Favorite Books of 2017

Previously: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016

This year I read 116 books. You can view them on Goodreads. Each year I blog about my favorite books, an idea I got from the incomparable Aaron Swartz.

Why did I fall short of the 131 books I read in 2016, or the 135 I read in 2015? Three reasons… (1) For scheduling reasons, I’m blogging this a month early (2) Generally, the number of books I read is a counter indicator of my productivity, and I had a whole mess of work deadlines this year (3) Podcasts… So many good podcasts…

Regardless, I read some incredible books this year. Without further ado, here are my…

Top 10 Favorite Books Read in 2017

1) Dear Theo by Vincent van Gogh. Van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo are absolutely heart breaking. In the early letters, a young van Gogh has no idea he’s going to be a painter, he just keeps praying to make it through seminary school. He lives in awful conditions, ministering to coal miners. He writes that he doesn’t think he has the stomach for suicide.

His letters reveal him to be an avid reader. He constantly references authors like Victor Hugo, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Tolstoy, and Voltaire. In the early letters, he’s only drawing because he can’t afford paints. Eventually, he learns water colors. Finally, in his last years, he moves into oils.

He’s so impoverished he keeps getting sick and losing his teeth. He eventually loses his mind as well, famously fighting with Paul Gauguin, cutting off his own ear, and ending up in a mad house. He can’t sell Starry Night. He doesn’t know what to do with Sunflowers. By the time he commits suicide, he has only managed to sell one painting.

2) A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. Absolutely delightful. Possibly my favorite book this year. Short on plot but long on eloquent writing. This book has humor, poignancy, and depth. If you love Russian novels, then you will love this American author’s version of a Russian novel.

3) The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski. Captivating and gorgeous writing. Just vivid and honest prose that would make Hemingway proud. It’s a modern retelling of Hamlet, set on a dog-breeding farm in northern Wisconsin. This book is extremely long and I loved every bit of it until the last ten pages. I would offer a “spoiler alert” but Hamlet is 400 years old.

4) Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamon. If the way to judge the quality of a book is by how much you think about it afterward, then this is a sensational book. It’s a fascinating read, crammed full of persuasive and instructive ideas. The main thrust of the book is to explain why so many technological and societal advances happened to civilizations on the Eurasian landmass, rather than anywhere else. It turns out that the Eurasian continent simply has far more flora and fauna capable of domestication than any other continent. So if you’re trying to start a civilization in, say, prehistoric Australia, you’re operating from a huge disadvantage. The book’s thesis is that many of the advancements made by European civilization may simply be the result of biological determinism.

5) Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick. A fascinating read. King Philip’s War was – per capita – the bloodiest war in American history, and I was never taught about it in school. We tend to think of Plymouth Rock, and then skip 150 years to the American Revolution. But this elides an amazingly complex period. The version of pilgrim history I learned in school was radically oversimplified, namely, that the Native Americans fed the Pilgrims and then the Pilgrims turned around and killed them. Turns out there were 55 years of relative peace and cooperation between the Native Americans and the Pilgrims, thanks to intricate diplomacy and relationship-building. When war finally broke out, it was in many ways fought and won by Native Americans against other Native Americans. There were heroes and scoundrels on both sides.

6) Snowcrash by Neal Stephenson. So fun, and bristling with style and creativity. The prescience of this book is astonishing. Published in 1992, Snowcrash correctly anticipates the internet, Virtual Reality, and even coins the term “avatar.” It seems that on every page there is a concept Stephenson has anticipated by 25 years. I savored every page of this book – the writing is electrifying.

7) The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. Here is a book that really captures the imagination. It wonderfully recreates the feel of a medieval monastery. The story presents a compelling murder mystery, but offers so much more. The philosophical and theological debates throughout are absolutely riveting.

8) Nobody’s Fool by Richard Russo. Extraordinary writing. So much wit, insight, and depth. This year I also read Everybody’s Fool and Bridge of Sighs. Russo is an American treasure.

9) Undisputed Truth by Mike Tyson. One of the most jaw-droppingly entertaining stories I’ve read in a long time. It is a rags-to-riches-to-rags story from the Dickensian upbringing in Bronxville, to a four hundred million dollar fortune, to addiction and destitution. Just an astonishing tale, and hopefully redemptive.

10) Next by Michael Lewis. I’ve now read every Michael Lewis book and each book he writes has such a consistently high level of quality. I believe that many financial analysts, financial journalists, and money managers are absolute charlatans and this book provides plenty of supporting evidence. The book is incredibly prescient and modern for 2001. It brilliantly predicts everything from the rise of internet advertising to the advent of the online shared economy. A fun read.

Favorite Books of 2016

Previously: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015

This year I read 131 books. You can view most of them on Goodreads. Each year I blog about my favorite books, an idea I got from the incomparable Aaron Swartz.

I read some whoppers this year, like Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Ron Chernow’s riveting Alexander Hamilton, and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals (I choked up at the end). And I read some literature, like Virgil’s Aeneid, James Clavell’s King Rat, and E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel. But of all the extraordinary books I read, what follows are the ones that stuck with me the most, making them my…

Top 10 Favorite Books Read in 2016

1) Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter. Extremely well written, keenly observed, often funny, often poignant, and without a single false note. The plot kept surprising me as well. It was a little experimental (an entire chapter without commas, for instance), but only in ways that served the narrative. Really terrific writing.

 

 

2) The North Water by Ian McGuire. Excellent writing. I mean it’s extraordinarily dark, violent, and nihilistic, but ultimately the hero emerges with his morality intact. It’s a really terrific depiction of the whaling trade. In tone, it reads like a deeply gritty and less dignified Patrick O’Brien.

 

 

3) A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby. I thought it was sensational. Four strangers all meet on a rooftop with the intention of ending it all…and somehow develop a fascinating and unlikely friendship. Hornby rigorously prevents the narrative from becoming trite or sentimental. And with his usual mix of humor and pathos, he creates a uniquely enjoyable story.

 

4) Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain. Wonderful. Twain’s travelog contains observations and insights on Europe and the Middle East that remain astonishingly modern. Through Twain’s lens, Italy, Greece, and Turkey seem remarkably unchanged from 1869. A fantastically informative and entertaining window into the past.

 

 

5) Empire Falls by Richard Russo. Brilliantly well-written portrait of a downtrodden man trying to take control of his life. This book affected my mood for weeks. Russo is like the Tolstoy of small town America, examining the locale from its wealthiest citizens all the way down to its poorest. And like Tolstoy, he seems to show that the drama of human existence – all the trials and tribulations – affect everyone equally. Every life has both tragedies and triumphs.

 

6) You’re Not Doing it Right by Michael Ian Black. Brutally honest and incredibly poignant, this book is genuinely moving. Michael Ian Black is best known as a comedian, but he is a very powerful writer. So many comedians churn out superficial memoirs and Michael Ian Black is a stunning exception. Each of his stories has the humor of David Sedaris, but often mingled with the tragic emotional depth of a John Cheever or a Martin Amis. This year, I also read his books, Navel Gazing and America, You Sexy Bitch.

7) Total Recall – My Unbelievably True Life Story by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Say what you will about Arnold Schwarzenegger, his is an incredible story. Raised in an Austrian village with no running water, he became a world champion by age 20. He became a millionaire in Los Angeles real estate before he ever made a dollar from acting. He then married a Kennedy and became a governor. His work ethic, business savvy, and charisma are astonishing. This is one of my favorite books in a long time.

8) The Creeping Shadow by Jonathan Stroud. Truly fine writing, not a single loose thread, everything in its place. And with funny dialog and description to boot. Now that I also write middle grade fiction, I appreciate the challenges of the genre; and Jonathan Stroud makes it all look easy. I particularly appreciate that when Stroud’s characters are in the middle of action set pieces, Stroud still focuses on revealing character and relationships. He is a first class writer, and the Lockwood & Co series is terrific for middle grade readers.

9) Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. Daniel Kahneman (along with his partner Amos Tversky) is the Nobel Prize winning theorist behind prospect theory. This book is like a Malcolm Gladwell book on steroids; it’s chock full of surprising revelations about cognitive biases, supported by Kahneman and Tversky’s research into psychology and economics. The bottom line is that we humans are terrible at estimation and our minds are cluttered with logical fallacies.

10) The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly. Wow, this book is extremely good. It had me hooked from start to finish. Incredibly well-researched and packed with smart ideas, this series revolves around a really clever and charismatic character. Connelly is so skilled a writer that he can make you root for a defense lawyer who advertises on buses. I read a lot of Connelly this year, and his research, his intellect, and his consistency are just astonishing.

Book Tour

Yesterday, on book tour for Addison Cooke and the Treasure of the Incas, I visited schools in Oklahoma City. At Central Middle School, I met librarian-extraordinaire Caradith Craven. Her students created a tremendous amount of art based on Addison Cooke.

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A group of eighth graders put on a play, acting out scenes from Addison Cooke. Other students sang a song on the importance of reading books.

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After the sixth and seventh grade presentations, Ms. Craven showed me to her library, which was decked out with more Addison-inspired student art. In the library, I did Q&A’s with sixth graders who asked a lot of smart questions.

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Below is a quick snapshot of Ms. Craven. One student, Wenny, not only drew the very detailed poster with the tiger, she also performed a rip-roaring version of Solfeggietto by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach during our lunch. Another student, Ben, impressed me with his meticulously designed poster, and by wearing a tie to school like Addison Cooke.

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I was pretty amazed by this Addison Cooke-themed pumpkin, as well as by the Addison Cooke-carved egg. I have no idea how they made it. I have never seen a carved egg before, though the Oklahoma students seemed pretty familiar with the concept.

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After the Q&A, Ms. Craven organized a luncheon. I have never eaten on a placemat of my own face before, but from here on, I plan to make a habit of it.

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At the luncheon, the icing on the cake was the Addison Cooke cake; it really took the cake.

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In the afternoon, I traveled to the equally delightful Heartland Middle School for another presentation, where I met media director and world-traveler Janet Miller. With the help of Heartland’s dedicated drama teacher, students put on an elaborate play of several scenes from Addison Cooke. If you look closely at the photo below, you can spot the zipline connecting Addison’s apartment with his neighbor Raj’s apartment. In the middle of the play, Addison successfully slides a walkie-talkie along the zipline to land in Raj’s bed. This pretty much made my day.

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Thank you to Central Middle School and Heartland Middle School for celebrating authors, for celebrating books, and for a truly memorable day!

Addison Cooke is Coming to Stores on October 11

Addison Cooke and the Treasure of the Incas is now available for pre-order on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, IndieBound, and wherever books are sold. You can also learn more about the book on Goodreads. If you need still more information, visit Penguin Random House. The book is due out on October 11. Can’t wait!

Favorite Books of 2015

Previously: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014

This year I read 135 books. You can view most of them on Goodreads. Each year I blog about my favorite books, an idea I got from the incomparable Aaron Swartz. Here are my…

Top 10 Favorite Books Read in 2015

1) The Prom Goer’s Interstellar Excursion by Chris McCoy. Wonderful. Sensationally verbally clever. A kid just wants to go to prom and his date is abducted by aliens. What follows is a Douglas Adams-esque comic journey through space.

2) All Involved: A Novel of the 1992 LA Riots by Ryan Gattis. Excellent. Utterly gripping and masterfully written. A terrific book.

 

 

3) Trick Baby by Iceberg Slim. “The Sting” appears to rip off major elements of this book! Iceberg Slim was a supremely gifted writer with an amazing ear for dialog and description. It’s like reading the best of Kerouac, Ginsberg, or Burroughs.

 

 

4) Transcendent Speculation on the Apparent Deliberateness of Fate in the Individual by Arthur Schopenhauer. This is just a long essay, but I found it tremendously insightful and it stuck with me. It delves deeply into the idea that people are the authors of their destinies far more than they often realize.

 

5) Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney. Sensational. Truly moving. Experimental for a point – the second person narration creates the perfect feeling of dissociation.

 

 

6) All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. This book lived up to the hype. Such strong, gripping, evocative writing. I keep thinking we’re going to run out of stories to tell about World War II, but extraordinary tales keep appearing.

 

7) Jonathan Stroud – The Screaming Staircase, The Whispering Skull, The Hollow Boy, The Amulet of Samarkand, The Golem’s Eye, Ptolemy’s Gate, The Ring of Solomon. Just delightful. Really wonderful world-building. The Ring of Solomon might be a perfect book.

 

 

8) Bill Bryson – In a Sunburned Country, A Brief History of Nearly Everything, I’m a Stranger Here Myself, A Walk in the Woods, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, One Summer: America 1927, Neither Here Nor There, At Home. Charming wit and self-deprecation. A wonderful writer and fascinating on any topic.

 

9) To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I reread from childhood. Extraordinarily great writing. The protagonist is just so loveable – excellently capturing childhood in the South.

 

 

10) The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis. Some moments of true profundity, some moments of great humor and wit, and some moments of unalloyed honesty about the true nature of relationships. Some really beautiful and bittersweet meditations on age, as well. I think this is Amis’s parody of “the British novel.” It’s like an upside down E.M. Forster or Jane Austen.

Oscar Winners by Genre

Is it true that dramas are more likely to win best picture than other genres?  I decided to run the numbers.  It turns out, the trend is very true and growing stronger.

Best Picture Nominees for 1927 – 2001

(data source: http://www.filmsite.org/bestpics2.html)

Dramas: 48% (click chart to enlarge)

Best Picture Winners for 1927 – 2001

(data source: http://www.filmsite.org/bestpics2.html)

Dramas: 39% (click chart to enlarge)

As you can see, dramas are heavily favored.  But interestingly, the trend grows even stronger in the past dozen years.

Best Picture Nominees (2002 – 2014)

Dramas: 62% (click chart to enlarge)

Best Picture Winners (2002 – 2014)

Dramas: 61% (click chart to enlarge)

They might as well call it the Academy Award for Best Drama.  Granted, in 2009, the Academy began nominating as many as 10 movies for best picture.  This allowed Sci Fi movies like District 9 and Animated movies like Up to gain nominations.

Academy Awards for Best Adapted and Best Original Screenplay are similarly weighted toward dramas.  Two-thirds of best picture winners also win either of the two best screenplay awards, so there is a strong correlation.

Best Adapted Screenplays (2002 – 2014)

Dramas: 46% (click chart to enlarge)

Best Original Screenplays (2002 – 2014)

Dramas: 54% (click chart to enlarge)

The upshot here is that if you’re looking to win a writing Oscar, it’s best to write a drama!

Are Romantic Comedies Profitable?

For years, the film industry has mourned the death of the romantic comedy. According to the Hollywood Reporter, romantic comedies don’t travel well to cultures and languages overseas where Hollywood makes at least 75% of its revenue. Furthermore, romantic comedies, by definition, don’t lend themselves to sequels.

According to the Scoggins Report, there were only two comedy spec screenplay sales in Q1, 2015, neither of which was a romantic comedy.  Studios now rarely invest in rom-coms, as they are no longer considered a profitable genre.

But are these assumptions correct?

Are romantic comedies really an unprofitable genre? And do rom-coms fail overseas?

Looking at the data for all movies released theatrically from 2009 – 2015, romantic comedies are actually extremely profitable both domestically and overseas.  I scraped the available box office data from BoxOfficeMojo.com and crunched the numbers below.

In terms of gross profit, rom-coms handily outperformed my two control groups: action and sci fi.  Net profit is trickier to evaluate, and I will address that below.  But first, the overall numbers:

Average Budgets (2009 – 2015)

Rom-coms are significantly less expensive to produce than action or sci fi (click image to enlarge):

Average Worldwide Gross (2009 – 2015)

The average rom-com earns less revenue than the average action or sci fi movie:

Average Gross Profit (2009 – 2015)

“Gross profit” here is worldwide revenue-divided-by-budget.  For all genres, this number does not account for the exhibitor’s split, or P&A (addressed below).

In box office gross, the average romantic comedy is more profitable than either action or sci fi.  In fact, the average rom-com grosses three times its budget.  This is because the rom com budget is typically half that of action movies and one third that of sci fi, so rom-coms are a much smaller financial outlay.  It is worth noting that while studios have avoided rom-coms over the past five years, rom-coms still show a healthy 200% profit margin in this time period, soundly outperforming both action and sci fi.

Studios are run by very, very smart people who wouldn’t avoid rom-coms without good reason. So if rom-coms are clearly less expensive and more profitable than action or sci fi movies, why do studios avoid them?

Marketing

According to Steven Soderbergh, the answer may lie in studio marketing budgets.  If you add a flat $60 million marketing budget to each genre, it radically changes the profit percentages.  In this hypothetical, rom-coms still earn a greater profit than action movies, but nowhere near as strong a profit as sci fi.

We have no transparency on studio marketing budgets, so it’s difficult to know what studios spend on marketing and how effectively they spend it.  It seems reasonable to assume that p&a budgets should be dropping as the internet revolutionizes marketing, but marketing budgets continue to sky-rocket.

Consider the fact that 87% of Twitter users claim that tweets influence their movie choices. Yet studios continue to spend more than half their marketing budgets on TV spots in the face of mounting evidence that TV advertising is increasingly inefficient.

Transformers: Age of Extinction spent $100 million on domestic print-and-advertising alone.  Meanwhile, the average studio spends as much as half-a-billion on marketing annually.  With no transparency on these numbers, there can be no critical evaluation.  The MPAA stopped tracking studio marketing spends in 2007, and there is no public breakdown of marketing budgets per movie.

Studios now tend to avoid mid-budget movies of any genre, which cuts out rom-coms entirely. It may be that mini-majors and large financiers may find a way to fill this mid-budget gap in the film ecosystem, and fill the under-served demographic of movie-goers who love romantic comedies. As long as film companies learn to market rom-coms economically, this genre is demonstrably more cost efficient and profitable than action or sci fi.

The big takeaway from the numbers above is that rom-coms actually do perform profitably internationally.  But as studios focus their marketing dollars on fewer movies each year, they are under pressure to invest in gigantic movies that will help them reach billion dollar annual grosses.  Publicly traded companies need to show growing revenue year-over-year, and it is easier for a studio to reach billions in grosses by investing in $200 million movies than in small, yet profitable, romantic comedies.  Perhaps if studios were still privately held, their emphasis might be on greater profitability rather than increasing revenues.

Favorite Books of 2014

Previously: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013

I read 100 books this year. Each year I blog about my favorite books, an idea I got from the incomparable Aaron Swartz.

What follows are the books I most enjoyed in 2014.

* Drive by Daniel H. Pink – A lot of great ideas about how to motivate creative problem solving in a business environment. Pink clarifies the differences between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in the workplace. Pink also makes a compelling case that creative employees work best when they are given autonomy, an opportunity for mastery of their craft, and a sense of purpose.

* The James Bond books by Ian Fleming – My favorites were “Moonraker,” “To Russia With Love,” “Live and Let Die,” “Dr. No,” “The Man With the Golden Gun,” “Diamonds are Forever,” “Thunderball,” “In Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” “The Spy Who Loved Me,” “For Your Eyes Only,” and “Casino Royale.” I’ve seen all the Bond movies and think there is still opportunity to do justice to the depth and complexity of Bond’s character.

* Red Mars and Green Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson – Extremely well-researched and fun imagining of Mars colonization and terraforming. A bit like Asimov’s Foundation series in that there is no clear protagonist – it’s really more about the ideas than the plot.

* American Sniper by Chris Kyle – Extremely compelling read; a complete page turner. A really fascinating portrait of an American hero.

* Letters to a Young Poet by Ranier Maria Rilke – The first letter is brilliant – the idea that one should only become a writer if one sees no alternative. The next nine letters contain little to no specific advice on writing, but rather give increasingly vague ideas on love and loneliness. Nevertheless, some moments of extraordinary prose.

* The Conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar – Astonishingly clear prose reflecting an incredible mind. Caesar is a tireless worker, a brilliant politician and diplomat, and an incredibly successful general. Each strategy and ruse-de-guerre is breath-taking.  So little has changed in politics and warfare in 2000 years; a fascinating book.

* The Civil War by Julius Caesar – Just astonishingly good. Possibly the greatest military leader of all time. He fought in hundreds of military engagements and won all of them against staggering odds. When Bibulus uses his naval superiority to try to blockade Caesar and cut off all supply ships to Greece, Caesar blockades the entire Aegean so Bibulus has nowhere to land his fleet and dies of thirst and exposure. That is just the ultimate testament to Caesar’s confidence and his extraordinary mind.

* Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury – I reread from my childhood. Astonishingly lyrical prose; like Jimi Hendrix lyrics – a jumble of language that works together to form perfectly evocative imagery.

* Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams – I reread for the third time. This book is just wonderful on every level.

* Richard Sharpe series by Bernard Cornwell – This year I read “Sharpe’s Gold,” “Sharpe’s Havoc,” “Sharpe’s Eagle,” “Waterloo,” “Sharpe’s Sword,” and “Sharpe’s Regiment.” I love everything about these books. I particularly admire Cornwell’s ability to craft insidious antagonists who are often more incompetent, racist, haughty, or immoral, than one-dimensionally evil. “Sharpe’s Regiment” may be my favorite of this bunch, though “Sharpe’s Eagle” is also fantastic.

* The Demon’s Sermon on the Martial Arts by Issai Chozanshi – I find these old Japanese texts to be 10% brilliant and 90% inscrutable.  But I suppose that’s the point of zen.

* The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris – An ingenious book that feels extremely current despite being published in 1967. Sort of the Malcolm Gladwell of its day, it evaluates humans from the perspective of a zoologist, and finds how – for all our sophisticated behaviors – we are just fancy chimpanzees.

* Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin & The Way to Wealth and other letters by Benjamin Franklin – I reread for the first time in ten years. Such a fantastic piece of work – just an astonishing human being of myriad accomplishments. There is so much to be learned from this book.

* Benjamin Franklin by Walter Isaacson – Fascinating, astonishing, inspiring, and revolutionary. What an amazing man with an amazing life. A brilliant diplomat, from the Declaration of Independence, to the treaty with France that saved the American Revolution, to the British peace treaty ending the war, to the Constitution. Massive contributions to science – he coined the language of electricity with words like “current,” “conductor,” “positive,” “negative,” and “battery.” An incredible mind – so far ahead of his time – and so well accomplished in all things.

* Meditations by Marcus Aurelius – If you ask me, the Stoics are sanctimonious bores. Still, it was interesting to read the diary of an emperor who lived 2,000 years ago.

* Travels by Michael Crichton – Very readable and interesting. To a certain extent a biography, to another extent a travelogue, but mostly it is a man’s quest for meaning. I didn’t realize how successful Crichton was by age 30; that he was a Hollywood director and a Harvard Med School grad. I really just knew of him as a sci-fi best seller.

* Tell-All by Chuck Paluhniak – He’s an astonishing talent. The first few chapters are mesmerizing. Ultimately, this book is not too heavy on plot, but it is a tour-de-force of style.

* Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins – Beautifully planned and structured, with a plausible heroine we root for from start to finish.

* Divergent Trilogy by Veronica Roth – Quite the page-turner. Hard to put down.

* Freeway Rick Ross by Rick Ross – The story of his rise from an illiterate high school dropout in South Central Los Angeles to becoming the largest crack cocaine dealer in LA. An interesting piece of history. Ultimately, the book is slightly disturbing in that Rick Ross comes across as unabashedly proud of what he accomplished as a crack dealer and really shows no remorse.

* Cyrus the Great (Cyruspaedia) by Xenophon – Cyrus was an extraordinary leader, conqueror, and humanitarian. This 2400 year-old book sets the stage for modern biography in that it seeks to instruct in moral character.

* Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters – Very fun. Lots of linguistic British cleverness and certainly a page turner.

* Creativity, Inc by Ed Catmull – A very insightful book on how to manage a creative company like Pixar. Fascinating to gather the inside history of the most consistently successful movie studio in history, and how Pixar’s philosophy turned around Disney animation. Building that creatively supportive culture drew a lot from Silicon Valley ideas.

* Hombre by Elmore Leonard – Very well crafted with lots of cleverness and believable details woven into the prose.

* Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom by Amy Chua – Permissive American parenting is a big issue that doesn’t get talked about nearly enough. I understand why this book is controversial, but it prompts a discussion worth having.

* Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy – I’ve never encountered a writer with McCarthy’s virtuosic powers of word choice, description, and simile; he utters a phrase and the picture springs into the mind’s eye both familiar and fully formed. He is the greatest American author, the greatest living author, and possibly the greatest author, period. Better even than Nabokov in turning a perfect phrase.

* To Have and Have Not by Ernest Hemingway – Say what you will, he is always interesting.

* Einstein by Walter Isaacson – A fast primer on Einstein.

* Pimp: The Story of My Life by Iceberg Slim – Utterly gorgeous prose writing, like Electric Kool-Aid acid test or William Boroughs. Very shocking material. It’s astonishing how all of the 1990’s rap slang was alive and well in the 1930’s. There is nothing new under the sun. This book is far ahead of its time; delving into the Pimp’s psychology, the prostitute’s psychology, and the criminal mindset.

* The Great Train Robbery by Michael Crichton – Well researched and enjoyable.

* Dataclysm by Christian Rudder – Some interesting observations on the information age.

* Anabasis: The March Up Country by Xenophon – Fascinating tale of Xenophon’s 10,000 Hellenic mercenaries who were hoodwinked by Cyrus the Younger into fighting the King of Persia. The Greek army officers were assassinated by the Persians in a red wedding. So Xenophon, only a young warrior, rallied the Greek mercenaries to fight their way home through hostile territory. A fascinating read and a great adventure.

* Bossypants by Tina Fey – Very funny and with jokes in every sentence. And yet ultimately, this book is an important meditation on feminism.

* Selected Works by Cicero – I found this book tedious and interminable. Cicero himself I found insufferably vain, self-pitying, self-righteous, back-stabbing, and egotistical. Nearly every moral argument in this book fell flat for me. Nevertheless, it was fascinating to glimpse how surprisingly modern Roman society was, in its law, politics, and business.

* What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell – Gladwell is always fun and interesting.  Such a treat.

* Myth and Meaning by Claude Levi-Strauss – I am not clever enough to decide whether structural anthropology is blithering, unsubstantiated nonsense.  Still, I’ll read anything that discusses the mono myth.

* The Hard Way – A Jack Reacher Story by Lee Childs – Really terrifically smart and well-executed.

* Not Taco Bell Material by Adam Carolla – Really entertaining.

* Rumi Translation by Coleman Barks – Really wonderful modern poetry from a 13th century poet. I slowly savored this poetry collection over the past five or six years.

Age Difference Between Leading Actors and Actresses

Much has been made of the age gap between leading men and women.  Male romantic leads are often cast opposite much younger females.  And it is often difficult for actresses to find roles after age 40.

While I suspect this gender gap has improved in the past 50 years, I decided to see if it is still alive and well.  I built a spider to scrape age data for the top 5,000 actors and actresses, as ranked by IMDb “starmeter.”

For the 500 most popular actors and actresses on IMDb, the average actor is age 40.77 and the average actress is age 33.39.  Expanding to the top 5,000 actors and actresses on IMDb, the gap narrows.  Here the average actor is 44.74 and the average actress is 39.47.

Not surprisingly, star popularity is correlated to age.  The top 50 actors are the youngest, and possess the largest age gap between men and women.  For the top 5000 actors, the average age is older, and with a smaller age gap.  This chart shows how the age gap narrows as popularity decreases.

Another interesting phenomenon is that 60% of the top 500 most popular stars on IMDb are female.  This trend holds true for the top 100 most popular stars, as well as for the top  50.  Put another way, only 40% of the 500 most popular stars on IMDb are male.

However, when the sample size is stretched to include the 5,000 most popular stars, women equal men almost exactly (50.59% – 49.41%).

So why are women more likely to have high starmeter ratings?  Amazon’s starmeter algorithm is a measure of what people are searching for.  A glance at the IMDb message boards suggests IMDb’s userbase is disproportionately male.  So it could very well be that men search for their favorite actresses at a higher rate than women search for their favorite actors.  Thus, actresses may have a slight advantage in obtaining top “starmeter” rankings on IMDb.

Actor Height Myths

There is a long-standing belief in popular culture that actors are shorter than the national average.  I decided to put the theory to the test, creating a spider to scrape height data for the top 5,000 ranked actors and actresses on IMDb.

It turns out: actors and actresses – by IMDb height – are two inches taller than the national average.

Heights of the Top 500 Actors and Actresses as Ranked by IMDb’s “Starmeter.”

The top 500 actors average 5 foot 11.7 inches versus the national male average of 5 foot 9.5 inches. The top 500 actresses average 5 foot 5.72 inches versus the national female average of 5 foot 4 inches.  The trend holds for the top 1,000 actors and actresses, as well as the top 5,000.

The easiest explanation is that both actors and actresses are finding ways to over-report their heights on IMDb on a massive scale. However, when I spot-checked a list of famously short actors and actresses, I found no discrepancies between IMDb’s numbers, and celebrityheights.com. Granted, I’m not sure how to rigorously fact check 5,000 IMDb actor heights.

If actors are over-reporting their heights, it is worth noting they are no different from the rest of us.  OKCupid found their users report heights two inches above the national average.

The alternative explanation is that successful actors are simply taller.  This success/height correlation should make some sense given the data that taller people are smarter, earn more money, and are more respected by their peers, than short people (I am not a particularly tall person, so I write this without any bias).

The real upshot is, there is no data to support the idea that actors and actresses are shorter than average. In fact, the more popular an actor is, the more likely he is to be tall (actresses, on the other hand, retain a constant height regardless of popularity).

Methodology: Because certain minority groups may be underrepresented in the top 5,000 actors, the charts above compare actors to the average height for American Caucasians.

For my data set, I parsed out actors and actresses under 18, as they may not yet have achieved full height.