Book Notes & Summaries

Over the last years, I’ve been an avid reader of books and I’ve written notes and summaries for many of them. So far that’s mostly been for my own use, but I appreciate the book notes that Derek Sivers and others publicize online. And since I have them stored away in Word documents and Evernote pages anyway, I figured I might as well post them online.

To be clear: these notes and summaries are not meant to reproduce the entire work. They are the main takeaways of the books for me or the things that I found most interesting. It’s a way to remember the main lessons of the books without having to read the entire thing again. Hopefully, you’ll find them useful as well!

To read the notes click on any of the below book titles (sorted alphabetically). Alternatively, you can use the search field below to find specific titles.

All Book Notes & Summaries

12 Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson. The enormously popular “self-help” book by Peterson (even though that term doesn’t do the book any justice) that really is a culmination of his thinking. Even if you don’t agree with Peterson, this book is still very rewarding to read – it has the rare quality that it makes you think and wonder long after you’ve read the last page.

48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene. Amoral and evil, but full of insight into power and human behavior. It’s not a book to base your life on, but since power is such as essential part of life you might as well learn more about it.

A Calendar of Wisdom by Leo Tolstoy. One page of ‘wisdom’ per day, which consists of quotes and short messages from Tolstoy. A bit too religious for my liking but it’s a good collection to leaf through nonetheless.

Accidental Presidents by Jared Cohen. Describes the eight occasions on which a Vice President became the President in the US. It’s a great book concept and really shows the impact a presidential change can have on a country.

The Almanack of Naval Ravikant by Eric Jorgenson. A curated collection of tweets, interviews and podcasts from entrepreneur and investor Naval Ravikant. The book is broadly divided into two topics – wealth and happiness – and, in general, contains a lot of good advice. The downside is that it is just a collection, so it lacks a bit of depth and structure at times.

Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Fourth book in Taleb’s Incerto series, and arguably the best. It moves away from just understanding uncertainty and randomness to actually using and benefiting from it. Antifragile is full of good ideas and observations, and if you can stand the writing style you will get a lot of out this book for sure.

Atomic Habits by James Clear. People tend to underestimate the value of the small, of the incremental things we do every day. But many outcomes down the line (over a long period of time) are the result of our habits. And even small changes in how we do things can compound into massive results.

The Bed of Procrustes by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. A collection of aphorisms from Nassim Nicholas Taleb – most famous for The Black Swan – that deal with uncertainty, randomness, philosophy, and modern life.

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson. An enjoyable biography of Franklin that clearly shows his strengths, weaknesses, but also explains why we still take inspiration from his life and work.

Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson. The follow-up to Peterson’s popular first ‘rules for life’ book. It follows pretty much the same format and presents an additional 12 rules, this time more focused on the results of too much order and how to solve that.

The Bezos Letters by Steve Anderson. Bezos’s shareholder letters are great to read and are full of insights on his thinking, management style, and strategy. Unfortunately this book is not as good as the letters, but if you want to have a summary of them and Bezos’s thinking in general this book is not a bad place to start.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. A light and playful take on the ‘how to write’ genre. It’s more inspirational than educational, but there’s a reason it’s been a bestseller for years. If you’re interested in writing there is bound to be something for you here.

Certain to Win by Chet Richards. War might not be exactly like business, but both are based on conflict and ‘warfare’. The book takes the key principles of the Blitzkrieg, maneuver warfare and John Boyd’s theories (like the OODA loop) and applies it to a business context.

The Coming Plague by Laurie Garrett. Tells the stories of various diseases and pandemics, including Ebola, Marburg, Aids and Legionnaires’ disease. It also details how modern society, and the destruction of natural habitats, increase the chances for future pandemics. Especially with the COVID pandemic it’s more relevant now than ever before.

Consiglieri: Leading From the Shadows by Richard Hytner. Great idea for a book, but relatively poor execution. Consiglieri is about the advisors and assistants behind the ultimate decision maker, the people who wield soft power, but who often leave a major mark on the final policies.

Creativity by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. An exploration of the creative process and the lives of successful creative people. Although it focuses for a large part on the domain/environment of creativity, it’s still an interesting narrative on the psychology of creativity and how creative people view their own lives and accomplishments.

Destined for War by Graham Allison. What happens when a rising power confronts a ruling power? In most cases, in turns out, war. And what does this beckon for the current rising power (China) vs. ruling power (US) conflict?

The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson. To paraphrase J.P. Morgan: we all have good reasons and real reasons to do something. Those real reasons are the hidden motives behind human behaviour (often even hidden from our own consciousness), and these are what the authors explore in this book.

Empire of Things by Frank Trentmann. A history of consumerism throughout the centuries. It shows that in many ways we become what we consume and that consumption shapes our overall identities.

Enemies of Promise by Cyril Connelly. Partly an analysis on how to create a work that lasts, partly an investigation into what the “enemies of promise” are, and partly an autobiography of Connelly’s early life.

Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming by Stephen LaBerge & Howard Rheingold. One of the most popular books on lucid dreams. The method the authors present is based on the experiences of many people and, looking through the reviews of this book, many more have used these techniques to start lucid dreaming.

Gabriele d’Annunzio by Lucy Hughes-Hallett. Poet, warmonger, seducer, inspiration for Mussolini, proto-fascist: d’Annunzio was a strange and fascinating figure. But that’s not all: he also led a group of mutineers to occupy Fiume after WOI (and managed to keep it for 15 months!).

Getting Things Done by David Allen. The classic book on personal productivity and managing tasks and workflow. It contains a lot of good information, but unfortunately is a bit long and repetitive (so feel free to skim part of it).

Ghost On The Throne by James Romm. A history of what happened after Alexander the Great died without leaving a clear heir. According to the legend his empire would go “to the strongest” but instead it resulted in years of infighting and the destruction of his empire. Great story, and very well-researched & written.

The Great Degeneration by Niall Ferguson. The Western world is in stagnation – not just in economic terms, but also in social and institutional terms. This book analyses the decline of democracy and civil society, increase of public debt, the rule of lawyers and faltering regulations. While quite pessimistic (and overstated?) it is for sure an interesting analysis.

Growth by Vaclav Smil. Essentially a synthesis of all things that grow: from tiny organisms, humans, to energy, societies and economies. Not always an easy book to read, but the breadth of the investigation, and Smil’s erudition, is amazing. Smil makes a very clear argument that growth cannot be indeterminate: it is always constrained by outside factors.

Guns, Germs & Steel by Jared Diamond. Why did some civilizations develop faster than others? Diamond concludes that the course of history is shaped to a large extent by environmental and geographical reasons, rather than cultural or religious ones.

Hackers & Painters by Paul Graham. A collection of essays from Paul Graham that mostly deal with technology & startups. Not all essays are equally good, but if you want to have a look you can find most of them on Graham’s website.

How Brands Grow by Byron Sharp. Is marketing a science or an art? After reading this you will think it’s the former. Professor Sharp presents the latest insights on “evidence-based marketing” and shows not just how brands grow, but also how to do proper advertising, why loyalty programs don’t work, and other tips.

How Brands Grow Part 2 by Jenni Romaniuk and Byron Sharp. If you’ve read the fist part this book is more of the same. It tackles slightly different topics and provides data from different markets and industries.

How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton. Don’t plan on reading Proust’s 4,000+ pages novel? Consider this (significantly) shorter and witty analysis – part biography, part philosophy, and partly a self-help book.

How To Be A Bad Emperor by Suetonius. There are bad leaders, and then there are the truly awful ones. This new translation of Suetonius shows some of Rome’s worst, like Caligula and Nero.

How To Be A Leader by Plutarch. While he most famous for being a biographer, Plutarch was also an essayist. This book is a collection of three of his essays on leadership, and shows his thinking on what makes a good leader.

How To Be An Epicurean by Catherine Wilson. An introduction to Epicurean philosophy that discusses the Epicurean views on natural science, ethics, morality, religion, and meaningful life. Wilson shows that while Epicureanism is a form of hedonism, it’s much more nuanced than that.

How To Give by Seneca. A new translation of Seneca’s De Beneficiis, an essay dealing with generosity, gratitude, gifts, and good deeds. Overall not as strong as his other essays, but if you like Seneca you will enjoy this as well.

How To Keep Your Cool by Seneca. A new translation of Seneca’s essay on anger (De Ira); it’s old but still highly relevant and useful today. Seneca calls anger the most destructive and dangerous emotion to humans, and throughout the essay he gives advice on preventing anger from happening and restraining it once it does.

How to Live: A Life of Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell. Partly a biography of Montaigne, and partly an exploration of Montaigne’s view on life and practical philosophy. The question of ‘how to live?’ in answered in twenty different ways, all of which relate to Montaigne’s writings.

How To Live On 24 Hours A Day by Arnold Bennett. Written in 1908 to address a growing number of white-collar workers who were left unsatisfied and unfulfilled with their day job. In it, Bennett provides advice on how to best use your free time to gain this satisfaction and fulfillment elsewhere. Still highly relevant today.

How To Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens. By far the best thing I’ve ever read on note-taking and using what you read and study. The system is based on the “Zettelkasten” method that makes it easy and intuitive to take notes and to actually use them.

How To Win An Argument by Cicero. A collection of Cicero’s writing on argumentation and oratory, and contains his advice on persuasive speaking, building an argument, convincing audiences, and – in the end – winning the rhetorical fight.

The Imaginary Economy by Mario Fabbri. A thought-provoking book in which Italian economist Mario Fabbri argues that most of the modern world and workplaces are unproductive from a macro-economic viewpoint. That is, most people are engaged working in unnecessary jobs.

In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides. Good narrative non-fiction story of the Jeannette expedition that had the mission to find the Open Polar Sea. Of course this sea being non-existent results in the crew being stuck on the ice for 2 years before their ship finally gave up and sank. What follows is their harrowing journey to the closest piece of land, Siberia, in small boats.

The Instruction of Ptah-Hotep. A collection of aphorisms and arguably the oldest book in the world, being written around 2300-2400 BCE. Does it sound dated? Yes, but that’s not surprising. What is surprising is that many of his instructions are still relevant, even today.

The Laws of Human Nature by Robert Greene. Like Greene’s other books, this synthesis of how humans behave is incredibly rich and well-researched. Not only does it help to understand why people do what they do, it also helps to understand your own drivers and flaws better. Highly recommended.

The Lessons of History by Will & Ariel Durant. A short summary of the main lessons of history from the massive, 11-volume The Story of Civilization. You probably won’t agree with all the conclusion, but at least it will give you some food for thought.

Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to his Son by George Horace Lorimer. A fictional collection of letters from a self-made millionaire to his son containing fatherly advice. While originally written in 1902 – so in some ways quite dated – it’s full of witty commentary on business and life.

Lives of the Stoics by Ryan Holiday & Stephen Hanselman. A collection of short biographies of the most famous Greek and Roman Stoics. It’s not so much about their actual lives, but more about the moral lessons we can take from them. Interesting read if you’re into Stoicism, or the practical application of philosophy in general.

Love for Imperfect Things by Haemin Sunim. A second collection of short pieces of Buddhist wisdom written by the “Twitter Monk” Haemin Sunim. This time it deals more with emotions, compassion, happiness, imperfection, and negative emotions.

Managing Oneself by Peter Drucker. Originally published as an article, this book is very short & concise, but full of advice on finding your strengths, understanding how you perform & what values you want to represent. It really is Drucker at his best.

The Mind of War by Grant T. Hammond. Partly a biography of John Boyd, but mostly an analysis of his main works and thinking. I would not recommend the book if you’re new to Boyd because it’s a bit dry and uninspiring, but if you’re already familiar with his theories then this book delves a bit deeper and could be interesting.

The New Tsar by Steven Lee Myers. Interesting biography of Vladimir Putin that shows his rise to power up to the annexation of the Crimea. Many people are probably aware of the broad lines of Putin’s actions and policies, but probably less so with his background and his thinking; this book makes a good attempt to analyze them.

On Sparta by Plutarch. A collection of small biographies, anecdotes and sayings that Plutarch collected on Sparta and it’s kings and individuals. While it doesn’t provide any background or history of Sparta, it is quite an interesting read if you want to know more on the city-state, their culture, or some of its colorful characters.

Optionality by Richard Meadows. A good exploration of how to navigate an uncertain and volatile world. The basic premise is that we don’t need to predict the future, but that we should seek out optionality – small, strategic bets or choices that could have asymmetrical rewards in the future.

Outside Insight by Jorn Lyseggen. Most companies are focused on internal data such as financial or sales figures. But these are all lagging indicators, usually only reporting what happened last month. There is a treasure trove of information (“digital breadcrumbs”) that can be used for decision making and business operations.

The Power Broker by Robert Caro. Probably one of the most well-researched (and longest!) biographies ever written. It chronicles the rise to power of Robert Moses, who was to become the ‘master builder’ of New York. Power was his end goal, and Moses’s story shows how power can corrupt.

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. The popular narrative of the history of humankind. Harari looks at the cognitive, agricultural, scientific and industrial revolutions and tells the story of how homo sapiens could become the most powerful and successful species on the planet.

Selfie by Will Storr. An exploration of personal identity that tells the story of how we became so self-obsessed and individualistic in 21st century. It’s an interesting narrative that shows how our thinking on ‘the self’ has changed over the centuries.

Sherman: Soldier, Realist, American by B.H. Liddell Hart. Great biography of Sherman by one of the best and most astute military analysts. Mostly looks at, and analyses, the American Civil War and Sherman’s campaigns, and demonstrates clearly the importance of what Liddell Hart calls the “indirect approach.”

Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew B. Crawford. What is the difference between manual and office work? Why does work (especially white-collar) often feel meaningless? And how do we derive value from our work? These are the sort of topics that Crawford explores in the book, which also raises a lot of questions on the traditional career path.

Skin in the Game by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. The fifth book in Taleb’s series on uncertainty and randomness in the real world. Having skin in the game is a common enough phrase, but in reality, many people enjoy the benefits of something, without being exposed to the downsides or consequences. This, obviously, poses many (ethical) problems.

The Snowball by Alice Schroeder. Good biography of Warren Buffett and the rise of Berkshire Hathaway that shows how he became the richest person in the world. On top of that, it’s also packed with quotes and stories from Buffett and Charlie Munger that show their philosophy on finance and investing.

Stillness Is The Key by Ryan Holiday. Most people probably understand they need time to rest, relax, and think. But not many actively try to create these moments of stillness. In this book Holiday shows the importance of being present and cultivating and nurturing these moments in our lives.

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson. The self-help book for people who don’t like the positivity surrounding the entire self-help genre. Although it’s a fun read (assuming you like Manson’s profanity-laced writing style), not all of the chapters and ideas are as interesting – and many are also explored in popular philosophy and psychology works.

The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down by Haemin Sunim. A collection of Zen Buddhist wisdom written by the “Twitter Monk”. It’s a guide to mindfulness in a busy world through his reflections on different topics (like relationships, life, the future, et cetera).

The Three Rules by Michael Raynor & Mumtaz Ahmed. What makes companies successful? It’s a popular question that has been examined in a lot of papers and books already. Here the authors define three rules that drive superior performance on the long-term based on a quantitative analysis of >25,000 companies over 45 years.

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. A short book on productivity, creativity and resistance. Pressfield offers some good advice on what stands between our “lived” and “unlived” lives – resistance – and how we can overcome this.

Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker. Most people probably understand why sleep is important, and yet not many prioritize it in their lives. On top, we also live in a culture where sleeplessness is glorified (long hours, late nights). Why We Sleep shows the importance of getting a good night’s rest, and how sleep deprivation can lead to many mental and physical health issues.

William James by Robert Richardson. Great biography of one of the fathers of modern psychology that focuses mostly on the development of his ideas and work. It’s long, very detailed, and thoroughly researched and clearly shows the impact James had not just on psychology, but also on philosophy and the study of religion.

Zero to One by Peter Thiel & Blake Masters. The popular book on startups, innovation and progress. Explains what makes startups work and become successful, why monopolies can be good, and what the different scenarios for humanity are when it comes to technology and the future. It’s more than just a business book, so even if you’re not an investor or an entrepreneur it’s still well worth a read.