The August Reading List Freeze

August is always a bitch of a month for me, to the point that I agree with David Plotz of Slate that we should get rid of it entirely. It seems to be my de facto annual planning month, though I have no reason anymore to be on an annual planning cycle. In August, I always seem to have far too many things in early stages of development, and too few leaving at the other end. I am currently in the early stages of several rather ambitious blog posts, a couple of new consulting projects and a couple of new personal projects. This year, thanks to my summer travels (I am back in Las Vegas now), I also have piles of unprocessed raw material from stuff I researched on the road, to write about.

So that’s a long, whiny excuse for rather sparse output over the last several weeks. I think I’ve hit my August trough though, so I can only build up momentum from here. But in the meantime, I assume many of you are on vacation, or planning to go on vacation, so I thought I’d share my current reading list, if any of you want to read along. Some of this will show up on the blog, some will not. My reading list piles up so fast that I’ve decided to be brutal. This list is it for the rest of the year. I will not be adding more books to the queue until I am done with these.

  1. Titan by Ron Chernow: Multiple people have recommended this Rockefeller biography to me.
  2. Tycoons by Charles Morris: Seems like a good overview of the Robber Barons
  3. The First Tycoon by T. J. Stiles: A biography of Vanderbilt, probably the founding father of the Robber Baron era.
  4. The Origins of Political Order by Francis Fukuyama: Don’t let the vague neocon associations dissuade you. There’s a reason this guy is so famous. If he writes a history of political order, you need to read it.
  5. World 3.0 by Pankaj Ghemawat: As meaty as Friedman’s The World is Flat is not. I suspect it’s going to become the definitive textbook introduction to globalization for those who actually care about getting the details and numbers right. The title is unfortunately rather uninspired, but the contents are solid gold.
  6. Fixing the Game by Roger L. Martin: Haven’t yet started it, but seems like a really intriguing premise: applying the lessons of the NFL to figuring out how capitalism should be fixed to avoid the kinds of messes we seem to keep getting into.
  7. Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson: I rarely read fiction these days, but everybody keeps telling me to read Stephenson, so I finally caved, especially since it seemed to go well with the rest of this list.  This is the first volume of the Baroque Cycle. If I have time, I may attempt to finish all three volumes this year.
  8. Debt: the first 5000 Years by David Graeber: I like ambitious reframings of everything from a new perspective, and this certainly qualifies. An attempt to rethink all of civilization and society as a manifestation of debt. If you want to sample before you decide, Julio Rodriguez at Wild Intent has attempted a valiant assault on this Mt. Everest scale book (ambition, not raw size).

Yes. There’s a definite theme here. No, the theme won’t take over the blog. I may even decide not to pursue it at all.

Mostly I am trying to flesh out the thinking around this year’s summer blockbuster hit, A Brief History of the Corporation to figure out just how deep the rabbit-hole goes. Though I hate to admit it, that piece did share some rather unpleasant characteristics with Michael Bay’s movies, so I am trying to think through some Oscar-season type follow ups.

Here’s to all of us seeing this beast of a month through. I’ll be in Hawaii over Labor Day weekend, so there is that to look forward to.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. How might I go about assembling a Venkatesh Rao reading list if I didn’t have a Venkatesh? What do you take your cues from?

    • No idea. I don’t have a process. It’s basically random browsing, recommendations from friends and readers etc.

      Writing helps focus reading though, so you a might want to start writing. In public if you want others to help connect dots for you.

  2. Wow, I can’t believe you haven’t read any Stephenson! Crypto’s my favorite, but the Baroque Cycle is awesome, and has all sorts of forays into currency/finance epistemology, etc.

    • Tom Bushell says

      I’d 2nd the vote for Crypto as an intro to Stephenson.

      Alhough the Baroque Cycle probably touches on more Ribbonfarm-esque topics – it’s just so…um…huge!

    • James Somers says

      Thirded — start with Cryptonomicon. No doubt about it. You’re making a huge mistake.

    • Cryptonomicon was about 40% good book, 60% filler and even the good part didn’t have anything particularly new or insightful. Snow Crash, by contrast, was almost completely new and insightful and takes all of six hours to read. Start there. If you don’t like Snow Crash, don’t bother reading any of his 600 pg. + stuff.

      Zodiac is a quick, fun beach read, but also has some rewarding stuff concerning risk management, catastrophic failures, etc. as they apply to bleeding edge technologies.

  3. Art Felgate says

    For a good biography of a contemporary counter-force to the so-called Robber Barons read the two-volume biography of Theodore Roosevelt, “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt” and “Theodore Rex”, by Edmund Morris.

    If you are getting into Science Fiction you really must read The Hyperion series by Dan Simmons. He coined the term ‘World Web’ before our World Wide Web came into existence.

  4. Dick Shave says

    I haven’t read Graeber’s “Debt” but his “Towards a New Anthropology of Value” made huge sense to me. It is a lot shorter – you might want to start with it…

    BTW, I loved your Capitalism essay.


  5. The must read is “The First American Tycoon” I have read numerous biographies, but this is a stand out, the research is first class. It is by far the best “bio” on Vanderbilt. He was a man who had vision and knew the value of that old cliche “My word is my bond”.

  6. The Chernow bio is superbly done. Well worth the time to read.

    Have not read Fukutama’s latest, wonder how it relates to his State Building book on 21st C. governance……

  7. Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle are a little dry, I’d start with his earlier stuff — The Diamond Age, Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon and then skip up to Anathem.

    • Tom Bushell says

      Funny – I was in the bookstore on Sunday stocking up for my vacation, which seems to be the only time I read whole books any more.

      I saw Anathem for the first time. Looked at the page count (978, IIRC), sighed, and put it back on the shelf.

      I must be getting old…