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Gabriel Coarnă's favorite books & what he learned from them

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Hello! Cristina here.

If you do a lot of online reading, you’re probably just annoyed as I am of all the distractions, such as ads or plugins. In 2009, Gabriel Coarnă created Readable, a solution that allowed readers to reformat text from any website, dramatically improving the online reading experience. By making text easier to read and follow, Readable helped people read more – on their own terms.

Two years later, his project was acquired by Evernote, and the technology was used as a foundation for Evernote Clearly. Gabriel joined Evernote as a Software Architect, being tasked with leading its effort of making the Web simple, elegant, and memorable.

In 2016, Gabriel joined Sunflower Labs, a company whose purpose is to reimagine home security by building a seamless, easy-to-use system that combines a mesh-network of outdoor sensors with an autonomous drone.

When I recently found out that Bobby (my co-founder) personally knows Gabriel, I jumped at the opportunity and begged for an introduction. I had no doubt that Gabriel would have a lot of valuable information to share about books and reading, so I asked if he wants to answer us a few questions.

Here’s what we found out:

What’s your favorite book and why? Business and non-business, if possible.

I don’t read “business books”. I may read books which were classified as “Business”, “Leadership”, etc; but, if I do, I do so in spite of the category they’ve been deemed to belong to, not because of it.

I generally split books into three main categories. Here are the titles –sorry, but I simply can’t pick just one– that currently hold the top spots in each:

Fiction: Liu Cixin’s “The Three Body Problem” (trilogy); Neal Stephenson’s “Reamde“; and Audrey Niffenegger’s “The Time Traveler’s Wife“.

Non-Fiction: Sudhir Venkatesh’s “Gang Leader For A Day“; Leonard Mlodinow’s “The Drunkard’s Walk“; and Dan Ariely’s “Predictably Irrational“.

Biography/Memoir: Andre Agassi’s and J. R. Moehringer’s “Open“; Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love“; and Salman Rushdie’s “Joseph Anton“.

Was there a moment, specifically, when something you read in a book helped you? Can you tell me about it?

Perhaps the single most important moment of my life is the moment I realized that I should start reading: I was 14 at the time; I was a freshman in high-school; and, up until that point, I had read maybe 10 books.

I was very curious and –I’ve been told– very smart, as a kid. But I wasn’t into reading. At all. The way I satisfied my curiosity about the world was by watching documentaries on TV: a lot of documentaries; in fact, I probably watched all the documentaries I could’ve watched.

(I grew up with a lot of on-my-own time — “a lot” as in 8+ hours per day, not counting school. I spent at least 5 of those hours –every day!– watching Discovery and Animal Planet.

I’m not recommending this, by the way; I’m just telling you what happened. But I don’t regret it either. I’m pretty sure that my “TV years” played a huge –and hugely beneficial– role in who I am today.)

For whatever reason, when I started high-school, I started asking myself a lot of philosophy- and psychology- related questions. One day –and I still remember this moment– I had this “epiphany”: “I should find some books on these subjects!”. So I started going to the library and researching what I wanted to know — and I think I then spent a full year reading only philosophy and psychology books.

I didn’t instantly fall in love with reading, though. It was just a means to an end; it was worth it, but it was –still– a chore. For many years, I read only books on the subjects I was interested in; and I read absolutely no fiction.

The moment I fell in love with reading –and, to an extent, with writing too– came 5-or-so years later. I don’t remember why exactly, but I started reading Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy“. And I couldn’t stop reading it: I read all the books in the series in two months or so; and then I read everything else Douglas Adams had written.

What books had the biggest impact on you? (perhaps changed the way you see things, dramatically changed your career path)

I’ve had quite a few moments when I felt like the book I was reading at the time had just smacked me upside the head — hard. Here are some of them, in no particular order:

– Nassim Taleb’s “The Black Swan” made me completely rethink my understanding of “risk”.

– Leonard Mlodinow’s “The Drunkard’s Walk” –more precisely, the section on the “Monty Hall” problem– totally changed how I look-at/think-about probabilities and choices in general; this has impacted almost every real-life choice I’ve made since I read this book.

– Sudhir Venkatesh’s “Gang Leader For A Day” significantly adjusted how I think about a bunch of stuff: poverty, economics, society, etc.

– Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” –like I said earlier– made me truly fall in love with both reading and writing.

– Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” –more precisely, the first 3rd of it– was what first made me realize how badly the Earth, as an ecosystem, is out of balance.

– Dan Ariely’s “Predictably Irrational” totally blew my mind.

– John Sandford and Ctein’s “Saturn Run” made me reconsider both “AI” and “first contact”.

– David Epstein’s “The Sports Gene” made me decide to never tell a child that “if you really really want something, and you work really really hard, then you can achieve your dream” — not when it comes to sports, at least.

– Liu Cixin’s “The Three Body Problem” made me fear aliens.

– Audrey Niffenegger’s “The Time Traveler’s Wife” and Garth Stein’s “The Art Of Racing In The Rain” made me cry.

What books would you recommend to youngsters interested in your professional path? Why? (no number limit here)

As kids we get this idea into our heads: that “curiosity” means “curiosity for (new) facts” — probably because the answers to most of the “why” questions we first ask are, in fact, facts.

This is why I didn’t read any fiction, for my first few years of reading. This is why some really smart people will insist that fiction is a waste of time. This is (one of the reasons) why “business books” are popular.

It’s a notion that’s wrong, and harmful, and that needs to die. And I want to help kill it.

So what I want to recommend to youngsters –as well as to everyone else– is to be more curious about more things: be hungry not just for “facts”, but for ideas and thoughts and feelings; search out stories –no matter their medium or form– that make you *think*.

On a less philosophical and more practical note: I think of my job as “startups and building (digital) products”. For those interested in this particular subject, here’s what I’d recommend:

Paul Graham’s collection of essays.

Bret Victor’s essays and talks.

PandoDaily’s “PandoMonthly” series of interviews.

– Anything and everything you can get your hands on that’s about design: books, essays, videos, cue cards, literally anything. And, when I say “design”, I mean all types of design: products (physical and digital), typography, colors, logos, anything else you can think of.

I’m interested in finding out more about your reading habits. How often do you read? In what format?

Usually, I read every day. For the past 10 years, in terms of books, I’ve only read audio-books.

I absolutely don’t “multitask”, though: I read either while taking walks or while lying on the couch with my eyes closed; and, while reading, I don’t think of anything else. Because of this, I experience most books as super-long, super-detailed “movies”.

How do you make time for reading?

It comes naturally: I spend most of my day in front of a computer; taking a break from that –I try to take 2 breaks of 1.5 hours each, every day– usually means (mostly) reading.

The problem, for me, isn’t making time for reading; it’s restricting reading to only 2-or-so hours per day. When I’m on vacation, I can easily –and happily– spend 6-7 hours reading, every day.

Do you take notes or have any other technique for conquering the torrent of information?

I split information into 3 categories. And I deal differently with each.

1. Day-to-day news/articles/essays: for me, this is the “torrent of information” you mentioned; I deal with it by mostly skimming, not reading; and I try my best to bookmark as little stuff as possible for “later”.

2. Studying/researching a particular subject: I take copious notes; I pretty-much compile my own “guide” on the subject, spanning across all the sources I used.

3. Reading just-because: I may jot down an idea, here or there; but, generally, I don’t take notes at all; nor do I worry about forgetting what I’ve read.

(In the last 5-or-so years, whenever I’ve wanted/needed to do a deep-dive into a particular subject, I’ve very rarely ended up reading an actual book. This, to me, is a clear indication of how differently information is organized and accessed today vs. yesterday; it’s a clear measure of how much the Internet has impacted the distribution and flow of “knowledge”.)

How do you choose what books to read next?

I try to keep an eye out for what new books come out; at the end of each year, I browse many of those “best books of this year” collections; and, generally, I read/listen-to all the “you should really read this great book” recommendations I come across.

To actually get a place on my reading-list, though, most books go through quite a bit of scrutiny. “Does it sound interesting?“: this is a fast, snap-judgment determination that I make based on title, author, and any other contextual information I have. “Am I reasonably sure it is interesting?“: this is a slower, thought-out decision that that I make based on detailed description, reviews, and –sometimes– even plot overview.

Do you prioritize those recommended by certain people? Is there anyone that you consider a book-recommendations guru?

I almost never prioritize *books*: no matter who made the recommendation, the book will go through the process I described previously. But I do –not often, but not rarely either– prioritize *authors*.

What I mean by that isn’t that there are a few authors whose previous books I’ve enjoyed immensely and whose new books I’d be willing to just start reading. In fact, there aren’t any authors for which that’s true: authors choose different subjects, and they approach those subjects in different ways; there are many, many authors who’ve written books that I absolutely love as well as books that I absolutely wouldn’t touch. Having loved an author’s previous work gets a book past my “Does it sound interesting?” question; but no further.

The only books I started reading without having researched are books whose authors I had seen or known-of –and loved– in a different context. Here are some examples (which I hope you’ll take as challenges):

– I started reading “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth” as soon as I finished watching Chris Hadfield give this talk.

– I started reading “Eat, Pray, Love” as soon as I finished watching Elizabeth Gilbert give this talk.

– I read “Adults in the Room” because I had seen Yanis Varoufakis give this talk.

– I read “The Last Lecture” because I had seen Randy Pausch give this talk.

– I read “Joseph Anton” as soon as I found out that Salman Rushdie had written a memoir of his years in hiding following the fatwa.

– I read “Choose Your Own Autobiography” because I loved Neil Patrick Harris in everything he’d ever acted in.

– I read “Last Words” because I adored every single “comedy” show that George Carlin had ever done.

What book are you currently reading and what are you expecting to gain from it?

I’ve just started Eddie Izzard’s “Believe Me”.

This is one of those books I’m reading just-because, so I’m not *expecting* to gain anything from it. I only expect things from books I read because I’m studying/researching a particular subject.

The reason why I’m reading this book is because I’m very, very fond of Eddie Izzard the comic and Eddie Izzard the actor. Hopefully, this book is a glimpse into Eddie Izzard the human.

Is there anything else you might want to add related to books?

When it comes to books, one of the great injustices of our time is that –or, rather, how– Walter Isaacson wrote Steve Jobs’s official biography.

I was almost angry when I finished the book. It was well-researched, yes; but Isaacson only used that research to “prove” well-known cliches that he already believed about Jobs. On top of that, the book’s tone was stark and cold and distant; and, most of all, it was almost mean. Overall, I kept feeling like I was reading about the myth of “Steve Jobs, the warlock” — Isaacson uses the term “reality distortion field”, in a serious way, an upwards of 20 times throughout the story.

Because of this, I’ve basically implored people to read Brent Schlender’s and Rick Tetzeli’s “Becoming Steve Jobs“. And I’m doing so, again, here.

“Becoming Steve Jobs” isn’t perfect; but it is so much better than Isaacson’s book that I can’t even find an analogy that would capture the difference. If you read that book and you don’t read this one, you’re doing yourself a great disservice.

Links where you can follow Gabriel Coarnă / find out more about his projects:

  • Tasteful Words
  • Readable
  • Gabriel’s LinkedIn profile
  • TechCrunch: “The Romanian story behind Evernote Clearly”
  • Sunflower Labs

  • Books mentioned by Gabriel in this interview:

  • The Three Body Problem – Cixin Liu
  • Reamde – Neal Stephenson
  • The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
  • Gang Leader For A Day – Sudhir Venkatesh
  • The Drunkard’s Walk – Leonard Mlodinow
  • Predictably Irrational – Dan Ariely
  • Open – An Autobiography – Andre Agassi
  • Eat, Pray, Love – Elizabeth Gilbert
  • Joseph Anton: A Memoir – Salman Rushdie
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
  • The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable – Nassim Nicholas Taleb
  • The Omnivore’s Dilemma – Michael Pollan
  • Saturn Run – John Sandford, Ctein
  • The Sports Gene – David Epstein
  • The Art Of Racing In The Rain – Garth Stein
  • An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth – Chris Hadfield
  • Adults in the Room – Yanis Varoufakis
  • The Last Lecture – Randy Pausch
  • Choose Your Own Autobiography – Neil Patrick Harris
  • Last Words – George Carlin
  • Believe Me: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Jazz Chickens – Eddie Izzard
  • Becoming Steve Jobs: The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart into a Visionary Leader – Brent Schlender, Rick Tetzeli

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