A collection of book covers for the books Brandon Smith read in 2018.

What I Read in 2018

8,367 pages across 28 books

Hey there, fellow reader!

Last year, I did a post on the books I read in 2017, and I decided to do it again for 2018. This year-long exercise really helps me think about the things I read. I hope you enjoy it.

Like in 2017, I again consumed 28 books, beating my reading goal on Goodreads by 3 books. The genres were the most varied I’ve ever read for both fiction and nonfiction in a given year—including memoir, mystery, finance, fantasy, and more.

Even if you don’t take the time to read to the end, I’d very much appreciate a book recommendation if you have the time to leave a comment. Looking for some cool new reads in 2019!

Without further ado, here are the books I read this year, in the order I read them.

(As a side note, this article is not monetized with Amazon Affiliates, just in case you’re wondering.)

1. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

by J.D. Vance (2016)

I first became intrigued by the subject of struggling rural communities when I listened to the S-Town podcast. You don’t hear about these people in the news too often. But they’re out there, and Vance opens a window into their world. It’s a world he knows personally. Because it was once his.

Vance’s deeply personal memoir sheds light on a community of people caught in a cultural habit loop. They can’t escape it, and very few of them ever try. They generally don’t know where to start.

Throughout the book, Vance credits others for his success in life. And that’s one of the important takeaways, I think. This book shows that people can share similar struggles, but it’s the individual decisions we make and the people (friends, mentors, colleagues) that we choose to surround ourselves with that influences where we end up in life.

2. Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life … And Maybe the World

by William H. McRaven (2017)

I tore through this book in two days, and easily could’ve done it in one sitting. It’s short. It’s to the point. I like that.

Much of what you’ll find in Make Your Bed is common sense. But it’s the way McRaven tells the stories of his struggles (often brutal) as a Navy SEAL that puts each life lesson into true context. He makes things as simple as “make your bed” really mean something. I loved this book.

3. Hyperion

by Dan Simmons (1989)

Ever since reading Frank Herbert’s Dune a few years ago, I’ve been patiently waiting to discover a book that would bend my imagination in similarly novel ways, and I finally found that in Hyperion.

The first book in a 4-book series, Hyperion is a triumphant masterpiece evocative of The Canterbury Tales. Simmon’s gorgeous, poetic writing swept me off to the distant shores of his deeply realized universe full of myriad worlds, colorful characters, and so much surprise.

Simmons experiments with time, technology, power, and the human condition in ways that held me in wild anticipation page after page. Each character’s story crested on breathtaking waves of action and mystery, balanced beautifully between troughs of emotional nuance.

Hyperion ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, which I wasn’t quite expecting, but am 100% okay with. I wasn’t ready for it to end. I want to experience more of this universe.

Onward, to The Fall of Hyperion!

4. Gamestorming

by Dave Gray, Sunni Brown, and James Macanufo (2010)

This isn’t the type of book you read straight through. It isn’t designed that way. Gamestorming is front-loaded with information about what gamestorming is, how to run a gamestorming session, and how to build your own games. The rest of the book is filled with games that the authors designed, to provide a starting point.

Essentially, if you’re wondering, gamestorming is the practice of brainstorming with games. Brainstorming itself has long been proven an ineffective means of generating ideas. Gamestorming, on the other hand, is designed to provide a structure that helps teams get things done.

I wish the book went into deeper detail on designing games, but it really just provides a surface level picture.

At the end of the day, it’s a fine resource for researches, strategists, and designers to keep at hand on their desk.

5. Start With Why

by Simon Sinek (2009)

I’ve watched Sinek’s TED Talks and a couple of his interviews, and I’ve always been drawn to his message. These videos satiated me for a time, but I got to a point when I wanted to read his books, assuming they’d go deeper on the subject material. And they do.

While I started reading Leaders Eat Last first (it appears later on this list), I picked up Start With Why on audiobook and tore through it in one week on my commute.

Read by the author, the premise of the book is that when people start with the reason why they do what they do, they create more meaningful brands, products, services, and experiences than if they start with what or how.

The secondary point that Sinek makes is that companies which value their employees over investors and customers tend to end up making investors and customers happier — and make the company more money.

Start With Why beautifully showcases why why is the most important part of any business endeavor.

6. Intercom on Onboarding

by Des Traynor (2016)

At the time of reading this book, I was working on a product in which I was largely responsible for the onboarding experience of the larger ecosystem my product was a part of.

While I have some experience designing onboarding flows, I wanted to brush up on it and dig deeper than I have before. In the process, I stumbled upon Intercom’s e-book, Intercom on Onboarding.

It’s a fairly short read at about 115 pages (it also has a lot of pictures), but there’s a lot of good information packed into it. Intercom on Onboarding has some of the most eloquent and thoughtful information I’ve read on the subject.

7. Design is Storytelling

by Ellen Lupton (2017)

I’ll start off by saying Design is Storytelling is a delightful book. It’s fun to read. And it’s downright gorgeous to look at.

That said (of course there has to be a caveat, doesn’t there?), Design is Storytelling didn’t bring anything particularly new to the table. It was a great, accessible design primer for non-designers, but I was already familiar with the vast majority of ideas Lupton presented in the book.

I do appreciate that Lupton took a feminist stance when it mattered. Understanding the minds and hearts of others is an important part of my job, and since I’m not a woman, many of the points Lupton made were incredibly valuable to me.

8. Leaders Eat Last

by Simon Sinek (2014)

While the meal Leaders Eat Last prepares is perhaps overly idyllic in our present reality, it’s still a delicious recipe we should all strive to concoct. The business principles Sinek argues for — mainly, caring for employees first, customers second, and profits third — are by no means out of reach, and I think a general sentiment nowadays is that this is how things ought to be. But there’s a process to making this shift occur, especially in older, more established companies. It won’t happen overnight.

So many companies these days are so focused on what’s right in front of them that they fail to gaze down the road. But in order to ensure a lasting legacy, every company’s stock should be placed in the long-term vision. Where will we be in 5, 10, 20 years? How will our people help us get there?

One of Sinek’s central arguments in Leaders Eat Last is that focusing on long-term vision rather than short-term gains helps companies keep their best employees. He goes deep into how keeping employees happy and caring for them results in greater profit than focusing on profit itself.

I love this book. I love its principles. And I hope to live in a world in which these principles become far more ubiquitous than they are today.

9. The Fall of Hyperion

by Dan Simmons (1990)

Following Hyperion — the third book I read this year — The Fall of Hyperion continued to dazzle the imagination. Together, these two books are a masterpiece.

Reading The Fall of Hyperion felt like gazing into someone else’s dream. Except that dreams often don’t make much sense, and Simmon’s writing is as errorless as sci-fi can get. Despite the complex plot, devices, and timeline, it all makes sense. An incredible achievement.

And what a breathtaking conclusion. I can’t recommend these books enough.

There are two more books, Endymion and The Rise of Endymion, that apparently take place centuries after the events that conclude The Fall of Hyperion. I hope to read those two books someday, too.

10. Children of Time

by Adrian Tchaikovsky (2015)

I listened to Children of Time as an audiobook and really wanted to like it. While it has its merits, I felt the plot to be surprisingly dull. It was also much longer than it needed to be. Tchaikovsky spent too much time telling rather than showing, which made the pace of the novel slow and tedious.

Lots of people love this book though, according to reviews on Goodreads and Audible. So don’t take my word for it alone. It’s an interesting version of sci-fi for sure.

11. And Then There Were None

by Agatha Christie (1939)

I never read mystery novels, because I simply never think about reading them. But when I strolled into a used bookstore in Santa Monica and found myself standing in front of the Mystery section, I decided I really should get one. So I went with the queen of mystery herself. I searched for an Agatha Christie book, and there was only one on the shelf: And Then There Were None.

I adore Christie’s writing voice. It’s light and humorous, a good foil to the dark subject material. As ridiculous as the plot of the book was, it worked in the end. Several times I thought I’d guessed whodunit, but I was wrong.

I loved And Then There Were None. Its made me decide I need more mystery in my life.

12. Microcopy: The Complete Guide

by Kinneret Yifrah (2017)

My personal goal at work this year was to improve my microcopy skills. This book served as a wonderful tool to help me accomplish just that.

Microcopy: The Complete Guide is delightful to read, and extremely thorough. It’s not called The Complete Guide for nothing.

The first part of the book is about building a brand voice and tone. I was naturally ecstatic about this, since that’s exactly what I was working on when I began reading it. The book contained sound advice on the subject, and was instrumental in helping me achieve my goals.

The rest of the book goes through detailed examples of best practices for all the aspects of interface design where microcopy makes a key impact, making or breaking usability or conversion. From forms to buttons to empty states, Microcopy is stuffed with helpful, relevant examples, and never fails to bring each aspect of microcopy writing back to the voice and tone.

13. I Will Teach You to Be Rich

by Ramit Sethi (2009)

Insightful, practical, simple but thorough, and often funny, I Will Teach You to Be Rich is a book I wish I’d read years ago.

I spent many years with an irregular freelance income and a meager part-time income, so I was always hesitant about investing, even though I should have been doing it anyway. Now things have changed. I have started investing, and I’m trying to learn more about it. This book is a fantastic primer on both investing and saving.

If you want to learn how to automate your finances to reduce stress, free up your time, and help you achieve your financial goals, do yourself a favor and give this a read. It’s smart.

14. Good to Great

by James C. Collins (2001)

With Good to Great, Collins delivers the most thorough yet accessible account of what makes a great business. I’ve read books like this before, but the analysis never felt complete, and the takeaways were lacking. Good to Great excels in both its analysis and its takeaways. It’s the compilation of a breathtakingly thorough study conducted by a team of skilled researchers.

I’ll definitely be giving this book another read in the future. Thanks to my coworker Lissa for the recommendation (and lending me a copy)!

15. Neverwhere

by Neil Gaiman (2003)

This was my second reading of Neverwhere, and it’s still one of my favorite books. Like all his work, Neverwhere exhibits Gaiman’s deep understanding of fantasy. Fantasy isn’t just medieval times with dragons and wizards. A fantasy story is simply one in which fantastical things happen or exist.

Neverwhere is contemporary fantasy. It’s about a world beneath the one we know, populated by those who have “fallen through the cracks.” It’s both dark and humorous, and I’m not going to tell you anything else about it because you should just go read it. Devour it. It’s awesome.

16. The Night Circus

by Erin Morgenstern (2011)

The Night Circus is a beautifully written book that plays with magic in subtle and interesting ways. But the relationships between characters is its biggest selling point.

This is one of those books I wish I’d read rather than listened to, and I just might one day. While the audiobook’s narrator was wonderful, parts of the plot got lost on me due to distractions as I listened on my commute. I’ll save a re-listen for a road trip and report back.

17. A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas

by Warren Berger (2016)

Wonderful book about the fears people have about asking questions, when in reality good questions are becoming more valuable than answers (answers are cheap; heard of the internet?). A More Beautiful Question also examines what constitutes a good question.

The art and joy of questioning is snuffed out of kids at a young age; schools tend to be about rote knowledge and memorization: knowing the facts — the right answers — rather than knowing how to arrive at them. Rote knowledge isn’t particularly helpful in the real world, where the right answer is rarely readily available. Learning how to ask the right question is paramount to finding one’s way to a solution.

18. Norse Mythology

by Neil Gaiman (2017)

So all the stuff in Marvel’s Thor universe is based on something?! I already knew that, but it’s fun reading the actual mythology. Gaiman did a brilliant job. It’s fun and quick to read. It’s obvious that many modern stories were influenced by Norse mythology (and other mythologies besides). I highly recommend adding this book to your collection, if you’re a fiction nerd like me.

19. Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity

by Kim Scott (2017)

Radical Candor may be written for bosses, but it’s the type of book that’s beneficial for everyone to read. The principles in the book are mostly about building great office culture, workplace relationships, and helping your direct reports achieve their goals, but they also work well in classroom and family settings. I highly recommend giving this a read.

20. Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions

by Dr. Dan Ariely (2007)

Predictably Irrational is an illuminating account of human irrationality, and it’s fascinating. As Dr. Ariely argues (successfully, in my opinion), that we human beings tend to think most of our decisions are made rationally, and that we’re in control—but we really aren’t. In fact, we are incredibly irrational much of the time.

Every argument in the book is made from real-world tests, observations, and field research. Ariely provides deep insight into how product marketing and pricing affects our decision making. He explains why free things are so appealing to us, and yet how we also convince ourselves to continue to pay more and more for things we used to pay very little for (using coffee as an example).

There’s much more to this book than I have room to write about here, and it would be predictably irrational for me to give you the answers. It’s best you discover them yourself. All I can say is, if you’re looking for an insightful book on human psychology, this is a good one.

21. The Talent Code

by Daniel Coyle (2009)

I’ve read a few books about talent now, and they’re all fairly similar. Practice or deep practice tend to be the strongest tie between them.

But Coyle takes a more scientific approach with The Talent Code by centering his narrative on myelin, “a microscopic neural substance that adds vast amounts of speed and accuracy to your movements and thoughts.” The Talent Code argues that talent can be cultivated by strengthening one’s myelin—talent, then, isn’t some necessarily inherent thing.

One of the ways myelin can be strengthened is indeed through deep practice, but there are other ways too. The Talent Code is a pretty fascinating read, and if you’re looking to understand on the atomic level how talented people became the way they are, this book has some explanations.

22. A Monster Calls

by Patrick Ness (2011)

This is a beautiful story. I’ll forewarn you, it’s extremely sad. It’s the stuff of nightmares, both real and imagined. It’s one boy’s harrowing journey coming to terms with his own reality.

This book took me back to my childhood, when I went through the process of grieving over my dying grandparents. I’d often use my imagination or books to escape reality. There are similar concepts at play with the main character in A Monster Calls; his experiences are just much more visceral. A Monster Calls is allegory wrapped in fantasy, and it’s damn good literature.

23. The Final Empire (Mistborn, #1)

by Brandon Sanderson (2009)

This was my first foray into Sanderson’s fiction, and I loved it. The Final Empire is the first book in the Mistborn trilogy.

With Mistborn, Sanderson has created a compelling and interesting world that exists in its own time and place. The “magic” system is built on metals. Mistings are people who can channel powers bestowed by one type of metal, and Mistborne are those who can channel powers bestowed by all metals. Each metal (gold, silver, bronze, etc) has its own property, and metals’ power characteristics vary from physical to mental/emotional and more. It’s incredibly difficult to describe in this short amount of space, but it really does make for one of the most interesting fantasy systems I’ve encountered.

Lead by a strong female protagonist and a motley band of supporting characters, The Final Empire is a delight. It’s got intrigue, deception, action, adventure, espionage, and so much more. On to #2!

24. The Go-Giver: A Little Story About a Powerful Business Idea

by Bob Burg and John David Mann (2007)

When I first started reading this book, I found it cheesy. But the deeper I got, the more delighted I became by its quirkiness. The Go-Giver isn’t really anything new, but the way that it presents the ideas is different and impactful enough to make it feel new.

Much like how Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People deigns to teach readers a new lesson with every chapter, so does The Go-Giver. It’s a book about how treating people well, and giving more than taking, is the best way to grow a business. It goes into much more depth than that thought.

It’s worth a read.

25. Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood

by Trevor Noah (2016)

Trevor Noah’s memoir of growing up in South Africa is many things:

  • An insightful historical piece
  • A comedy
  • A tragedy
  • A coming-of-age tale
  • and so much more than a bullet point list.

I listened to the audiobook for this one, and I’m glad I did. Noah himself narrates, so I felt a deep connection between the words and the person.

I’ve made a point to listen to memoir audiobooks this year, to get inside the heads of people who have led lives completely unlike my own, and it has definitely expanded my mind.

Born a Crime is one of my favorites.

26. The Ocean at the End of the Lane

by Neil Gaiman (2013)

This is my second time reading this, and I chose to read it this November mostly to inspire myself during Nanowrimo, since it’s about the same length of novel and degree of weirdness I’m striving for with my book.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is one of my favorite books. As I said, it’s weird. But it’s also elegantly simple and beautifully rendered. The prose drifts and flows like water, page after page. It’s the kind of book you can get lost in. Fortunately, it’s short enough that the world won’t miss you for too long.

27. Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones

by James Clear (2018)

I’ve read quite a few books about habits over the past few years, including The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. While Duhigg’s book explains the immensely interesting intricacies of habits, James Clear’s Atomic Habits endeavors to provide practical solutions for habit change. This is the book you should go to first if you want to learn more about building good habits and breaking bad ones. It will be the most immediately helpful to you, as Clear makes the process relatively easy and straightforward. I listened to this in audiobook form (Clear himself narrates), but plan on getting it on my Kindle too, just to refer back to it every once in a while.

28. Educated: A Memoir

by Tara Westover (2018)

Educated was my final memoir read for the year (I plan on continuing this subject as a focus in 2019), and like Hillbilly Elegy, it sucked me into a picture of America you wouldn’t really know existed unless you’d lived it. It’s both terrifying and captivating.

Westover’s life growing up in the mountains of Idaho—where her family avoided the government, where she didn’t get a real education, where hospitals were disregarded even when grave injuries occurred—almost seems like fiction. Now college-educated, Westover’s life today is very different from the one she grew up with. Educated is the story of her childhood and her escape.

Yet it’s also more than that. Educated serves as a fascinating portrait of an America on the fringes, where religion is everything and government and medicine are the arms of Satan. One of my favorite books I read this year.

That’s 2018 for you.

Did you read any great books this year? I’d love recommendations for 2019. Please share in the comments!

Designer, writer, and photographer dwelling in Los Angeles.

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