Dystopian sci-fi, financial meltdowns and electricity - Summer reading list
After 4+ years of building and scaling a startup, I’m taking some time off to rest and relax before embarking on my next adventure with Zipline (I’ll share more about this in another post soon). I’m going to attempt to read one book every two weeks for the next four months. As I read, I’ll post a series of new blog posts with notes and quotes from each book.
Here is my reading list for the next four months:
(1) Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (1992)
I don’t often read fiction, and this will be my second attempt at reading Snow Crash. I’m interested in this novel because Stephenson seems to have an uncanny ability to predict technological trends, and portray the downstream consequences of breakthrough technologies. In Snow Crash, originally published in 1992, he coins the term “metaverse”. This term has gained a lot of traction recently following Facebook’s name change to Meta, and Zuck’s insistence that “the metaverse brought to you by Meta Inc” will be a fabulous place for us all to build our digital lives. Sure thing, Zuck…
Side note: I’ve also been meaning to read Stephenson’s essay, In the Beginning… Was the Command Line.
(2) When Money Dies by Adam Fergusson (1975)
This book has come across my radar several times over the last few years. It’s focused on the experience of living under hyperinflation in Weiner Germany (mid-1920s). I’m interested in learning about how inflation can impact social cohesion — this is quite relevant to our current situation with governments around the world engaging in monetary experimentation not previously seen in our lifetime (e.g. quantitative easy, yield curve control, and negative interest rates).
(3) Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the race to Electrify the World by Jill Jones (2003)
The electrification of the planet is perhaps the most powerful technological shift of the last 300 years. This book portrays the battles between Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and George Westinghouse, three brilliant inventors and entrepreneurs, as they compete to introduce DC (direct current) and alternating current (AC) in cities across America. There are clear parallels here between today’s titans of industry (Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos come to mind) and the entrepreneurs and inventors of the 1800s. This book will hopefully provide a useful framework for understanding how the greatest minds conceptualise and implement break-through inventions.
(4) The Company: A Short History of a Revolutionary Idea by Adrian Wooldridge and John Micklethwait (2003)
The legal concept of “limited liability” and the limited liability company, or LLC for short, is not typically thought of as a “break-through” invention, however it fundamentally changed our collective ability to leverage private capital in the pursuit of large scale projects. Today, the power of corporate conglomerates like Apple and Amazon rivals sovereign states and organised religion. I’m interested in studying the history of the company in more depth, and this book will provide a useful starting place.
(5) The Alchemy of Finance by George Soros (1987)
So far, this is the only autobiography on my reading list! If you’re unfamiliar with George Soros, he is often referred to as “the man that broke the Bank of England” following his successful bet that the Bank of England would be forced to devalue the pound sterling in 1992, in which he netted a ~$1 billion profit. This event, generally referred to as “The Black Wednesday Currency Crisis”, has also led many pundits to deride Soros as a “currency manipulator”. Personally, I tend to view short-selling as a useful mechanism for price discovery, so I don’t take any issue with Soros from an ethical perspective. I’m interested in learning more about Soros’s theory of market reflexivity, which has become a prominent theory in modern finance.
(6) Voluptuous Panic: The Erotic World of Weimar Berlin by Mel Gordon (2000)
This is the second book on my reading list focused on the downfall of the Weimar Republic. I’d like to read this because Gordon is solely focused on the cultural shifts that took place during the hyperinflation years of the Weimar Republic, rather than the economic shifts. There is a general theory that the early stages of hyperinflation are often associated with over-indulgence particularly by the upper and middle classes of society, because rising prices of financial assets make people feel as though they are becoming rich. At some point, the euphoria of rising asset prices gives way to the realisation that no real wealth is being created, instead the currency is being debased. I’m excited to continue developing my understanding of this phenomenon.
(7) The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe by Peter Godwin (2011)
The Chief Strategy Officer at the Human Rights Foundation, Alex Gladstein, mentioned this book as an interesting read in this great podcast. It’s focused on the brutal treatment of the citizens of Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe following his general election loss in 2008. Political mismanagement and corruption have condemned too many Africans to poverty, and Zimbabwe under Mugabe is a prominent example of this.
(8) The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 by Lionel Shriver (2016)
The second fiction novel on my list, The Madibles is set in the United States in the year 2029 during a national debt crisis of epic proportions. The dollar has collapsed in value, US Treasury bonds are nullified, and a new global currency is created, the Bancor. This book was also featured on Alex Gladstein’s reading list.
*(9) Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson (2017)
My original reading list had eight books, but I thought I’d also add this biography of Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson. I read this book for the first time a few years ago and it had a profound impact on how I viewed the process of learning. Isaacson is an incredible writer and he portrays Leonardo’s life in beautiful detail in this biography. I very much admire Leonardo’s intellectual curiosity and keen sense of adventure, so I think it’s worthwhile skimming back through this great book and making some notes as I go!