As usual, I’m getting to the end of a year and both wishing I read more and also grateful that I picked the books I did. This year was a good mix of insight that had a bit of fun and bullshit mixed in. I make it a habit to highlight interesting parts of what I read and share them on Instagram along with regular foodporn and dog noses. You’ll see that some are deliberate and some are impulse purchases. Also, I’m not using an affiliate link but I am sending you to Amazon Smile instead of the regular site. Pick a worthy charity, send them money.
At the end of last year, I went to the Yayoi Kusama Infinity Rooms exhibition in Atlanta. It was spectacular and altogether unique. On the way out of any museum, I make it a point to check out different books in the shop. I picked up a book called Start With a Dot by Peter H Reynolds. It’s not profound or anything, only a book that has a bunch of idea for drawing with dots. That’s really all I did when I made Boozemoji – noodle with simple figures. Looking at something very simple in different ways is a great way to train yourself to see the world differently.
Info We Trust: How to Inspire the World with Data by RJ Andrews is a big beautiful volume about the history of storytelling with data. It’s nerdy and shows an obsession in ways beyond how I tend to dig into information. Andrew’s Instagram account shows how his brain works and it’s fascinating. The peak of the book was an in-depth study into Notre Dame which, on the face of it, seems entirely out of place in a work on using graphics to tell data-driven stories. You can have a look at this Twitter thread for a glimpse at what went into it. Later in the year, after I’d read the book, the famed church had a catastrophic fire. The background helped put the building into context and shows the unexpected power which can come from well-presented research.
The Art of Noticing: 131 Ways to Start Creativity, Find inspiration, and Discover Joy in the Everyday by Rob Walker. This is another casual book about finding something interesting in what we see everyday – or what’s missing from the everyday. The title’s self-explanatory and there’s something to be found in it when you need it. I find that when work, the news, life, or whatever gets close to overwhelming, that’s the perfect time to distract myself from what’s troubling me.
Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein. You may have heard about Malcolm Gladwell’s observation that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert on a given field. He talks about that in Outliers which I haven’t read, though I love his podcasts Broken Record (music industry with Rick Rubin) and Revisionist History. Gladwell’s quote on the back of the book: “For reasons I cannot explain, David Epstein manages to make me thoroughly enjoy the experience of being told that everything I thought about something was wrong.” Range is a look at building experience in how to approach problems for novel perspectives rather than depth in specific expertise. I find it a valuable career and life skill and Gladwell’s quote speaks volumes.
Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace by Gordon MacKenzie. It took me years to learn that a big part of what I look for in a job is a combination of freedom and resources. With resources comes process and with process can come pain which keeps you from doing the creative work which excites you on the job. This book is an approach to keeping yourself afloat and being strategic in how to accomplish what you want. Truth be told, I didn’t read this one in 2019. It’s on my list because I sent a copy to my boss so I can use the word “hairball” with her on 1:1 calls and she’ll know what the hell I’m talking about. Seriously, if this at all rings a bell then you need this book.
Am I Overthinking This?: Over-Answering Life’s Questions in 101 Charts by Michelle Rial. Of COURSE I needed this book based on the cover alone. Have a look at this article in the New Yorker the author created about making the book. I say “created” and “making” deliberately. Many of the charts use scissors, glasses, hats, bike locks, and other common items. I needed it because I hadn’t read enough books with witty and entertaining charts in 2019. Note that I keep buying books which are a bit different and have something to look at too. They’re often not best-sellers, but daily work published, sorted, and built into something new. It’s worthwhile to support these creators to keep this kind of art alive. Give Michelle a follow on Instagram.
How to Swear: An Illustrated Guide by Stephen Wildish. Of COURSE I needed this fucking book based on the cover alone. If you’re easily offended and/or hate charts, move along. Predictably, I cried reading How to Swear. Top bollocks! It’s that fucking good. Yes, this was in impulse buy. Posman Books has kickass locations in New York, Atlanta, and Boston which are inviting and easy to shop.
The Infinite Game by Simon Sinek is a fantastic follow up to Start With Why (which you should definitely read). It speaks much more to organizing behind a purpose which isn’t an endgame such as company size, money, a market position, a growth velocity, or the like. Those are always met and played out or sustained for a while then fallen short of. Then what? I know it sounds esoteric, but you’ll know the difference working someplace which is just trying to sell something and being in a culture which aims for more. It makes a difference if you create and feed that culture.
Doing Justice: A Prosecutor’s Thoughts on Crime, Punishment, and the Rule of Law by Preet Bharara. You may have heard of Preet. He was the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York from 2009-2017. Since then, he’s done legal commentary and started a highly-rated podcast which I regularly listen to. This year I saw him at the Atlanta Jewish Book Festival where I picked up his book and also at his tour stop in town. Preet published that one, which featured former Attorney General Sally Yates, to the podcast. Why am I a fan? First, he’s got an insightful way of explaining complex legal scenarios and I’m not an attorney. Second, his interviews have a variety of very interesting subjects I learn from. And thirdly, his human-first approach isn’t what you’d normally expect from a high experienced prosecutor – but they should be.
Impeach: The Case Against Donald Trump by Neal Katyal. Do I need to say it? This is important. Is it a witch hunt? Did he do it? Is it bad enough to remove him and why so or not? If so, is it a coup? Wouldn’t you want a clear explanation for all these points in an easily-read and organized format with references and without a bunch of BS? Yeah, we all should. This is that.
Am I There Yet?: The Loop-de-loop, Zigzagging Journey to Adulthood by Mari Andrew. Am I an adult? Yeah. Am I a 30-ish year old single woman? No, nor do I play one on TV. Do I love creative drawing and writing which is human and insightful? 100%. Mari Andrew is Insta-famous with over 1M followers. I’ve followed her for a long time because she does work like this book which is instantly relatable in ways you can pull back to your own life. It’s not that she’s a role model or hero, she’s a person who expresses herself in ways which help you connect to yourself. Give her a follow and maybe impulse-buy a book like I did at Posman.
House of X / Powers of X by Jonathan Hickman and Pepe Larraz is a pair of X-Men graphic novels. Seemingly ironically, the only book I read digitally this year was a comic book. I read very few comics but love superhero stories and a guilty pleasure is following Variant Comics on YouTube. I saw their breakdown of the opening issues in this series and had to read the mind-blowing sci-fi story. In short, it was fantastic. Also, as Variant’s Arris Quinones notes in the video, there’s a bunch of graphics between chapters which are critical to explaining what’s going on. I simply can’t get away from data-driven storytelling!
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie is a book I just started and am about a third through. My son blazed through this sci-fi trilogy and loved it. This is the only novel to ever win the Hugo, Nebula, and Arthur C. Clarke awards which means it’s got to be a terrific sci-fi yarn. So far, so good!
As a final shout-out, I’ve downloaded and worked in some workbooks in the Paper iPad drawing app. I’ve used the app for many years and this addition is fun practice. If you’ve got a creativity goal for next year, give it a shot. Some of my favorite follows have mades some of the content.
There we have it. Don’t live in a hairball which pursues a finite game. Draw that shit out in a fucking chart and make something of your 2020.