What I’ve been reading — Flash Boys, Home Game, How Children Succeed, The Lean Startup

Flash Boys, by Michael Lewis. flashFlash Boys is Lewis’s newest book — it was released on Monday, preceded by a feature story on 60 Minutes — and details how high-frequency traders are “rigging” the stock market. I, of course, bought it immediately, as Lewis’s work is all essentially self-recommending. I haven’t had the chance to make much progress yet, but so far, so good: it’s in Lewis’s typical clean, elegant prose, and covers subject matter (financial chicanery through the eyes of colorful outsiders) right in his wheelhouse. I’ll put up a more extensive review once I’ve finished the book.

- Home Game, also by Michael Lewis, is something altogether different, and I read it last fall when I was home with our new baby. It’s hard to recommend the book as the subject matter — Lewis’s own unique approach to fatherhood, which mostly involves him detailing ways he feels inadequate or at least overmatched by the prospect — is quite narrow, and the book itself feels a bit like an attempt to cash in on his success as it is a collection of disparate thoughts and events, some recalled years later for his older children and others recorded in somewhat real time for his younger ones. Of course, there remain moments of insight, such as when Lewis details a father’s feelings of paralysis and uselessness while his wife suffers through labor and deliver, and the book was an easy read at a time when I am still amazed I had the brainpower to read much of anything. It’s a good book for expecting and recent dads, though Adam Gopnik’s From Paris to the Moon covers somewhat similar territory in similar though more complete and better organized fashion.

- How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, by Paul Tough. This surprisingly riveting book is about a shift in thinking about the best way to educate and prepare children for their lives, specifically a shift away from a sole focus on raw IQ — evidenced by making three year-olds do countless math problems or other pure “cognitive development” activities — to methods that, for lack of a better term, try to help them develop supporting skills like character, diligence, curiosity, and, most of all grit and determination. I’m no education expert and reading a book of competing educational studies is not how I’d like to spend my time, but Tough supports his argument with fantastic stories of real people. I was alerted to this book by this fantastic review (which contains several excerpts) of Tough’s book which focuses on Elizabeth Spiegel, an inner-city chess teacher and one of Tough’s heroes. But this isn’t just a Hollywood style narrative; it’s far more complex, and far more rewarding.

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Most Popular Books Bought by Smart Football Readers in 2013

What follows is a breakdown of the books purchased over the last year by Smart Football readers. I get very minor referral revenues from Amazon purchases and, as a result, I am able to track which books are purchased by readers. The data is entirely anonymous but it provides, in aggregate, some interesting information. (Click to enlarge the charts.)

The Most Popular Books Bought by Smart Football Readers in 2013

Booksand ESF - 2013

Below is the same chart excluding my book, The Essential Smart Football (which you can read more about here):

AllBooks1-2013

And below is the full list. Note that I simply included the top books and did not include a separate “other” category.

What I’ve Been Reading: I Wear the Black Hat, The Metaphysical Club, Feynman, Sedaris

I Wear the Black Hat, by Chuck Klosterman. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, though I am predisposed to liking it. blackhatRock critic/pop culture writer/contributing editor for Grantland/New York Times Ethicist /read option analyst has a rather distinctive style, and, like several of his other books, I Wear the Black Hat is composed of a series of thematically linked stand alone essays which explore the nature of villainy. The subjects of the essays run the gamut, from the movie Death Wish to Bill Clinton to OJ Simpson to Andrew Dice Clay to (somewhat to Klosterman’s chagrin), Hitler. But like all of Klosterman’s books — and as he repeatedly acknowledges — the meta-subject of the book is himself, and the particular way he processes and turns over cultural figures and ideas is part of an extended self-analysis. So I enjoyed the book, but that probably says as much about me as it does the book itself.

- The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America, by Louis Menand. This book, the 2002 Pulitzer winner for History, is nominally the story of the leading thinkers in the school of philosophy (loosely) known as “Pragmatism,” namely William James, John Dewey, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and Charles Sanders Peirce. The book does a nice job teasing out and explicating the key features of pragmatism, commonly referred to as the United States’s greatest contribution to philosophy, but its real strength is placing those ideas, and more importantly the men who worked through the philosophical questions and propounded possible solutions, in their historical setting, primarily the era of the Civil War and its aftermath. The book is not so much a contribution to academic philosophy, although it did flesh out some things for me and raises excellent questions along the way, its primary value is as a well-written history of pragmatic thought.

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Super Bowl Special Offer: The Essential Smart Football for 99 Cents

As a limited time Super Bowl offer, I’ve made my book, the bestselling The Essential Smart Football, available in ebook for Kindle for 99 cents. Get it here. (And if you don’t have a Kindle, you can still read it using the free Kindle app for iPhone, iPad, Android, etc.)

This offer will expire and the price will go back up after the Super Bowl this weekend — make sure to act quickly. You can read more about the book here.

book

Limited time offer

My Favorite Books of 2012

This is a list, in no particular order, of the books I read in 2012 which I consider my favorites. This does not mean these books came out in 2012; it only means I read them this calendar year.

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  • The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. Not as good as Blood Meridian, but also less taxing to read — and that’s not a bad thing. Dark, troubling, and quietly brilliant.
  • Waiting for the Fall: A Decade of Dreams, Drama and West Virginia University Football, by Mike Casazza. I considered reading this something of a guilty pleasure, a kind of voyeurism into some other team’s football program. There’s nothing earth shattering in here, but it’s a very well told story about a very odd football program, featuring some very odd characters.
  • Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis. I found the first thirty or so pages of this disappointing until — suddenly — it became maybe the funniest book I’ve ever read.
  • How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, by Sarah Bakewell. Likely this is the best book I read this year. Of course I’ve read Montaigne’s essays, though it’s been some years, and as a result I put this book off thinking I’d glean little. I was wrong; this is a wonderful book, whether you’ve read the essays or you haven’t.
  • American Creation, by Joseph Ellis. I’m not sure if this should count as a 2012 book given that I read most of it over the last couple of years — the chapters are fairly discrete so I often found myself picking it up and putting it down, but not because I disliked reading it. To the contrary, I really enjoyed it, both the chapters on subjects I am pretty familiar with (like the drafting of the constitution) and less so (the circumstances surrounding the Louisiana Purchase). An excellent, easy read.
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Dan Kahneman. A shockingly good, and shockingly informative, book. It is very entertaining but not in a pop kind of way — it’s determined to report the facts, just the facts (at least to the extent we know them). The basic premise is that our way of thought can be broken down into System 1 (“fast,” intuitive) and System 2 (“slow,” logical) thinking, and more important the biases and foibles of each type. But this is not Blink; it’s thoughtful, erudite, and comprehensive. It’s not light beach reading but well worth the time. Below is a video of Kahneman discussing some of these ideas.

For more books, check out the most popular books bought by Smart Football readers. And, of course, I wrote a book this year too.

Most Popular Books Bought by Smart Football Readers in 2012

I’ve included here a breakdown of the books purchased over the last year by Smart Football readers. I get very minor referral revenues from Amazon purchases and, as a result, I am able to track which books are purchased by readers. The data is entirely anonymous but it provides, in aggregate, some interesting information.

The Most Popular Books Bought by Smart Football Readers in 2012

And below is the same chart, but excluding my book, The Essential Smart Football (which you can read more about here):

Below is the full list. Note that I simply included the top books and did not include a separate “other” category.

What I’ve been reading — Sid Gillman, David Halberstam, Narcopolis

Sid Gillman: Father of the Passing Game, by Josh Katzowitz. I’ve long extolled the virtues and importance of Sid Gillman’s role in the development of the modern passing game — and hence also football as we know it today. Katzowitz’s book does a great job profiling the mercurial Gillman, showing his development as a coach and the influence he had on his players as well as on schemes, and is an important contribution to football history of a somewhat more recent vintage. Books about football coaches tend to focus almost exclusively on the handful of men fortunate enough to win several Super Bowls or National Championship games; what makes Gillman’s life so interesting is while he didn’t exactly toil in obscurity, he still operated as something of an outsider, somewhat he transformed into a strength.

- Everything They Had: Sports Writing from David Halberstam. I am not aware of whether or not this book has been out awhile, but I know it was recently released for Kindle and that’s when I picked it up. Halberstam was of course the master, quite possibly the best writer who happened to write about sports who has ever lived. This collection is somewhat uneven (it begins with pieces he published while still in college!), but many of them still resonate, as it’s remarkable how much life he breathed into simple stories about simple games. Sports are of course inherently without meaning — their entire purpose is to be a distraction from the things in life that truly matter — and yet, to effect both good and bad, sports matter to us collectively more than almost anything else in society. And what gives them meaning is both the rules of the game and the humans operating within them. In piece after piece Halberstam always seemed to push the right buttons, to reflect on sports place in the universe when appropriate and when to focus instead entirely on some human moment we all instantly understand. Plus, the guy knew how to put a sentence together.

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What I’ve been reading — Waiting for the Fall, When Saturday Mattered Most

Waiting for the Fall: A Decade of Dreams, Drama and West Virginia University Football, by Mike Casazza. West Virginia fans clearly love their football, clearly love their state, and clearly love their football team. But they don’t always love their football coaches, particularly after they’ve left, often messily, on acrimonious terms. And what unique football coaches they are. Casazza, a beat reporter for the Daily Mail, chronicles the ups, downs, and just plain weirdness in the West Virginia football program over the last several years, from the emergence of Rich Rodriguez and his nasty exit to Michigan, the appointment of Bill Stewart as his successor (partially because he was the only coach Rodriguez did not invite to go with him to Michigan), and then busted handoff that was to be the Dana Holgorsen coach-in-waiting situation. And yet over that timespan West Virginia won three BCS bowl games and countless others, and generally looks well poised for success in the future. Casazza’s book sheds light into the personalities and figures making up the drama surrounding West Virginia — which really has been as wild as any program I can think of — with humor and clarity. The book isn’t as behind-the-scenes-Rich-Rodriguez-cried-into-his-hands as John Bacon’s book on Michigan, but Casazza has watched the WVU program carefully and leaves no major turn unreported. I enjoyed the book a great deal.**

When Saturday Mattered Most

- When Saturday Mattered Most: The Last Golden Season of Army Football, by Mark Beech. This book is a bit different than Casazza’s, given that it chronicles Army’s 1958 season, but has more parallels than one might have initially thought: Red Blaik, Army’s coach, like Rodriguez and Holgorsen, not only have to hold their teams together during trying circumstances, but do it with the assistance of some forward-thinking offensive schemes. But while for those WVU coaches it was (and is) the spread offense, for Blaik it was the “Lonesome Polecat.” Blaik, who had previously counted Vince Lombardi and Sid Gillman among his assistant coaches, had overcome a great deal of adversity to lead Army to an undefeated year in 1958, and I really enjoyed Beech’s telling of the tale. This is a very well-written book and is definitely a must for any football history buff; I learned a great deal.**

- The Alpha Masters: Unlocking the Genius of the World’s Top Hedge Funds, by Maneet Ahuja. I give this book a definite thumbs up but note some reservations for the would-be reader. The book consists of ten or so vignettes chronicling the backgrounds of various successful hedge fund managers, like Ray Dalio, Bill Ackman, Dan Loeb, John Paulson, and so on, and in that way is completely non-linear. (Not that there’s anything wrong with non-linear books.) And the information on their actual trading strategies is of uneven quality: For some, you can get a good sense of what kinds of investments the managers like and how they go about finding and executing on those opportunities. But for others not much was conveyed; I am no closer to explaining why Ray Dalio’s fund has been so successful now than I was before I read the book. And finally, the foreward, by PIMCO’s Mohamed El-Erian, and the afterward, by Nobel winner Myron Scholes, were almost entirely useless and poorly edited. All that said, I actually really enjoyed the stories in the book because, with some exceptions, I thought the book briskly told the stories of how these managers came to operate their funds, get started, find investors, and eventually find success. Almost all of them described failing at some job early in life and having to change career directions a few times before landing in their current spot, and almost all also described starting their funds with limited capital and just hoping someone would respond. John Paulson, who made a bajillion in the 2008 subprime debacle, and who had already shifted his career gears several times before launching his own merger arbitrage focused fund, sent out cards to every single person he knew only to receive nothing in return, and started his fund with his own money and little else. These stories were told well and make the book worthwhile, but only if you enjoy this kind of subject matter. (I do.)

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The most popular books bought by Smart Football readers in 2011

It’s very interesting to see what books Smart Football readers purchase. I get very minor referral revenues from Amazon purchases and, as a result, I am able to track which books readers purchase. The data is totally anonymous but it provides, in aggregate, some useful data.

The 20 Most Popular Books Bought by Smart Football Readers in 2011

Below is the broken out list. I thought it was quite interesting and I am curious if anyone thinks any particular trends emerge; there are definitely a few surprises in there. Note that I only included the top 20 books in the chart above; it would’ve been too tedious to create an “Other” category.

What I’ve been reading

Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football, by John U. Bacon. I actually read this long ago when it first came out**, so I am late to the party. I thought it was a surprisingly entertaining and brisk read, as I finished it in a matter of days during an otherwise busy time. And many of the insights — particularly centering around Rodriguez’s time at West Virginia, the immediate transition, and the agendas of some of the local Michigan media — were fascinating both purely on the level of gossip and as an insight into the weird world of college sports. And if I have any complaint is that it is a profoundly Michigan book: I didn’t go there and I don’t have any particular affinity to the school, so some of the detail is relevant only to someone who deeply cares about the minutiae of the school (as Bacon clearly does) and, less generously, the narrative voice often veers into an extremely fan-centric view where everything Michigan is “proud” or “dignified” or “respectful” while every other Big 10 schools’ fans are “unruly” or “rude” or their coaches manipulative, and so on.

For a book that attempts to (and often succeeds) at telling a rather nuanced story about a complicated coach during a complicated time, that the book resorts to such tropes is not a plus, at least for those of us who didn’t spend four years in Ann Arbor. More interestingly, of course, is the portrayal of Rodriguez. He comes across generally well though rather naive — “What, you mean I must say the right thing and play some internal politics at Michigan?” — and then as the losses mount he basically appears to lose it, alternatively throwing furniture or crying after games. And yet he still comes across better than those around him, including Lloyd Carr. So I recommend the book if you have an interest in Rodriguez or Michigan (especially if you care about Michigan and can handle that perspective), and if you ever plan on being the head coach of a BCS school, there are many good lessons of the what-not-to-do-variety embedded in here.

- The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes. This melancholy novella was the winner of this year’s Man Booker prize. I am unsure if I would say it deserved the prize, but I completely understand why it won: the writing is crisp and, at times, beautiful; and the story, which centers around a man and his immediate circle during their school days and his attempts to remember certain details some years later under unique circumstances, is generally tightly wrought and even has some (sort of) plot twists. It also felt extremely manipulative at times, as Barnes set me with mysteries, threw out some bizarre and somewhat implausible plot details, and then purposefully left the ending completely fuzzy (I have a particular interpretation which is, without giving anything away, that I still do not completely believe the narrator’s final account of the events at the end of the book). The best thing I can say is that at a short 140 or so pages, it was the perfect length for what it is, whatever that may be: I don’t regret at all buying or reading it, and, true to the book’s theme, I’ll probably remember the book more fondly than I initially experienced it.

- The Crying of Lot 49, by Thomas Pynchon.
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