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The 2019 Digital Tonto Reading List

2019 December 8
by Greg Satell

Different years seem to have different truths. For example, while 1968 was a struggle for freedom, with mass protests erupting throughout the world, 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the invention of the World Wide Web, seemed to fulfill that promise. Other years have had other truths.

I have a strong sense that 2019 will be remembered as a pivotal year. It has been, to a large degree, a year of alternative truths that will need to be resolved in the years ahead. The books that we publish and read will play an important role in establishing which truths we are willing to accept.

That’s why books are so important. They help us establish today’s truths and record them for posterity. Often, we find that truths established today are thoroughly debunked for at some future time, while some neglected truths are later uncovered and brought to the fore. Here’s my list of the books I’ve read and written about over the past year. Let them be judged kindly.

Book(s) of the Year

By now we’re all familiar with the prototypical hero’s journey of the entrepreneur. A moment of epiphany leads to a valuable insight, which is rejected by the establishment. Our noble entrepreneur, armed with a breakthrough idea, starts a company that changes the world.

That Will Never Work by Marc Randolph is a tremendously valuable book precisely because it tells a very different story. Randolph, a Co-Founder of Netflix and its first CEO, explains how he and Reed Hastings succeeded not because they started with a better idea—in fact, all of their early ideas failed—but because they continued to experiment until they figured out what worked.

Perhaps even more importantly, Randolph shows, through clear writing and riveting stories, how hard it is to build a business that lasts. Not through gimmicks or instant insights, but through hard work, perseverance and no small amount of luck. If you want to know the real story of how entrepreneurs succeed, this book is a must read!

Of course, the book that most affected me this year was my own, Cascades. The product of 15 years of research into network science and social movements, Cascades shows how to create transformational change in an organization, an industry, a community or throughout society as a whole. If you’re a fan of this blog, you’ll love this book!

Business, Management And Economics

For decades, Bill Campbell has been a trusted coach to Silicon Valley’s top executives, including Steve Jobs, the Google founders, Jeff Bezos, Brad Smith and many, many more. In Trillion Dollar Coach, Google executives Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg and Alan Eagle explain Campbell’s business principles and how he managed to enrich just about every life he touched.

Strategic Doing by Ed Morrison and the team at Purdue Agile Strategy Lab shows how to solve complex, wicked problems with a networked, ecosystem based approach. In Friction, Roger Dooley explains how companies that makes things easier for customers outcompete their rivals.

Whenever Steven Johnson comes out with a new book I buy it immediately and his latest, Farsighted, did not disappoint. I also finally got around to reading Warren Berger’s excellent A More Beautiful Question and was glad I did. Merchants of Truth, Jill Abramson’s account of media’s digital revolution was also well worth it.

Finally, in The Ride of a Lifetime Disney CEO Robert Iger recounts his incredible rise to one of the world’s most respected CEOs. What really impressed me was that a big part of his success came from his ability to build trust in a cutthroat industry. All too often, people associate being tough with being underhanded, when the truth is exactly opposite.

Science, Technology And Innovation


One of the best books I read all year was Infinite Powers, by Stephen Strogatz, which gives a surprisingly interesting layman’s account of calculus. Steve is a not only a top-notch mathematician, but a gifted writer and makes an ordinary complex and dry subject exciting and entertaining.

This year marked the 50th anniversary of the moon landing and American Moonshot by Douglas Brinkley provides a great, insightful narrative that shows how the US won the space race. I also decided to pick up Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures and was amazed at the courage and discipline of those Afro-American pioneers at NASA.

If you’re interested at all in Thomas Edison, the new biography by Pulitzer prizewinner Edmund Morris is definitely something you should check out. To be honest, I had no idea how amazingly prolific Einstein was, receiving a new patent about once every 11 days in amazingly diverse fields. For some reason, Morris decided to write the book in reverse chronological order, which I found sometimes distracting.

Judea Pearl’s The Book of Why can be a bit tough to get through, but it is absolutely essential reading for anyone interested in the causal revolution in artificial intelligence and statistics. Designing Reality by the Gershenfeld brothers gives an insider’s account of the “maker movement” and Daniel Davis gives an excellent overview of the amazing progress we have made in immunology in The Beautiful Cure. They’re not for everybody but all three are essential reads if you’re interested in those areas.

I was not impressed by Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus as many others seemed to be, but it does give an interesting account of what we can expect our future to look like. In a similar vein, I didn’t think Jared Diamond’s Upheaval measured up to his earlier books, Guns Germs and Steel and Collapse, but it still made for a good read.

The Invisible Gorilla by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, based on one of psychology’s most famous experiments, will help you to think more deeply about how you think and the assumptions we often make. I also finally got around to reading Andrew Hargadon groundbreaking book How Breakthroughs Happen, which explains how great innovators get that way by becoming knowledge brokers. If you’re not familiar with his work, you should definitely pick up the book.

History, Society and Politics

If your interested in foreign affairs, two amazing books came out this year: George Packer’s definitive biography of Richard Holbrooke, Our Man, and Samantha Power’s memoir, The Education of an Idealist. Holbrooke and Power’s careers had a significant amount of overlap in Bosnia and in the Obama Administration, so it was fascinating to read them back-to-back.

Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin gives an in-depth account of how four American presidents guided the country through crisis. The Pioneers by David McCullough explained how soldiers in the Revolutionary War settled Ohio and helped shape the future of the country.

I’ve long been a huge fan of General Stanley McChrystal’s, Team of Teams so always wanted to read his earlier book, My Share of the Task. I was glad I did. It helped me understand how the ideas in Team of Teams evolved out of McChrystal’s experiences and gave me a new perspective on them.


So that’s my list for this year. If you have any suggestions, feel free to let me know in the comments section.

I will publish my “Top Posts of 2019” next Sunday and then will take the rest of the year off. I’ll be back on Sunday, January 4th with my future trend for 2020.

See you then…


– Greg



6 Responses leave one →
  1. Armando Sobalvarro permalink
    December 9, 2019

    Thanks a lot Greg. As in the past, I have enjoyed your weekly newsletter. This one is quite useful, with the seletion of your readings through the year.

    Happy Holidays!!


  2. December 9, 2019

    So glad to hear that! Happy Holidays to you as well Armando!

    – Greg

  3. Susan Bales permalink
    December 10, 2019

    2019 TONTO List doesn’t disappoint! For 2020, check out ADM Jim Stavridis (Ret.) writings. Enjoy your Holiday break!

    Susan Bales

  4. December 10, 2019

    Thanks Susan! I’ll check it out.

    – Greg

  5. Blake Treu permalink
    December 14, 2019

    Thank you for your work with Cascades, Greg – it contains very useful insights for the projects I am engaged in.

    I think you would get a lot out of David Epstein’s new book “Range”.

  6. December 16, 2019

    Thanks Blake. I’ll check it out.

    – Greg

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