Books of 2011: History, Theory and Application

Inspired by Tony Haile’s “2010 in Books,” I thought I’d take a look through my Amazon Kindle purchase history and put together a short post on the books that I read in 2011. I found the retrospective useful, and hopefully my comments and recommendations are useful to others as well.

This year, I was lucky enough to have Findings to organize all of my Kindle highlights. Where available, I’ll include the link so you can skim through my favorite moments from each book.


Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

Benjamin Franklin by Walter Isaacson

Benjamin Franklin is a legitimate page-turner that reads more like a novel than a history. Steve Jobs, on the other hand, likely as a result of Isaacson’s access to in-person interviews, reads more like a play-by-play report. Given the difference in available documentation (hundreds of letters vs. eye-witness accounts), it’s no surprise that the biographies turned out in very different styles. That said, both books are excellent and must-reads.


The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires by Tim Wu

The Information: a History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick

The Master Switch was probably the most impactful book of 2011 for me. It provides a rich and easy-to-understand context for the most important issues in Internet policy today. If you’re interested in participating in the debates around Network Neutrality and the recent legislative efforts to curb online piracy, this is a must read. (After reading The Master Switch, I was inspired to write “It’s Time for a Social Network Neutrality.”)

The Information is a fascinating review of the emergence of the concept of information — tracing it from the origins of language, to the innovation of writing and its impact on the way humans process logic, to the birth of computer science in the 19th century, all the way into genetic theory in the 21st. The book is home to my favorite sentence of the year: “The universe computes its own destiny.” It’s is a bit of a slog, and includes some challenging math, but if you’re at all interested in the history of computer science, it’s worthy of a read.

Network Theory

Lots of people are writing about group and network theory — attempting to explain a new behavioral economics that makes sense of the kinds of creative activity we see on the web. These books tend to blur the lines between economics, law, sociology, and psychology.

The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom by Yochai Benkler

Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations by Clay Shirky

Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age by Clay Shirky

Read The Wealth of Networks first. It is an incredible primer on Internet law, economics, and sociology. It’s a challenging read, but a fascinating one. You’ll learn about Network Neutrality, patent law, collaborative creation, power law dynamics, and much, much more.

Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody is a much easier read, and helps provide an updated context for many of the ideas presented in The Wealth of Networks. (It was written a few years later, and a few years matters in Internet time). Cognitive Surplus builds on these ideas to propose a more general theory of media in the post-Internet landscape, one characterized by the consumer’s desire and now expectation to produce.

Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World by Jane McGonigal

What’s Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption by Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers

How Many Friends Does One Person Need?: Dunbar’s Number and Other Revolutionary Quirks by Robin Dunbar

Read the introduction and first couple of chapters of Reality is Broken. Skip the others.

Startup Thinking

The Four Steps to the Epiphany by Steve Blank

The Lean Startup by Eric Ries

From the perspective of my career, The Four Steps to the Epiphany is probably the most important book that I read this year. Most experienced entrepreneurs will look at Customer Development and say “oh, yea, that’s just called ‘how you start a company’,” but for the first-timer, it provides a non-obvious (until you try it) framework for thinking about product development.

The Lean Startup marries Steve Blank’s Customer Development with agile product development methodologies. It also skews B2C where Blank skews B2B. It’s a quick read and worth your time.

Alongside both of these books, I recommend checking out some of Blank and Ries lecture videos available online.

Who: The A Method for Hiring by Randy Street and Geoff Smart

Who picks up where “Topgrading” left off. It’s a useful framework for thinking about hiring / people management for your company. Most tactics aren’t immediate applicable until you reach a certain scale, but the general concepts and interview tips are helpful.

Venture Deals: Be Smarter Than Your Lawyer and Venture Capitalist by Brad Feld and Jason Mendelson

Venture Deals is a very tactical book, but a must-read for anyone who plans on fundraising anytime soon. It takes you line-by-line through typical seed stage and series A term sheets, and arms you with just enough legal know-how to ask the right questions at the right times.

Lean Thinking by James Womack and Daniel Jones

Lean Thinking walks through the history and theory behind Japanese lean manufacturing processes. This theory informs much of what you’ll read in The Lean Startup and Four Steps, so I found it helpful. A bit of a boring read, but worth making your way through the introduction.


Song of Ice and Fire: A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin

It was a big year for the Song of Ice and Fire series. About 50% of my friends are making their way through it now. If you like dragons and magic (which, since you’re reading this post, you probably do (nerd)), then you’ll love this series.

Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen

Great book. I read it ahead of the movie release (which wasn’t so great). Buy it for the beach.


My philosophy on buying books is that if a book has a small chance of making me just the slightest bit smarter, it’s worth buying. Getting a tiny bit smarter for $9.99 is probably the best ROI I’ll ever see.

For 2012, I have a handful of books in my backlog:

The Penguin and the Leviathan: How Cooperation Triumphs over Self-Interest by Yochai Benkler
Life Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take It Back by Douglas Rushkoff
The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman
Snow Crash and The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson
Song of Ice and Fire: A Feast for Crows, A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin

…but I’m looking for more! Let me know in the comments if you have additional recommendations.

  • Miten Sampat

    nice list Jake, thanks for sharing