp of web technologies.