What to Read Next (No. 155): kicking off a new year

Welcome to 2021! While the anxieties of 2020 aren’t immediately put behind us, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. I hope the last week has been restful and enjoyable for you and that you’ve gotten some good reading in! Contrary to the mostly poor reviews, I enjoyed Ready Player Two enough—though it definitely doesn’t live up to its predecessor. You’ll hear more about it in a couple weeks.

This is a longer edition to start the year, but for good reason. I’m featuring an under-the-radar new book that I really enjoyed, including a fun interview with its author. I’m also sharing a couple cookbooks that really upped my kitchen game in 2020.

Let’s get to it.

P.S. THANK YOU to those who have contributed as paid subscribers. It means the world to me. If you missed that email, find more info here about contributing.

Work Songs by Matt Johnson

Published: 2020 | Pages: 106

“The most creative, resourceful, and resilient thing on this planet is a human fueled by meaning.” 

Maybe you’re feeling a little stale at work. Or having trouble getting motivated to launch your side hustle off the ground. Perhaps it’s more that you’re just trying to figure out what 2021 will look like re: your career.

Matt Johnson’s new book is exactly what you need.

Each short chapter of Work Songs is centered on an anecdote about some aspect of work—inspiration, motivation, drudgery, moving on, etc.—usually with a powerful, punchy, quotable proverb at the end:

“Good work is always good for the world.”

This is one of those books that doesn’t have a central thesis its trying to prove, but rather contains a common thread of meaning running through each chapter. The diminutive dimensions combined with its 106 pages make for a quick read—you can easily get through this thing in one or two sittings and end up feeling mentally and emotionally renewed about your work.

Personally, I wrote down a lot of one-liners in my notebook and was quite personally inspired about my own work—both for my day job, and for this newsletter, which I love doing.

More of Matt’s story below, including some great book recs.

A Few Cookbooks for Your 2021

  • Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat. This book is as much a love letter to food and a kitchen manual as it is a true cookbook. Nosrat breaks down those four foodish elements in the title and teaches amateur chefs not only how to follow a recipe, but how to cook.

  • Bread Illustrated by America’s Test Kitchen. My bread bible. I work from this thing on a regular basis. There’s not a bad recipe in here.

  • Meat by Pat LaFrieda. I use this book less for the recipes (though there are good ones) than for a primer and reminders on the different cuts of meat and their characteristics while cooking. Extremely good info.

  • Super Simple by Tieghan Gerard. Jane and I have become devotees of our fellow Coloradoan. This one, her second cookbook, is her best. Her website is also an unending fount of amazing recipes.

I’d love to hear your favorite cookbooks! I’m always on the hunt.

A Few Bookish Questions With Matt Johnson

1. Your book is a series of short chapters that connect anecdotes from history to big ideas about work, motivation, legacy, etc. Are there particular books that especially inspired Work Songs? Which books have shaped your philosophy towards work?

The theme for Work Songs is that for as long as we’ve had language, we’ve had songs for the work we do. Sea shanties, field songs, and industrial hymns that gave people meaning, strength, and connection while they worked. But modern work has no song, and as global disengagement at work continues to climb, it’s clear that we let the music die when we needed it the most. The musicologists will tell us that the power of work music didn’t come from the songs, but the stories they contained. That is, for some reason we stopped telling stories at, and about, work. So, that’s why I wrote the stories about work that are in this book.

So, when I think about the inspiration for this Work Songs, it actually came from listening to old records, not from any particular books. Records from Woodie Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen, and some of the other great storyteller songwriters. That’s actually why each story in the book is relatively short and written with rhythmic syncopation—each one is just a song. That said, the content was clearly heavily influenced by a number of big ideas. Most prominently, Kurt Vonnegut and his work on the power and shape of stories is foundational to this book and my philosophy towards work (i.e., the idea that story is the most powerful human invention, and we need it more than ever before). More recently, with Sapiens and Homo DeusYuval Harari was pretty influential too.  

2. Can you share the story of how a 50 cent book changed your life?

It was April 6, 2005. I was on tour with my last band, and we pulled over at a thrift store off of Interstate 5 in California. Out of boredom, I walked over to the bookshelf, and it’s important to note that up until that point in my life, I had never really read any books outside of those I needed for school. But for some reason, I bought a book that day called Brighter Than a Thousand Suns for $0.50. It was written in 1958 about the Manhattan Project, and I can’t tell you why I picked it up, but I can tell you that it changed everything.

Because as I read about the 125,000 people who came together with the sole intention of ending the war and saving the world, I became fascinated. Not by the power of the bomb that they created, but by the power of their shared purpose to fuel an impossible dream. This became the first of many books that I would read about national security, international relations, and economics.

It’s because of this book that I went back to school to get a degree in national security so that I could work for the United States Government. It’s because of this book that I started to spend most of my free time learning how to write. And it’s because of this book that I lived in DC and went to brunch with a friend on November 4, 2012 who brought his friend from Richmond to join. Her name was Angie, and she’s now my wife. This is how a random book from a California thrift store permanently changed the course of my life.

3. What does a typical week of reading look like for you? Do you read multiple books at once? Do you balance fic and non-fic? 

I read in the evenings just before bed and in the mornings on the weekends. I mostly read non-fiction, but do like to work in some of the classics in fiction that were especially impactful at different points in history. I actually didn’t used to read fiction because I thought it was more important to immerse myself in the true stories of history, not make-believe. But then I read When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II about the coalition of publishers who rallied together to offer soldiers millions of copies of famous works of fiction. These Armed Services Editions changed the lives of those soldiers in a way that I never expected, and it inspired me to open my mind to possibility and power of fiction.

4. What are you reading and enjoying right now? What are you looking forward to reading in 2021? 

I am a bit late to the party here, but I’m reading Poor Charlie’s Almanack to learn more about how Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett leveraged the power of compound interest and personal character to consistently win in the long-term. Theirs is a great story showing that the only path to business greatness is through human greatness. Also need to give honorable mention to Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey because it was a book that I didn’t expect to love nearly as much as I do for its earnest, humble life advice and inspiration.

As for what’s next in 2021, I am excited to read Ray Dalio’s next book The Changing World Order: Why Nations Succeed and Fail. Historians and investors are quite on the idea that history repeats itself. I read books like this one with hopes that I might better understand some of those large, repeating macro trends in human behavior.

5. What are the books you’re always recommending and talking about? (Basically, do you have all-time favorite reads?)  

That’s all for me this week. I excited for 2021, and hope you are too. Thanks for the time and inbox space, and let me know what you’re reading!


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