How I Look At What I Read Each Year (2018 in Review)

At the end of each year, I like to take a moment and take a look at everything I read that year. I’m an inveterate reader, but I am also a fan of lateral thinking. I find that I am most successful at solving problems for myself and for my clients when I think about something outside the fields of marketing and copywriting. This has been true since my Army days, when reading about mathematics inspired my approach to interrogating terrorists (specifically, Mark Buchanan’s Nexus: Small Worlds and the Groundbreaking Theory of Networks). At the end of each year, I like to look at the books and articles I’ve read, and draw themes from them. Sometimes, this allows me to identify topics in which a scattering of articles read in a year indicate I should do further research. Other times, it just helps me identify the common threads across what I have been reading. These common threads can help identify compelling marketing themes.

I keep track of the books I read in a simple text file, having found that Amazon’s GoodReads often neglects to note when I actually finish a book. This year’s books were:

  • James S.A. Corey, Leviathan Wakes, science fiction (one of the series of books that inspired the fantastic show The Expanse, worth viewing if just to witness the invented “Belter” patois made of Afrikaner, Chinese, Spanish, and other languages)
  • Eric Reis, The Lean Startup, business (re-read)
  • Chris Guillebeau, The $100 Startup: Reinvent the Way You Make a Living, Do What You Love, and Create a New Future, business (in working with a food startup, I wanted to take another look at how to develop and iterate a lean business model; both Reis’ The Lean Startup, above, and Guillebeau’s $100 Startup approach this topic well)
  • Neal Stephenson, REAMDE, science fiction (this is not Stephenson’s best work, but it takes an interesting look at hacking culture in China before devolving into a ludicrous shoot-em-up)
  • James S.A. Corey, Cibola Burn, science fiction (also part of The Expanse series)
  • Jocko Willink, Discipline Equals Freedom Field Manual, (the former Navy SEAL and business consultant’s take on motivation and habits)
  • Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven, science fiction (this was definitely more literary science fiction than the Expanse novels, with a fascinating take on how cultures could change post-pandemic)
  • Greg Rucka, Stumptown (Vol.1), graphic novel (Rucka captures the noir potential of Portland and the Pacific Northwest)
  • Max Brooks, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, science fiction (re-read) (unlike the atrocious film adaptation, Brooks’ novel is an entertaining approach to science fiction, applying the Shelby Foote/Ken Burns-narrative history approach to the trope of a zombie apocalypse)
  • James S.A. Corey, Abbadon’s Gate, science fiction (also part of The Expanse series)
  • Brian Wood, Riccardo Burchielli, DMZ Vol.5: The Hidden War, graphic novel (re-read) (since this year has been about culture wars in the United States, I thought I would re-read this series that imagines a literal cultural war played out in the streets of New York)
  • Neil Gaiman, The Sandman, Vol. 6: Fables and Reflections, graphic novel
  • Neil Gaiman, The Sandman: The Dream Hunters, graphic novel (Gaiman is a fantastic storyteller, as evidenced by his larger novels, American Gods and Anansi Boys, and his play with mythology is masterful)
  • Jeff Lemire, The Underwater Welder, graphic novel (Lemire tells an incredible ghost story set in the Canadian maritimes, worthy of the praise heaped on it by the New York Times and others)
  • Thornton Wilder, Our Town, play (re-read)
  • Jeff Lemire, Essex County, graphic novel (as noted above, Lemire tells remarkable stories, and these, about a boy understanding his identity and the identity of his father, are beautifully illustrated)
  • Warren Ellis, Crècy, graphic novel (using the historical battle in France as a metaphor for how establishments can be taken down, Ellis, better known for his Transmetropolitan series, is sly and cheeky as always)
  • PW Singer & August Cole, Ghost Fleet, science fiction (to be honest, this was, like Stephenson’s REAMDE, a bit of a bad read, although its ideas about technology and warfare were interesting)
  • Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths, Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions, science/mathematics (as noted above, I find the lateral use of ideas, particularly from mathematics, helpful; Christian and Griffiths provide useful and interesting descriptions of algorithms, particularly the “optimum stopping problem,” and how they can help decision-making).

With respect to articles, listing them here would be painful. I use an automation in IFTTT to keep track of what articles I archive in Instapaper; this year, my spreadsheet of read articles had 2,088 entries.

I took the articles from that spreadsheet, and fed them into a word cloud service (here are two that work well: Jason Davies’ more statistically sound model, and Tagcroud’s more customizable model). I then stripped away all of what I would call “waste words.” These are the words (mostly adjectives and adverbs) that are popular in articles that do not relate to the underlying content. If you’ve seen clickbait, you know the words.

  • best
  • better
  • daily
  • easy
  • essential
  • favorite
  • free
  • hacks
  • help
  • learn
  • perfect
  • simple
  • tips
  • ways
  • etc.

Once I had iterated out the waste words, I took the thematic words and put them in a mind map to better visualize the trends and related concepts. Most of the results were unsurprising – one can’t escape news about Trump, after all – but it was valuable to see the theme that emerged across my books and articles: the crises and opportunities surrounding changes in culture and social identity.

Mind Map of Reading Themes in 2018

Mind Map of Reading Themes in 2018 (click to enlarge)

How do you use or review what you read each year, whether for refreshing your recollection of the content or to observe themes?