20 for 20, Part I: Non-fiction

Why Fish Don’t Exist, Lulu Miller (2020)
A satisfying, brisk read that–in audiobook form–feels like a jumbo-sized Invisibilia or Radiolab episode in all the right ways. The story includes a few jarring and well-earned twists, and true to her science reporting pedigree, Miller turns the braided biographies of David Starr Jordan and herself into some questions about order the meaning of life, albeit in a very accessible way.

Lurking: How a Person Became a User, Joanne McNeil (2020)
An approachable and personable sort of biography and anthropological history of internet culture. This book isn’t about VC’s and founder hagiographies, but of the successive generations of internet communities and cultures and the “concerns of people online: searching, safety, privacy, identity, community, anonymity, and visibility.” 

A Libertarian Walks into a Bear, Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling (2020)
A small town reporter on a routine story falls into the tale of a New Hampshire town and how groups of Libertarians took it over and ruined it through their ineptitude and ideology, including wildlife and garbage disposal practices that invited…bears.

The Jakarta Method, Vincent Bevins (2020)
A compelling and well-researched book that taught me a lot. When many of us think of Cold War crimes and US-sponsored coups, we think of South America, but Bevins shows how the template and practices were horrifyingly created to overthrow Indonesia’s Marxist-friendly government, then implemented in Argentina and beyond.

Billion Dollar Loser, Reeves Wiedeman (2020)
A delicious hateread covering WeWork, Adam Neumann, and all the despicable behaviour and schadenfreude associated with an overgrown pretend tech company, a founder with a messiah complex, and of course, Gwyneth Paltrow’s cousin. 

One thing Wiedeman does a good job of touching upon that’s often missing from even critical tech company/modern business reads is pointing out the inherent flaws in the system and the hype cycle. On a number of occasions, Wiedeman points to WeWork’s more traditional, stable, and mature competitors–actual businesses–that were perceived completely differently due to branding and the ‘great man’ founder mythos. The book also does a good job of showing how VC companies or tech companies aren’t actually necessarily deserving of the stations they rise to–they have the benefit of being able to burn millions or billions of dollars to undercut competitors and subsidize operations.

Super Pumped, Mike Isaac (2019)
NYT’s Mike Isaac has corralled an impressive stable of sources to provide a very intimate, ‘in the room’ biography of Uber, largely following the exploits of the infamous Travis Kalanick. Isaac is honest and often enjoyably sardonic. In this tale, many of the venture capitalists that looked like bozos in “Billion Dollar Losers” are instead the adults in the room who take it upon themselves to dump Uber’s out-of-control founder (for what may or may not be the right reasons).

Furious Hours, Casey Cep (2019)
Cep dives into Harper Lee’s investigation of a series of insurance fraud murders, showing her to be an intriguing person and shrewd investigator, not just an elusive one-hit-wonder recluse. If you’re interested in kicking the tires first, check out Criminal episode 127, “The Reverend”.

Boom Town, Sam Anderson (2018)
I have absolutely no connection to Oklahoma City, and I’m not a basketball fan so I know only the broad strokes of the Thunder’s history. And yet, I enjoyed the heck out of this. 

It’s a unique take on chronicling a city through some widely varying narratives. The city is so strange (ex. founded on stolen Indigenous land by firing a gun into the air and letting people literally rush in to stake their claims all at once), kind of a deeply weird character unto itself, and the cast of actual characters is well-chosen and vivid. 

Rising Out of Hatred, Eli Saslow (2018)
A bright young boy is raised in a white supremacist household, goes to a small liberal arts college, and struggles as people try to reel him back from the abyss. Saslow’s book is a brisk read that’s incredibly well researched, with hours of interviews and dialogue pulled straight from voluminous chat transcripts. It gives a book an intimate and authentic feel.

The Lost City of the Monkey God, Douglas Preston (2017)
A really enjoyable, approachable nonfiction adventure novel that deftly incorporates history. After what seems like the climax of the book, there’s a real-life plot twist of sorts, sending it on a somewhat different path to its conclusion.