Some books we’re reading (and games we’re playing) this winter 2022

a16z crypto editorial

Here’s some books (and games) recommended by members of the a16z crypto team, covering scuba diving, semiconductors, and spies… and mostly (science) fiction.

You can find more recommendations in our summer reading list, and in lists from seasons past: 2019201820172016. It’s fun to see the repeat recommendations on our lists every year, both within and across time; this time, the repeats were Gabrielle Zevin’s novel on gaming and friendship, Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, as well as Ted Chiang’s collection of short science-fiction stories, Exhalation.

Be sure to also check out our curated “library” from our recent Founders Summit event here.

…from Brittney Burrows, events team

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. “Educational, tragic, amazing historical fiction about Shakespeare’s life and how he came to write his famous play Hamlet. One of my favorite books this year.”

On Writing by Stephen King. “Horror’s quintessential novelist pens the quintessential guide to his craft. This book made me think ‘I could be a writer!’ — it was inspiring, interesting, part autobiography, and part how-to book.”

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert. “A classic in which not a single character is shown in a flattering light. If you like TV melodramas, this one’s for you!”

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin. “As someone who is not a big gamer, this book got me to see games in a new way. Part romance, part startup story, this fiction book is inspiring, sweet, and quite a ride.”

The Institute by Stephen King. “Probably my favorite book I read this year — a fantastic paranormal story about a powerful and courageous group of kids. If you like Stranger Things you’ll love this.”

Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel. “Kept me up at night! A book that takes you across space and time and questions the fabric of our world.”

Playing: It Takes Two by Hazelight Studios. “A fun team-building game that is great to play with your spouse or partner.”

…Elena Burger, investing team

The Condition of Postmodernity by David Harvey. “This is an epic work of artistic, cultural, economic, social, and political history that examines the period of roughly 1920 to the 1980’s, charting the emergence of “postmodernism” along the way. [Harvey’s] key argument — that new technologies compress space and time, and reshape human experience in tandem — feels very relevant to crypto. Nothing about Harvey’s writing feels forced or heavy-handed, and despite being published in 1990, the book still rings true today.”

[see/ hear also: Elena’s review of the book Virtual Society by Herman Narula here, and listen to the podcast with the author here]

…from Sonal Chokshi, editorial team

House of Earth and BloodHouse of Sky and Breath by Sarah Maas. “I have added something from Maas to nearly every reading list we’ve done here over the years, since I am such a huge fan of her fantasy novels series — and in particular her worldbuilding and character development (imperfect, complex, nuanced). These two are the books in her latest series, Crescent City — following the Throne of Glass series and A Court of Thorn and Roses series, both of which I devoured as they came out in real-time. It’s frustrating waiting for books in between but my god so worth it every time!”

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo. “Similarly, I am a huge fan of all things Bardugo. From her now-mainstream Shadow and Bone trilogy to the (even better!) extension of that worldbuilding in the Six of Crows duology — aka The Grishaverse — this book, the first in her latest Alex Stern fantasy detective series, is sooo good. The next book, Hell Bent, comes out comes out in early January so you won’t have to wait too long if you add this to your holiday queue.”

Book Lovers by Emily Henry. “This is a charming, delightful, feel-good book about people who love books, family and friendships, the people and places we love, and more. I know that’s a generic list of themes, and that these kinds of books can sometimes be too cliche and cheesy, but this IS all that, in all the best ways;)”

Secrets of a Devon Wood: My Nature Journal by Jo Brown. “This is less a book to read and more a book to absorb visually, as it’s the artist’s journal — a nature diary in beautiful modern botanical-illustration style of the things she physically saw and zoomed in on from her ‘backyard’… For me, it evokes the feels of the first years of the pandemic, where so many of us were confined to local zones and traveling familiar paths, zooming in on the things we saw through new eyes. On her site, the artist quotes the ‘North Pond Hermit’ who lived in isolation for years, on how ‘solitude bestows an increase in something valuable — my perception’.”

Status and Culture: How Our Desire for Social Rank Creates Taste, Identity, Art, Fashion, and Constant Change by W. David Marx. “Probably the single most important lens to examine and understand so much in the modern (and for that matter, ancient!) world, from culture to technological production, is through the lens of status: Who has it, what makes it, what changes, how. Of course, nothing tops my friend Eugene Wei’s post on ‘Status as a Service’, which is essential reading for anyone in tech — it famously coined the phrase ‘status-seeking monkeys’. [We also briefly discussed it in a podcast we did together a couple years ago here.] But this book, while a bit dry, is a nice survey overview of the topic as a whole, across several fields. The insights feel almost obvious yet are important to focus on, as this book does. The chapters on signaling and social value; taste, authenticity, and identity; subcultures and countercultures; and yes, fashion cycles, seem especially relevant to industry folks!”

Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature by Alva Noë. “I adore the premise of this book, which is that art makes us, not the other way around. After writing the book, Noë added that ‘Artists don’t make things because what they make is special. They make things because making is special…’ I’m obsessed with not just the process behind the outcomes of art, and the production of art, but also the interaction between art (the ‘strange tools’) and viewer, which is arguably as important. So this philosopher’s musings on art and evolution, and how we are designers by nature (drawing > writing, images > words), resonated with me… The insights may also reflect some of our response right now to AI art and excitement for generative art on the blockchain (my favorite!).”

Playing: Kentucky Route Zero from Annapurna Interactive. “Surreal yet real, mysterious, and seemingly never ending (I am still mid-act in the middle act).”

…from Chris Dixon, founding general partner

Shadow Divers: The True Adventure of Two Americans Who Risked Everything to Solve One of the Last Mysteries of World War II by Robert Kurson. “I’m a little late to this book, but it’s a great story about a daredevil subculture I knew nothing about. A true story, human drama, and adventure all at once.”

Playing: Stray from Annapurna Interactive. “Stylistic graphic design and great gameplay in this innovative PlayStation/PC game, where you play a cat trying to find its friends in a dystopian futuristic city.”

…from Shari Doherty, marketing team

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall. “An epic adventure and fascinating story that is about so much more than running.”

…from Robert Hackett, editorial team

She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity by Carl ZimmerZimmer’s investigation into the nature of heredity is wide-ranging, eye-opening, and energetically entertaining. The book covers everything from the enfeebled Hapsburg bloodline, to the blood test that failed to save Charlie Chaplin’s career, to the future of gene-editing with CRISPR. The mix of historical and personal anecdotes imparts a vitality that carries through even the most technical sections.”

Playing: Horizon Forbidden West from Guerrilla Games. “So I haven’t yet played the game, but I plan to. I thoroughly enjoyed the first game in the series, Horizon Zero Dawn (2017). You battle cyborg dinosaurs as a post-apocalyptic cavewoman. Need I say more?”

…from Mason Hall, investing team

From Bacteria to Bach and Back by Daniel Dennett. “Dennett starts with atoms and weaves together a cohesive story of the history of intelligent life, all the way to consciousness and beyond. He seamlessly connects biology, information theory, memetic theory, and cognitive science through helpful mental models that have changed the way I see the world.”

Playing: Cosmoteer from Walternate Realities. “Cosmoteer — a starship simulator — is like Factorio in space. It starts small and approachable, but can grow into a rich and complex ecosystem at your own pace.”

…from Liz Harkavy, investing team

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr. “A fantastic reminder of the importance of books and their ability to connect people.”

…from Scott Duke Kominers, research team:

The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji. “This is one of the greatest puzzle mystery novels of all time. It’s an exemplar of the Japanese honkaku style, heavily inspired by Golden Age mystery writers such as Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, and S.S. Van Dine. All the clues are in plain sight — the question is can you see them.”

The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester. “Winner of the first Hugo Award for science fiction, Bester’s breakout novel is a fast-paced thriller that grapples with questions of intrigue and due process in a world where telepathy is real, but where what people think can’t always be trusted.”

This Is Not a T-Shirt: A Brand, a Culture, a Community by Bobby Hundreds. “Hundreds’s memoir is a visionary work about brand as community — a core tenet of building in web3, which Hundreds has been exploring since the early days of the Internet. It’s also an extraordinary (and often laugh-out-loud hilarious) tale of entrepreneurship against some pretty surreal odds. [Disclosure note: I hold a few NFTs from The Hundreds’s NFT projects, and way too many The Hundreds beanie hats.]”

The Complete Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino. “Have you ever wondered what the experience of the universe might have been like before the Big Bang, or as colors began to appear? Thanks to Calvino and his omnipresent narrator Qfwfq, now you can know.”

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin. A gripping, slightly magical-realist tale of enduring friendship — told through the eras and theory of computer game design.”

…Eddy Lazzarin, head of protocol design and engineering

Why Are The Prices So Damn High? by Eric Helland and Alex Tabarrok. “Short, dense, and sweet. Helland and Tabarrok offer a comprehensive and intuitive framework for reasoning through why technological progress leads to some goods becoming much cheaper, and others becoming more expensive (yet seemingly paradoxically — more affordable). The book has sharpened how I think about opportunity costs and the consequences of how resources are allocated across the economy.”

Playing: Dwarf Fortress from Bay 12 Games (Steam version). “Dwarf Fortress is the decade-in-the-making masterpiece of a single engineer hell-bent on simulating the inner workings of a dwarfen fortress down to the level of a single cat’s eyelid. However, this simulation has only ever been represented visually through a very primitive terminal-like ASCII character interface and without tutorials — until this month. After great anticipation, Dwarf Fortress has been newly released on Steam with a new suite of graphics and tutorials to guide new delvers into the deep. Have fun!”

PlateUp! from Yogscast Games. “I never expected “cooking sim” and “rogue-like” to blend so beautifully in a co-op party game, but here’s the proof. PlateUp! is a slightly more enduring, but still great for parties, alternative to Overcooked 2. Fewer aspects of the game depend on frustrating level design (Overcooked’s single liability), and more depend on thoughtful decisions by the team from round to round. It’s a great experience for friends and family who may not be deep gamers but enjoy collaborating toward a group victory.”

…Porter Smith, deal and networking operations

Chip War by Chris Miller. “A comprehensive overview of the semiconductor industry, the geopolitical implications of its supply chain, and how it affects the world going forward.”

The Pigeon Tunnel by John Le Carre. “A fun and revealing memoir showcasing the real people and places that inspired so many of his spy novels.”

Working by Robert Caro. “Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Robert Caro describes his famous writing and research process, giving insights into how he wrote in such depth on his subjects — including Robert Moses and Lyndon B. Johnson.”

…from Mariano Sorgente, investing team

Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg. “This book gave me an entirely new perspective on people’s motivations and communication methods. If someone is attacking you verbally or judging you, it’s hard to see the reason and feelings behind what they are saying. This book helps you empathize, and understand the feelings and needs behind people’s words and actions.”

Playing: CrossCode from Radical Fish Games. “Amazing indie game with retro graphics, but modern mechanics. The gameplay is fluid and fun, the story line is amazing, and the pixel art style and music is captivating. One of the best single player games I have played.”

…from Tim Sullivan, editorial team

Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang. “Chiang’s short stories are magic — intricate, surprising, powerful. If you like speculative fiction, read these — but read them slowly, since Chiang doesn’t write all that much.”

The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall. “A work of meta-fiction, in which an amnesiac awakens to put his life back together as he is pursued by a conceptual shark that ‘feeds on human memories and the intrinsic sense of self.’ A wild ride.”

The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks. “Rebanks tells the story of the English Lake Districts through his own story as a modern-day shepherd with roots that go back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. It’s lyrical, honest, and moving.”

Slouching Towards Utopia: An Economic History of the Twentieth Century by J. Bradford DeLong. “‘Magisterial’ gets tossed around a lot when it comes to history books, but this one is, in fact, magisterial. DeLong — an economist at UC Berkeley — packs so much into his history of the long 20th century that every page has a surprise. Quirky in the best way.”

Playing: Azul from Plan B Games (Tabletop). “Azul is a tabletop tile placing game, but includes elements of strategy. It’s also easy to learn — but doesn’t really get old if you’ve played a lot because it’s dynamic. It’s also relatively quick (less than an hour). All of those elements make it great for a multi-age get together. As a bonus, it’s really pretty visually too.”

…from Ish Verduzco, marketing team

Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success by Shane Snow. “This is the first book that I recommend to any builder, creator, or founder. It’s inspiring and fun, while also super tactical and changes your perception of accomplishing seemingly difficult (and borderline impossible) goals. I’ve read it eight times and plan on re-reading many more times to be constantly reminded of its core message.”

…from Guy Wuollet, investing team

Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang. “Great science fiction can often tell us more about what it means to be human than about anything else. Chiang is a fantastic writer, and creates worlds that are intuitive to inhabit while challenging our preconceived notions about life.”

Playing: Total War: Warhammer III from Creative Assembly. “The ‘Total War’ series is perhaps the most complete encapsulation of historical nerd-snipe lore in a video game. Incredibly fun and a winning conclusion to the series.”

…Michael Zhu, engineering team

The Secret History by Donna Tartt. “A compelling whydunit revolving around a cabal of college student degenerates, with a brutally descriptive account of New England winter. Read while sipping whiskey by the fireplace.”

Playing: Wingspan from Stonemaier Games (Tabletop). “It’s an aesthetically beautiful game, and you have to respect the commitment to the bird theme. For example, the rules dictate that you MUST read aloud the bird fact printed on the card whenever you play one. There’s even an accompanying app (Wingsong) that scans a card and plays a recording of that birds’ song.”

…from Stephanie Zinn, editorial team

Every Good Boy Does Fine: A Love Story, in Music Lessons by Jeremy Denk. “A memoir for anyone who tries very hard (and also for music nerds). Renowned classical pianist Jeremy Denk writes simply-put lessons on the power of music, practice, and messing up (repeatedly) in service of something inchoate (possibly magical?) you have to offer the world.”

Playing: No Man’s Sky from Hello Games (on Steam Deck/Switch). “Infinite, procedurally generated planets to explore. Ethereal beats to study alien life to. Vast and fantastical landscapes powered by math. And as of this year, it’s playable on a handheld device!”

TROIKA! from the Melsonian Arts Council (Tabletop). “Playing TROIKA! — a lovingly written sci-fi/fantasy RPG — with good friends was so much fun. Playable characters include a Monkeymonger who once shilled “edible monkeys” to hungry villagers and a Gremlin Catcher complete with “1d6 empty gremlin jars.” Also cool: players and content creators are encouraged to take the rules and run (using a third-party license). Effectively open sourcing the game mechanics has yielded a library of wonderfully weird, community-created content.”



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