Bora Bora Biographies

I read over 40 books in my month off the grid in Bora Bora recently. I’ve had many requests to blog about my reading list but rather than do one big long post I thought I’d break it up into several “longish” different posts over time. If all you are interested in is my reading list, my Goodreads Brad Feld account has everything I’ve read in reverse chronological order.

This post is about biographies. I’ve always loved to read biography and expect that my 2015 reading diet will include a lot more biography and history than normal as it has caught my interest lately. I’m including company biographies in this post. I didn’t read many, but had a little Google obsession on this trip which you’ll see in a moment.

The order is in the order I read them (even though the Goodreads list is in reverse-chron order).

Boy on Ice: The Life and Death of Derek Boogaard: I finished this just before we took off. I’m not much of a hockey fan – my childhood team was the Dallas Blackhawks – but I was entranced by this book. I learned a lot about how hockey works, much of it distressing to me. The enforcer role was one I didn’t really understand and Boogaard’s story is a powerfully tragic one. The book is well-written and moves quickly, while painting a powerful picture of how hockey can really damage people.

How Google Works: Eric Schmidt (Google chairman, prior CEO), Jonathan Rosenberg (long time Google exec) wrote the trendy book of the year about Google. I knew many of the approaches and anecdotes of the book – and how Google works – from the many other things I’ve read about Google over the years. But having it in one place, organized conceptually, was worth taking another pass through it all.

Memos from the Chairman: I had high hopes for Ace Greenberg’s compendium of memos from his time as chairman of Bear Stearns, which coincided with massive growth and success for the company. While there was some cuteness in here along with a few things to reflect on, I was disappointed in how dull the majority of the book was. Maybe it was awesome in 1996 when it came out, but it felt slow and dated in 2015.

Einstein: His Life and Universe: Einstein is one of my heroic figures and Walter Isaacson  just nails it. If you are an Einstein fan or just want to really learn the full story, this is the book for you.

The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution: If I hadn’t read the Einstein book, I probably wouldn’t have read The Innovators, but Isaacson had pleased me so much that I devoured this one also. This is Isaacson’s 2014 tome an a follow-up to his Steve Jobs book. It was good, but not epic.

Two Miserable Presidents: Everything Your Schoolbooks Didn’t Tell You About the Civil War: I originally saw this at my partner Ryan McIntyre’s house a few months ago when we were over for dinner. I Kindled it and dove in. I loved it – super easy to consume and a very playful way to learn, or relearn, some history. I’m planning at least one serious Lincoln biography in 2015 so this was a good way to get a taste of it.

The Virgin Way: Everything I Know About Leadership: Everyone knows that Richard Branson is cool, and iconoclast, a massive risk taker, and amazing successful. But he’s also extremely introspective and articulate. I’ve never met him or been to Necker Island, but plenty of my colleagues have. When I started reading this one, I felt like I was doing something obligatory to read the autobiography of one of our contemporary business legends, but I really enjoyed it and by the end was glad Branson had put the energy into writing this.

In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives: As with Walter Isaacson, I eventually get around to reading all of Steven Levy’s books (I read his epic Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution in 1984 as a freshman at MIT and it has stayed with me ever since.) His Google book was awesome – much better than How Google Works. I learned a ton I didn’t know, especially about history that had either been ignored, glossed over, or repurposed. If you have any interest, relationship with, or curiosity about Google, this is the book for you.

Ada’s Algorithm: How Lord Byron’s Daughter Ada Lovelace Launched the Digital Age: I’ve read lots of articles on Ada Lovelace, but I’ve never read a comprehensive biography. The story was fascinating, especially when pondering what life much have been like in Victorian-era England and how much of any uphill cultural battle Ada Lovelace had. While we’ve got lots of challenges around gender still in our society, we’ve definitely made read progress in the last 150 years. This linkages to Lord Byron, Lady Byron, and Charles Babbage were fascinating and, in many ways, disheartening. Ada Lovelace was clearly a genius – I can’t even begin to imagine the amazing stuff she could have done if she was born in 1990 instead of 1815.

As a bonus, Amy and I have been watching the HBO Series John Adams and I’ve decided to start tackling biographies of American presidents and other American heroes of mine, like Ben Franklin. Look for some of this in 2015.

Happy reading.

  • Wow..40 books in one month? How fast can you read?…I had just finished writing the point of my reading of 2014. I finished 102 books in one year. But, with your 40 book/month rate…God!…You are my hero.

    Also, thanks for publishing your book list. I looked at it. I read some of the books you read too. But, will read the more of your list.

    As for the biographies of American presidents, I am planning to read for John Quincy Adams. His policies are very important to what is happening now in the world (ISIS).

    If you ask me what book would I recommend for you, then I would love for you to read: Marked for Death by Geert Wilders.

    Finally, my list of books are:

    You are my hero!

    many thanks!

    • Grabbing Marked by Death – thanks for the recommendation!

  • Brad, would highly recommend “The Everything Store” by Brad Stone (on Jeff Bezos) if you haven’t gotten to it.

    I’m reading Innovators by Isaacson – and have How Google Works by Eric Schmidt on my list.

    Really liked “In the Plex”

    • I read the Everything Store a year ago. My review (at was:
      “Like other contemporary books about the rise of currently dominant tech companies, a book like this one is hard to write, but generally fascinating to read. if you the filter of “this is not an authorized history or biography” Stone did a really good job of capturing a lot of the Amazon story – and style of the company.”

      • Ah. Well ahead of me as usual.

        Agree 100% with the review!

  • McCullough’s “John Adams” biography is excellent. Same with Isaacson’s on Ben Franklin.

    And I also found “In The Plex” super insightful….

    • I’ve got them both on my Kindle!

  • Strongly recommend Gore Vidal.
    A fine mind committed to penetrating the mystery of our Republic.

    • Just grabbed Lincoln.

  • Depending on what you’re interest in reading, I’d highly recommend:
    1) How to Create a Mind – Ray Kurzweil
    2) Incognito – David Eagleman
    3) Book of Physics & Astronomy – Cornelia Dean (thick reading but truly incredible history as to what we’ve accomplished)

    1 & 2 are incredibly fascinating if you like learning about the “AI/ML/Data” world. I’m finding both to be influencing my approach to how our road map looks.

    Definitely have some more if you’re interested but these are the ones I’m currently/have read and they’re very thought provoking.

    • Grabbing them all. Send whatever you’ve got!

      • Only other one that I’m just about to finish is Physics of the Future by Michio Kaku. Great vision in tons of different fields as to where he believe we’ll be by the end of the century.

        All the others I haven’t read yet – but I’ll let you know if they’re worth it!

        • I’ve got that one, but haven’t read it yet.

        • Robert Harmon

          Agreed! I enjoyed Michio’s ability to illustrate how difficult it is to forecast technology advances.. Keeping the technology trajectory “honest” was refreshing. @bfeld let us know your thoughts after you read it!

  • Ron Chernow’s bio on Alexander Hamilton is truly excellent. Also Kanigel’s book on Ramanujan is a solid read.

    • Got Chernow’s. Don’t have Kanigel’s – but getting it now.

  • Was there 1 (or 2) books that stood out?

    • On this list – the top three are Einstein, In the Plex, and Ada’s Algorithm.

  • Jan Boyer

    Biographies are what I’ve read most of in my life for pleasure….”Machiavelli in Hell” by Sebastian de Grazia is by far the best. Pulitzer Prize winning and if you understand Italian an added enjoyment. Best,
    Jan Boyer
    Softbank alum and colleague

    • Thanks Jan. Just bought it – no Kindle, but it’s fun to get some stuff in paperback once in a while!

  • alimoeeny

    Just wanted to say thanks Brad for doing this, looking forward to more posts about what you read/

    • Thanks! More coming soon.

  • Grabbing Marked by Death – thanks for the recommendation! Swing

  • The President who intrigued me for his oratory and thought throughout the John Adams series is Jefferson. Joseph Ellis’ biography of Jefferson, American Sphinx, is a beautiful parallel to the character you see walking with Adams and Franklin. If you continue down the path of Presidential study, Jon Meacham’s biography of Andrew Jackson provides natural progression.

    • @tejdhawan:disqus thx for the recommendations – just grabbed them both.

  • Nick Devane

    I was an American Studies major and I always had a soft spot for the mythic characters of the West

    Nathaniel Philbrick’s ‘The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of Little Bighorn is awesome.’ Philbrick also wrote ‘In the heart of the Sea’ (the true story of what Moby Dick is based on) which is equally awesome.

    I would also recommend Buffalo Bill’s Autobiography, while likely lots of tale talls, simply awesome.

    • Thx – just grabbed them both.

  • Preet Anand

    Brad, I recommend you read Titan, a biography about John Rockefeller. His lifestyle compared to today’s startup zeitgeist is FASCINATING.

    Two appetizers:

    He tripled Standard Oil’s market share to > 80% in less than 6 weeks.
    He rarely worked more than 9 hours a day and always took an afternoon nap

    • On my Kindle (for a long time) – will read it.

  • I’ve been reading ‘Alan Turing: The Enigma’ while a dry tough read, it’s extremely fascinating and detailed. I recommend it, even though there’s a lot of deep dive into math that I’m unable to understand.

  • Carl Adams

    The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt and The Master of the Senate (Lyndon Johnson) are two of my favorites books of all time, not just my favorite books about presidents.