Hi friends! I do not count myself as an especially accomplished book reviewer, but I did meet my resolution to read 50 books this year, so my volume is at least enough to write about.

Note that the book didn't need to come out in 2019 to win the award, as long as my first read was 2019. Also note that it is not strictly limited to non-fiction, but I personally derive a lot more value from books that both teach me a lot AND are well-written, so in practice my high rankings are biased towards non-fiction (and high rated fiction tends to be me re-reading books I already know I love).

Anyway, we'll start with the best first because this isn't an award show and I don't need fake tension. All links go to my reviews for a bit more detail:

2019 Book of the Year: Bottle of Lies by Katherine Eban

I like books that highlight important stories, books that generalize intelligently from data points to trends, books that are well-written, and books with moral imperatives. Bottle of Lies hits all of those notes, without stumbling. It jumps between settings gracefully and strikes the perfect balance of local anecdotes and broader trends. It takes an issue that a very dedicated lobby is spending millions of dollars to make seem very simple (generic drugs cheaper! cheap good!) and gives you all of the tools you need to see through the bullshit. It's excellent prose that lives up to the quality of the journalism. You'll learn about drugs, you'll learn about capitalism, you'll learn about ethics, and if you pay enough attention you'll even learn about writing and journalism. Just a stellar book.

Choice quote:

At plant after plant, he found the most blatant fraud and the most egregious quality lapses in the manufacture of drugs bound for the least-regulated markets: Africa, eastern Europe, Asia, and South America. One reason he rarely saw a rejected batch in India was that, no matter how evidently defective the drug, there was always some world market where it could be sent.

First Runner-Up: Artificial Intelligence: A Guide For Thinking Humans by Melanie Mitchell

AI is going to be a defining force in the next decade, and it's critically important that people who aren't very technical understand what it is and isn't. Simultaneously, there are a lot of people out there massively overreacting to the near-future potential of AI who need a reality check before they hit one of the two extremes of "give AI too much power in deference to its supposed capabilities" or "cause a bunch of pointless panic about Skynet that takes attention way from actual problems." These seem like two different problems that require two different books, but Mitchell threads the needle expertly. She's put in the time and can frame arcane AI architectures in language so clear it's almost embarrassing for everyone else writing about AI. This is good because it's an extremely accessible history and primer into the basics of various self-educating computing techniques - it's great because it's also a meditation on the concept of intelligence itself, and how our idea of "intelligence" has some obstacles that are still very far away from what computing is today.

Choice quote:

Importantly, Szegedy and his collaborators found that this susceptibility to adversarial examples wasn’t special to AlexNet; they showed that several other convolutional neural networks—with different architectures, hyperparameters, and training sets—had similar vulnerabilities. Calling this an “intriguing property” of neural networks is a little like calling a hole in the hull of a fancy cruise liner a “thought-provoking facet” of the ship. Intriguing, yes, and more investigation is needed, but if the leak is not fixed, this ship is going down.

Second Runner-Up: Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham

This was my Book of the Year frontrunner for most of the year - the two that dethroned it came quite late in the year. Anyway, the spectacular HBO series may have stolen its thunder a little, but make no mistake - this is where you go if you want to learn about Chernobyl. Do you want to learn about Chernobyl? Yes you do - it's a story about the final result of cutting corners, and a culture that prioritizes hacking and "getting it done" at the expense of quality. Granted, most of us aren't working with nuclear fuel, but it's still important to learn everything we can from this example of "can-do" gone wrong. It was an expensive lesson, and the least we can do is learn from it. Also, the way this book handles timing and sequence is maybe the best I've ever seen in a history book.

Choice quote:

Yet the economists in Moscow had no reliable index of what was going on in the vast empire they notionally maintained; the false accounting was so endemic that at one point the KGB resorted to turning the cameras of its spy satellites onto Soviet Uzbekistan in an attempt to gather accurate information about the state’s own cotton harvest.

Other 5-Star Books I First Read This Year, With Very Brief Pitches

Chain of Title (laborious accounting of the direct on-the-ground fraud that fueled the 2008 housing crisis), D-Day Girls (history of women who served as spies in Nazi-occupied France to sabotage and prepare the way for D-Day), Single & Single (gripping spy novel about money laundering and legacy, with fantastic control of sequencing), Tales From Moominvalley (ostensible children's stories with surprising heart, maturity, and melancholy)

Favorite Re-Read of the Year: The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard

This was a re-read from a book I first read only last year, which is already a big ask. But god, even with only a year of rust on what happened, it was still enough to grip me instantly on a re-read. Just a totally comprehensive look in to one of the absolute pinnacles of human tenacity that has ever occurred - and one that minces no words to say how unnecessary it was that it came to that tenacity at all. What's funny is that the other contender for favorite re-read was Watership Down, which I explicitly mentioned that I love for being a perfect model of what people could accomplish if they would just communicate effectively and in good faith. Well, that actually happened in real life, and this book has all the details. Don't miss it. (But yes, sorry, they named their cat the n-word. That's what English people did back then. The ponies have pretty bad names too. Just try not to focus on the names parts.)

Choice quote:

For we are a nation of shopkeepers, and no shopkeeper will look at research which does not promise him a financial return within a year. And so you will sledge nearly alone, but those with whom you sledge will not be shopkeepers: that is worth a good deal.

If I ever start a company, that's going on page 1 of the handbook.

What's next?

Despite hitting my goal for 2019, I'm actually dropping 2020 to just 40 books - but I'm challenging myself to take full research notes on at least 5 books. It'll be an experiment in seeing how well I can distill out the key elements of all of this stuff I'm reading. Tune in next year and we'll see how it went!

Here's my full 2019 year in books - feel free to ask me questions about any of the books you see here. And please do let me know if you have any recommendations for books to read now that you know my tastes a bit better - I'm taking one evening off reading and then it's back to the grind :)