50 Great Bits From The 25 Books I Read In 2017

This idea was originally inspired by Julien Smith, a much more prolific reader than I. Here are my similar lists from years past: 2012, 2013, 2014, 20152016.

Given the amount of long planes ride I had in 2017, I expected to read many more books than usual throughout the year. While I capped out at 25 again, this was probably the most diverse reading year genre-wise I’ve ever had, mainly because I made a point to finally read more fiction. Although it took a while to get used to reading not for the sake of learning something of benefit to my career, personal life, or bar trivia, I enjoyed the rhythm of reading non-fiction in the morning to get my problem-solving brain going and then fiction at night to bore me, er, get me thinking about something more abstract before falling asleep.

Despite how others might remember 2017, it was a great book year for me and several I read will likely remain among my all-time favorites for years to come. Here are 50 of my favorite passages, quotes, and bits from all 25 of those reads (words are the respective author’s unless otherwise noted).

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

1) The Texan turned out to be good-natured, generous and likable. In three days no one could stand him.

2) ‘You put so much stock in winning wars,’ the grubby iniquitous old man scoffed. ‘The real trick lies in losing wars, in knowing which wars can be lost. Italy has been losing wars for centuries, and just see how splendidly we’ve done nonetheless. France wins wars and is in a continual state of crisis. Germany loses and prospers. Look at our own recent history. Italy won a war in Ethiopia and promptly stumbled into serious trouble. Victory gave us such insane delusions of grandeur that we helped start a world war we hadn’t a chance of winning. But now that we are losing again, everything has taken a turn for the better, and we will certainly come out on top again if we succeed in being defeated.’

The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz

3) According to a survey conducted by Yankelovich Partners, a majority of people want more control over the details of their lives, but a majority of people also want to simplify their lives. There you have it—the paradox of our times.

4) In addition to the normal workplace wardrobe, employees had to create a “workplace casual” wardrobe. It couldn’t really be the sweats and T-shirts you wore around the house on the weekend. It had to be a selection of clothing that sustained a certain image—relaxed, but also meticulous and serious. All of a sudden, the range of wardrobe possibilities was expanded, and a decision-making problem emerged. It was no longer a question of the blue suit or the brown one, the red tie or the yellow one. The question now was: What is casual? A New Yorker piece about this phenomenon identified at least six different kinds of casual: active casual, rugged casual, sporty casual, dressy casual, smart casual, and business casual. As writer John Seabrook put it, “This may be the most depressing thing about the casual movement: no clothing is casual anymore.” So we got the freedom to make an individual choice about how to dress on a given day, but for many, that choice entailed more complications than it was worth.

Neither Here Nor There by Bill Bryson

5) One of the small marvels of my first trip of Europe was the discovery that the world could be so full of variety, that there were so many different ways of doing essentially identical things, like eating and drinking and buying movie tickets. It fascinated me that Europeans could at once be so alike — that they could be so universally bookish and cerebral, and drive small cars, and live in little houses in ancient towns, and love soccer, and be relatively unmaterialistic and law-abiding — and yet be so endlessly, unpredictably different from each other as well. I loved the idea that you could never be sure of anything in Europe.

6) Liechtenstein’s last military engagement was in 1866, when it sent eighty men to fight against the Italians. Nobody was killed. In fact – you’re going to like this – they came back with eighty-one men, because they made a friend on the way. Two years later, realizing that the Liechtensteiners could beat no one, the Crown Prince disbanded the army.

How To Write Short by Roy Peter Clark

7) Joseph M. Williams’ Five Principles of Concision:

  1. Delete words that mean little or nothing (kind of, really, actually)
  2. Delete words that repeat the meaning of other words (various and sundry)
  3. Delete words implied by other words (terrible tragedy)
  4. Replace a phrase with a word (‘in the event of’ becomes ‘if’)
  5. Change negatives to affirmatives (‘not include’ becomes ‘omit’)

8) Some of the best advice on how to write to and with visual images comes from TV writers and producers. In his book Television News, Ivor Yorke writes, “In most cases, to repeat exactly what is happening on the screen is to waste a great opportunity to tell the viewer something worthwhile. The writer’s skill lies in being able to convey what is not clear from the pictures.” In Aim for the Heart, my Poytner colleague Al Tompkins argues that in good television, “pictures and words should not match,” but they should, according to Jill Geisler, ‘hold hands’.

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

9) Loneliness feels like such a shameful experience, so counter to the lives we are supposed to lead, that it becomes increasingly inadmissible, a taboo state whose confession seems destined to cause others to turn and flee.

10) No one I knew would admit to liking Craigslist, but I always found it weirdly cheering. The unashamed display of need, the sheer range and specificity of things that people wanted was far more reassuring and democratic than the preening, exacting profiles that appeared on the more sanitised dating sites. If the internet was a city, Craigslist was its Times Square, a site of cross-class, cross-racial contact, temporarily levelled by sexual desire.

Blue Latitudes by Tony Horwitz

11) In 1768, when Cook embarked on the first, roughly a third of the world’s map remained blank, or filled with fantasies: sea monsters, Patagonian giants, imaginary continents. Cook sailed into this void in a small wooden ship and returned, three years later, with charts so accurate that some of them stayed in use until the 1990s.12) The death scene was all the more shocking for its many ironies. Cook, who had often excoriated his men for violent intemperance toward natives, succumbed to precisely that, marching ashore with a menacing but inadequate force and opening fire at the most charged moment possible. A Quaker-influenced child of the Enlightenment, Cook died with a gun in his hand, having just killed a man. The dagger that felled him was forged from one of the iron spikes that Cook himself had ordered for his ships before leaving England, “to exchange for refreshments” and “to be distributed to [natives] in presents towards obtaining their friendship.” The final irony was that Cook died, not in warlike New Zealand or Niue, but on an island where he’d been greeted as a god, and where he’d felt so secure that until the final day he had ordered his men to go ashore unarmed.

Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

13) Old friends cannot be created out of hand. Nothing can match the treasure of common memories, of trials endured together, of quarrels and reconciliations and generous emotions. It is idle, having planted an acorn in the morning, to expect that afternoon to sit in the shade of the oak.

14) I thought of our respect for the dead. I thought of the white sanatorium where the light of a man’s life goes quietly out in the presence of those who love him and who garner as if it were an inestimable treasure his last words, his ultimate smile. How right they are! Seeing that this same whole is never again to take shape in the world. Never again will be heard exactly that note of laughter, that intonation of voice, that quality of repartee. Each individual is a miracle. No wonder we go on speaking of the dead for twenty years. Here, in Spain, a man is simply stood up against a wall and he gives up his entrails to the stones of the courtyard. You have been captured. You are shot. Reason: your ideas were not our ideas.

Maphead by Ken Jennings

15) There’s a reason why we call the travel bug “wanderlust,” not “wanderwhim” or “wanderhobby.” It’s an urgent, passionate thing.

16) Tests on gender and navigation have found that women tend to navigate via landmarks (“I turn left when I get to the gas station”) whereas men use dead reckoning (“I still need to be north and maybe a little west of here”), which ties in nicely with the evolutionary perspective: early men went out on hunting expeditions in all directions and always needed to be good at finding their way back to the cave, developing their “kinesic memory,” while women foraged for edibles closer to home, developing “object location memory.” Simply put, men got better at finding places, while women got better at finding things.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

17) ‘Did you ever feel,’ he asked slowly, ‘as though you had something inside you that was only waiting for you to give it the chance to come out? Some sort of extra power that you could be using if you knew how?’

‘You mean all the emotions one might be feeling if things were different?’ Helmholtz shook his head.

‘Not quite. I’m thinking of a strange feeling I sometimes get, a feeling that I’ve got something important to say and the power to say it – only I don’t know what it is, and I can’t make any use of the power. If there was some different way of writing… Or else something different to write about. I’m pretty good at inventing phrases that seem new and exciting even if they’re about something completely obvious. But that doesn’t seem enough. It’s not enough for the phrases to be good; what you make with them ought to be good too.’

18) The Savage shook his head. ‘It all seems to me quite horrible.’ ‘Of course it does. Happiness is never as exciting as unhappiness or the struggles of great passions. Happiness is never grand.’

Ogilvy on Advertising by David Ogilvy

19) If it doesn’t sell, it isn’t creative.

20) Highways with billboards have three times as many accidents as highways without billboards. President Eisenhower said, ‘I am against those billboards that mar our scenery, but I don’t know what I can do about it.’ In California, Governor Pat Brown said, ‘When a man throws an empty cigarette package from an automobile, he is liable to a fine of $50. When a man throws a billboard across a view, he is richly rewarded.’

Moonwalking With Einstein by Joshua Foer 

21) Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it. You can exercise daily and eat healthily and live a long life, while experiencing a short one. If you spend your life sitting in a cubicle and passing papers, one day is bound to blend unmemorably into the next—and disappear.

That’s why it’s important to change routines regularly, and take vacations to exotic locales, and have as many new experiences as possible that can serve to anchor our memories. Creating new memories stretches out psychological time, and lengthens our perception of our lives.

22) Remembering numbers proved to be one of the real world applications of the memory palace that I relied on almost every day. I used a technique known as the “Major System,” invented around 1648 by Johann Winkelmann, which is nothing more than a simple code to convert numbers into phonetic sounds. Those sounds can then be turned into words, which can in turn become images for a memory palace.

The code works like this: The number 32, for example, would translate into MN, 33 would be MM, and 34 would be MR. To make those consonants meaningful, you’re allowed to freely intersperse vowels. So the number 32 might turn into an image of a man, 33 could be your mom, and 34 might be the Russian space station Mir. Similarly, the number 86 might be a fish, 40 a rose, and 92 a pen. You might visualize 3,219 as a man (32) playing a tuba (19), or maybe a person from Manitoba (3,219). Likewise, 7,879 would translate to KFKP, which might turn into a single image of a coffee cup, or two images of a calf and a cub. The advantage of the Major System is that it’s straightforward, and you can begin using it right out of the box. (When I first learned it, I immediately memorized my credit card and bank account numbers.)

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

23) This is how 99 percent of people select their jobs: pay, work environment, hours. But that’s the point. Putting lifestyle first is how you find a job—not a calling.24) “Will having a newborn distract from the time we have together?” she asked.

“Don’t you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?”

“Wouldn’t it be great if it did?” I said. Lucy and I both felt that life wasn’t about avoiding suffering.

Deep Work by Cal Newport

25) The second reason that deep work is valuable is because the impacts of the digital network revolution cut both ways. If you can create something useful, its reachable audience (e.g., employers or customers) is essentially limitless—which greatly magnifies your reward. On the other hand, if what you’re producing is mediocre, then you’re in trouble, as it’s too easy for your audience to find a better alternative online.26) The idea motivating this strategy is that the use of a distracting service does not, by itself, reduce your brain’s ability to focus. It’s instead the constant switching from low-stimuli/high-value activities to high-stimuli/low-value activities, at the slightest hint of boredom or cognitive challenge, that teaches your mind to never tolerate an absence of novelty. This constant switching can be understood analogously as weakening the mental muscles responsible for organizing the many sources vying for your attention. By segregating Internet use (and therefore segregating distrnactions) you’re minimizing the number of times you give in to distraction, and by doing so you let these attention-selecting muscles strengthen.

The 50 Best* College Football Teams of All-Time by Bill Connelly

27) [Walter] Camp hated the idea of the forward pass. This was not his vision. He and others made sure that passing was still an immense gamble. You wanted to throw? Fine, but a pass had to cross the line of scrimmage at least five yards beyond where the passer received the ball from the center. Violating this rule meant a turnover. A pass could not cross the goal line. Violating this rule meant a turnover. The pass couldn’t even hit the ground without resulting in a turnover.

28) 1990 would go down as one of the craziest seasons in the history of the sport, with six different teams holding the No. 1 ranking and eight holding No. 2. Two teams split the national title – one began the season unranked and didn’t reach the top 10 until November; the other lost a game, tied a game, and benefited from two of the most famous, controversial calls ever.

Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters

29) What the slave wants but can never have is not only freedom from the chains but also from their memory.

30) Sometimes it’s possible, just barely possible, to imagine a version of this world different from the existing one, a world in which there is true justice, heroic honesty, a clear perception possessed by each individual about how to treat all the others. Sometimes I swear I could see it, glittering in the pavement, glowing between the words in a stranger’s sentence, a green, impossible vision—the world as it was meant to be, like a mist around the world as it is.

How To Change The World by John-Paul Flintoff

31) The Victorian artist and writer John Ruskin once asked why we gave medals to people who, in a moment and without much thought, save somebody’s life, but we give no medal to people who devote years to bringing up a child.

32) Going first does not necessarily mean taking charge of everything that follows.

Growth Hacker Marketing by Ryan Holiday

33) “You’ve heard it in a million meetings. And clients are so flip about it: “We want to go viral. Make people share this online.” Everyone wants it. As though massive viral sharing is as simple as asking for it. All I know is that I cringe each time I hear a client make that assumption. The growth hacker has a response: Well, why should customers do that? Have you actually made it easy for them to spread your product? Is the product even worth talking about?”

34) At the core, marketing is lead generation. Ads drive awareness . . . to drive sales. PR and publicity drive attention . . . to drive sales. Social media drives communication . . . to drive sales. Marketing, too many people forget, is not an end unto itself. It is simply getting customers. And by the transitive property, anything that gets customers is marketing.

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

35) It was propped against the collar box and I lay listening to it. Hearing it, that is. I dont suppose anybody ever deliberately listens to a watch or a clock. You dont have to. You can be oblivious to the sound for a long while, then in a second of ticking it can create in the mind unbroken the long diminishing parade of time you didn’t hear.

36) Father said a man is the sum of his misfortunes.

Study Hall by Bill Connelly

37) When you grow up in an area obsessed with this sport, and when you take in the collegiate game day experience enough, it becomes a large portion of your identity, more than perhaps any other sport in this country. You cannot fathom another way to spend autumn Saturdays. You get nervous when friends announce they’re getting married in September. Cracking open a beer at 8:00 a.m. is, on Saturdays, completely defensible. Driving 12 hours round trip for a big conference game? Not only logical, but necessary. NFL fans who say things like “Well, I don’t really follow college football…” make you question both their integrity and their morals. You perhaps cannot justify some of college sports’ shadier dealings, but you believe there is enough good to outweigh the bad, and it is difficult to imagine what might change that.

38) For now, just know that if your average starting field position was in the low 20s, you probably lost. If it was in the high 30s, you probably won. While the way you capitalize on your opportunities matters, the simple fact is, creating more opportunities through field position typically results in more points.

The E-Myth Revisited by Michael E. Gerber

39) If your business depends on you, you don’t own a business—you have a job. And it’s the worst job in the world because you’re working for a lunatic! “And, besides, that’s not the purpose of going into business. “The purpose of going into business is to get free of a job so you can create jobs for other people. “The purpose of going into business is to expand beyond your existing horizons. So you can invent something that satisfies a need in the marketplace that has never been satisfied before. So you can live an expanded, stimulating new life.”

40) Your business and your life are two totally separate things. At its best, your business is something apart from you, rather than a part of you, with its own rules and its own purposes. An organism, you might say, that will live or die according to how well it performs its sole function: to find and keep customers.

Neuromancer by William Gibson

41) He walked till morning. The high wore away, the chromed skeleton corroding hourly, flesh growing solid, the drug-flesh replaced with the meat of his life. He couldn’t think. He liked that very much, to be conscious and unable to think. He seemed to become each thing he saw: a park bench, a cloud of white moths around an antique streetlight, a robot gardener striped diagonally with black and yellow.

42) Straylight reminded Case of deserted early morning shopping centers he’d known as a teenager, low-density places where the small hours brought a fitful stillness, a kind of numb expectancy, a tension that left you watching insects swarm around caged bulbs above the entrance of darkened shops. Fringe places, just past the borders of the Sprawl, too far from the all-night click and shudder of the hot core. There was that same sense of being surrounded by the sleeping inhabitants of a waking world he had no interest in visiting or knowing, of dull business temporarily suspended, of futility and repetition soon to wake again.

The Art of Smart Football by Chris B. Brown

43) In addition to extensive drill work, [Mike] McCarthy often gives his quarterbacks lengthy written tests, once even asking his non-Montana quarterbacks in Kansas City to write an essay describing the Chiefs’ version of the West Coast offense “from a philosophical perspective.”

44) A quarterback translates his knowledge of defenses and passing plays to the field through his reads, of which there are two basic types: progression and coverage. “A progression read is a pass play where three or more receivers are looked to in a one, two, three progression. ‘Is he open? Is he open? Is he open?’” said [David] Cutcliffe. With a coverage read, it’s “the coverage played by the defense” that determines which receivers the quarterback looks for.

Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss

45) If the best in the world are stretching their asses off in order to get strong, why aren’t you? (Christopher Sommer)

46) I wish I would have known that there was no need to wait. I went to college. I went to law school. I worked in law and banking, though not for terribly long. But not until I started PayPal did I fully realize that you don’t have to wait to start something. So if you’re planning to do something with your life, if you have a 10-year plan of how to get there, you should ask: Why can’t you do this in 6 months? Sometimes, you have to actually go through the complex, 10-year trajectory. But it’s at least worth asking whether that’s the story you’re telling yourself, or whether that’s the reality. (Peter Thiel)

The Mind and the Brain by Jeffrey M. Schwartz

47) The brain of a child is almost miraculously resilient, or plastic: surgeons can remove the entire left hemisphere, and thus (supposedly) all of the brain’s language regions, and the child still learns to talk, read, and write as long as the surgery is performed before age four or five.

48) The seven-month-old Japanese babies whom [Patricia] Kuhl tested had no trouble discriminating r from l. But ten month-olds were as deaf to the difference as adults. When Kuhl did a similar test of Canadian babies raised in English-speaking homes, she got the same results: six-month-olds could distinguish Hindi speech sounds even though those sounds were not part of their auditory world; by 12 months they could not. Between six and twelve months, Kuhl concludes, babies’ brains begin the ‘use it or lose’ process of pruning unused synapses. The auditory cortex loses its sensitivity to phonemes that it does not hear every day. This may be why children who do not learn a second language before puberty rarely speak it like natives.

The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin

49) “From time to time, I would gaze up at the stars after a night shift and think that they looked like a glowing desert, and I myself was a poor child abandoned in the desert.… I thought that life was truly an accident among accidents in the universe. The universe was an empty palace, and humankind the only ant in the entire palace. This kind of thinking infused the second half of my life with a conflicted mentality: Sometimes I thought life was precious, and everything was so important; but other times I thought humans were insignificant, and nothing was worthwhile. Anyway, my life passed day after day accompanied by this strange feeling, and before I knew it, I was old…”

50) There’s a strange contradiction revealed by the naïveté and kindness demonstrated by humanity when faced with the universe: On Earth, humankind can step onto another continent, and without a thought, destroy the kindred civilizations found there through warfare and disease. But when they gaze up at the stars, they turn sentimental and believe that if extraterrestrial intelligences exist, they must be civilizations bound by universal, noble, moral constraints, as if cherishing and loving different forms of life are parts of a self-evident universal code of conduct.

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