Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World

Author: Jack Weatherford

I loved this book because it opened my eyes to a perspective and an account of history that I’m rarely exposed to. I had some idea of who Genghis Khan was, but the more I read this book the more I realized that my ideas were limited and often inaccurate.

A lot of reference material comes from The Secret History that was recently uncovered and translated. It was a set of records kept by warrior’s family that was specifically for their use and education. This obviously comes with some risks, but considering the other accounts available are generally western and often completely fabricated based on myth.

Some interesting learnings from this book:

• One reason that the advance of the Mongol armies was stopped: their arrows didn’t fly as straight when the climate was more humid.
• The Silk Road and its accompanying laws created the best environment for free trade until that time in history.
• Descendants of the Khan family continued to rule some territories until 1920!

I absolutely recommend this book for anyone interested in history!

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Built from Scratch: How a Couple of Regular Guys Grew The Home Depot from Nothing to $30 Billion

Authors: Bernie Marcus, Arthur Blank, Bob Andelman

I was very excited to read the founding story of The Home Depot! Though I have never had an inside look before, I always believed this was a remarkable company. Everywhere I looked while growing up, there was a Home Depot. When I was in the contracting business, our guys in the field would swing by one for supplies seemingly daily. In my adult life, the company’s stores have plainly been a fact of life. In one word: ubiquitous.

As with most memoirs written by successful entrepreneurs, a big chunk of the book is used for self-back-patting and my-side-of-the-story-context. As readers, we must forgive this because the authors have indeed built something great.

I loved learning about the turbulent beginnings of The Home Depot, the deals that fell apart, and the ones that ultimately catapulted the company toward greatness. The story should be an inspiration to any entrepreneur, as well as a keen insight into Home Depot for those who works in retail or the buildings materials industry.

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Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln

History, as its taught in US schools, looks upon Lincoln quite favorably. After all, he led the Union to win the Civil War, freeing the slaves in the process. From this book, I learned how the sausage was made. First, his ascent to the presidency was almost a fluke of history (except that he worked his ass off to outmaneuver his competitors) because he was relatively unknown on the national stage. Once elected, he maneuvered to get all of his former rivals into his administration and cabinet. It is by leveraging their relative talents and his strong sense of popular timing that he was able to win the war and free the slaves. A recommended read for any history buff. (View on Amazon)

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood

This was like a funnier, South African version of Hillbilly Elegy. I like Trevor Noah, I think he’s funny, and this was a nice window into his childhood. He tells stories of growing up as a semi-delinquent, and uses them to share broader info about South Africa, its cultural profile, the different neighborhoods he was exposed to, and of course apartheid. There are many serious topics, and Noah always finds a way to bring out the humor in some and be good humored about others. (View on Amazon)

Hillbilly Elegy

JD Vance does a nice job of story-telling in this book about his hillbilly family and their cultural origins. He really gives a voice to his people that we “urban elites” are unlikely to have seen firsthand. Though I felt like I understood where he was coming from for a variety of personal reasons, the reality is I did not experience anywhere near the level of dysfunction that his family & their peers did. One question that he managed to answer for me in this book – why don’t the people in these going-nowhere towns just leave? I guess their reasoning is that their home equity is negative. While I don’t know if this is logically sound, it does help me empathize with their position. (View on Amazon)

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

There’s a lot to be learned from Benjamin Franklin. It’s nice to learn it from the man himself. Not a thorough autobiography by any means. It stops abruptly, long before the American Revolution. Franklin would often engage in public projects for the benefit of his city (Philadelphia). When gathering support and funding for these projects, he learned to minimize his involvement by feigning to represent a group who asked for his help rather than “owning” the project. Nevertheless, he was always the one who seemed to initiate or expedite civic projects. One way he was able to accomplish this was by focusing himself on his 13 “virtues”, which he ingrained as habit by way of his 13 week journal. The book ends with a story about “paying too much for the whistle”, an error he committed and learned from early in life. (View on Amazon)

Catherine the Great

I had a basic understanding of Catherine’s (her birth name was actually Sophia) story from The Romanovs. This was a much deeper dive into her story, chronicling the journey of this minor German princess to the Russian throne. She ended up becoming more loyal to Russia than I think anyone could have expected, and worked during her reign to improve conditions for the peasantry. Interestingly, she tried to end the practice of serfdom, but had a tough uphill battle. Eventually, after a rebellion, she changed her position entirely and never tried to abolish it again. (View on Amazon)

Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.

This is a great biography that shows both sides of this complicated captain of industry. Rockefeller was both a deeply pious and generous philanthropist, and at the same time a ruthless businessman who knew how to manipulate competitors and entire markets. He built the Standard Oil trust in the midst of a hyper-competitive environment by identifying the appropriate part of the value chain to dominate. Later in life, he settled down significantly – spending tie enjoying golf and founding enduring institutions like the University of Chicago and the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (later Rockefeller University). (View on Amazon)

The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World

My knowledge of Thomas Edison’s story and achievements was very limited before this book. I knew he had some relationship to “inventing electricity” and that our local electric utility ComEd is named after him. I also knew he had some sort of feud with Nikola Tesla (from an episode of Drunk History). This book didn’t mention Tesla at all, but it really clarified for me that Edison was a fairly big jerk. His inventor persona was largely overhyped, and he was a hapless businessman. (View on Amazon)

The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life

I’ve grown up hearing and reading about Warren Buffett and his company Berkshire Hathaway. I hope I’ll be forgiven for never realizing the full scope of his rise to become one of the wealthiest men in the world. His story is an example of what driven people can accomplish when they get lucky with the right resources  (and I don’t mean being born rich – he wasn’t). He has been accumulating money and investing almost forever. His success is heavily influenced by his being a lifelong student of business – he has never stopped reading and learning. (View on Amazon)

Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike

There is so much interesting history behind the Nike brand and it’s predecessor Blue Ribbon Sports, and I had no idea! Knight explains the efforts to build the business, starting with selling shoes out of the trunk of his car. It’s also a great window to the culture he worked to build for his company, including the executive team that called themselves the Buttheads. As usual for memoirs of very successful people, you’ll have to pardon the couple chapters of self-congratulation – it’s earned. (View on Amazon)

Einstein: His Life and Universe

There have been many biographies written of Albert Einstein. This one by Walter Isaacson is notably great for the incorporation of science, emotion, storytelling, and details. It describes Einstein’s theories, his thought experiments, and his process. It also chronicles his personal life – including his first marriage, his second marriage, his infidelity, and his relationship with his children. (View on Amazon)

The Complete TurtleTrader: How 23 Novice Investors Became Overnight Millionaires

If you’ve never heard the story of the Turtles before, this is worth a listen. It’s a real-life version of the movie Trading Places. In the mid 80s, a group of people were taught a trend-following system for trading markets and given money to trade. They made over $100MM of profits over the following four years, and a few went on to be some of the most successful hedge fund managers in the country. (View on Amazon)

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly

Anthony Bourdain’s autobiographical story about “coming up” in the world of kitchens and cooking. He narrates the book himself, which I really enjoyed because he delivers his writing with so much authenticity as well as clarify. If you like food, and have a high level of tolerance for profanity-laced stories about cooking intermixed with drugs, this one’s for you. (View on Amazon)

Napoleon: A Life

Napoleon rewrote the rules of war in 19th century Europe, conquering pretty much everything in his path. The book explains how this (essentially middle-class, non-french) guy from Corsica became Emperor of France. And then he stopped following his own rules and lost it all… (View on Amazon)

The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York

I had never heard of Robert Moses before this book. It is spectacularly well researched, detailed to the max. After the first chapter, I was hooked on the story. This guy RAN New York through the administrations of multiple mayors, governors and presidents. He’s single-handedly responsible for almost all of the state parks, parks, and road networks in the region. And he’s a real asshole. (View on Amazon)

The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal

After reading about how Kim Philby played the UK and US for so long in the Soviet Union’s favor, I was happy to learn the story of a dramatic spy operation going the other direction. This is the story of the most impactful spy that the US had against the Soviet Union, and possibly the first inside Moscow (right under the KGB’s noses). The book dives into spycraft, which is really interesting. (View on Amazon)

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal

Kim Philby was an upper-class English guy who went to the “right” prep school and college, then joined the intelligence service during WW2. He rose to become the head of counterintelligence at MI5, focused specifically on the Soviet Union. Then, in 1963, he defected to the Soviet Union — and it turns out he was working for them the entire time. Almost all intelligence operations during the 40s and 50s against the Soviet Union failed because of his tip-offs. A remarkable story. (View on Amazon)