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2016 reading challenge

This post originally appeared on Medium on 7th November 2016. I’ve attempted to post it with that date here as well.

Recently I finished my Goodreads.com reading challenge for 2016, so here’s some lists of the best books I’ve read this year.

It’s the second year I’ve set a goal for reading a certain number of books. Last year I went for a book a week?—?52?—?and passed it, so this year I set a goal of 66 books.

There are a number of reasons that I find it useful to have a goal. Mainly it is to do with micro-decisions and the way that measuring things nudges people toward a beahviour?—?well definitely myself?—?if it is measured.
Reading is one of my favourite things to do?—?for knowledge, for pleasure, for inspiration and development as a writer. But it’s easy to let the habit slide and have one’s time filled by work, TV and videogames. Setting a goal reminds me that it is a personal priority for me and gives me the satisfaction with each book I read that I’m moving towards it, and therefore doing what I want to do with my time, not what is easiest. We love to blame our smartphones and computers for inflicting on us the perils of distraction, but we can use them to help us focus too. The Goodreads and Kindle apps sit right on the front page of my iPhone?—?a reminder of what I really want to be doing with my time and attention.

I am considering a change of tactics for 2017?—?setting a goal at half or this year’s level. Part of the motivation for reading more is to develop my own writing, and I could set a creative writing (thousands of words, or completed stories / chapters) challenge for the year instead.

The luxury of having finished two months’ ahead of schedule is that I can spend some time trying out different ways of reading and writing and see what works for me. I’m also re-reading old favourites, now that I’m off the clock, as it were.

One recent tool that may help with the writing goal is the wonderfully addictive Flowstate app. It asks you to set a time limit?—?from five to 180 minutes and once you start writing it will not let you stop. If you stop for five seconds all of your writing starts to disappear and then?—?ping!?—?it’s all gone. It’s slightly terrifying, and I’ve only tried it in five minute bursts so far, but it seems to work well to get the words flowing out of me.

Anyway?—?that’s enough tangent?—?let’s take a look at the best books I’ve read so far this year….

Non-fiction

I’m pleased that there’s a mixed field in non-fiction this year. I’d like to read more, but for writerly reasons, reading fiction is my priority, and it’s also just a lot more common to find a book you can’t put down that’s fiction than not.

  1. A First Rate Madness , by Nassir Ghaemi. The author takes a psychological view of leadership and makes a compelling case for what we think of as mental illness sometimes being a benefit for leaders, especially in times of crisis. He also develops a fascinating theme of the danger of likeable, average people (his term is homoclytes ) in leadership roles when the chips are down. The book is gripping and thought provoking from a historical, psychological and social point of view in the questions that it raises. Next time you hear someone referring to a politician or corporate leader as crazy, you might start wondering if the problem is that they are frightening “normal”.
  2. The Witches: Salem 1692, by Stacy Schiff. It took me all year to finish this book?—?I tend to have multiple books on the go at any one time?—?but I’d happily read it again. A deeply researched and beautifully written account of the bizarre social phenomenon of the Salem witch trials. We are taken through the crisis and out the the other side and an aftermath where the Salem community and wider New England commonwealth had to deal with the consequences of having, on the word of a group of extremely unreliable witnesses, brutally killed and imprisoned women, men and children. The facts are startling and fascinating, and the vivid picture of the mental landscape of the Puritan settlers that Schiff paints is gripping.
  3. The Pigeon Tunnel, by John Le Carré. A gorgeous book of anecdotes and tales from the author’s life. From weird lunch dates with Rupert Murdoch and taking German diplomats to a Mayfair brothel, to meeting Arafat, Russian gangsters and central African war-lords, they are fascinating stories. It’s lovely to spend time with an author’s mind, outside of their novels?—?and Le Carré’s is a rich, fascinating, beautiful and angry mind indeed.
  4. The View From The Cheap Seats , by Neil Gaiman. I’ve read less Neil Gaiman than Le Carré, but like the Pigeon Tunnel, this book was a real treat, an invitation backstage into a highly original author’s mind. I bought the audio and the Kindle text versions of both of these books, and enjoyed alternating between the two formats, allowing the author’s voice to come through strongly in every sense.
  5. A Room of One’s Own, by Virgina Woolf. Having read literature as a minor at university, it’s shameful that I have never read this book until now. In case you don’t know, it is an essay based on lectures she gave at Oxford in the 1920s, a voice from the beginning of feminism, a writer explaining their needs, and putting into historical context why women had contributed so little to literature. (Spoiler, because they never had a bloody chance.)

Business

Business books were thinner on the ground for me this year than previously?—?partly this is because I re-read some, and others, like Scaling Up, held my attention for months on end. Others, like Zero to One, Flourish and Smarter, Faster, Better were interesting but not remarkable enough to make this list of highlights. Remarkable business books now have to beat a high standard to grab my attention now?—?I’d rather be reading about writers, history or psychology than management, unless someone has something very original and useful to say on the subject.

  1. How To Have A Good Day, by Caroline Webb. Caroline is a friend, and I knew this book would be good, but it massively exceeded my expectations. The product of four years of research, the book is grounded in the latest scientific evidence about how our minds work. Caroline takes the academic insights and applies them to how we live our daily lives. She believes that we can be all be more effective if we understand a little more about how our brains work, are happier and have better days. A simple proposition, a complex truth, usefully presented to the reader.
  2. Shoe Dog , by Phil Knight. As business yarns go, this is one of the best?—?passion, derring-do and epic (in the scope of the company’s eventual achievements). The founder of Nike takes you through the travails of trying to break into a market where brands like adidas had an apparently unshakeable grip, with a combination of innovation, bravery and chutzpah. As business books go, this one’s almost a thriller.
  3. Superforecasting, by Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner. This is an intensely practical book that changed the way that I think about?—?and talk about with colleagues?—?the future and the likelihood that one thing or another will come to pass. I loved it so much I was seriously considering taking Maths A level to up my numeracy at one point. After reading this you will have a better mind?—?a few more tools that will help you think more clearly. Well worth the price and the time to digest it.
  4. Team of Teams, by General Stanley McChrystal. The general and his new consultancy team are laying out their wares in this book, which deals with the challenge of leadership and management in a world characterised by complexity and networks (see Eric Beinhocker’s The Origin of Wealth for the best primer I’ve read on complex adaptive systems and markets). McChrystal adapted the way that joint special forces in Iraq responded to the networked threat from Al Qaeda and ISIS?—?and has practical advice for any organisation looking to become more responsive.
  5. Scaling Up, by Verne Hamish. I started reading this book in 2015 and applied a great of its lessons to the business plan for my company in 2016. It is profoundly useful book for management teams and leaders of growing businesses and I think it and The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz?—?which I re-read at least once this year?—?have been the two most useful books to me as a CEO. More than just recommending them, I am very grateful to the authors of both.

Fiction

Lastly, the joy, the delight of my favourite fiction books this year. They are not in any particular order as each of these was a very special experience for me in its own way.

  1. The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. I started the year off on New Year’s Day with the Goldfinch, a kind of statement of intent for the year. It’s a huge book, but it sucked me right in with its plot, and kept me there with the incredible characters and sense of place that Tartt evokes. So richly drawn are the settings that they felt more like memories to me than fictional spaces.
  2. A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James. I listened and read to this book in sprints. As there are so many characters, each with a very distinct and patterned voice, I got into the habit of listening to the Audible book at the start of a chapter to tune in to the character. This book is fresh, exhilarating and visceral. Listening to one passage while I walked along the street my jaw literally dropped in shock at the violence being described.
  3. Bring Up the Bodies , by Hilary Mantel. I’d tried and failed to get into Wolf Hall and Bringing Up the Bodies, but the BBC dramatisation pushed me into trying again and this time it stuck like sealing wax on a royal warrant. Simply incredible.
  4. The Heart Goes Last , by Margaret Atwood. It was an Atwood-heavy year for me?—?I preferred this book to the Oryx and Crake trilogy (although that was definitely enjoyable too). It is the story of a couple who, caught in a bad recession, are living in their car when they hear an advert for people to join a new model community, where people live one month in and one month out of prison. Dark, fun and mind-bending, as you’d hope.
  5. Six Four, by Hideo Yokoyama. One of the few crime books I read this year, and it was a beauty. The tension is as much around the social conventions and customs in Japanese society and the politics of the police force as the murder mystery at the heart of it. Having visited Tokyo last year, it brought back the feel of the place wonderfully. And a really different, engrossing take on the detective genre.
  6. The Night Manager, by John Le Carré. Funnily enough, another book read on the back of a brilliant BBC adaptation. Different enough to fascinate as a tale in its own right, it’s a wonderful read.
  7. Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee. [From my Goodreads review:] At first this book is all joy, as we return to Scout’s world. With her we see its changes, and then with her we are challenged and pummelled by uncomfortable shifts in perspective. The book starts like stepping into a summer’s day and ends with you nursing a punch to your jaw and thinking maybe you’re the wiser for it.
  8. The Power, by Naomi Alderman. Pow! It hits you in your centre mass and puts you on your back. Alderman’s question is “what would happen if women were more powerful than men?” Women discover they can give electric shocks that can incapacitate or kill men. And the world begins to change very quickly indeed. This is a greta story, the high concept never mishandled or clumsily deployed. It was written while Alderman was in a mentoring scheme with Margaret Atwood and there’s definite influences from the latter, while being very much a new (to me) and distinct voice.
  9. His Bloody Project, by Graeme Macrae Burnet. [From my Goodreads review:] Wow. What a wonderful book. In the style of an early novel, it comprises several documents, the longest being a personal account of a terrible crime by the protagonist, written from his jail cell. The story is set in a remote highland village, a claustrophobic community, brought vividly to life and death by Burnet’s deft prose. It’s different. Not difficultly or affectedly different, just original in composition (accepting the Gothic novel structure or the crime novel themes) and wholly satisfying as a story. I’d recommend to anyone. It’s an amazing read.

By Antony Mayfield

I'm Antony Mayfield - to find out more about me take a look at my LinkedIn profile (see the button on the home page). You can contact me by email at antony [dot] mayfield [at] gmail [dot] com.

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