Reading Summary – 2020

It’s that time of year again.

I did manage to get quite a bit more titles in this year AND I have managed to write each summary immediately after finishing the book. Let’s see if I can do better in 2021.

On with the list..

Death –  Dream’s sister has enough content to merit her own book.  I had never read The Time of Your Life or the High Cost of Living and they’re both worth the price of admission.  The icing on the cake was a safer sex PSA brought to you by Death herself assisted by a reluctant John Constantine

How to Think Like a Roman Emperor –  A case study of key milestones and events of the life of Marcus Aurelius through the lens of Stoic Philosophy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy techniques

If Hemingway Wrote Javascript – A charming and diverting series of short and familiar coding exercises told in the style of a myriad of classic and contemporary writers.  Lots of fun and technically challenging at the same time.

Masters of Command – A multi threaded case study in leadership focusing on Alexander the Great, Hannibal Barca, and Julius Caesar.  Detail oriented, if a bit repetitive.  For example, I don’t know how many times I need to be reminded that Hannibal had 37 elephants except for the one time he had 80 or that Hephaestion ‘was perhaps’ Alexander’s lover.   Still a great comparison of these epic and larger than life figures that knew what they wanted and how to win it but never how to stop.

The First American – An incredibly dense and detailed biography of Benjamin Franklin.  Covers his entire life as an author and printer followed by budding scientist and Renaissance Man and ultimately the preeminent American statesman and diplomat.  Would highly recommend to any student of early American history or even those just looking for more detail beyond the brief anecdotes attached to a truly legendary figure.

Enchiridion of Epictetus – A condensed and almost bulleted list of Stoic maxims.  While a classic and worth reading for students of the philosophy interesting in going to the source, I find modernized examples of the same ideas such as The Daily Stoic to be more accessible to modern audiences and more suited to repeat reading.

Brief Answers to the Big Questions – A memorable gift from Stephen Hawking in what would turn out to be the final year of his life.  A sobering and hopeful summary of outstanding questions brought about by previous questions that he strived to help answer.  Dense and technical yet accessible to the layperson reader, in true Hawking style.

Medium Raw – Anthony Bourdain’s follow up to his seminal work: Kitchen Confidential.  Some clarifications and redirection on previous positions as well as some boosting and doubling down of the same.  Engrossing as ever and steeped in his incisive and often caustic insight and wit.

Extreme Ownership – Jocko Willink and Leif Babin’s memoir about their experience in Iraq during the Battle of Ramadi.  A distillation of lessons learned that is intended to be applied not only to the battlefields abroad but to professional and personal challenges as well.

Moneyball – Billy Beane has had a lasting impact not just on the Oakland A’s, but baseball as a whole.  I’ve watched most of these players live (Hell.. I’ve got Swisher’s jersey hanging in my closet) so this read was very nostalgic for me.  And Michael Lewis’s mostly-documentarial approach to writing about finance, business and sports hits a sweet spot for me (Ben Mezrich is another author I recommend for similar topics)

The Obstacle Is The Way – One of Ryan Holiday’s core works on Stoicism.   Adjacent to works like Antifragile in reminding us that there is no growth without resistance and often what frustrates or hinders you the most is probably exactly the challenge you currently need.

I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell –  The chronicles of Tucker Max, who I’ve never heard of until a friend asked if I’d seen the movie based on this book.  A sweat and booze soaked journey of a motley crew of frat boys at their absolute worst.  I’m not sure I’ve laughed out loud this hard in a while. 

The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World : From Marathon to Waterloo – A classic summary of the decisive battles of the world from antiquity on forward.  Another interesting bit of trivia is that this book is the basis for a verse from the ‘Modern Major-General’ song from The Pirates of Penzance.  There’s apparently a later edition of the book which adds 5 more battles post 1850 as well as a line of simulation wargames covering each.  I’m looking forward to checking those out.

Iron John – Centered around a Grimm’s Fairy Tale, this book incorporates folktale archetypes and stories that predate classical Greek and ancient Egyptian mythologies to lay out a ‘Man’s Journey’.  It borrows heavily from Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung or at least follows the pattern of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, a book cited often by George Lucas as an influence for the Star Wars universe.

Can’t Hurt Me – David Goggins’ part auto-biography/part motivational work.  This is his personal story of being born into and later escaping from an abusive home into an uncertain future and his transformation of that bad hand into a successful and celebrated military career.  Brutal and raw, the author leaves nothing to hide and everything on the table and dares the reader to do the same.

Dune – THE original classic.  It’s been over 20 years since I’ve read this, but I felt the need for a refresher now that the new movie is coming out.  It was fun to revisit and refresh my memory.  Also interesting how many quotes were copied verbatim to both the Lynch movie and the Sci-Fi channel mini series.

The Score Takes Care Of Itself – A posthumous collection of anecdotes on leadership with a ‘focus on fundamentals’ approach from legendary San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh.  Includes a wealth of personal stories as well as observations and short stories from other sources familiar with the teams journey from a 2-14 object lesson to a 3 time Super Bowl champion (at the time of Walsh’s retirement).  As a Raider fan, this was personal for me in other ways, but was still a fun dose of sports nostalgia.  This book is often cited as a precursor or inspiration for other more modern ‘back to basics’ case studies on leadership and turning around a failing system.

War Is A Racket – An collection of antiwar and isolationist essays written by Gen. Smedley Butler based on his first hand point of view on corporatism and the military-industrial complex.  Short and pulls no punches with some interesting anecdotes about the Bonus Army and the corporatist plot against the FDR administration.  Closes with some cautionary warnings about too much (at the time) American admiration and aping of the fascist systems rising in Italy and Germany.  A worthwhile read.

The Civil War – Caesar’s first hand account of the Roman Civil War beginning with the conflict against the Optimate faction in Rome culminating with the defeat of Pompey in Greece,  his part in the Ptolemaic conflict in Egypt and the final battles against Scipio and Cato in North Africa.  Probably had more footnotes and external references cited than actual pages, but that seems necessary considering the depth available for each event in the timeline that may only get a page or two.  It was also a bit jarring to have the author refer to himself in the third person throughout the account.  Even if this was due to the translation, it shouldn’t surprise me that an icon of vanity and self-promotion like Julius Caesar would default to that.

The First Five – Even though I grew up during the Black Flag/Rollinsband years, my first real introduction to Henry Rollins was his spoken word album Think Tank.  Rollins has a gift for vivid and engaging storytelling that at times qualifies as standup.  Since then, I’ve sought out his other spoken word shows as well as his more recent acting efforts (Check out He Never Died!)  The First Five is a collection of journals, essays and poems from his Black Flag years originally packaged as five separate books.  Angry, vivid and frequently misanthropic, I wouldn’t recommend this for anyone a weak stomach.  To call it emotionally taxing would be an understatement.

I’d love to hear any feedback on this list and invite you to share your own reviews or recommendations.  As always, if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to add them here or address them to