I recommended close to 200 books through my Reading List Email this year. I know you’re all very busy people and I imagine only a few of you ended up reading more than a handful of the suggestions. Don’t worry, that’s on me and not on you.
Now, If I could only recommend 3 books from 2012, what would I pick? I couldn’t actually narrow it down to 3 exactly, but I tried my best. Below are the my favorite books for the year and the ones that made the biggest impact on me. There is no question they are worth reading and your time.
The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King by Rich Cohen
The book sucked me in completely. The subject, Samuel Zemurray, is fascinating and compelling. The writer has a voice that is utterly unique. Since reading this book, I have explored all of this further: I studied Zemurray (whose house was not far from mine in New Orleans and still stands) and am using his story in my next book. I interviewed the author, Rich Cohen. And I read his other books, am particularly found of Tough Jews: Fathers, Sons and Gangster Dreams. The book has all sorts of things going for it: it’s the American Dream, it’s history via microcosm, it’s drama/violence/intrique, and it’s a course in business strategy and leadership. Everyone I have recommended it to was blown away. I won’t say it’s as good as The Tiger, which was my favorite book of 2011, but in terms of an author I’d never heard of taking a subject I don’t care about and making it AWESOME? This book deserves to be talked about in the same breath.
The Civil War
I went so deep into Civil War in 2012 that I lost track of all the books. I started this last year when I read Sherman by B.H Liddell Hart (and recommended as a favorite). I came to admire Sherman so deeply that I read two more books about him: Sherman’s Memoirs and a big old book from 1933 Sherman: Fighting Prophet. From there I went on to Grant’s Memoirs, which are incredibly readable and deeply moving as well as the biography Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph Over Adversity, 1822-1865 by Brooks D. Simpson. I loved learning about Lincoln, especially in Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness. I read two important memoirs from slaves as well, and strongly recommend 12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup and A Slave in the White House about Paul Jennings. In terms of obscure or unusual books related to the war, I love Incidents and Anecdotes of the Civil War by Admiral David Porter (1885) and Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild by Lee Sandlin (plus his WWII article which is the best essay I’ve ever read). Fiction-wise, I read all of Ambrose Bierce’s Civil War Stories and was blown away–it is dark, beautiful writing. I also read discussions of a bunch of Southern/Civil War writers in Patriotic Gore by Edmund Wilson and The Legacy of the Civil War by Robert Penn Warren, which helped me understand and contextualize what I’d already read from the people listed above. And most of all, I was inspired by following Ta-Nehisi Coates’s provocative journey through the same subject on his blog for The Atlantic. Instead of getting into why I read all these books or why they’re important, I’ll just say that nothing has given me more pleasure or expanded my understanding of history and humanity than reading these books. Try one of them and see what happens.
Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller Sr. by Ron Chernow
A biography has to be really good to make read you all 800 pages. To me, this was one of those books. Since reading it earlier this year, I’ve since found out it is the favorite book of a lot of people I respect. I think something about the quality of the writing and the empathic understanding of the writer that the main lessons you would take away from someone like Rockefeller would not be business, but life lessons. In fact, when I went back through and took notes on this book, I filled out more cards for Stoicism than I did for Strategy, Business or Money. I found Rockefeller to be strangely stoic, incredibly resilient and, despite his reputation as a robber baron, humble and compassionate. Most people get WORSE as they get successful, many more get worse as they age. Rockefeller did neither of these things, he grew more open-minded the older he became, more generous, more pious, more dedicated to making a difference. Does that excuse the “awful” things that he did? Well, the things he did really weren’t that awful so yes. (By that I mean I’d certainly choose him over the robber barons of this age like Zuckerberg or Murdoch.) If you do enjoy this biography, I followed it up with a few others I consider to be in the same league: Knight’s Cross: A Life of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel by David Fraser, Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, and Mencken: The American Iconoclast.