I maintain an excel sheet, since 2004, where I track the books I have read annually. This year I read only 13 books, my lowest count in all these years (2016 was the highest with 39 books). That said, one of the books I read this year, and perhaps enjoyed the most, was Sacred Games, which at 947 pages, is like 3 or even 4 books in one. So then a better measure might be pages read. Perhaps.
The other book I enjoyed most, though non-fiction, or faction, an invented term that I prefer to use, was Snigdha Poonam’s Dreamers, which looks at India through the eyes of youth in Tier 2 towns. It is a terrific book, and one I recommend reading for anyone looking to understand modern India.
Books aren’t the only reading we do these days. There are reports and surveys, which if you are in my field, you end up consuming a lot of, e.g., I spent a half day or so digesting the Mary Meeker Report and writing up on it for my colleagues. That isn’t counted in the 13 books. Then there are the articles that you end up discovering via twitter / nuzzel. Some of these are exceptional pieces of writing, occasionally on par with whole books. Sadly given the nature of the medium, and given that they are consumed digitally via weblinks, they are ephemeral.
I wish there was a way to aggregate the articles you found enjoyable during the year, and somehow publish it as a book, which you could then keep on your bookshelf (or if you are the Kindle type, as an ebook). Given the challenges around copyright etc., I don’t think this will ever happen, but I find it a good way to think about the longform articles that really matter to us. What is in your aggregated book will, of course, be different from mine, and we could then pass these books around to each other, to get a flavour of each other’s preferences and personality.
So what are the contents of my aggregated 2018 book of articles? Let us find out.
My favourite ‘articles’ of 2018
This list is not in any order. There are 23 articles and 2 presentations listed here.
Stanley Pignal wrote a terrifically well-argued article on India’s undersized or as he terms it, ‘missing’ middle class in The Economist. India’s Missing Middle Class.
I really really enjoyed this fascinating story by Gideon Lewis-Kraus on Steve Varsano, who is the leading private jet salesman in the world. Every salesperson should read this story, or for that matter, anyone looking to understand how the 0.00001% think. Selling Airborne Opulence to the Upper Upper Upper Classes.
Incidentally Gideon Lewis-Kraus also wrote that terrific cover story for Wired where he covered the shenanigans behind the cryptocurrency Tezos and its ICO (Initial Coin Offer). The Blockchain: A Crypto Love/Horror Story.
Andrew Potter wrote a clever piece on how, as news businesses become ever more dependent on their subscribers, the ideological slant of their subscribers is influencing the news vehicle’s editorial slant. Can the Resistance Take the NYT Hostage?.
Alex Renton wrote up a fantastic profile of renaissance man Nathan Myrvohld, in The Economist’s sister mag for longform articles, 1843. Nathan Myhrvold, Myth Buster.
Eugene Wei wrote a brilliant piece, where he looks at identifying ‘invisible asysmptotes’ or barriers to product growth, and overcoming them. He also throws in an analysis of what the invisible asymptotes for Twitter, FB, Snapchat and Instagram are. A must read for any product manager. Invisible Asymptotes.
I loved this extraordinary piece by Jiayang Fan in the New Yorker, on JD, the Chinese ecommerce player, and their expansion into the Chinese hinterland. There is lots of local colour, and insight into Chinese culture and business here. This is as much sociological narrative as it is the profile of a business. How E-Commerce is Transforming Rural China.
Ian Leslie is another writer I enjoyed reading. Two articles of his really stood out. The first, on what it means that the ad business is transforming from a primarily creative insight driven one to a data-driven one. Even as the advertising industry has become more and more prominent, the advertisement and the advertising firm has become more and more irrelevant he says. The Death of Don Draper.
The other piece of Ian Leslie’s that I really enjoyed was his piece in 1843, on what businesses could learn about management from leading rock bands (Beatles, Rolling Stones etc). A Rockers’s Guide to Management.
Tim Harford wrote a very good piece on why incumbents fail to innovate and get disrupted by new entrants because of their existing org structures and embedded decision architectures. Why Big Companies Squander Good Ideas.
I also read a book by Tim Harford this year – the eminently readable and interesting Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy.
Benedict Evans as usual had a couple of good pieces, three if you include his annual keynote presentation. They were (1) Ways to Think About Machine Learning (2) Tesla, Software and Disruption, and (3) the presentation ‘The End is the Beginning‘.
I read a couple of fascinating pieces by Ashwaq Masoodi. The first, an entirely riveting, extraordinary piece by on rural Indian women and their pursuit of sexual fulfilment. Sex and the Village: The Sexual Lives of Rural Indian Women. Tells you a lot about India today.
She also wrote a couple of other prominent pieces including one of young, mostly Muslim men, jailed for posting political content on social media, called Prisoners of Memes. She has emerged alongside Snigdha Poonam as one of the most interesting chroniclers of a changing India.
Shadma Shaikh is emerging one of two astute observers of how tech interacts with modern culture in India. While I thought the piece on how risqué content circulates on chinese entertainment app Kwai was her definitive piece of the year, I also liked an earlier piece she did on WeChat’s failure to take off in India. (1) Kwai turns a blind eye to videos of underage girls in India. (2) How WeChat faded into silence in India.
The other astute observer of tech’s collision with Indian culture is Venkat Ananth, who writes for the Economic Times. Venkat’s twitter feed where he chronicles how India2 interacts with smartphones and social media, as well as how political parties are weaponizing social media platforms, is utterly fascinating. He is clearly one of the writers to look forward to in 2019. Of all his writings, all consistently interesting, this piece (co-authored with Samidha Sharma) was a terrific one, paywalled though. America won India1; The Chinese are coming for India2.
Still on tech, Akash Senapaty did a couple of product teardowns. This one on gaming app Bigo Live is an extraordinary one. How Bigo Live makes $8m per month.
I really liked this essay by Samuel Knoche on higher education, how increasingly it has become a signaling mechanism and not a purveyor of quality education. Some trenchant lines here including this one: “The degrees these people get say ‘Fordham’ but the actual education often comes courtesy of YouTube.” The Case for Dropping Out of College.
Some of the most interesting tech writing and thinking today comes not out of a publishing house, but a venture capital firm: A16Z. This tweet captures it well!
Benedict Evans is of course the leading writer / thinker at A16Z, but increasingly there is Connie Chan as well (not to mention say Andrew Chen). Of Connie’s writings, I recommend an essay, and a presentation. (1) When AI is the Product: The Rise of AI-based Consumer Apps; and the presentation (2) When Advertising isn’t Enough.
The shortest and perhaps the most intellectually insightful piece was this one by ‘Schumpeter’ (the journalist Patrick Foulis) in The Economist, on how businesses can increase and improve perceptions and in turn valuations by redefining themselves. Michael Foucault’s Lessons for Businesses.
This piece by Drew Austin on content streaming platforms such as Netflix and Spotify are transforming the way we interact with and consume content was really really good. It is of course much much more than that. Cold Discovery.
Fun profile of the friendship and collaboration between two elite engineers at Google – Sanjay Ghemawat and Jeff Dean, by James Somers in The New Yorker. The Friendship that made Google Huge.
The above isn’t meant to be a definitive list or anything. It is only a reflection of the stuff that I liked and didn’t miss. There is always good stuff that I have missed. So point to me the pieces that you liked and let me read some more!