Forager’s 2020 book recommendations
Most of us won’t shed a tear for the end of 2020. Onwards and upwards. But after the year that was, everyone deserves a break. We hope you get it and find a really good book to go with it.
No Filter by Sarah Frier
“For a sense of scale, consider that millions of people and brands have more followers than the New York Times has subscribers”.
It’s easy to forget how much the app that many of us use every day has changed the world. I’d never thought about Instagram as a celebrity making machine, but it’s obvious that’s what it is. Even people who don’t use Instagram are impacted. Think about businesses that provide a service, like restaurants or hotels. Many of them now draw consumers in by making their meals or spaces ‘instagrammable’. Have you visited a beautiful monument or picturesque location lately? Be prepared to watch as crowds of people take countless photos of themselves or their friends. I once visited the Eiffel Tower before sunrise, thinking I’d have the monument to myself, only to be ambushed by a number of couples all re-enacting their engagement for the camera.
Bloomberg reporter Sarah Frier does an excellent job of recounting the story of Instagram. From its founding to the mind-boggling (at the time) US$1bn acquisition and the tensions that eventually resulted in Instagram’s founders leaving Facebook. It’s an informative and interesting read, albeit a little scary.
King Icahn: The Biography of a Renegade Capitalist by Mark Stevens
Carl Icahn is not a man you want to cross. He is not a man you want to be negotiating against. He is not someone you want to write a book about either. Despite Icahn’s early objections Mark Stevens managed to produce, in this 1993 book, a good sketch of the man many have associated with raw capitalism.
Starting in the 1970s, Icahn attacks listed companies, large and small. He seeks greenmail, control or a sale of the business. Regularly blocked by company boards and management teams, he ploughs on like a train through the snow. At times you almost feel sorry for his hapless targets.
Icahn is hell-bent on making money. A hatred of the corporate establishment seems to drive him. A combination of intellect, creativity and brute force sees him mostly achieving his goals. He’s been quoted as saying “If you want a friend on Wall Street, get a dog”. The story of Icahn’s rise to multi-billionaire status is a fascinating tale.
A Page From My Life (A selection of stories from Ray D’Arcy show listeners)
As someone who starts many more books than he finishes, this book suited me well. As Ireland adjusted to lockdown, listeners on a radio show were set the challenge to submit a story, 500 words long. Can a meaningful tale be told in so few words? The answer, after reading this book, is happily in the affirmative. More than 2,500 amateur authors from around Ireland submitted stories. The best 150 were chosen for this book (including one from a friend of mine). These are super-short stories on Life, Laughter, Lockdown, Love, Little Ones and Loss. Universal themes meaning readers will find something in these pages to make them laugh, cry or think. Make the most of a quiet moment and delve into these slices of everyday Irish life.
Present circumstances make the stories of loss particularly poignant. With tales ranging from the perfectly ordinary to the extraordinary, some of these have the potential to be expanded later. All proceeds from the sale of the book go to The LauraLynn Children’s Hospice Foundation whose mission includes providing services to families of children with palliative care needs.
Grit by Angela Duckworth
Psychologist Duckworth explores the key to success and why passion, resilience and, perhaps chiefly, persistence are pivotal ingredients when trying to achieve anything in life. Why do naturally talented people struggle to reach their potential while less gifted individuals often go on to achieve their dreams? The scientific research and real-life examples used throughout the book attempt to answer this question and, in turn, reveal how failure doesn’t define you. It’s how you respond that does.
The madness of 2020 (and a lack of long-haul flying) has meant my reading time has been less than desired this year. Here’s the best of what I have managed.
The Biggest Bluff by Maria Konnikova. I pitched Konnikova’s Confidence Game in our 2016 Christmas list. She’s back this year with The Biggest Bluff, a personal story of her rise to the peak of the global poker scene.
The book is about chance, luck, probability and human psychology. A lot of its insights are particularly relevant to investing. While Konnikova started her journey knowing absolutely nothing about poker, though, you will enjoy the book more if you already know the difference between a full house and a flush.
My other two recommendations are history books. First, The Anarchy by William Dalrymple. Dalrymple has written several books about India and this one focuses on the most shameful history of the East India Company. At its peak, the East India Company controlled the entire Indian subcontinent with a standing army of 260,000 (twice the size of Britain’s at the time). How it climbed that peak and then tumbled down the other side is the fascinating story of this well-written book, filled with wonderful quotes:
“A single courageous decisive man with an intelligent grasp of strategy is better than a thousand dittherers” – Mughal historian Shakir Khan
And finally, you will need some time for this one but These Truths, a History of the United States by Jill Lepore is one of the most outstanding history books I have read. Lepore covers almost six centuries, from Europeans’ first arrival in the US to the present day. Inspirational, sad, disgusting and inspiring, I wasn’t sure how to feel by the end. One message that is loud and clear, though, is that little of what shocks us today is new. From accusations of rigged elections to genuinely rigged elections, new media’s impact on society and societal rifts about wealth inequality. We’ve seen it all before.
“The greatest organizers of mass hysterias and mass delusions today are states using the radio to excite terrors, incite hatreds, inflame masses, win mass support for policies, create idolatries, abolish reason and maintain themselves in power” – Dorothy Thompson
Sound familiar? That was in the 1930s.
Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin
We are typically drawn to books where we can get a glimpse of what makes someone achieve peak performance in a competitive field. There are untold books focusing on lessons learned from elite military forces. Most are surprisingly bland, unrelatable and hard to finish.
Extreme Ownership is succinct and its authors come off as authentic, distilling powerful lessons we can apply to our daily lives. The premise of the book is that we are responsible for everything that happens in our personal environment (whether health, professional or relationships). If something goes wrong, blame yourself first. Even if there were some external influences, what could you have done differently to mitigate the chances of that happening? If your direct report botches a task, maybe you should have done a better job explaining the task. Again, blame yourself first, do not make excuses.
Extreme ownership of your environment requires a willingness to put your own ego aside, detach from difficult situations and be objective in your assessment.
The book is populated with combat stories from which lessons are extracted and then applied to business. Basic principles that help us deal with complex often chaotic environments in an effective way, like keeping things simple, decentralising decision making, prioritising and executing tasks, and helping others in your team as you move together towards a common objective.
None of these principles is new or revolutionary. But how often do you see people pass the buck, make excuses, not be a team player or let their own ego get in the way of reaching the right decision? A refreshing, entertaining and hopefully useful read for your summer break.
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
Kya is a young girl abandoned by her family and left fending for herself, living off a marsh in North Carolina in the 1950s. As she gets older, she faces prejudice from the people in the local town, who nickname her “The Marsh Girl”. One morning the local star quarterback, Chase Andrews, is found dead. He seemingly fell from an old abandoned fire tower in the marsh. Due to the townspeople hearing rumours about a previous romantic relationship between Kya and Chase, she is blamed for his “murder” and put on trial. Her pro-bono lawyer argues that she is simply being blamed due to prejudice in a small town and there is no evidence to convict her. Is this enough to save Kya from a conviction and the death penalty?
Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown
My great read of 2020 came from the always-interesting Invest Like the Best podcast by Patrick O’Shaughnessy. On 23 June 2020 he spoke to Brad Gerstner, the founder and CIO of Altimeter Capital, owner of a sparkling record in tech investments. In the podcast he revealed he applied something called Essentialism to both his work and private life. He borrowed this concept from Greg McKeown’s 2014 book. I actually enjoyed the podcast and Gerstner’s systematic application of the concept more than the book itself. But the book is essential reading (pardon me) if you want to be more effective and satisfied with your life. They key is focusing on the really important things.
Call of the Reed Warbler by Charles Massy
I read this book in late 2019 and early 2020, at the tail end of one of the worst droughts in history and as fire engulfed most of the bushland of south-east Australia.
Those events created monumental costs to agricultural Australia and not just financial. It’s easy to look over parched paddocks, curse global warming and kneel to Davos looking for solutions. But climate change certainly isn’t the only thing going on, it might not even be the most important factor. Regardless of the causes, and as it ever was, micro solutions will likely outpunch macro ones.
Massy has farmed the Monaro high plains for ages, as his ancestors did long beforehand. He first tried conventional “best practice” and mostly found it wanting, and debt-inducing. He’s spent 40 years since doing things differently. Call of the Reed Warbler outlines the problems – the immense degradation of the land, soil and hydrology that occurred blisteringly quickly after the introduction of European agricultural techniques. It’s backed up by some interesting early settler accounts.
But most of the book revolves around solutions, case studies from across the land of farmers who, through insight or dogged trial and error, have found alternative ways to farm their soil more sympathetically. Much of the damage, it turns out, is reversible. Some of the big ideas come from overseas, such as Allan Savory’s holistic grazing. But it’s mainly a local story. Permaculture and keyline systems, both decades’ old domestic innovations. Peter Andrews’ contrarian but compelling approach to watercourse management as a hydrating and drought-preventing asset. Pasture cropping, reforesting and a host of other ways to restore natural fertility to the land via improved hydrology, lower salinity, better soil and more ground cover.
Perhaps most importantly, it highlights methods that hold the potential to significantly improve farm profitability and reduce debt dependence, mainly by reducing outgoings to foreign giants like Monsanto and John Deere. In fact, a lot of the innovations highlighted in the book started soon after the bank said “no more”.
Something’s off in the way we’ve managed much of the land over the past few hundred years. I found Massy’s book hopeful, focused on solutions not blame. Nonetheless the message, apparently, went down like a lead balloon with a lot of traditional cockies when the book was released a few years back. But minds might be changing, sped along by the drought and fire season just passed, and the debt and despair that came with it.
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