Dec 25 2014

Bora Bora Biographies

I read over 40 books in my month off the grid in Bora Bora recently. I’ve had many requests to blog about my reading list but rather than do one big long post I thought I’d break it up into several “longish” different posts over time. If all you are interested in is my reading list, my Goodreads Brad Feld account has everything I’ve read in reverse chronological order.

This post is about biographies. I’ve always loved to read biography and expect that my 2015 reading diet will include a lot more biography and history than normal as it has caught my interest lately. I’m including company biographies in this post. I didn’t read many, but had a little Google obsession on this trip which you’ll see in a moment.

The order is in the order I read them (even though the Goodreads list is in reverse-chron order).

Boy on Ice: The Life and Death of Derek Boogaard: I finished this just before we took off. I’m not much of a hockey fan – my childhood team was the Dallas Blackhawks – but I was entranced by this book. I learned a lot about how hockey works, much of it distressing to me. The enforcer role was one I didn’t really understand and Boogaard’s story is a powerfully tragic one. The book is well-written and moves quickly, while painting a powerful picture of how hockey can really damage people.

How Google Works: Eric Schmidt (Google chairman, prior CEO), Jonathan Rosenberg (long time Google exec) wrote the trendy book of the year about Google. I knew many of the approaches and anecdotes of the book – and how Google works – from the many other things I’ve read about Google over the years. But having it in one place, organized conceptually, was worth taking another pass through it all.

Memos from the Chairman: I had high hopes for Ace Greenberg’s compendium of memos from his time as chairman of Bear Stearns, which coincided with massive growth and success for the company. While there was some cuteness in here along with a few things to reflect on, I was disappointed in how dull the majority of the book was. Maybe it was awesome in 1996 when it came out, but it felt slow and dated in 2015.

Einstein: His Life and Universe: Einstein is one of my heroic figures and Walter Isaacson  just nails it. If you are an Einstein fan or just want to really learn the full story, this is the book for you.

The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution: If I hadn’t read the Einstein book, I probably wouldn’t have read The Innovators, but Isaacson had pleased me so much that I devoured this one also. This is Isaacson’s 2014 tome an a follow-up to his Steve Jobs book. It was good, but not epic.

Two Miserable Presidents: Everything Your Schoolbooks Didn’t Tell You About the Civil War: I originally saw this at my partner Ryan McIntyre’s house a few months ago when we were over for dinner. I Kindled it and dove in. I loved it – super easy to consume and a very playful way to learn, or relearn, some history. I’m planning at least one serious Lincoln biography in 2015 so this was a good way to get a taste of it.

The Virgin Way: Everything I Know About Leadership: Everyone knows that Richard Branson is cool, and iconoclast, a massive risk taker, and amazing successful. But he’s also extremely introspective and articulate. I’ve never met him or been to Necker Island, but plenty of my colleagues have. When I started reading this one, I felt like I was doing something obligatory to read the autobiography of one of our contemporary business legends, but I really enjoyed it and by the end was glad Branson had put the energy into writing this.

In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives: As with Walter Isaacson, I eventually get around to reading all of Steven Levy’s books (I read his epic Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution in 1984 as a freshman at MIT and it has stayed with me ever since.) His Google book was awesome – much better than How Google Works. I learned a ton I didn’t know, especially about history that had either been ignored, glossed over, or repurposed. If you have any interest, relationship with, or curiosity about Google, this is the book for you.

Ada’s Algorithm: How Lord Byron’s Daughter Ada Lovelace Launched the Digital Age: I’ve read lots of articles on Ada Lovelace, but I’ve never read a comprehensive biography. The story was fascinating, especially when pondering what life much have been like in Victorian-era England and how much of any uphill cultural battle Ada Lovelace had. While we’ve got lots of challenges around gender still in our society, we’ve definitely made read progress in the last 150 years. This linkages to Lord Byron, Lady Byron, and Charles Babbage were fascinating and, in many ways, disheartening. Ada Lovelace was clearly a genius – I can’t even begin to imagine the amazing stuff she could have done if she was born in 1990 instead of 1815.

As a bonus, Amy and I have been watching the HBO Series John Adams and I’ve decided to start tackling biographies of American presidents and other American heroes of mine, like Ben Franklin. Look for some of this in 2015.

Happy reading.