It’s that time of the year again, where people tend to look back at what they achieved, and what they are looking to improve on in the future. My 2016 was pretty solid – I got married, travelled extensively – both for work and on holiday, was a named author on a published paper (my first), and started a Professional Doctorate, which I’m really enjoying. Those of you that know me will be aware that I very much enjoy reading, and so in the hope that I’m somewhat relevant (and also to allow me to revisit some of the books I’ve read), I’ve put together a list of the best or most important books I read in 2016.
My 2016 Reading List
- How Bad Do You Want It? Mastering the Psychology of Mind Over Muscle by Matt Fitzgerald – 5/5
This was the first book I read in 2016, and it is outstanding. It examines the interplay between the brain and endurance performance through individual stories that keep you gripped. It’s a great example of scientific communication, and it’s also a subject matter that all coaches should become au fait with. Please read this book.
- Strength and Conditioning: Biological Principles and Practical Applications by Marco Cardinale (Ed) – 4/5
This is a textbook, and as such isn’t a typical bedtime read – I dedicated an hour a day to work through it and make notes. It’s very technical, but also rewarding, because you really do get an understanding of the scientific principles that underpin sports performance. If you haven’t gone through a textbook before, a better start point might be “High Performance Training for Sport”, which is a bit more practical, but if you want the theory this is the place to go.
- The Skeleton Cupboard: Stories from a clinical psychologist by Tanya Byron – 5/5
Sometimes it’s good to read for escapism, as opposed to learning. This book definitely achieved that for me; I read it cover to cover on a four-hour flight, which made the time fly by. The book is an autobiographical account of key cases from a clinical psychologist, and it’s a fascinating read.
- How Not to Die: Discover the Foods Scientifically Proven to Prevent and Reverse Disease by Michael Greger – 3/5
The main premise of this book is that consuming meat is unhealthy, and we should consume a plant-based diet. I eat a lot of meat, which obviously caused plenty of cognitive dissonance when reading this book. I found it interesting, and here are my main thoughts:
- I remain unconvinced that eating meat, in and of itself, is unhealthy
- The evidence cited in this book tends to compare meat eaters to vegetarians, which methodologically is flawed; meat eaters tend to eat fewer vegetables (sounds obvious), and are more likely to drink and smoke. So what happens if you eat meat, but also exercise, don’t smoke or drink (much) and eat a lot of vegetables? It’s not clear.
- It’s definitely a good idea to eat plenty of vegetables and fruits, but I still think that meat can form part of your diet – provided that the meat doesn’t replace the vegetables you consume.
That said, it’s a good idea to read books that challenge your beliefs, and this book was an engaging read.
- Wicked Beyond Belief: The Hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper by Michael Bilton – 4/5
I’m a big fan of true crime, and have had a passing curiosity in the Yorkshire Ripper case for a number of years – especially as I grew up there. This book is probably the definitive account, and it covers the story from the first murder, through to Sutcliffe’s capture and subsequent appeals. It also looks at why Sutcliffe got away with it for so long; he was interviewed multiple times, but due to filing errors (this was before computers) he managed to slip through the net each time. As the senior policemen became more tired over the years, they made more mistakes which compounded these filing errors, resulting in more women being killed. Overall, a great read.
- Outrage: The Five Reasons Why O.J. Simpson Got Away With Murder by Vincent Bugliosi (4/5) and Without a Doubt by Marcia Clark (4/5)
Like the Yorkshire Ripper case, I’ve long held an interest in the OJ Simpson case, and given that this year there were two brilliant TV series looking at it, I thought I better do some reading up on it. Bugliosi is the prosecutor who got Charles Manson imprisoned, and he examines the OJ case and why he managed to be acquitted – looking at the mistakes of the prosecution. Marcia Clark was the lead prosecutor in the OJ case, so it gives a different perspective on things. Overall, this case is a good example of how emotions can triumph over facts (see Brexit later on), and how an inability to adequately portray these key facts to a lay audience can contribute to failure.
- How to Support a Champion by Steve Ingham – 5/5
Steve was kind enough to let me read an advanced copy of this book. You can read my full review here, but in summary, it’s great.
- The Pressure Principle: Handle Stress, Harness Energy, and Perform When it Counts by Dave Alred – 5/5
This book is so good, I wrote a full review about it here. Probably the best book I read this year.
- Simple Rules: How to Thrive in a Complex World by Kathy Eisenhardt and Donald Sull – 2/5
The key message from this book is to create simple rules that can be easily followed, which means that you don’t waste time or overthink. That’s useful information, but the authors pad out the book with such a huge number of examples that don’t add to the story – so much so, in fact, that I got bored and stopped reading; hence the low score. This presentation explains the key points really well.
- The Diet Myth: The Real Science Behind What We Eat by Tim Spector – 4/5
I really enjoyed this book, which looks primarily at the effect the microbiome can have on health – a subject that I’m becoming more interested in. The key take away, for me, was to eat a varied diet lower in sugary products and red meat. Spector also does a good job of debunking a number of other dietary myths, again just underlining the need for an uncomplicated approach to eating.
- When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi – 4/5
Again, this book was pure escapism, and again I read it cover to cover on a flight. It’s the story of a surgeon who gets terminal cancer, and decides to write a book about his life and experiences; the book is unfinished as the author passed away during the writing. It’s a very emotional book, and it takes you inside the psyche of someone who knows they are dying, and as a doctor fully understands that – which only makes it sadder. Not necessary a feel good read, although it will make you appreciate what you have.
- Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success by Phil Jackson – 5/5
Phil Jackson was coach of the Chicago Bulls and LA Lakers during their sustained periods of success, and worked with Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neill. This book provides an insight into the dynamics of these teams, and the interplay between coach and superstar athletes. It’s a very good book, and Jackson comes across as someone who can get the best out of people without having to raise his voice – giving responsibility to his players and watching them grow because of it.
- The Cure for Everything: Untangling Twisted Messages about Health, Fitness, and Happiness by Tim Caulfield – 4/5
I like Timothy Caulfield, the author of this book, who appears to have made it his life’s mission to debunk celebrity fitness advice and champion evidence based approaches to fitness and health – a very worthwhile endeavour. This book represents his journey through a myriad of complex health and fitness information, the outcome basically being that the simple, evidence based approach works, despite that not being “sexy”. It’s all useful information and well written – I’d guess my one criticism (not really a criticism, but more my own interpretation) is that, a) absence of evidence does not mean that something is ineffective, and Tim has a very high bar for evidence (this isn’t necessarily bad, but each person needs their own bar height), b) the placebo effect can have huge effects, especially in high level sports people, and c) sometimes spending money on a shiny gadget can increase motivation and adherence, at least in the short term.
- Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind by Robert Kurzban – 2/5
Another example of “great idea, terrible execution” (see “Simple Rules”). If I’ve understood this book correctly, the human brain evolved at different rates, and has created a somewhat modular system. Our ability to communicate, through speech, is controlled by one aspect of the brain, and the ability of other areas to communicate with the speech area impacts how well we can explain our feelings. Our subconscious can make decisions for us, but we can’t communicate why we have made these decisions, leading to us appearing to have hypocritical behaviour (although, of course, we don’t view ourselves as hypocrites). This was useful for me to get my head around, because it helps when involved in discussions with people – sometimes their behaviour seems irrational, but this model helps to explain that. The book is, in my opinion, poorly written and hard going – so perhaps watch the authors presentations instead.
- Them: Adventures with Extremists (5/5) and The Elephant in the Room (4/5) by Jon Ronson
Ronson is a great author, so for entertaining reading just pick up any of his books. Even better are the audiobook versions, which Ronson narrates himself; he has a very funny way of telling his stories. Great for relaxing and taking your mind off more serious things.
- The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by Steven Pinker (4/5)
The biggest challenge I find with writing is successfully communicating my thoughts to a reader. Given that I write a fair amount of articles that deal with reasonably complex sports science issues, being able to do this properly is important. My Prof Doc supervisor recommended that I check out some of Steven Pinker’s work, as a way to make myself better at scientific communication, and as a result I came across this book. It was really useful, and essentially the key take homes are to try to avoid technical jargon, and instead try to take a more conversational tone. Authors of scientific papers would do well to take this advice, given how difficult some of them can be to understand.
- All Out War: The Full Story of How Brexit Sank Britain’s Political Class by Tim Shipman (4/5) and Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime by John Hilemann (5/5)
I’m not usually one for political books, but this year was a bit different. The first is the story of Brexit, which I was eager to read because I was so certain the UK would vote to stay in the EU, so Brexit itself was a shock. I enjoyed “All Out War”, and it gives you a feel for how politics really works. The second, “Game Change”, was recommend by my sister in law (shout out to Lynn); it’s an account of the 2008 US Presidential race that reads like a novel. I highly recommend it.
- Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport (3/5)
The key message from this book is that knowledge workers (of which I am one), tend to spend too much time doing “surface” work – emails, travel, phone calls, etc., and not enough time doing “deep” work – learning, research, producing work. This is something that I’ve been frustrated with in my own daily life; I can often feel like I don’t have time to do good work because of my own surface work demands. Since reading this book, however, I’ve made a change. I try to schedule two blocks of deep work, free from distraction, per day, for between 90 minutes and three hours at a time – and I try to do this three days per week. As the name suggests, deep work allows you to go deep into a subject matter, which for me often involves reading and understanding scientific papers, and then pulling together various strands into one consensus that I can use, be that for work or my studies. So far, it’s been a revelation and has massively increased both my productivity and knowledge. So why the low-ish score for this book? It’s another of those simple ideas that gets pulled out over the length of a book, when really it could be covered it a few pages.
- Two Hours: The Quest to Run the Impossible Marathon by Ed Caesar (5/5)
Given how much attention, both positive and negative, the recent announcement of Nike’s sub-2-hour marathon project got recently, I though it worthwhile to get myself up to speed to read this book. I read it in a day, sat by the pool in Vanuatu, and thoroughly enjoyed it. It doesn’t delve deeply into the science behind what would be required to run a sub-2h marathon (although certain aspects are mentioned, including genetics) but instead covers the history of marathon running, looks in depth at Kenyan marathon runners, and looks at a bit of context regarding a two-hour marathon attempt. Enough to further excite me about the prospect of a sub-2h attempt!
- Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss
Tim Ferriss is like crack; I know he’s bad for me, and yet I buy all his books on release day. I found the Four-Hour Body to just be full of pseudoscience, and the same is true for a lot of his podcasts; and yet you can always find good bits of information or book recommendations from them (and the Four-Hour Chef is honestly a masterpiece). This book is comprised of the key messages from Tim’s podcasts over the past few years; it’s an easy read, full of recommendations, but probably best to take it with a pinch of salt.
When I look at my complete list on Goodreads, it’s clear to see the impact of Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited, which I signed up for this year. Whilst you can get some good books in there, a lot of them are click-bait-esque titles, which of course I fall for. This means that I seem to spend a lot of time reading in a procrastination fashion – choosing easier reads as opposed to more in-depth ones – which is something I want to work on for next year. In 2017, I’m aiming to read some big hitters from a list published on Tim Ferriss’ website on books most recommended by successful people. I also bought myself Taleb’s Icerto box-set for Christmas, so I’m hoping to work through those too. I’m also keen to hear your recommendations, so let me know!