Books of the Year 2016

Note: the list is about books I read this year. Year of publication plays no part

Boyd, by Robert Coram

John Boyd was considered by some to be the greatest fighter pilot in the world. After leaving active duty and becoming an instructor, his study of the physics of aerial combat lead to changes in the design of military aircraft. From there he advanced to studying the nature of warfare itself. His theories were so well-respected that they were used by the US Army during the Gulf War.

Even without those incredible accomplishments, Boyd’s character alone would make his biography compelling. He was beloved by his acolytes, but seen as infuriating and dangerous to outsiders. Cross Boyd once, and he would never forget it. But through his genius, courage, and through the political manoeuvring of his friends, Boyd succeeded professionally, in spite of the scores of powerful enemies he created.  Reading the book you can’t help but want him to win, his intelligence, brashness and loyalty outweighing his negatives.

We read of Boyd’s triumphs, the months and years of focused hard work. But also how that professional obsession won out over his personal life. Boyd played a zero-sum game – the time and energy that brought him success in the Pentagon was sapped from his home life. His wife and kids suffered while he succeeded. Every decision is a trade-off.

I am the manliest of all men. So I would of course never cry at a book. But there was definitely some dust in the room as I read Boyd’s final chapters. Highly recommended.

A Burglar’s Guide to the City, by Geoff Manaugh

A sign of a good book is how it affects my life away from its pages. My policeman friend eyeing me warily as I explained how much I wanted to rob a building. The time I sat in a pub with a notebook, sketching out the bar’s layout, wondering what the best way to take it down was. The fact that I couldn’t stop talking about this book, even to people who don’t read and/or had no interest in the subject.

Think about how burglars are like architects, looking for abnormal ways to interact with a building. Walk through a toy shop and imagine a burglar living within its walls, watching you through stolen baby monitors. If either of those concepts appeals to you, buy this book. If they don’t, buy it anyway. Also, read to get a sense of author Geoff Manaugh’s writing style, and the pleasantly unusual way his mind works.

Mindset, by Carol Dweck

Here’s my simplified (and probably mangled) version of Dweck’s message: there are two types of people in the world. Those with a Fixed mindset, and those with a Growth mindset. Fixed people believe our intelligence is, well, fixed. You’re bad at maths? You just don’t have the aptitude for it. The Growth folk, however, recognise how much our brains can change. You’re bad at maths? You just haven’t studied enough yet, or you haven’t used a learning method appropriate for you. Essentially, the message is – become a Growth minded person, and the world is yours. Realise your brain is ready and willing to adapt, and there’s nothing you can’t learn.

The book’s about more than simply being a super-learner, however. Your mindset can affect your life in unexpected ways. Your boss criticises some aspect of your work. A Fixed response could be, ‘I’m no good at this and never will be’. You label yourself as bad at X. You don’t try to improve. Therefore, you are bad at X. And will be for the rest of your life.

A Growth reaction, however, is more likely to be, ‘She’s right, I am bad at this. I better spend some time getting good at it’. As Fixies believe they can’t change, any criticism aimed is a criticism of them as a person, one that’ll always be true. A Growther sees that same critique as only a comment about them at that particular time, something that’s valid right now but doesn’t have to be in the future. Dweck shows how you choose your mindset, how easy changing it is once you’re aware of it, and the myriad of areas in your life you can improve upon with that awareness and the desire to change.

Honourable mention

Future Crimes, Buffett: the Making of an American Capitalist, The Straight-A Conspiracy


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