My Top 5 Impactful Books of 2018

My goal for 2018 was to read two books per month. I was able to exceed this goal thanks to a very lengthy commute and Scribd’s subscription model allowing for unlimited audiobooks each month. (If you’re interested in unlimited audiobooks, then you can get 60 days free here.)

I read a lot of good stuff this year, but this top five list is focused on the books that made the biggest impression on me. So, while I kicked off the year learning all about Pixar’s creative process in Creativity Inc., went back to a classic with The Fountainhead, and enjoyed a few of the new Star Wars novels, here are the five books from this year that really made a difference in the way I think about things.


5. Brotopia

Emily Chang took it upon herself to blow the lid off a lot of the absurdly sexist culture that has festered in Silicon Valley. The impact this book had on me was so profound because I am completely unaware of so much of what women in the workplace have to deal with. I have been in caustic working environments for women in the past and been blissfully unaware. A good book should broaden your understanding of the world around you, and Chang’s dissection of the bro culture throughout the tech scene is well worth a read.


4. Defining Moments in Black History

I’m sure it can be easy for detractors to write off plenty of what Dick Gregory claims in this book as conspiracy theories, but there is such a wealth of experiences being shared here. It seems like Gregory knew just about every activist or celebrity in one capacity or another, and he doesn’t pull any punches when recounting his memories of people like Medgar Evers. My favorite part was a private conversation he had with Rosa Parks. He is quick to dismiss the notion that many historians have that Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus that famous day because she was tired. People want to claim that she hadn’t given any thought to any of this and the spark for much of the Civil Rights movement only came about on accident. When Gregory asked Parks about this over dinner, she explained that she refused to give up her seat because she couldn’t stop thinking about Emmett Till. Seeing as Rosa Parks worked for the NAACP in an official capacity at the time of her defiance, it seems highly unlikely that she didn’t have a bigger statement in mind. Considering that, you should probably check out the story of Emmett Till in order to truly understand what was on her mind that famous day. As a white American, I certainly felt enlightened and challenged by the witty, yet incisive criticisms and observations of Dick Gregory.


3. The One Straw Revolution

Given that I am working at Farmers Business Network and helping to create and develop products to assist farmers in multiple aspects of their business, I was eager to challenge myself with this book. Masanobu Fukuoka gained notoriety with this book because his views became known as “do-nothing farming.” While it is true that he built a case for no-till, no-pesticide farming, the notion that his approach was hands-off could not be further from the truth. As a microbiologist focused on agriculture, he knew intimately the process of growing crops in Japan that had been adopted from western agriculture. In order to implement his approach to growing food, Fukuoka left his job with the Plant Inspection Division at the Customs Bureau and moved to a remote farm in southern Japan.

While I agree with much of his philosophy and what he proposes as obvious consequences from the manner in which we produce our food, I could not escape the thought that his methods would require a significant percentage of the population to return to rural areas and first and foremost, provide for themselves, and then distribute the excess to the rest of the population. The problem his approach to food production faces is that it doesn’t scale without massive, and unlikely, cultural and societal shifts.

2. How We Got to Now

Steven Johnson’s exploration of the six innovations that had the greatest impact on society and human progress is fascinating. While many of us would think of things like the airplane and the microchip, Johnson takes us a few steps further back. Instead of going with the obvious, his major themes that had the greatest impact on humanity’s technological progression are:

  • Cleanliness

  • Time

  • Glass

  • Light

  • Cold

  • Sound

If you find yourself skeptical of this list, remember glass not only leads to enhanced eyesight, but also leads us to smartphones with chips and screens.

My favorite anecdote was the story of Frederic Tudor in the section of the book pertaining to cold. Tudor was thought that the Caribbean needed ice and he was just the man to get it done. Honestly, what he did was a masterstroke. He sourced ice off of lakes. Free. He then insulated it with wood shavings from mills that would be disposed of anyway. Free. He got ships that were bringing goods back from the Caribbean to bring his insulated ice along as ballast on the ships during the first leg of the journey when they were bringing no goods south. Free. The guy managed to get ice from New England down to the islands of the Caribbean with no money out of pocket. Pure profit, right? Wrong. He didn’t conduct proper user research. He figured the people down there would love it. But none of them wanted it. I can’t imagine how frustrating it would be to come up with a scheme like that and then have it all amount to nothing due to an oversight.

I also found the section on time quite enlightening. It is something that defines us on a societal and an individual level. What time-zone are you in? Are you a morning person? While time is obviously present in nature, our understanding of it is largely something that we have created. It is certainly a great mental exercise to follow the implications of this human construct. Johnson brings that depth of thought to all of the topics he covers in the book.


1. QB - My Life Behind the Spiral

This book was fascinating! Steve Young, one of the role-models of my youth shared every aspect of his journey and it was eye-opening. Many people thought BYU rolled out the red carpet for him since he was a direct descendent of Brigham Young himself. However, when he arrived as a freshman, he was 8th on the depth chart for the quarterback position. He never gave up.

For most of his professional career, he would have debilitating anxiety leading up to a game. Once he was on the field, everything was normal. But until the whistle, he would lay awake all night focused on his fears. When he finally sought help, the specialist he confided in was floored that given the circumstances of Young’s condition, he had not developed a dependency on drugs or alcohol. I think that is a testament to the calibre of individual Steve Young is and how strong and devoted he is to his faith.

And, of course, there are all the injuries. The man is tough as nails. Most people are aware that he was in a challenging situation in San Francisco following Joe Montana as the franchise quarterback. He always devoted himself to off-season conditioning, to pre-season workouts, to film room sessions, and to team training. He didn’t think he had anything to prove. But one of the moments that finally won over his teammates was when he took a big hit that sent shooting pains down his leg. It was excruciating pain. He literally dragged himself off the field, clawing at the grass while using the other leg to push himself. His teammates were in disbelief when he somehow jogged back out on the field when the offense got the ball back and then finished out the game.

I have always been an admirer of Steve Young, and this book has solidified that admiration. It is inspiring and certainly made an impact on my perception of what is possible.

John FerriganComment