Writing about what I read in the past twelve months has become an annual ritual, part of the seasonal no-man’s-land between Boxing Day and New Year’s Eve when we relax and reflect and get confused about what day of the week it is.
This year I read 59 books (at the time of writing, anyway). You can see all of them and along with ratings and reviews on my Goodreads profile if you like. I’ve selected a top 5 in each of three categories: fiction, non-fiction and business.
It’s difficult to pick out just five, especially in fiction. I’ve not included some books I enjoyed immensely, but these are the five
Fiction top five
A near-future Britain, the Island has been surrounded by a massive seawall that keeps out the Others, refugees from an otherwise mainly flooded world as the oceans rise. Young people have to do a kind of high stakes national service on the wall, repelling or killing anyone who tries to get in. If they fail to stop anyone, they are put to sea and lose their citizenship. There is intergenerational guilt — “OK, Boomer” played out — Johnsonesque politicians and all manner of echoes of now.
I read and listened to The Wall (and I’d highly recommend the audiobook, which is narrated by Will Poulter). It’s a simple, sad and short book, the story contained and precise — a stabbing punch to the gut.
The Wall stayed with me and reflected the mood of the year — of the last four years — living through the Brexit crisis in all its twisting manifestations and the gathering intensity of the climate emergency. Don’t let that put you off, though — it’s a great read.
The Wych Elm was the first book I read in 2019 and it was a brilliant start to a great year of fiction. Written in the first person, a young PR practitioner in Dublin tells his story, one that doesn’t so much have a twist as much a series of moments where it turns itself inside out and performs a similar exercise on your mind. The voice of the protagonist is beguiling and real, you are with him from a drunken night out through a long dark night for his soul and sense of self. But I’m making it sound profound and challenging — it’s a suspense mystery that is exactly as complex as you want to make it as the reader.
The Wych Elm reminded me of the best non-science fiction novels of Iain Banks, especially The Crow Road. It has a quality of being once read like one of your own memories. Now that’s a mark of a good book.
*Published as The Witch Elm in America. I know this because I got an American copy as it came out a few months later in the UK and I couldn’t wait.
The Handmaid’s Tale is like 1984 a book that made a huge wave when it was published but has grown in reputation and readership as it has aged and its warnings about the future have continued to resonate like an alarm bell that cannot be silenced. To write a sequel to a book that has taken on so much importance and a life — or lives, even — of its own is bold for the author and scary for the readers. What if she gets it wrong?
She didn’t. Taking an unexpected and wholly new perspective on the world of Gilead and the story, The Testaments was everything one might have hoped for from this book. My short review of the book on Goodreads was:
The HandMaid’s Tale is like 1984. You follow the victim protagonist through the dystopia as they survive and triumph or fall. The Testaments is like Wolf Hall, it is about politics and survival in a deadly regime. I heard Atwood say Cromwell was Henry VIII’s Aunt Lydia, and that stuck in my mind while reading some of this book.
Margaret Atwood is my favorite author of the my past decade’s reading. I’ve read more of her books than anyone else’s and become one that rare species, a heterosexual male Atwood fan. I was completely unaware of how rare this was until I went to see her at The Dome, a large theatre in Brighton where a thousand or more people had turned out to see her interviewed on stage. I bumped into ten or more friends at the bar before the event and in the interval. Not one was a man. During the Q&A from the audience, the lack of men there was discussed and laughed about, giving me a through-the-looking-glass glimpse of what it is like to be the ignored, invisible minority in a room. How apt.
Ian McEwan did something new for his writing with this book: speculative fiction. Machines Like Me is based in a counterfactual history of the 1980s, where Turing wasn’t arrested after the war for being gay and driven to suicide, and so was able to accelerate the information revolution, which results in super-smart missiles for the Falklands War and the first artificial intelligence-powered automatons for sale, among other things.
I wrote the following review:
My favourite Ian McEwan novel yet. The odd, parallel world it takes place is headily high concept, but never overpowers the central plot or the relationships between the sometimes machine-like humans and the sometimes human-like machine between them.
I look forward to reading it again. While I was reading it this time it pushed all my other reading to the sides and demanded all of my attention. It made me uncertain and unsettled and yet unable to do anything but keep reading.
Something there in common with all of my top five fiction books for 2019 — I would like to read all of them again.
An account of the John F Kennedy assassination, focusing on Lee Harvey Oswald. I picked it up after reading an interview with James Ellroy, who said it convinced him of the lone gunman theory where previously he had seen a conspiracy. The atmosphere and themes are close to Ellroy’s Underworld U.S.A. Trilogy. The terrible things emerge from a cross-hatch of small, selfish plots and plays by Mafiosi, CIA, FBI and assorted low-lives and one sad, lonely simpleton. The things that look like conspiracies in hindsight are accidents because the actual conspiracies never really achieve coherence.
Libra is the first DeLillo book I’ve read and I want to read more as soon as I can.
I’ll end this section with the opening paragraph of the book, which smacks you round the brain with an image of Oswald as a child, riding a subway train in New York:
This was the year he rode the subway to the ends of the city, two hundred miles of track. He liked to stand at the front of the first car, hands flat against the glass. The train smashed through the dark. People stood on local platforms staring nowhere, a look they’d been practising for years. He kind of wondered, speeding past, who they were. His body fluttered in the fastest stretches. They went so fast sometimes he thought they were on the edge of no-control. The noise was pitched to a level of pain he absorbed as a personal test. Another crazy-ass curve. There was so much iron in the sound of those curves he could almost taste it, like a toy you put in your mouth when you are little.
Non-fiction top five
What a book!
After reading an interview with Benjamin Dreyer, copy chief Random House, I knew I would love this book and ordered a copy from the United States. When the UK edition was published, I’ve got two more copies for our library at Brilliant Noise. Here’s what I wrote in my review:
I‘m not sure I’ve ever a style guide — and this is not quite that but close enough — from cover-to-cover before. Certainly, I’ve never enjoyed one as much as this. Dreyer gives us as much of his experience and advice about writing as he can get out of his head and onto the page. He’s clear about where there aren’t rules and where taste and style matter — and then lays down his taste like the law, but in such a charming and wry way that you will love it.
This is a book a joy for people who write a great deal — but I think that anyone with an interest in writing a little better than they do already would get a lot from this book, especially the first two thirds. The last third is more a reference work in list form of things to do or not to do.
I won’t read it from start to finish again, but I will be keeping a copy within arm’s reach of my desk at home and I’ve ordered one for our office library too. I have a feeling that one may not be enough there — it’s going to be in demand.
I note that a game based on the book will be out in the summer. I can’t wait…
An eight-hour non-negotiable window of opportunity to sleep, less caffeine and as little alcohol as you can. That’s the not-so-magic trick to getting more sleep, according to Matthew Walker, a sleep scientist and, it turns out, an excellent writer.
Sometimes I suffer from insomnia. Or at least I thought I did. As Walker broke down the problems with sleeping, I realised I may simply be sleep-deprived, and just need to be more consistent in how I go about getting sleep.
Whatever the issue is called. I’m interested in how to get more sleep and have read a fair few books on the subject. Many are patronising, poorly researched or — worst of all, scaremongering. Given how likely it is that someone reading a book about sleep may have trouble sleeping, a couple of chapters upfront about how bad for you a lack of sleep can be is thoughtless at best, cruel in the worst analysis.
Although there is a chapter on the effects of not getting enough sleep — I skipped it on my first reading — Walker describes sleeping more in such attractive terms that you become interested in getting more in a positive sense, as opposed to trying to avoid losing sleep. His descriptions of deep sleep as rich and nourishing are like a gifted food writer’s description of an exotic dish. It makes you want to rush out and buy it or make it and indulge in the delight of it. A sleep gourmand, a connoisseur of slumber — now that would be something to aspire to be…
Why We Sleep feels like it is written by the expert on the matter, a primary expert rather than a lifestyle journalist, not a sleep-coach, not a productivity guru, but a scientist who has dedicated their life to understanding sleep, and who gives us with a clear, engaging account of the state of scientific knowledge about sleep. Because of this, the book is deeply fascinating, fresh and useful.
Cognitive science and storytelling are both subjects that completely enthral me. I’ve read a couple of books that address the intersection of these subjects, but none have been as thrilling and inspiring as The Science of Storytelling. Will Storr teaches a writing course, which seems to be well admired. He’s taken everything from that course and then dived deep into the field of neuroscience to understand the detail of what happens to our brains when we hear a story — why it is so satisfying, so compelling to hear a story that we seek them out constantly and when we hear a good one are completely transfixed.
This is a book that is particularly useful to writers, but since we all use and consume stories as part of our daily lives, it could be interesting to anyone.
Many books on this list are ones I found it hard to stop reading once I started. As I read several books at the same time, the sign that I’ve found something really special is often that all the others are set aside for a few days while I focus completely on the one text.
That wasn’t the case with 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. At first, it felt like a series of essays. Less compelling than Harari’s two previous books’ grand narratives about the past (Sapiens) and future (Homo Deus), I wondered if it was cynical cash in on his success, a collection of articles packaged together by the publisher to tide us over until his next great work was complete.
As I read on, however, I grew more engrossed in the themes he was addressing: the of power stories (it’s a great book to pair with The Science of Storytelling), our relationship with technology and change, ways that society is likely to change in the next few decades.
This isn’t necessarily a book with all the answers, but it has some damn good questions. It’s a book for grown-up minds that don’t need all of their answers wrapped up in twenty-minute inspiring talks or feel-good self-help manuals.
Let me share one quote which I have used a couple of times at the end of this year, and that speaks to the challenges of our times and that is typical of the thoughtful provocations and insights in the book:
Panic is a form of hubris. It comes from the smug feeling that I know exactly where the world is heading — down. Bewilderment is more humble, and therefore more clear-sighted. If you feel like running down the street crying ‘The apocalypse is upon us!’, try telling yourself ‘No, it’s not that. Truth is, I just don’t understand what’s going on in the world.’
It’s a good place to start.
In the spirit of inquiry and of accepting the uncertainty and complexity of our world, as set out in Harari’s book, I took a whole year to work through the last of my five picks for non-fiction books. For years I’ve been attempting to understand my company as a system, and in the last 18 months or so I’ve intensified my efforts to understand and put to work the ideas in the field of systems thinking. Naively, I was hoping there was a manual somewhere that would have a step-by-step guide to drawing a tube map-like diagram of how an entity like a business works. As none seemed to exist, I realised I needed to go deeper into the topic. Having read Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, I knew some of the principles (Senge is one of the thinkers the book includes).
Looking for a primer on the subject I came across Systems Thinkers, written by two academics from the Open University. It is an expensive coursebook — the Kindle version was nearly £50 — but I treated the expense and the reading of the book like a distance learning course, which made it all seem a little more reasonable.
Over the year I worked through the chapters, each describing a major figure in the field of systems thinking and what they contributed, followed by an excerpt from one of their books or articles. There are 25 people profiled across seven phases in the development of the systems thinking over the past 100 years, from early cybernetics to learning systems. The ideas are big and hard to grasp at times — one book cited is called How Real is Real? — but I did find intellectual slog in some the sections is leavened by details of eccentricities and strange working patterns of some of the thinkers — one knits while chairing intense discussions, one refuses to move universities because it would endanger his vast network of connected ideas that he has captured in a pre-web “hyperlinked” set of index cards, someone else looks and speaks like an 1860s evangelical preacher while working at MIT in the 1960s.
Systems thinking has an influence on so many ideas and — a splinter from it is renamed “artificial intelligence, the concept of ecosystems comes from it, some of those profiled use their insights in work as software engineering consultants, family therapists and management consultants — and insights from the middle of the twentieth century still sound fresh and even challenging today, fifty or sixty years later.
Business books top five
My choice of business books is never going to be everyone’s bag. I read business books for specific reasons more than for general knowledge or inspiration. These five are books that made an impression and that I think I will refer again in the coming months.
1. The Future of the Professions: How Technology Will Transform the Work of Human Experts, by Richard and Daniel Susskind
A superb and in-depth analysis of the prospects for the professions – knowledge workers with barriers to entry to their field, like lawyers, doctors and accountants – which also has a huge amount of relevance for anyone who will be working in the next couple of decades.
Why this book is useful is because of the rigour and the critical analysis of the authors. It is – depending on the frame you choose to adopt – either inspiring or terrifying. Professionals and knowledge workers are both on the verge of being hugely disrupted by technologies including machine learning and automation. I’ll read it again and would urge anyone interested in these questions to put it to the very top of their reading list.
I know Neil and have worked with him in the past on the Dots Conference by Brilliant Noise which he helped curate. This is is his second book addressing strategy and management in the age of digital disruption and a highly useful contribution to the field.
What Neil has done with Agile Transformation is to provide an effective and usable field-book for consultants and executives trying to develop better ways of working and organising themselves. I work in this area myself, so I knew a lot of the examples and models that are offered, but even the bits I know they are so well articulated and curated with evidence and explanations that I have found it a useful reference source when working with clients. We have several copies of Neil’s previous book in the Brilliant Noise library and have regularly given them to clients and partners to help explain fundamental ideas like digital mindset and agile working.
Here’s a good example of the Feynman Test. You know McKinsey, right? They have been around for the whole of your career. You, like anyone else in business or government or professional life, has an opinion on the firm. Here’s the test: write down an explanation of what they do, what your opinion of them is and the rationale behind it. Each time you get to a bit that you find hard to explain or fill in the details, circle it in red or some other method of highlighting text.
Unless you have worked for McKinsey or read this book, the answer will be full of highlighted gaps — you have an impression and scraps of information with perhaps one or two examples, but not a complete, fact-based view of the company.
The Firm is fascinating in all sorts of ways. Seeing what’s myth and what’s not, an example of practical and practised elitism (a word I don’t intend as a pejorative, the politics of a powerful global organisation, its influence on global business and politics, and the most incredible business model I’ve ever heard of in consultancy (charging what it likes). As a bonus, the book also serves as a gap-filler for your knowledge of how management thinking has evolved since the early twentieth century. A bit like Systems Thinkers, I found I suddenly understood the relationships between different big ideas like strategic planning, conglomeration and core competence and the political and economic contexts of their times.
How you frame an issue is everything, and there’s always more than one frame that can be usefully applied. How massively wealthy criminal organisations work as economic entities and organisations is a new frame on issues in business and management. It’s also a new frame on how drug cartels work – the reporting of them too limited to give a sense of the scale and complexity, and fiction being more like a soap opera than insight into how they work.
The book won me over by immediately calling bullshit on the valuation of drug seizures by law enforcement organisations (they are usually calculated at street prices rather than wholesale, which is misleading and unhelpful). Unlike the way that fiction deals with organised crime, there isn’t a sneaking admiration for the drug-lords in here, there is a matter-of-fact examination of the relationship between violence, risk and pay and the quality of recruits a gang can attract, the advantages and disadvantages of franchising.
What a story…
Elisabeth Holmes, a Stanford dropout, starts a company that will be the iPhone of medicine – unbelievably easy, cheap and fast blood testing. Unbelievable, because it wasn’t true. However, thanks to its charismatic, well-connected founder and a growing pile of venture capitalist cash, it was able to cause people to suspend disbelief for long enough that actual pharmacies started using their service with actual people.
Books about massive screw-ups, disasters and corruption are fascinating first for the mistakes, but also for the look inside companies that they provide.
This story is a fable of the hokum of positive thinking (a.k.a. magical thinking) that makes people think it is just wanting something enough that is required to bend reality and deliver a breakthrough. No one believed in this company more than Elizabeth Holmes, to the point where dissent was an unforgivable violation and where unfortunate people’s health was disregarded.
How could this happen? Well, greed. Incompetence. Cults of personality. It’s not new and it’s not over. There are Theranos-clones in business now, building up their hype and hoping not to get outed before they IPO. We await the books about Adam Neumann’s WeWork shenanigans with interest.
Previous years’ book-lists
Previously, I posted these lists on Medium and cross-post to my blog. For the sake of consistency and ease of reference, I’ll pull the links together here.