What I Read in 2019

10,119 pages across 25 books

Brandon Smith
17 min readJan 6, 2020

Reading is one of the most important activities I do all day. The morsels of knowledge I gain with each read and the fictional people and places I visit all help me to think clearer, understand how things work more deeply, and sharpen my creativity. I couldn’t do life without them. It’s the ritual I perform before bed each night that helps me cast off to sleep and I squeeze it into my schedule whenever else I can.

Speaking of sleep, one of my favorite books in 2019 was Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker, PhD. Many other notable works I read include Walter Isaacson’s incredible biography of Leonardo Da Vinci, the delightful and essential Orbiting the Giant Hairball by Gordon MacKenzie, the classic The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey, and the reassuring Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein.

I visited old friends with Simon Sinek’s excellent new work The Infinite Game and Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead. I took my second trip to Eden with Chris Beckett’s Mother of Eden. I reread Dune and finished Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy. I learned about what makes successful company culture in Daniel Coyle’s The Culture Code. And there was so much more besides.

All in all, I read 10,119 pages across 25 books in 2019. You can find a few more stats about my year in reading on Goodreads.

The books below are listed in the order I read them. Read on to see the full list and my thoughts about each book. Thanks for stopping by 😊

How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery

Kevin Ashton (2015)

How to Fly a Horse is the sort of book that people who don’t consider themselves creative ought to read. Like, really ought to. Here are a few of the things Ashton goes into detail about in this book:

  1. Creativity is an ordinary human endeavor, not something reserved for geniuses, artists, or generally mystical people.
  2. Creativity rarely happens in flashes of brilliant inspiration. Mostly, creative solutions are uncovered slowly, meticulously, like unearthing a fossil.
  3. Failure is part of the process. The world is full of unfinished work, but those who persevere create the good stuff. “Beginning is hard but continuing is harder,” Ashton writes.
  4. Creativity is a sum of knowledge, for both small projects and big ones. “Like every other creation, a can of Coke is a product of our world entire and contains inventions that trace all the way back to the origins of our species.”

These are just a few of many lessons How to Fly a Horse offers. The fact is that everyone is doing creative work, to some degree, whether they know it or not. Ashton helps uncover why some people are better, more effective creators than others.

Give it a read, it’s a good one.

(This book came highly recommended by my mentor Jeffrey Bryan Mahacek. Thanks Jeff 😁)

The Well of Ascension (Mistborn #2)

Brandon Sanderson (2007)

The first Mistborn book, The Final Empire, ended with quite a bang, and it was hard to fathom where it could go from there. But within its opening pages, The Well of Ascension dangles several interesting carrots that then proceed to pull you deeper into Mistborn’s world. The breadth of the world grows quickly, as does the feeling that there’s a lot more to the plot than The Final Empire made you think.

I loved The Well of Ascension. The arcs of the main characters—most notably Vin, Elend, and Sazed—grew tremendously, and experiencing that development was a real treat, though it was slow at times. But the story needed that slowness, that room to breathe as it expanded.

This is a book about love, friendship, trust, betrayal, and war. And yet it’s too nuanced to say it’s just those things.

If you’re looking for a good fantasy trilogy, try out Mistborn. I’m loving it. Onward, to Book 3…

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Stephen King (2002)

I thought I’d learn more about Mr. King’s penchant for horror in this memoir, but alas, he doesn’t really answer that. It’s ok though, I still got far more from it than I thought I would.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is as delightful a read as any King has written. He covers the full breadth of his life, from silly childhood shenanigans to the stresses of adulthood and alcohol abuse and how all of it affects his writing. He delves into his philosophies and his process, both of which provide clear insight into who he is as a writer and human—and offers helpful, actionable advice to the aspiring writer in all of us.

I’ve read a few books about writing, including the slim giants Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury, and The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, and On Writing stands right alongside them. I highly recommend it.

Conversational Design

Erika Hall (2018)

Hall’s Conversational Design is an excellent primer into the more human side of software design—a realm all designers should aim to occupy. An interface should be as conversational as the user needs it to be. It should feel helpful. That’s how trust gets built.

Hall provides myriad examples, both good and bad, of conversational design, including work done by some of the biggest names in technology. I learned several helpful lessons while reading this book, one of which is this: Labeling items as “Your cart” or “Your account,” rather than “My cart” or “My account” tells the user that the interface they’re engaging with is a two-way conversation rather than a soulless, robotic—even creepy—soliloquy. In other words, it’s best to talk with the user than to pretend you are the user. This goes a long way toward making the user feel like help is at hand when they need it.

This is just one of the many lessons this book has to teach. It’s a fairly short read. If you want to learn more about making the work you design feel more humane, this is a great place to start.

Lean UX

Jeff Gothelf & Josh Seiden (2013)

This is a fantastic primer into the what and the why of Lean UX. In short, it describes a way for design to integrate more closely with the development process by moving away from a waterfall workflow and adopting a quicker pace that removes a heavy research phase. Instead, Lean UX involves including more people in the process, but designing based on assumptions, then testing those assumptions on users and iterating on the findings.

There are some pretty valuable resources in the book for those new to the process. Recommended for designers who are unfamiliar with Lean or need a refresher.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change

Stephen R. Covey (1989)

I bought the Kindle version of this book but decided I should pick up the hard copy too. Reason being, it's easier to navigate a hard copy book than a digital one, and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People warrants rereads and reflection.

Covey doesn’t just outline seven disparate habits but delves into a deep, rich ecosystem of behaviors. The relationships between the habits will take time to fully understand and appreciate, but even just with one read through, everything—and I mean everything—in this book just makes sense. In many ways, every one of the seven habits is built on common sense behaviors that we tend to forget with age or that others fail to teach us while we’re young.

The powerful lessons in personal change that Covey illustrates (in great detail and enjoyable fashion) cover virtually every aspect of the human experience—from internal needs and desires to external practices for honing better business and personal relationships.

This book is a must. I wish I’d read it sooner. No other book I’ve read has come close to covering the full spectrum of human experience like this one does.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Yuval Noah Harari (2014)

I knew, in general terms, the history of humankind from the many years studying it in school. But there are a few things the textbooks didn’t teach, such as that our ancestors were responsible for the fall of the Neanderthals, Homo Erectus, and many more humanoid species. How? Why? It’s not entirely sure, but history points at us, Homo Sapiens, as the culprit.

Harari brings a newfound sense of clarity and insight into the rise of our species in ways I didn’t expect when starting this book. I found myself in awe of his assessment of the transitional period from hunter-gatherer to the agricultural revolution. From the rise of religions to the evolution of trade, Harari brings focus to the impact of place and culture. There’s a deep psychological aspect to this book that I appreciate.

Whether you want a refresher or want to learn more about where we all came from, Sapiens is the place to start.

Leonardo Da Vinci

Walter Isaacson (2017)

Isaacson’s Leonardo Da Vinci biography, like his Einstein biography before it, is another seminal work by one of the world’s best biographers. I ate up Da Vinci, intrigued page after page by the complexity of his character. Leonardo was a genius whose work was hundreds of years ahead of his time.

We know his art, but the sciences intrigued him the most. This book is an incredibly deep and enthralling journey into Leonardo’s endlessly curious mind, his sharp observational intellect, his character, his strengths and weaknesses, and so much more. This biography truly paints the full picture.

I can’t recommend this book enough. Incredible.

Homo Deus: A History of Tomorrow

Yuval Noah Harari (2017)

In Homo Deus, Harari draws on the past to predict the future. The expert and thoughtful observations he includes in building his hypothesis were really rather stunning. Several chapters had me wondering how the points he was making would land, and each time I found myself awed by his conclusions.

Homo Deus is a fascinating book. Harari is wise enough to know that the material he’s written is mere prediction, not prophesy, and I appreciate that. While there are morsels of positivity in his conclusions, it is summarily apocalyptic. He argues that Dataism is the new religion based on mankind’s growing obsession with attaching data to everything, and when the data itself becomes the Internet of All Things it will eventually replace humanity as ruler of the world. And when data is the most important thing, emotion, experience, and happiness is not.

In some ways, it feels like a stretch. In others, frighteningly possible.

The White Tree (The Cycle of Arawn #1)

Edward W. Robertson (2011)

There are certain aspects of this book I like. The world was interesting and the magic system was cool. The action scenes were great, but few and far between. What remains is a book bloated by droning, boring conversations between bickering, unlikable characters.

Suffice to say, I won’t be finishing the trilogy. And that’s a rare thing for me.

Dare to Lead

Brené Brown (2018)

I’ve read most of Brown’s books by now, and while I love them, I must say the content always feels a bit rehashed. So I was elated to find that with Dare to Lead, Brown took the underlying principles of her many years of research on shame and vulnerability and applied it to the workplace in an extremely relevant way.

What I appreciate about this book is that focus on the world of work. While she still maintains her signature parables from her personal experience, it’s all relevant to coping with workplace stress, navigating tough conversations and situations, and understanding the root of the many stresses and frustrations that come one’s way – and gives solid advice on working through all these things.

Dare to Lead has definitely helped me recenter myself amidst some stresses in my worklife. This book is a must-read for managers and business leaders especially, as the principles in it can help to establish a much more open, happy, productive workplace.

21 Lessons for the 21st Century

Yuval Noah Harari (2018)

After having just read Harari’s first two books (Sapiens and Homo Deus), the arguments he posits in 21 Lessons for the 21st Century felt a little too sudden and partially recycled (especially from Deus). I think I simply dove in too soon following the other books and should have left more time between readings. Still, I certainly found value in 21 Lessons, and continued to appreciate Harari’s insightful observations of humanity’s short but profound history and the countless things we can glean from it. One thing is still for certain though: that the future is uncertain. We can do our best to learn from the past, but we’ll fail sometimes, as we're bound to do.

The Hero of Ages (Mistborn #3)

Brandon Sanderson (2010)

I’m going to have a hard time describing how much I loved this book, because doing so would just make me sound like a giddy schoolboy. The simple truth is just that while The Well of Ascension (Mistborn #2) is like a giant lung inhaling, expanding our view of the world and introducing a host of new characters, concepts, and plot threads, The Hero of Ages is the final wild breath that expells every last plot hole before the story lays to rest. It’s beautiful, action-packed, revelationary, and full of surprise. Trilogies with such a satisfying end are hard to come by, but Sanderson pulled it off. He really did.

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

David Epstein (2019)

Pretty much hot off the press (I read this from July-August and it came out in May), I picked up Range as a means to self-validate some assumptions I had about myself. Namely, that I’m a generalist in my work; I don’t specialize in any one thing. Deep down, I’ve felt that’s a good thing and Range has help to affirm that feeling.

Epstein argues that there certainly is a time and place for specialization and that some people are naturally brilliant specialists. But he also argues, quite convincingly, that many of the world’s greatest advancements didn’t come from specialists, but from generalists—those who know something about many things, rather than a lot about a few things. Generalists tend to see connections between disparate ideas. They also tend to see the big picture.

Specialists tend to get a career head-start over generalists. Range is definitely worth the read if you’re a generalist who, like me, has felt a bit behind at times, or who feels that way now. You’re just as valuable as everyone else. Keep at it.

The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups

Daniel Coyle (2016)

Last year, I listened to Coyle’s book The Talent Code. Having experienced some setbacks, followed by forward movement, followed by more setbacks the past couple of years with the culture at work, The Culture Code caught my eye as a book that could potentially help me understand precisely what makes a successful company culture. And it did.

Coyle goes in to depth in ways I’d never dare reiterating here; his insight and the patterns he uncovered are valuable, and I wouldn’t want to tarnish his narrative with a summary. Still, there are a few things that stood out. One was that successful cultures share an interesting commonality in that they don’t view themselves as coworkers as much as family. They may argue with one another, they may get on each other’s nerves, but they love being around each other and solving problems together.

But that’s just information from the first quarter of the book. There’s so much to unpack in The Culture Code. It’s a fantastic read.

How to Write Dazzling Dialogue: The Fastest Way to Improve Any Manuscript

James Scott Bell (2014)

Short an to the point, How to Write Dazzling Dialogue was a delightful read that definitely helped me understand a few things I previously didn’t about writing good dialogue. Better yet, it’s sensibly laid out so that it can be used as a reference guide whenever the need arises.

Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams

Matthew Walker (2017)

I’m so glad I grabbed this book on Audible. I’ve been struggling to get sufficient sleep this past year, mostly because I haven’t been valuing it enough. Walker, a sleep scientist, does a phenomenal job not only articulating every facet of sleep’s importance, from the myriad sleep cycles to the precise machinations that occur during each phase, but he backs up all his claims by citing the results of carefully crafted studies that he and his constituents have conducted.

One of the most fascinating things I learned, and that Walker explains in much more depth, is that during sleep, spinal fluid flushes through the brain, cleansing it of the “junk” that accumulates throughout one’s waking hours. Getting enough sleep and receiving this flush helps prevent memory diseases such as Alzheimers.

This book is far more interesting than I expected it would be when I started. And it made for a really engaging read. I highly recommend it.

The Last Wish: Introducing The Witcher

Andrzej Sapkowski (1993)

Having already played The Witcher 3 video game, it was neat seeing the characters come to life in book form (even though I know this was the original source material). The Last Wish is an interesting book—as is the one that follows it, Sword of Destiny—because these first two Witcher books are comprised of short stories about Geralt of Rivia and his monster-hunting adventures, rather than novels with a cohesive plot. Even so, The Last Wish is a wonderful introduction to the world of The Witcher and a quick read. I really enjoyed it.

P.S., The Witcher is now a show on Netflix. I enjoyed it too.

Structuring Your Novel

K.M. Weiland (2013)

Since I’m getting back into my novel writing after many years, I wanted to kick off the process by reading some books by other authors about their process. Structuring Your Novel is the first of many I plan on reading as I work through outlining and world building. It was certainly a worthwhile read. The first half of the book covers novel plot structure and the second half is dedicated to scene and sentence structure. While I already knew all about story structure from studying it in school, it was nice getting a refresher on it. Weiland delves into to compelling minutia that I hadn’t ever considered before, such as the timing of plot beats to keep readers hooked. I think it’s a good read for any writer seeking to hone their craft.

Ultralearning: Master Hard Skills, Outsmart the Competition, and Accelerate Your Career

Scott H. Young (2019)

This book could be really valuable for some people. It just wasn’t particularly valuable for me. While the book had interesting anecdotes that Young clearly went out of his way to research and compile, the book’s primary substance—the teachings on “ultralearning”—seemed fairly commonsense. Ultralearning is really just focused learning; it’s about putting intentionality behind your efforts to learn, whether the knowledge is obtained by memorization or hours of practice. I didn’t find anything particularly new here.

Mother of Eden

Chris Beckett (2015)

I’m in a book club with some of my high school buddies and many of the fiction books I’ve listed in these posts the past two years have been books I’ve read with them. Dark Eden, the predecessor to Mother of Eden, was the first book we read together and now, exactly two years later, we decided to read the sequel.

Mother of Eden takes place several generations after Dark Eden and explores how society on the dark planet has evolved. Beckett depicts the introduction and influence of factions, class, trade, and other complex societal functions with deceptively simplistic grace. A linguist himself, Beckett continues to plumb the depths of language transformation on his little imagined planet; as a linguistics enthusiast, I was enamored with every page turn.

The Eden books stand out as some of the most truly delightful, unique stories I’ve read in all my life, and I recommend you check them out.

We’ll read the third installment at some point … we’re savoring these books, playing the long game.


Frank Herbert (1965)

I’ve read this book before. I have two copies of it, in fact. And this time around, I decided to give it a listen. The audiobook version of Dune is a special thing in its own right. There were times, due to the benefit of multiple voice actors, that I found the story easier to follow by listening to it, which is a rare thing for me since I’m more of a visual comprehender than an auditory one.

Dune remains a masterpiece and a classic. If you’ve yet to read it, consider the audiobook as your first foray into its deserts. And do it now! After all, there’s a new movie on the way, slated for the end of 2020.

Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace

Gordon MacKenzie (1996)

It’s safe to say this is simultaneously the most hilarious and most poignant book on business and creativity I’ve ever read. MacKenzie surprised me page after page with his wit and insight. He’s the type of guy who naturally goes against the grain — and it paid off for him.

Businesses are giant hairballs. No, he didn’t coin the term, but he learned about it from another (whom he credits) and leaned into that idea, designing his career in such a way that he could orbit the corporate hairball instead of getting trapped inside it. When you’re in the hairball, you don’t see the hairball. You’re just caught up in the messiness. But when you orbit it, you can see it — it isn’t pretty — and you have a unique vantage point from which you can observe and judge and change things. And there’s much more to this book than that.

Orbiting the Giant Hairball is hilarious and delightful, full of doodles and poetry, jokes and anecdotes. I blazed through it during my lunch breaks. What a pleasure it was.

Stillness is the Key

Ryan Holiday (2019)

I’ve been learning a lot this year about how the body and mind are connected. Throughout the summer and into the fall a severe bout of stress wreaked havoc on my sleep and digestion. Per the advice of my doctor, articles I read, and podcasts I listened to, I started breathing exercises and meditation, worked on the nutrition in my diet, and increased my exercise. Stillness is the Key caught my eye as a potential source of information for furthering my quest. And it certainly helped.

Holiday gives a beautiful account of how many of history’s greatest achievers valued stillness and provides practical advice on how to find stillness in one’s own life. I, like many people today, tend to look for constant distractions to fill my time. This book has helped me learn not to do that so much. I’m still working on it and always will be, but I feel like I’m making progress. I feel less stressed than I have in a long time, which is ironic, because as I write this I’m in the thick of job hunting after my employer announced they’re closing our office. I’m not quite a stressed out about it as The Me of Earlier this Year would have been.

If you feel as stressed as I have, have lost your sense of time, or are suffering some other ailment (sleeplessness, indigestion, exhaustion, whatever), then give this book a read or a listen. Let it be a small part of your path to recovery. Answer the call for stillness.

The Infinite Game

Simon Sinek (2019)

In Sinek’s latest book, he continues his advocacy for changing the way business is conducted, this time through the lens of indefinite ends. Activities like sports and board games have rules that govern a finite timespan and an obvious outcome. Business, on the other hand, is more like life: All businesses will see their end one day, but precisely when is uncertain. Thus, a business is an infinite game.

Sinek argues that a problem with many (if not most) modern businesses is that their leaders operate with finite goals and are typically focused on short-term financial gains (for the next quarter or year) rather than setting their sights on the far future. They typically fail to ask the question, “How will the things we’re doing with the business today impact its next ten, twenty, fifty years and beyond?” And, moreover, “How will the things we’re doing positively impact the world?”

The Infinite Game delves into a great many aspects of business, backed up by some compelling case studies. A few things that stood out to me included:

  • Leaders ought to focus on building a business that is designed to last and their ultimate goal should be to set the business up for continued success after they’ve left.
  • There’s a fair amount of uncertainty regarding the role of CEO: It’s not finance (that’s what the CFO is for) and it’s not operations (that’s what the COO is for). Other than to be the face of the business and the boss of the other C-suite executives, a CEO’s role ought to be focused on the company’s vision. Sinek suggests Chief Vision Officer (CVO) as a more appropriate title.
  • Every business needs a Just Cause (a cause that is just, i.e. morally right and fair) to inspire its people and its customers.

I always love reading Sinek’s books. I find them quite inspiring. He goes against the grain in intelligent ways. The Infinite Game is another of his I can happily recommend.

What were your favorite books in 2019?

Or what are your favorite books, period? Please share a recommendation or two in the comments if you can take a moment :)

Also, feel free to check out my 2018 and 2017 reads if you’d like.



Brandon Smith

Designer, writer, and photographer dwelling in Los Angeles.