The Best Books I Read in 2011

by eric

For the last few years, I’ve kept a simple text log with some brief notes summarizing the books I read.  It’s been satisfying watching the list grow, and I am able to give much better answers when friends ask me what I’ve been reading lately!

Mining that list, here are the best books I read this year.  It was a good year for me–roughly half of what I read gets an enthusiastic recommendation.  Not all of these books were released this year, of course; getting a popular book out of the Berkeley Public Library hold queue requires patience!

The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less
Barry Schwartz
This wise overview of the psychological research shows that we make worse choices and are less happy with the outcome when we try to make the best possible choice among many options.  “Satisficing”–settling for good enough–gives better results.

The Personal MBA
Josh Kaufman
A decent introduction to fundamental business concepts, distilled from the pop business literature.  Its easy reading stems from its origins in the author’s blog.

Where Good Ideas Come from: The Natural History of Innovation
Steven Johnson
Helpful reading for anyone trying to push the boundaries of what’s possible, this book shows the similarities between evolution in nature and the evolution of new ideas.

In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives
Steven Levy
A detailed history of Google from an excellent technology writer (Levy’s Hackers is an fascinating account of the early PC era).

One Less Car: Bicycling and the Politics of Automobility
Zack Furness
Historical perspective on the contentious relationship between cyclists and automobile drivers.

The Rider
Tim Krabbe
Justifiably classic, this work of fiction follows an amateur cyclist through the course of a long road race.

The Trap: Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All America
Daniel Brook
Explores how increasing income differentials between corporate and non-corporate work, rising student loan debts, health insurance challenges, and decreased support for public primary education constrain the career choices of well-educated young people.  Not the last word on this subject, surely, but a useful addition to the discussion of financial inequality.

Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World
Michael Lewis
Not my favorite Lewis book, but an entertaining perspective on the world’s current financial insanity.  The differences in how the credit boom and bust played out in different countries are remarkable.  The chapters were published as articles in Vanity Fair.

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer
Siddhartha Mukherjee
A masterful, erudite, and deeply humane history of cancer and our attempts to overcome it.  Richly woven with historical and scientific detail, but still a page-turner.  A winner of the Pulitzer Prize, it transcends technical writing to become literature.