A Few Good Books

Some good ones I’ve read lately:

A Man On The Moon: Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts. Walking on the moon is probably the coolest thing humans have ever done. The hardest, boldest, riskiest, thing ever attempted by anyone – I don’t think that’s an exaggeration. There are surprisingly few books that describe what it was like for the astronauts, most of whom assumed they’d die on these missions. This is the best one I’ve found.

Fortune’s Children: The Fall of the House of Vanderbilt. Cornelius Vanderbilt was the richest man in history, worth the equivalent of $250 billion. He left most of it to his heirs. Less than 50 years after his death it was virtually all gone, blown away in a generational contest among heirs to see who could live the most outrageous life – lives that almost all end in misery and disappointment. This book is full of so many lessons about what money can and can’t do for people.

The Choice. Maybe the best book I’ve read in years. The true story of a young Hungarian girl sent to Auschwitz where her parents are murdered upon arrival but who manages to survive a year of torture and starvation before being liberated. After the war she moves to America, gets a PhD in psychology, and becomes a therapist who understands the psychology of trauma better than anyone. Just epic writing and storytelling, hard to put down.

City of Dreams. America is a nation of immigrants, and an incredible part of that story is how many of those immigrants came to one city – New York – during a short period of time: 1880 to 1920. This is the best book that describes why they came, what it was like when they got here, how they built the America we know today, and how they were viewed by naturally born citizens.

The Molecule of More. A book about dopamine, the most powerful chemical in your brain that we rarely think about has so much influence on the world. Dopamine doesn’t give you happiness in the moment; it convinces you that there’s happiness in the future that you should pursue, always pushing us for more, more, more.

The Hidden Life of Trees. A fascinating book about the complexity of something that seems basic. One example: Trees that grow up in their mothers’ shade grow slowly, because their moms block most of the sun. Slow growth leads to dense wood, which leads to a strong tree. Trees that instead grow in the open sun, without their mom’s shade, grow very fast, gorging on all the light they can absorb. But fast growth leads to soft wood, which is susceptible to rot and fungus. That analogy – grow fast at your own peril – applies to many fields, as do several of the lessons in this book.

Empty Mansions. The story of an heiress who inherits a fortune but lives a life of seclusion with almost no contact with the outside world while collecting mansions that go unvisited until she dies at age 104 after living in a hospital for years despite excellent health, setting off an epic battle for her money. Like the Vanderbilt story, it’s a fascinating look at what money does, and doesn’t, do for you.

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. Tribes are so powerful, and so overlooked. And we often don’t even recognize what tribes are: Countries, states, parties, companies, industries, departments, investment styles, economic philosophies, religions, families, schools, majors, credentials, Twitter communities. Being part of a social group that thinks like you think and wants what you want has a profound impact on how we behave, and this book explains the dynamic so well.

Bubble in the Sun. The telling of America’s first modern bubble: the Florida real estate boom of the 1920s. What’s great about this book is that so many of the characters, scenes, incentives, behaviors, and outcomes could be right out of today’s world. Same as it ever was.