Best Book Recommendations of 2012

January 6, 2013

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.

See my recommendations from 2011 and don’t forget to sign up for the Reading List Newsletter if you haven’t already. 

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

24 responses to Best Book Recommendations of 2012

  1. Ryan, you’re obviously an incredibly voracious reader (200+ books in a year!?). I’m sure many of us wonder how it is you read so much (I think you wrote once that you don’t consider yourself a particularly fast reader only that you make it a priority). On a daily basis what does your reading schedule look like?

    • Correct. I’m a binge reader.

      So right now I’m not reading much (maybe a book a week) because I am writing. But if I really got caught up in something I might read for hours on end and do several per week.

  2. I don’t remember if this is the first time you talk about the system you use to organize the quotes you gather from the books you read. Are you planning to one of these days write and elaborate on that? That would be very interesting to me.

    Joao Eira

  3. Why do you think Zuckerberg is a robber baron? I have no doubt that you’re right, I’d just be interested to hear you elaborate on this a bit; I’m sure you have an interesting perspective.

    • Dubious origins of the company. Manipulative IPO. Broken on purpose (see my article) etc etc

      • I never saw your Broken On Purpose article before… but fuck me is it true. I could write 1000 words on how poorly designed Facebook is from a UX perspective. (Well designed for generating pageviews and keeping users addicted though.)

      • What’s wrong with Facebook charging businesses money to reach their fans? Their IPO has certainly been very manipulative, but now that they’ve reached the last stage of their Ponzi scheme and they’ll have to start making money or go bankrupt. It’s nice to see that they’re at least trying to build a real business.

        • If only I’d laid it all out in a few thousand word article…

          • You also wrote,

            “Much of the discussion of these types of problems is best categorized as flippant analysis. Simplified is another word. I tend to interpret it as condescending too. It all stems from an inability to understand and place yourself in a reality you may not approve of or even care about. That is, to empathize.

            Yahoo is a 20 billion dollar company. What are they supposed to do? Quit? The people in the situation are real, they wake up everyday and show up at an office and are expected to do something. They have quarterly filings, signed contracts, relationships and expectations. What are they supposed to do?”

            Facebook’s business model was an investment ponzi scheme, and after their IPO they were forced to come up with a real business model. What’s wrong with monetizing their userbase by restricting who sees what? They’re not a media organization that’s expected to report objective facts. Iterative journalism is broken on purpose, but I don’t see how Facebook’s restrictions are “broken”. It’s a different thing.

          • No, but you’re clearly misreading the article.

            I said that Facebook’s service–connecting brands/people to fans/friends–has clearly been broken (that is, it no longer works as well as it once did) because Facebook rolled out an advertising platform that profits from it being broken. In an efficient marketplace, there is no need to published sponsored stories. Therefore, FB throttles the market and forces its customers to pay to receive the previous levels of flow. The worse it works, the more you have to pay. Broken on purpose. Conflict of interest. Disincentives. Whatever you want to call it.

            Smarter people than me picked up the ball and ran with it after I kicked off the discussion.


            What should Facebook do instead? The answer is really fucking simple: Roll out new services and charge for those instead. Or, just decide that FB pages with more than 1M fans cost $XXXXXX per year and include customer service. There’s a million things they could do that would a) not be unethical b) not have caused a PR disaster. c) made a lot more money.

  4. Thanks for the post Ryan. My wife and I recently quit our jobs in Norcal to travel for a year and live in Bangkok, Buenos Aires, Berlin and Bombay (for approximately 3 months in each city) while doing service projects and reinventing our lives. Were there any books that you felt were particularly helpful in getting the most out of your year-long experience in New Orleans? As in books that you felt helped sharpen your focus on your desired outcomes for the year? I am in Bangkok and I’ve read most of the books on my kindle…:)

  5. Ryan, I’d also be very interested in your note taking approach.

    “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.”

    Do you mind a couple of questions?

    1) What are your motivations for note-taking? When reading technical books, I construct mind maps because the process helps me to better assimilate the book’s various ideas – the final output (the mind map) is not so important as going through the process. Are your motivations similar?

    2) Do you take notes for all types of books you read, or just certain topics?

    3) The quote above suggests that you divide your notes for one book up into multiple topics (cards?). Then, over time and as you read more books, each topic/card might then reference many books. Is that correct?


  6. I would really like to read “Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller Sr. “. It’s definitely at the top of my reading list for 2013. It was my Christmas present for my brother! I guess I didn’t make a bad choice!

  7. Hi there, the January edition of Books You Loved is open for entries. Here is the link Books You Loved January Edition Please do pop by and link in a post about a book/s you loved. Maybe this post? Cheers and Happy New Year!

  8. 200 books? Really? Wow, you are such a big reader! And those books I am sure are not even light reads. I wish I can be as fast a reader as you are. When I do find time to open a book, I prefer to read easy to read stuff because it would make me relax and not think so much.

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