My Books of 2016

I fell one short of my book a week goal at 51 books in 2016. This year I’ve excerpted some books where I thought a particular passage was self contained and gave a sense of the whole. However, books that were not excerpted should not be considered less eloquent or inspiring, some of the best defied quotation.

Biography

The biographies were all doorstoppers this year. Manchester’s Churchill trilogy is exceptional. He uses Churchill to shine a light on the period in general and the books are much richer for his breadth of vision. Plutarch was at times heavy going, but contains fabulous characters and political insight that struck remarkably close to home this year.

The Last Lion Vol 1: Winston Churchill, Visions of Glory 1874-1932 by William Manchester

“At the table Winston, cocky as ever, over-rode his host and dominated the conversation. Afterward he put it charmingly: “There were indeed moments when he seemed willing to impart his own views; but I thought it would be ungracious to put him to so much trouble.”

The Last Lion Vol 2: Winston Churchill: Alone, 1932-1940  by  William Manchester

“That same day Leo Amery approached Kingsley Wood and asked if the government was going to help Poland. Amery suggested dropping incendiary bombs on the Black Forest. “Oh, you can’t do that,” the air minister said, “that’s private property. You’ll be asking me to bomb the Ruhr next.”

The Last Lion Vol 3: Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965 by William Manchester, Paul Reid

Plutarch: Lives of the noble Grecians and Romans by Plutarch

“For it was well and truly said that the first destroyer of the liberties of a people is he who first gave them bounties and largesses. At Rome the mischief seems to have stolen secretly in, and by little and little, not being at once discerned and taken notice of.”

Business

Byron Sharp’s How Brands Grow was that rare marketing book that largely avoids the bloviation of its peers and focuses on what we can quantitatively learn about building businesses. Anand’s Content Trap is the best book on media I’ve read in a while, though his attempts to apply his own lessons to Harvard indicate that media’s problems are easier to diagnose than solve.

How Brands Grow by Byron Sharp

“We can see the fickle (actually probabilistic) nature of people’s beliefs if we ask them the same question more than once. This is seldom done in market and social research. Surveys generally ask different people each time, which is why even experienced market researchers are unaware of this phenomenon.

 If on the first survey, 30% of people agreed with the statement ‘Hertz rents attractive cars’, then on any subsequent survey the figure is usually close to 30%. This (misleadingly) suggests a great stability of beliefs. But, if we analyse the answers of each individual we see something startling. Typically only half the people who on the first survey agreed with the statement do so again on the second survey, and an equal number of people who did not agree with the statement the first time now agree with it. So the overall level of agreement remains at 30% but the repeat or stability rate (people say yes both times) is only half.”

Matchmakers: The New Economics of Multi-sided platforms by David Evans and Richard Schmalensee

The Content Trap: A Strategist’s Guide to Digital Change by Bharat Anand

“The Content Trap is a mindset that afflicts nearly every organization struggling to confront the problems of getting noticed and getting paid, from media to finance to education, and whether they’re producing stories or designing phones.

  1. First is the obsession with isolated triggers rather than recognizing the conditions that make them spread. This is akin to believing that product features in isolation drive success or failure rather than what causes users to share and connect. This is an error of misplaced focus, a result of confusing cause and effect.
  1. Second is the effort to preserve content at all costs—rather than seizing the opportunities around it. This is an error of drawing product boundaries too narrowly.
  1. Third is the relentless search for best practices, the belief that there’s one “right approach” to confront digital fires—rather than understanding that the right way to fight fires depends on the context in which they burn. This is an error that mistakes strategy for universal solutions.”

Design

The Timeless Way of Building is a magical book that is ostensibly about architecture but made me look at design and life in general with fresh eyes. It’s written in a zen style and is the book I recommended to the most people this year.

The Timeless Way of Building by Christopher Alexander

“The idea that a building can – and ought – to be made of modular units is one of the most pervasive assumptions of 20th century architecture. Nature is never modular. Nature is full of almost similar units (waves, raindrops, blades of grass) but though the units of one kind are all alike in their broad structure, no two are ever alike in detail.

At each scale there are global invariants and detailed variations. In such a system there is endless variety; and yet at the same time endless sameness. No wonder we can watch the waves for hours; no wonder that a blade of grass is still fascinating, even after we have seen a million of them.

It follows that a building which is whole must always have the character of nature, too. This does not mean that a building or a town which is alive will look like a tree, or like a forest. But it will have the same balance of repetition and variety that nature does.”

Sketching User Experiences by Bill Buxton

Hooked: How to build Habit-forming Products by Nir Eyal

Just Enough Research by Erika Hall

Fiction

The Underground Railroad is as good and harrowing as everyone says it is. It’s less about the banality of evil than the sheer casualness of evil. Anthony Doerr was my favorite new find of the year, I don’t know anyone who writes as beautifully as he does. Robert Harris does an excellent job of fleshing out the life of Cicero in his roman trilogy.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Red Rising by Pierce Brown

Golden Son by Pierce Brown

Morning Star by Pierce Brown

The Shell Collector by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

The Siege by Arturo Perez-Reverte

Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson

Shift by Hugh Howey

Dust by Hugh Howey

The Girl on the Train: A Novel by Paula Hawkins

Lady Claire is All That by Maya Rodale

Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth

The Silent Cry by Kenzaburo Oe

Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome by Robert Harris

Conspirata: A Novel of Ancient Rome by Robert Harris

Dictator: A Novel of Ancient Rome by Robert Harris

Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

History

Tim Wu’s Attention Merchants is excellent and places what’s happening in advertising today in its appropriate context. Mario Calabresi’s book about Italian terrorism is intensely personal (as the son of a policeman murdered by terrorists himself) and shines with humanity, a short, wonderful read. Generals and Generalship was the kind of short common sense book it takes a lifetime to write and should be on the bookshelf of any CEO.

The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads by Tim Wu

“Consequently, AOL would sometimes set up auctions between two dot-coms—say, two online grocery services—to extract the most it could. Using that method, it scored an astonishing $60 million from a start-up named HomeGrocer.com. It all followed from a bracingly direct internal mantra—“Kill ’em.” The team’s goal became taking at least half of the partner’s venture funding in any deal.”

Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World by Tim Whitmarsh

Pushing Past the Night: Coming to terms with Italy’s terrorist past by Mario Calabresi

Generals and Generalship by Field Marshal Earl Wavell

“I will give you two simple rules which every general should observe: first, never to try to do his own staff work; and secondly, never to let his staff get between him and his troops. What a staff appreciates is that it should receive clear and definite instructions, and then be left to work out the details without interference. What troops and subordinate commanders appreciate is that a general should be constantly in personal contact with them, and should not see everything simply through the eyes of his staff.”

Miscellaneous

Clear and Simple as the Truth changed the way I think about writing more than any other book I’ve read. It’s a beautiful and brilliant lesson on classic style.

Rascal by Sterling North

15 Secrets Successful People Know About Time Management by Kevin Kruse

Save the Cat by Blake Snyder

Clear and Simple as the Truth by Francis Noel-Thomas and Mark Turner

“The surface mark of classic style that is most uncongenial to practical style can be picked out by what we call the ‘last-third test’: once you’ve progressed a little way into a piece of writing, block out the last third of the sentence as you come to it, and imagine the standard things you might expect to occupy that position based on what you have already read. If what in fact does occupy that position is routinely one of those standard and expected things, then the piece may be a paragon of practical writing but is unlikely to be classic. This is not because classic sentences reverse themselves at the end: once you see a classic sentence, you will recognize that the sentence was true to its direction, but that does not make the sentence predictable, because it usually contains a conceptual refinement that is clear and simple as the truth but not a cliché and hence not predictable. Examples:

Although a dirty campaign was widely predicted, for the most part politicians contented themselves with insults and lies.

With peer pressure and whippings at school and at home we were soon completely socialized and as happy as children anywhere.

In the same year the UK, Russia and France decided to intervene to enforce an armistice “without however taking any part in the hostilities.” The allied fleet went to parlay with the Turkish fleet anchored in Navarino Bay and ended up destroying it.”

The Paleo Manifesto by Josh Durant

The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture by Ruth Benedict

Philosophy and Psychology

Waking Up is most interesting when it digs into the neuroscience of the self and least interesting when Harris is talking about various acid trips he has taken. The chapters that deal with just what is really going on in our brains and its implications for the notion of a soul are fabulous.

Stoicism and the Art of Happiness – Ancient Tips For Modern Challenges by Donald Robertson

Immortality: the Quest to Live Forever and How it Drives Civilization by Stephen Cave

Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion by Sam Harris

Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson

Science

Gleick’s The Information was occasionally heavy going but worth the persistence. However, the best science book for me was Mukherjee’s The Gene. While it’s a beautifully written history of the last hundred years of biology and its social impact, the mind-blowing part occurs when he digs into the implications of CRISPR, recombinant DNA and embryonic stem cells. You can almost see Gattaca over the horizon. Ellenberg’s book on mathematics was well written and made me want to read more about the topic while Wohlleben’s Hidden Life of Trees is one of those jewels that reframes a world you are barely conscious of into sharp focus.

The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood by James Gleick

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli

The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee

Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics Explained by Richard Feynman

“If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generations of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis (or the atomic fact, or whatever you wish to call it) that all things are made of atoms—little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another. In that one sentence, you will see, there is an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied”

How Not To Be Wrong: the Power of Mathematical Thinking by Jordan Ellenberg

Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology by Johnjoe McFadden, Jim Al-Khalili

The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben

My books of 2015

In 2015, I got the chance to read 54 new books, though they seemed to fall into narrower fields than in previous years. I’ve divided them into categories and the starred books at the top of each are my top picks.

History and Biography

*Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
*Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
*A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn
Gonzo: A Graphic biography of Hunter S. Thompson by Will Bingley & Anthony Hope-Smith
An Astronaut’s guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield
Founding Myths: Stories That Hide Our Patriotic Past by Ray Raphael

2015 was the year of Alexander Hamilton and there was no way I couldn’t read the Chernow biography, which is both a fabulous biography of Hamilton and a nice counterpoint to the more positive view of Jefferson I read in the Meachem last year. As someone who wasn’t educated in America I came to Zinn late but he blew my goddamn mind. Sapiens is a book in the Guns, Germs and Steel vein and is the one that most people recommended I read. They were right.

Philosophy and Psychoanalysis

*What is Ancient Philosophy by Pierre Hadot
*A Book forged in Hell: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age by Steven Nadler
Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity by Rebecca Goldstein
Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations: Ancient Philosophy for Modern Problems by Jules Evans
The World Beyond your Head: On becoming an individual in the age of distraction by Matthew Crawford
The Art of Zen Meditation by Howard Fast
Psychoanalysis: the Impossible Profession by Janet Malcom

Pierre Hadot confirmed his place as my favourite writer on philosophy this year and I continued to geek out about Spinoza who must have been one of the most fascinating and honorable men to walk this earth. He was a major influence on Locke who was a major influence on the Founding Fathers. Malcom’s book on Psychoanalysis I picked up to try and understand that world a little better and how it differed from CBT which has more of a basis in stoicism. I came away thinking that while freudian analysis cetainly helps some people it is a deeply weird approach.

Science

*The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in our Time by Jonathan Weiner
The Accidental Universe: The World you thought you knew by Alan Lightman
What if?: Serious Science Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe
The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Civilisation in the aftermath of a cataclysm by Lewis Dartnell
The Universe in the Rear View Mirror: How Hidden Symmetries Shape Reality by Dave Goldberg
How we got to now: Six innovations that made the modern world by Steven Johnson

The Beak of the Finch was the standout science book I read this year. Its story of the work of evolutionary biologists in the Galapagos is utterly fascinating and shows you just how much evolution is continuing to shape and adapt the environment around us.

Business

*Wiser: Getting Beyond Groupthink to make Groups Smarter by Cass Sunstein and Reid Hastie
*The Sales Acceleration Formula by Mark Roberge
*Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams by Tom De Marco, Tim Lister
Kaizen Express: Fundamentals for your Lean Journey by Toshiko Narusawa and John Shook
Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement by Gen Stanley McChrystal
Targeted: How Technology is revolutionising advertising and the way companies reach consumers by Mike Smith
Inside Cisco: The Real Story of Sustained M&A Growth by Ed Paulson
Opposable Mind: Winning through integrative thinking by Roger Martin
Inspired: How to create products customers love by Marty Cagan

Wiser was an excellent business book in that it leant on data not hyperbole to make its case, thus separating itself from 90% of its brethren. I’ve long been a fan of what Mark Roberge achieved at Hubspot (I’ve even tried to poach his people in the past) and this was one of the better books on sales management out there. Finally, Peopleware is a classic I only now got round to reading and it reminded me of just how many things I’m doing wrong. Again. Special shout out to Mike Smith who wrote what is the primer on the ad tech world and somehow made it all very readable.

Fiction

*Middlesex: a Novel by Jeffrey Eugenides
*Submission: A Novel by Michel Houellebecq
*A Personal Matter by Kenzaburo Oe
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
The Privileges: A Novel by Jonathan Dee
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
Gilead: a Novel by Marilynne Robinson
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena: A Novel by Anthony Marra
Pump Six and Other Stories by Paolo Bacigalupi
Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey
Wool Omnibus Edition by Hugh Howey
The Martian: A Novel by Andy Weir
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
The best of Roald Dahl by Roald Dahl
Everything’s Eventual: 14 Dark Tales by Stephen King
The Runaway Jury by John Grisham
Absurdistan: a Novel by Gary Shteyngart
I am Pilgrim: a thriller by Terry Hayes

2015 felt like a great year for fiction for me. Middlesex was a profound and inspiring look at transgender identity. A Personal Matter was a beautiful and depressing book about a new father’s struggle to cope with new and immense responsibility. The fabulous Submission looked at a world where France becomes an Islamic state and by the end I couldn’t help but be reminded of Dr Strangelove.

Miscellaneous

*Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas by Natasha Dow Schüll
*The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by Steven Pinker
*Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud
The Power of No by James Altucher, Claudia Altucher
The Score Takes Care of Itself: My Philosophy of Leadership by Bill Walsh, Steve Jamison, Craig Walsh
The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game by Michael Lewis
Letters of Note: An Eclectic collection of correspondence deserving of a wider audience by Shaun Usher

I didn’t start the year thinking I would read an entire book on Machine Gambling addiction but I’m glad I did. A great book that goes into the detail of how casinos design themselves to encourage addiction and just how emphatically it can take hold. Pinker’s Sense of Style is a worthy successor to Strunk and White and with the exception of a couple of turgid chapters is beautifully written itself. Scott McCloud gave me a completely different perspective on comics, an art form I think I’ve been way too dismissive of in the past.

My books of 2014

As Chartbeat has grown to 95 people, I’ve found it harder and harder to devote significant time to reading. I found more escape than usual in fiction and some months felt very meagre indeed. Still, the 54 books I did make it through in 2014 gave me much to think about. If I had to pick the three that affected me most it would be The Bully Pulpit, The Ascent of Science and The Orphan Master’s Son, but generally if I got through a book I thought it was worthwhile. There were several that were either abandoned or thrown aside with great force. They have not been included in this list. Which I’m sure hurts their authors dreadfully.

Autobiography

Adventures of a Bystander by Peter Drucker

My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Tibetan Peach Pie by Tom Robbins

Adventures of a Bystander was a wonderfully written book on the life of the man every other management thinker plagiarizes. One of many vignettes that stuck with me: “Like all successful activists, she lived the old Irish definition of a peacelover: a person who is willing to listen after having knocked the opponent unconscious”. My Struggle is the first book in an obsessively detailed and candid look at the life of the author. If one were to describe this book it would sound insufferably mundane, but something about the writing meant that I couldn’t put it down. Be wary, this is simply the first of a series and it has obsessed an entire country.

Biography

A Country of Vast Designs by Robert Merry

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meachem

The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammed by Lesley Hazleton

The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

I’ve never heard a single American bring up President James Polk among the great presidents and yet his four year administration must count as one of the most productive and important on record. The man created the central bank and brought Texas, California and Oregon into the Union. Merry brings this to light in a coherent and accessible way.  Meachem’s Jefferson is sympathetic and made me see past the eccentricities that had previously given me a lower opinion of the founding father. Hillenbrand and Hazleton both crafted wonderful narratives of fascinating figures, but it was Doris Kearns Goodwin who taught me the most. Her biography of Roosevelt and Taft spends almost as much time on the investigative journalists of McClure’s and  is all the better for it.

Business

Scaling up Excellence by Robert Sutton and Huggy Rao

The Outsiders by William Thorndike

The Hard thing about Hard Things by Ben Horowitz

Turn the Ship Around! By David Marquet

The Master Switch by Tim Wu

The Advantage by Patrick Lencioni

Creativity Inc. By Ed Catmull

Hope is not a Strategy by Rick Page

Scaling up Excellence and The Advantage were the two books with the most practical tactical advice for business and where I took the most notes. The Master Switch is essential for anyone who wants to understand a historical perspective on the importance of net neutrality and the Outsiders was an excellent catalyst for thinking about my company’s challenges at a far higher level than I had.

Fiction

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

The Gods of Guilt by Michael Connolly

Blott on the Landscape by Tom Sharpe

A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel

Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett

In the Course of Human Events by Mike Harvkey

All you need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka

BBB: What a girl wants by Maya Rodale

Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour bookstore by Robin Sloan

Black Lake by Johanna Lane

Mr Mercedes by Stephen King

The Giver by Lois Lowry

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

Lock In by John Scalzi

The Orphan Masters Son by Adam Johnson

The Laughing Monsters: A Novel by Denis Johnson

The Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson

The best fiction I read all year was the Orphan Master’s Son, a novel set in North Korea that is both riveting and appalling. Mike Harvey’s In the Course of Human Events is this decade’s Fight Club and the poetry of Blood Meridian and Black Lake was a beautiful thing to behold. Honourable mention to the beautiful Maya Rodale who published her first USA Today best seller and stayed married to me despite the severest of provocations.

Philosophy and Psychology

Stoic Spiritual Exercises by Elen Buzare

Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and the Spirit by Daniel Quinn

The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza and the fate of God in the modern world by Mathew Stewart

Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic by Mathew Stewart

The Antidote: Happiness for People who can’t stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman

Wherever you go, There you are by Jon Kabat-Zinn

The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy by Donald Robertson

Punished by Rewards: The trouble with Gold Stars… by Alfie Kohn

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

This was the year I dug into the work of Bento Spinoza with Mathew Stewart as a guide. The Courtier and the Heretic is a great introduction, while Nature’s God connects Spinoza and other Epicurean inspiration to the thoughts and actions of the Founding Fathers. Nature’s God gets a little turgid in its middle section but is worth powering through for a different perspective on the philosophy behind the birth of America. The Philosophy of CBT shows just how much modern cognitive-behavioural therapy owes to stoic philosophy and is a worthwhile read for those who think that philosophy has nothing practical to offer.

Science

The Ascent of Science by Brian Silver

Complexity: The emerging science at the edge of order and chaos by M. Mitchell Waldrop

The Machinery of Life by David Goodsell

Zoom: From Atoms and Galaxies to Blizzards and Bees: How Everything Moves by Bob Berman

Faraday, Maxwell, and the Electromagnetic Field: How two men revolutionised physics by Nancy Forbes and Bruce Mahon

Honorable mention goes to David Goodsell for an extremely accessible introduction to molecular biology, but the tour de force on this list is Brian Silver’s the Ascent of Science. A beast of a book (2.7lbs of science!), it takes you in incredible detail from Pythagoras and the early discoveries, through false hypotheses and debates to the Quantum physics revolution.  If you only read one science book next year, read this one. If you only read two, read this one again.

Miscellaneous

Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar

Flash Boys by Michael Lewis

The Story-telling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall

Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite by William Deresiewicz

The Ape and the Sushi Master by Frans De Wall

The Meaning of Human Existence by Edward O. Wilson

On Writing Well by William Zinsser

Barbarians at the Gate is an essential piece of business history that should act as a caveat for all those whose commitment to winning continues even when the prize is no longer worth the effort. Excellent Sheep reads as very much the polemic, but don’t let that put you off. It is a caustic look at how our elite education system is failing our society.

My Books of 2013

I missed my goal by four and read 56 books in 2013. Some I had to struggle through for a month (I’m looking at you Advertising Media Planning) and others left me speechless at their brilliance. I’ve put an asterisk next to the books I particularly recommend and given short notes about those and a selection of the other books on this list. (Disclosure: after being berated by my wife for not doing so last year, the Amazon links here are affiliate ones, do with that what you will)

Biography and History

Walden by Henry Thoreau

Benjamin Franklin by Walter Isaacson

*The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris

Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow

*General of the Army by Ed Cray

Are we Rome by Cullen Murphy

The Washington and Franklin biographies were both enjoyable reads, though I left with a poorer impression of Washington and a better impression of Franklin. However, the two biographies I enjoyed most were Morris’ biography of the early career of Theodore Roosevelt which indelibly shows you that you could be doing more in any given day than you are and Ed Cray’s biography of General George Marshall, which was truly excellent. Marshall is probably the greatest leader and manager of the 20th century and I took hundreds of notes.

Business

AntiFragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Different by Youngme Moon

*The Essential Drucker by Peter Drucker

Advertising Media Planning by Roger Baron

*The Feiner Points of Leadership by Michael Feiner

Competition Demystified by Bruce Greenwald

The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz

*Good Boss, Bad Boss by Robert Sutton

If you want to get the core of pretty much every subsequent business book ever written, read Drucker. Everyone else is just repeating him. With that caveat, the Feiner and Sutton books were interesting guides to becoming better at being a manager (something I sorely need), while the Power of Full Engagement (yes a blech title) essentially told me to eat and sleep better. Taleb once again scared me away from investing in the stock market and Greenwald had me spellbound with his book on strategy up until he started saying Steve Job’s attempt to reinvent Apple was doomed.

Fiction & essays 

The Braindead Megaphone by George Saunders

Tenth of December by George Saunders

Pastoralia by George Saunders

*Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin

The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe

Phules Company & Phules Paradise by Robert Asprin

*The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts by Louis De Bernieres

*Señor Vivo and the Coca Lord by Louis de Bernieres

*The Troublesome OffSpring of Cardinal Guzman by Louis de Bernieres

The Magicians & The Magician King by Lev Grossman

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

The Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

*The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

Dune by Frank Herbert

All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Even Cowgirls get the Blues by Tom Robbins

Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas by Tom Robbins

Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates by Tom Robbins

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

*The Wicked Wallflower and Wallflower Gone Wild by Maya Rodale

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

Indecent Exposure by Tom Sharpe

If you haven’t read de Berniere’s South American trilogy, stop what you are doing and do so immediately. They are funny, sexy and magical. The Art of Fielding made me give a shit about Baseball for the first time and Winter’s Tale was one of those books that makes you realize you will never be as good a writer as Helprin (here’s hoping they don’t screw up the movie). Maya Rodale (ahem, the missus) captivated with wonderful romances in a brand new series too.

Philosophy

*The Inner Citadel: the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius by Pierre Hadot

*Philosophy as a Way of Life by Pierre Hadot

The Bed of Procrustes by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Musonius Rufus on How to Live edited by Ben White

*Dialogues and Essays by Seneca

Epicureanism at the Origins of Modernity by Catherine Wilson

If you are at all interested in Marcus Aurelius, Hadot’s book is a tour de force. In fact, just read everything Hadot has ever written. Seneca is always good value too.

Science, Psychology and Sociology

Drive by Daniel Pink

The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli

A Universe from Nothing by Lawrence Krauss

*The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean

The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

The Disappearing Spoon was a wonderful tour through my weakest area of science: chemistry. It made a subject I’d always avoided come alive.

Apocrypha

*The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker

How Not to Write a Novel by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman

*The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallway

Books tome is a beast but it puts forward one heck of a framework for understanding the common threads through English literature. I only care about tennis for two weeks of the year, so thankfully the Inner Game of Tennis was much more about performance and mental composure than anything else, it’s well worth a read even if you hate tennis.

My Books of 2012

Here are the books that devoured my weekends and early mornings this year.

Fiction

I loved Tom Robbins and Gillian Flynn this year, but didn’t see the fuss about Hilary Mantel and Wolf Hall. I relished every perfect morsel of Saki’s short stories for the sheer craft that they displayed. Old favourites such as Wilt and Flashman were returned to and still gave every bit as much enjoyment as when I first read them and I was privileged to read Maya Rodale’s fabulous romances before publication.

Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins

Villa Incognito by Tom Robbins

Still Life with Woodpecker by Tom Robbins

Flashman by George Macdonald Fraser

The Tattooed Duke By Maya Rodale

Seducing Mr Knightly by Maya Rodale

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

1Q84 by Haruki Murukami

The Vanished Man by Jeffrey Deaver

Wilt by Tom Sharpe

The Last Coyote by Michael Connelly

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Dark Places: A novel by Gillian Flynn

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett

Dodger by Terry Pratchett

Year Zero by Rob Reid

In One Person by John Irving

A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers

The Complete Short Stories of Saki by Saki

The Racketeer by John Grisham (audiobook)

Business

The Modern Firm and The Future of Management both gave good introductions to the new style of organisational design that is outcompeting traditional command-and-control structures. Predictable Revenue was an excellent introduction to how Salesforce built their inside sales team. Andy Grove is always good value and Marshall Goldsmith’s book was wonderful for its sheer applicability to some of the challenges I’m facing today.

The Future Arrived Yesterday: The Rise of the Protean Corporation by Michael Malone

HBR’s 10 Must-reads on Managing Yourself by Harvard Business School

Little Bets by Peter Sims

On Becoming a Leader by Warren Bennis

Predictable Revenue by Aaron Ross

CEOFlow by Aaron Ross

The Seven Day Weekend by Ricardo Semler

The Halo Effect by Phil Rosenzweig

Business Without Bosses by Charles Manz & Henry Sims

The Modern Firm by John Roberts

Making Things Work: Solving Complex Problems by Yaneer Bar-Yam

The Machine that Changed the World by James Womack

Joy at Work by Dennis Bakke

Only the Paranoid Survive by Andy Grove

Open Book Management by John Case

So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport

The Future of Management by Gary Hamel and Bill Breen

What Got You Here Won’t Get You There by Marshall Goldsmith

Design

Everyone should read Donald Norman, it will make you look at the world differently and become more frustrated with door handles.

The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman

Designing for Emotion by Aaron Walter

History & Biography

I loved every history book I read this year. Stephen Clarke taught me something new about England’s relations with France when I thought I had a pretty good grasp on the rosbif-frog rivalry. The Swerve was a nice introduction to Lucretius and just how wonderful the ancient world was. A World on Fire was a wonderfully different perspective on the civil war and Crisis in Bethlehem shed new light on a town I spend a lot of time in these days. Finally David Bodanis tells the wonderful story of Emilie du Chatelet and Voltaire with aplomb: a must for any woman struggling in a male-dominated scientific establishment.

1000 Years of Annoying the French by Stephen Clarke

The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt

The Art of War by Sun Tzu (Baron de Jomini version)

A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War by Amanda Foreman

Crisis in Bethlehem by John Strohmeyer

Life of Marcus Cato the Elder by Plutarch

Passionate Minds: Emilie du Chatelet,  Voltaire and the Great Love Affair of the Enlightenment by David Bodanis

Philosophy/Religion

My interest in stoicism led me to explore Zen buddhism, Taoism and Shinto this year and I was fascinated by the parallels between Zen and Stoicism in particular. Alan Watts was a fantastic introduction to Zen and a superb writer and Seneca was a great compass to follow.

Darwin’s Worms: On Life Stories and Death Stories by Adam Phillips

Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel

One Arrow, One Life: Zen, Archery and Enlightenment by Kenneth Kushner

The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts

The Spirit of Zen by Alan Watts

What is Zen? by Alan Watts

Letters from a Stoic by Lucius Annaeus Seneca

The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff

The Te of Piglet by Benjamin Hoff

Zen Mind, Beginners Mind by Shunryo Suzuki

Shinto: the Kami Way by Sokyo Ono

Science

Astrophysics blew my mind this year and Neil DeGrasse Tyson was my dealer of choice. If you ever truly want to feel in awe of our universe, you should read his books. I also continued my interest in Ant and Bee colony development and found the Superorganism tough going but rewarding.

Death by Black Hole by Neil DeGrasse Tyson

Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution by Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Donald Goldsmith

The Higgs Discovery by Lisa Randall

The Superorganism by E.O. Wilson and Bert Holldobler

Honeybee Democracy by Thomas Seeley

Psychology/Sociology/The Internets

Thinking Fast and Slow had a huge impact in making me rethink the way in which I make decisions and how I can better engage my System 2 thinking. Taleb was at his grumpy best and Johnson is always thoughtful and diverting.

Too Big to Know by David Weinberger

Emergence by Steven Johnson

Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahnemen

The Invisible Gorilla by Christopher Chabris

Fooled by Randomness by Nicholas Nassim Taleb

The Nature of Economies by Jane Jacobs

Miscellaneous

I’ve been a Hitchens fan for years but it’s only when I read his collected essays that I realised the sheer breadth of his learning and intellect. What a tragic loss.

Out of our Minds: Learning to be Creative by Ken Robinson

Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens

The Art of Being Unreasonable by Eli Broad

When You are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris

 

2011 in Books

In 2011, 41 books taught, challenged and entertained me (down from 43 in 2010, a worrying trend). This was how it played out.

Philsophy

Straw dogs by John Gray
The Enchiridion by Epictetus
The Writings of Musonius Rufus translated by Cynthia King

Straw Dogs was recommended to me by a close friend and it was a book I promptly disagreed with. Its central thesis was that man was still a slave to animal passions and thus, still ruled by violence, had not advanced in any way. I contrast that with the world I see in which slowly, painfully we have consistently enlarged our circle of care from family to tribe to include those who would have once been persecuted for beliefs and practices foreign to ourselves. It is imperfect and unevenly distributed, but, particularly if you read Orlando Figes on the casual brutality of pre-revolution Russian peasantry, that any part of the world we live in today is utterly different to that horror says something about our ability to progress.

Epictetus and Musonius Rufus have had more effect on me than any other writers I think I have ever read. Their outline of stoicism is something I had begun to delve into last year and now consider to be core principles to abide by. As with all philosophy, one should not just put on the full mantle of stoicism without questioning or challenging its parts (and some parts do invite challenge), but as a pathway to a more honourable, happier life it has been supremely valuable. I’d recommend William Irvine’s a Guide to the Good Life as a great introduction to stoicism.

Strategy

Competitive Strategy by Michael Porter
Good, Strategy, Bad Strategy by Richard Rumelt
The Strategy Paradox by Michael Raynor

Michael Porter’s classic is incredibly dense with useful information and perspective, so much so that it can occasionally become a challenging read. It’s hugely important for understanding the importance of where you are in your industry with regard to its evolution and your competitors. One of the most enlightening and refreshing concepts was that strategy within an industry is often ideally about making moves that do not have a negative impact on your competitors; negative impacts = retaliation = diminishing margins. Porter’s work also ties nicely in with my stoic reading as his exhortation that the key to every company is that it live in harmony with its industry and environment is almost word for word the mantra of stoicism that man should live in accordance with nature.

In contrast to Porter’s heavy prose, Rumelt’s Good Strategy, Bad Strategy is beautifully written and accessible. It is also iconoclastic and brilliant. Rumelt dismisses most companies mission statements and vision as just so much indistinguishable blather; instead he asks that we focus on the kernel of good strategy: diagnosis of the environment, development of guiding principles and a coherent set of actions that spring from these principles. Michael Raynor’s Strategy Paradox is fascinating, particularly for its placement of uncertainty at the core of managing strategy. He points out that those strategies with the greatest profit potential exist at the edges of the cost leadership-product differentiation continuum. These same strategies are also those most vulnerable to uncertainty and disaster. If his formulations for overcoming this seem less concrete than his diagnosis, it merely exemplifies the seriousness of the challenge.

Sales

SPIN Selling by Neil Rackham
The Leaky Funnel by Hugh Marcfarlane
Sales and Marketing the Six Sigma way by Michael Webb

Rackham’s classic is one of the few sales books based on actual data rather than personal anecdote. It draws upon data gathered from 35,000 sales people to piece together the components of successful sales. It’s dismissive of the aggressive close techniques taught elsewhere and I’ve made it required reading for my sales team. The Leaky Funnel takes a ‘business book as novel’ approach to teach its message. It’s interesting in the way it focuses on the connection of sales to the rest of the business entity and is a fast read.

Sales and Marketing the Six Sigma Way is interested in sales in a far more macro fashion than SPIN selling and as such is a useful complement. It was the book that helped me to better understand the function of marketing and how much of successful sales is structural rather than based upon personal ability.

History

Lies my Teacher Told Me by James Loewen
Skunkworks by Ben Rich
Gotham: a History of NYC to 1898 by Mike Wallace
Where Good ideas Come From by Steven Johnson

Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From and Rich’s Skunkworks both delve into the history of innovation; Johnson looking at the factors that come together behind innovative advances and Rich giving a detailed history of his time leading the original Skunkworks at Lockheed. However, the beasts that blew me away this year were Gotham and Lies my teacher told me. Be warned Gotham is gigantic, but as a book that constantly surprised and taught me about my adopted city it is highly recommended to every New Yorker. Whenever I think that the pace of startups is frenetic, I can reflect on just how recent so much of New York is and the incredible pace with which it was built would put almost every modern entrepreneur to shame.

Lies my teacher told me takes aim at the way school textbooks have burnished lesser men into heroes and fudged facts in order to get the nod from partisan school boards. Among other things, it outlines the atrocities of Christopher Columbus and the veil that has been drawn for so many over the origins of the civil war (yes, it was principally about slavery, not states rights). Give it to your children and watch them lay down some knowledge on their high-school history teachers.

Management and Organisation

High Output Management by Andy Grove
The Goal: A Process of ongoing improvement by Eli Goldratt
The Fractal Organisation by Patrick Hoverstadt
The Balanced Scorecard by Robert Kaplan

High Output Management is a great practical read for management at all levels. It lays into the problem of co-ordination between departments while ensuring knowledgeable management and makes a good case for a matrix reporting structure within organisations. It also doles out advice on people management that I have found helpful over the last year. The Goal is, like the Leaky Funnel, a business book written as a novel and succeeds well in its mission. It focuses on the Theory of Constraints and condenses the problem of businesses down to Throughput, Inventory and Operational expense. It’s obviously aimed at bricks and mortar industry but I found the lessons valuable for my own more ephemeral business.

The Balanced Scorecard was a whitepaper with 200 too many pages in it, though maybe my harsh judgement comes from the fact that its focus is on far larger businesses than I am involved with. I had high hopes for the Fractal Organisation that were immediately tarnished by the churlish tone the author adopted in his introduction, however looking beyond that there were good nuggets of information around the problems that organisations find when facing the need to adapt to environments of greater and greater complexity.

(Auto)Biography

Scott’s Last Expedition: Journal by Robert Falcon Scott
Big Dead Place by Nicholas Johnson
Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
Adland by James Othmer

The debate over Scott’s expedition to the Antarctic still rages, and I’ve read my fair share of the combatants around this, but nothing gave me the same insight as Scott’s own words. His passion for science and his essential humanity burn through and his last words to his family are choking. Johnson’s Big Dead Place gives the alternate view of Antarctica: that of the life of modern day base workers. It’s a highly engaging book that suggests that whatever scientific purpose is proclaimed by the Antarctic authorities, it is stifling bureaucracy (and alcohol) that rules in the south.

The Steve Jobs biography has been dissected by others and we don’t need another one here. Othmer’s Adland was not quite what I expected and thus I got the sense I was reading it for the wrong reasons. Nevertheless it is an engaging look at one man’s journey through the advertising world; here be dragons.

Fiction

Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny
Skinny Legs and All by Tom Robbins
The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins
Snuff by Terry Pratchett
The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connolly
The Drop by Michael Connolly
11/22/63 by Stephen King

Lord of Light is a classic fantasy I return to at least once a year, and I am fooled into believing I know more about hinduism than I really do every time. What comes through Michael Connolly’s books is his expert grasp of the minutiae of his subjects; this is a guy who knows the LA crime beat. I read the entire Hunger Games Trilogy in one evening, which testifies to its popcorn readability; it was fascinating to see how Collins had brought together utterly disparate worlds with ease (think Project Runway meets Deliverance). Snuff was, as always with Pratchett, a diverting read but not up to par with some of his other discworld novels and 11/22/63 was both a fascinating meditation on time travel and paean to the late 50s and a simpler time.

I finished the year on Skinnny Legs and All by Tom Robbins and it was the best work of fiction I read all year. A fascinating look at art, the divine Goddess and the Middle East conflict.

Startups

Lessons Learned by Eric Ries
Venture Deals by Brad Feld and Jason Mendelson

Lessons learned is a compendium of Eric Ries’ blog posts and is full of useful lessons that are probably more ably organised in his latest book. Venture Deals is a useful primer, but if you’re interested in this kind of stuff I would highly recommend The Entrepreneurs Guide to Business Law by Bagley and Dauchy as a more comprehensive read.

Miscellany

Liars Poker by Michael Lewis
Moneyball by Michael Lewis
Be the Pack Leader by Cesar Millan
Naval Miscellany by Angus Konstam
The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
A Geography of Time by Robert Levine
Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You by Marcus Chown
Talent is overrated by Geoff Colvin
Everything is Obvious (once you know the answer) by Duncan Watts

I won’t go into detail here about all of these. Everything is Obvious was a fascinating look at how we deal with information and The Hero with a Thousand Faces drew some fascinating parallels around our various myths and legends. Michael Lewis is always good value and my wife swears that she keeps me in line with the lessons from Cesar Millan’s books.

 

Looking at these books it feels like this year was dominated by me trying to understand my business better and myself better. I hope I can put what I’ve learned here effectively into practice.

2010 in Books

These are the books that kept me company and taught me in 2010:

Business

  • Four Steps to the Epiphany: Steve Blank
  • The Checklist Manifesto: Atul Garawande
  • The Innovators Dilemma: Clayton Christensen
  • The Innovators Solution: Clayton Christensen
  • Positioning: Al Ries
  • Lean Thinking: James Womack/Daniel Jones
  • Perfect Pitch: Jon Steel
  • Complete Guide to Accelerating Sales Force Performance: Andris Zoltners/Prabhakant Sinha
  • Principles of Product Development Flow: Donald Reinertsen
  • Hacking Work: Josh Klein
  • The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing: Al Ries

If I’d only read one of these books it would be Steve Blank’s, though the books I found myself quoting most were Clayton Christensen’s. Lean Thinking was one of my honeymoon books and got me thinking about my business in a totally different way. Perfect Pitch confirmed all my biases against powerpoint.

Design

  • The Art of Game Design: Jesse Schell
  • The Inmates are Running the Asylum: Alan Cooper
  • Serious Play: Michael Schrage

Jesse Schell taught me about the importance of balancing game mechanics; Alan Cooper’s book was great in many ways but also showed its age in a world of agile methodologies.

History

  • The Ascent of Money: Niall Ferguson
  • Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia: Michael Korda
  • Team of Rivals: Doris Kearns Goodwin

Team of Rivals was another awesome Honeymoon book that gave me some insight into how to manage a team, Michael Korda’s Lawrence of Arabia biography shone a largely uncritical light on Lawrence but was a comprehensive account of his life and achievements.

Fiction

  • The Count of Monte Cristo: Alexander Dumas
  • The Broken Window: Jeffrey Deaver
  • Unseen Academicals: Terry Prathchett
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Stieg Larssen
  • The Girl Who Played with Fire: Stieg Larssen
  • The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest: Stieg Larssen
  • The Burning Wire: Jeffrey Deaver
  • Breakfast of Champions: Kurt Vonnegut
  • Siddhartha: Herman Hesse
  • The Diamond Age: Neal Stephenson
  • Juliet, Naked: Nick Hornby
  • A Man in Full: Tom Wolfe

Stieg Larrsen’s series were read over the course of four days so I think I must have liked them a lot, but the best fiction books for me were The Diamond Age and A Man in Full (part of my minor stoic obsession).

Philosophy/Psychology/Religion

  • A Guide to the Good life, The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy: William Irvine
  • Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot: James Stockdale
  • Flow: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
  • The Evolution of God: Robert Wright

Irvine provided a great intro to stoicism, while the Evolution of God put our beliefs in their proper historical framework. Flow is simply amazing for anyone wanting to understand how to get things done and be happy doing it.

Science

  • E=MC2: David Bodanis
  • Electric Universe: David Bodanis
  • Physics for Future Presidents: Richard A Muller
  • The Grand Design: Stephen Hawking
  • Bursts: Alberto Lazlo Barbasi

E=MC2 and Physics for Future Presidents were the clear winners here. Bursts was intermittently interesting but spoiled by the shoehorning of pointless narrative. Hawking blew my mind but I started to understand less as the book went on.

Apocrypha

  • The Intellectual Devotional: David Kidder
  • Amusing Ourselves to Death: Neil Postman
  • Becoming a Writer: Dorothea Brande
  • The Black Swan: Nassim Nicholas Taleb
  • I live in the Future: Nick Bilton

Amusing ourselves to Death kicked off my year totally changing my position on how we build for the Internet and what it means. The Black Swan provided great material for a future talk. The Intellectual Devotional is the best bathroom book out there and I learned from Nick Bilton that I apparently live in the Future too.

The Blank Slate

Blank Slate by Stephen Pinker is one of those books that you should never read before heading out to meet friends. Quite pleasant conversations about gardening or sports will be interrupted by a diatribe as you attempt to explain the mind-blowing chapter you have just read. This will inevitably lead to an argument as Pinker aims both barrels at the post-modern politically-correct world, ignites the data-driven gunpowder and unleashes some scientific buckshot.

Pinker’s principal beef is with the concept that man is born a blank slate and it is largely his environment that shapes and defines him. He argues that it is all very nice for us all to believe this and it means we can wax lyrical about our equality and ability to perfect man, but it just isn’t backed up by the evidence. Pinker argues that the vast weight of scientific research into the nature/nurture debate comes down heavily on the side of nature, and reports on the other side are often guilty of scientifically-biased wish fulfilment.

Pinker spends a large part of the first half of his book outlining and explaining this evidence, using examples from one scientist’s study of universal human behaviours, responses and mental characteristics (as widespread in Mongolia as in Manhattan) to the classic experiments with twins who have been separated at birth. Apparently, twins in this case often meet in later life to find themselves both owning the same tie, whistling the same song and having married similar women at roughly the same age. Their personalities, while not set in stone, were largely formed before they had even left the womb.

Moreover, people who have suffered damage in specific parts of their brain often have completely changed personalities as a result. The experience of Phineas Gage is a classic example of this. Pinker’s evidence is largely boiled down to a set of ‘laws’ of the mind. The principal one of which is that your genes are responsible for at least 50% of your personality and play a far more weighty role than your environment. This is not to say that we have no control over our personality, nor that our environment plays no part. Merely that they play a far lesser role than previously realised.

So far, so interesting. But Pinker really gets going in the second half of the book when he applies this learning to various fields from crime to politics to the arts. Are children who grow up in a violent household more likely to be violent because of the environment they were raised in or because they have inherited the genes for violence from their parents? Or to put it another way, all those parenting books that say that parents who smother their children with affection will raise affectionate children might just be talking rubbish if affectionate people are genetically predisposed to have affectionate kids and more distant parents are genetically predisposed to have distant kids. In this case, how parents act with their kids has far less impact than many parents believe.

The argument holds true across a range of subjects as Pinker takes on our political beliefs, feminism, racism and our thoughts on art. Some may think Pinker oversteps his mark, and I am certainly not doing his argument justice here, but to me this was a powerful explanation of why we are the way we are and it sets out an optimistic view of the future for all that it is set in hard realities.

Self Reliance and other Essays

Self RelianceEvery man is an impossibility, until he is born; everything impossible, until we see a success.’ Ralph Waldo Emerson rocks. I’d read about Emerson in Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club and made a note to find out more about this polymath of the 19th Century. Reading his essays on Self Reliance, History and his controversial address to the Harvard Divinity School is a brain-searing experience.

Emerson, a minister himself, was the ultimate non-conformist. He argued that relying on the words of another, be they priest or parent, was a barrier rather than a bridge to God. ‘Yet see what strong intellects dare not yet hear God himself, unless he speak the phraseology of I know not what David or Jeremiah or Paul. We shall not set so great a price on a few texts, or on a few lives.’ If we are merely repeating what we learn without engaging our own intellect, without searching for God on our own terms, then our beliefs have nothing to do with a true knowledge of God but instead are based on whatever we happen to learn and interpret from those around us, who likewise learned their lessons by rote from their elders.

Emerson also had little time for a strict reliance on the Bible, he felt that it kept Christianity in stasis forever looking backward. “The stationariness of religion, the assumption that the age of inspiration is past, that the Bible is closed. . . indicate with sufficient clearness the falsehood of our theology. It is the office of a true teacher to show us that God is, not was; that he speaketh, not spake.” Instead he saw a living, personal relationship with God independent of others’ thoughts or intervention as the only possible course.

Emerson’s views ranged further than just religion, promoting the importance of action as the true measure of man. He urges us to challenge everything, to accept no idea as fact until we have explored it ourselves, but at the same time to see the unity inherent in the world. To trust ourselves to be our own taskmaster, to follow our own star and act as we would in solitude when among the crowds, this is his lesson and I would embrace it wholeheartedly were it not for a sneaking suspicion that Emerson’s spirit would disapprove of my implicit acceptance of his words without challenge. . . .

The Invisible People

The Invisible People“A century from now, when historians write about our era, one question will dwarf all others, and it won’t be about finance or politics or even terrorism. The question will be, simply, how could our rich and civilised society allow a known and beatable enemy to kill millions of people.” This is the question Greg Behrman seeks to highlight in his compelling and incisive book The Invisible People: How the US has slept through the Global AIDS pandemic, the greatest humanitarian catastrophe of our time.

As you can tell from the title, Behrman does not pull any punches. Cutting back and forth through time as we follow key characters in the struggle against the burgeoning pandemic, Behrman shows how time and time again chances were missed to do something constructive about the catastrophe that is Global AIDS. Reagan’s conservative distaste for ‘the gay plague’, Clinton’s empathy but almost total inaction, and the bureaucratic infighting that repeatedly stymied attempts to do something, anything. As each chance was missed, millions more were infected, millions more were orphaned and millions more died.

I’d always known about AIDS in an abstract sense, known that there were high infection rates in Africa (where my father was born), but it had never truly hit home until I read this book. I have spent my life living through a holocaust and have for the large part ignored it. I can’t do that anymore. I’ve talked to Ben and we are going to try and find some way to raise funds and awareness for the Global AIDS movement when we go for SOUTH. Our expeditions give us a voice and it is time we used it.

For all those who think that AIDS is under control, imagine this. Imagine your child being born already infected with a death sentence. Imagine every third person you see being infected with HIV. Imagine 5-6 million people dying of AIDS in the next two years. Imagine, in fact, that you live in Sub-Saharan Africa. One day our children will ask us what we did about the Holocaust in Africa, let’s hope we have an answer.

Donate to the Global Aids Fund here.

The Metaphysical Club

 

The MetaPhysical ClubI was a bit of a late bloomer when it comes to philosophy. I think the first book that really got me thinking about the subject (if we don’t count Dawkin’s Selfish Gene, which got me thinking about everything) was A.C. Grayling’s What is Good?, a superb and accessible read. Since then, I’ve been following the philosophical breadcrumbs and taking a rather haphazard approach to the whole business. However, recently the fantastically funny and thought-provoking Emily Levine told me that I had to read The Metaphysical Club, a Pulitzer-Prize winning book by Louis Menand.

The Metaphysical Club tells the story of pragmatism, possibly the greatest American contribution to philosophy, through the lives of some of its key characters. Beginning with the Supreme Court judge and civil war veteran Oliver Wendell Holmes and weaving in the Logician Charles Pierce, the Psychologist-Philosopher William James, Jane Addams (known as the first social worker) and the Polymath John Dewey.

It is an incredibly elegant book, interweaving the various stories of its protagonists with skill and subtlety. One gets a decent idea of pragmatism’s meaning and importance, but Menand also places the philosophy and its leading lights squarely in their historical context, showing how the civil war and the religious battles of the day influenced pragmatism’s development. The Metaphysical club also gave me a small introduction into the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who is someone I intend to delve far more deeply into. The book is rich in beautiful quotes and I’ll leave you with one by Oliver Wendell Holmes that seems appropriate to my line of work too:

No man has earned the right to intellectual ambition until he has learned to lay his course by a star which he has never seen—to dig by the divining rod for springs which he may never reach…. Make your study heroic, for to think great thoughts you must be heroes as well as idealists. Only when you have worked alone—when you have felt around you a black gulf of solitude more isolating than that which surrounds the dying man, and in hope and in despair have trusted to your own unshaken will—then only will you have achieved...”

Brilliant.