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My best reads of 2020
My best reads of 2020

My best reads of 2020

This is cross–posted from my new Antonym Substack – an email newsletter/blog platform. I published it there as a series of five posts – but have combined them here. Be warned, it’s a long read…

When the going gets tough, the tough get reading.

We all had extra burdens to carry in 2020. People found their different consolations, found their own way through. Reading was one of mine, but not all of the time. 

I read less during the first, darkest phase of lockdown in March and April, due to a vicious run in with Covid-19 itself combined with intense challenges at work, not least dealing with the shift to remote working, furloughs for some of our colleagues and supporting our clients as they took stock of their businesses. I was too exhausted to focus on reading a book for long. As the spring came and we recalibrated the business, reading returned as a source of pleasure, inspiration, relaxation and a place to reflect.

All the books I read in 2020

I also wrote a great deal this year. Together with my Brilliant Noise colleague Stephanie Hubbard we published a short book about influencers and marketing on Amazon called Cut Through The Hype. Note: it’s good for apps but not e-readers as it is a print replica – hit me up if you want a PDF. As well as being well-written (ahem) it is a design triumph thanks to our design colleagues.

I also developed a habit of writing to my company every day, something that worked really well for myself and my team. In all I wrote about 80,000 words in daily letters to my company. A few of them I adapted as articles for LinkedIn (my favourite and most personal was Invisible Bombs, but the one people mention most is What Colour is Your Mood). I’ll talk more about this approach to reflection and communication more another time, but it’s something I intend to continue doing even when we are through the other side of the pandemic. 

In three categories – fiction, non–fiction and business – I’m picking my three to five best reads and may mention a handful of others I recommend. The pool these come from is the 50–60 books I read this year. If you’re interested you can see all of these on my Goodreads profile along with – sometimes – reviews. 

Partly because we’re back in lockdown over the Christmas holidays, I’m deeply valuing the opportunity to reflect on a year’s reading. I’ve gone longer in my writing about some of the books as usual, and will break this post into a short series to make it more digestible in blog form, and also to try out the newsletter format for the first time. So there will be four main posts – this introduction, the three genres and then a couple of bonus posts about The Mirror and the Light, which was my absolute favourite book of the year

The complete list of the year’s best reads: 

Fiction:

  1. The Mirror & The Light, by Hilary Mantel
  2. Outline, by Rachael Cusk 
  3. Ancillary Justice, by Anne Leckie

Non–fiction:

  1. Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, by Reni Eddo–Lodge
  2. Daemon Voices, by Philip Pullman 
  3. Arabs: A 3,000–Year History, by Tim Mackintosh–Smith

Business:

  1. Lessons From A Warzone, Louai Al Roumani
  2. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, by Shoshana Zuboff
  3. No Rules Rules, by Reed Hasting and Erin Meyer

My book of the year: Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror & The Light


This is the second in a short series of articles about my favourite reads of 2020. The first instalment is an overview. The others will follow over the next day or so.


Independent Bookshop Edition The Mirror & the Light


My favourite book of 2020 is The Mirror & The Light by Hilary Mantel. The third of the Thomas Cromwell books, this is a work of genius. Immersive, thrilling and beautiful.

This book is about power, politics and psychology – the realpolitik or game of power as it is played and the inner games of power that take place inside people’s minds.

Cromwell learned about power as a mercenary and then a banker in Italy, and has read Machiavelli. You could write a credible list of business mantras based on quotes like:

Wolsey always said, work out what people want, and you might be able to offer it; it is not always what you think, and may be cheap to supply.

However, this is a high stakes game – understanding the way Prince’s mind works is a matter of life and death for Cromwell; as he says in Wolf Hall:

You can be merry with the king, you can share a joke with him. But as Thomas More used to say, it’s like sporting with a tamed lion. You tousle its mane and pull its ears, but all the time you’re thinking, those claws, those claws, those claws.

To survive as long as he does, rise as high as he does, from runaway and hustler to the most powerful person in the country, he has to understand power in terms of grand strategy but also the psychological complexities of the king:

…princes are not as other men. They have to hide from themselves, or they would be dazzled by their own light. Once you know this, you can begin to erect those face-saving barriers, screens behind which adjustments can take place, corners for withdrawal, open spaces in which to turn and reverse.

In her 2017 Reith Lectures, Mantel talked about historical fiction as taking place the gaps between the facts. Some deeds are recorded, but the emotional reality of the people living then have to be deduced, intuited and imagined. She has immersed herself in the facts – and then let her mighty imagination loose on the bits in between. Mantel respects and works with her imagination more consciously than any writer I have ever heard talk about their work. Imagination for her has edge, holds peril even for the writer, is a tool with palpable power.

BBC Two - Wolf Hall - Mark Rylance

The bits in between the facts of history are the obvious but missing questions of history – how did he feel? How do tyrants not know they are tyrants, but imagine themselves victims and saviours? How do you work in the thick of politics where a wrong move means death and not lose your mind? What is it like to sit in a cell awaiting death? How does the person condemning you square the viciousness of their deeds with their conscience? This isn’t a story–tour of the past. It is the sometimes painful struggle of what it was to be in that time, to navigate the social and psychological topography of Henry VIII’s court and Tudor London.

One criticism of the Cromwell trilogy is that Mantel imposes a modern perspective on Cromwell’s outlook. But Cromwell is an inventor of modernity, his mind is different from those around him – hence his disdain for superstition.

The purpose of ghost stories is extortion, generally: to frighten poor folk into paying for prayers and charms to protect them.

He has a merchant’s eye for the systems of power and in this new world of printing presses and growing literacy, that beats theology, nobility and poetry hands down when it comes to getting things done. He is “a ready man” who gets things done. Old wealth and power uses him to do what they can’t and he accumulates his own resources as a result.

And whatever people’s beliefs are, power remains the same game whether you’re a player in the medieval or modern versions. Looking at political power through the eyes of someone who understands it so well, you return to the the headlines and realities of your own time with some of his guile. You see the same shapes of fools and chancers, flattered princes and unashamed manipulators, the greater goods and the unforgivable greed. You see the present afresh for having looked back in time for a while.

The most modern aspect of the psychology of Mantel’s imagined Cromwell may be is his insights about the nature of self, its slippery nature, and both the questions this raise about who he is and how he manipulates or guides the king’s changing story of who he is and what he has done:

You look back into your past and say, is this story mine; this land? Is that flitting figure mine, that shape easing itself through alleys, evader of the curfew, fugitive from the day? Is this my life, or my neighbour’s conflated with mine, or a life I have dreamed and prayed for; is this my essence, twisting into a taper’s flame, or have I slipped the limits of myself – slipped into eternity, like honey from a spoon? Have I dreamt myself, undone myself, have I forgotten too well

And…

He closes his eyes. What does God see? Cromwell in the fifty-fourth year of his age, in all his weight and gravitas, his bulk wrapped in wool and fur? Or a mere flicker, an illusion, a spark beneath a shoe, a spit in the ocean, a feather in a desert, a wisp, a phantom, a needle in a haystack? If Henry is the mirror, he is the pale actor who sheds no lustre of his own, but spins in a reflected light. If the light moves he is gone

In Cromwell’s world, people who understand how private psychology and public power mix win. Those who stick hard by principles or ideas end up getting stuck by them. Thomas More dies for his principles, others are hoist on the petard of courtly love, incriminating poems and letters the evidence of ideals that are recast as treason. Cromwell’s conversation with Lady Shelton is cuttingly disdainful of the troubadour nonsense that addles courtiers minds:

‘It is all my cousin Anne’s fault, I agree. It was she who taught us to be selfish, and to reach for our desires. Amor omnia vincit, she said.’

‘Perhaps for a season it did.’

‘Love conquers all?’ Poor gentle creature, she bends her head. ‘With respect, my lord, love couldn’t conquer a gosling. It couldn’t knock a cripple down. It couldn’t beat an egg.’

Despite his downfall, Cromwell’s legacy is mighty – breaking England’s church from Rome and the publication of the first bible in English, an act less often recognised than martyrs burning at the stake, but far more consequential. His reputation lies tattered for centuries, until Mantel resurrects it with a story that prompted reevaluation of him in academia and popular culture alike, but he changed the world by changing what England read, how it thought and what it did.

We have agreed a translation, and it is Tyndale’s, as far as we have his work, but it goes under another scholar’s name. We have put Henry’s own image on the title page. We want him to see himself there. We need him to set forth a Bible under his own licence, and set the scriptures up in every church, for all to read who can. We need to get it out in such numbers that it can never be recalled or suppressed. When the people read it there will be no more of these armed and murdering Pilgrims. They will see with their own eyes that nowhere in the scripture does it mention penances and popes and purgatory and cloisters and beads and blessed candles, or ceremonies and relics –’

Thomas Cromwell - Wikipedia

Fiction

I’ve selected three books as my top fiction reads of the year. I went through a whodunnit phase, had a great time with what would be John Le Carré’s last novel Agent Running in the Field, PD James’s Children of Men and Robert Harris’s Fatherland. Where The Crawdads Sing and The Glass HotelAmerican Dirt and My Sister The Serial Killer were transporting and engrossing, great reads all. The following three books are the ones that are most present still for me at the end of this year of years.

  1. The Mirror & The Light, by Hilary Mantel
  2. Outline, by Rachael Cusk 
  3. Ancillary Justice, by Anne Leckie

The Mirror & The Light

Wolf Hall : Bring up the bodies by Mantel, Hilary (9780008424510) |  BrownsBfS

In preparing this review of my year’s reading I’ve gone back to my highlights and notes from The Mirror & The Light and it needs its own article. If you’ve not seen it already it is here.

This book, and the trilogy it completes is such a staggering achievement as a work of literary art it absolutely has to be my book of the year.

If you’ve not read Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies go back and read those first. If you’ve tried to read them but not quite connected, I sympathise. Watch the TV series and then go back and read them.

Mantel maintains that this is the best book of the three and I am not going to argue. Ironically the previous two won the Booker Prize, while The Mirror and The Light didn’t make the short–list. One of the judges, Lee Child, said that “there were better books” and I really look forward to reading Shuggie Bain, which won and the other three. They would have to be something remarkable to beat this book for me, however.

Outline, by Rachael Cusk

Where Statues Once Stood: On Rachel Cusk's Kudos | PRISM international

Outline took me completely by surprise. Utterly original, it’s a series of conversations that tell stories and that depict characters the protagonist – who may or may not be the actual author – meets while teaching a writing seminar in Athens one summer. We learn very little about the protagonist explicitly, but pick up a sense of her from the conversations.

Coming back to it now, several months later, to write about why it has – and had such a hold on me – the best I can offer is some of its flavour in a quote or two:

It is interesting how keen people are for you to do something they would never dream of doing themselves, how enthusiastically they drive you to your own destruction: even the kindest ones the ones that are most loving, can rarely have your interests truly at heart, because usually they are advising you from within lives of greater security and greater confinement, where escape is not a reality but simply something they dream of sometimes. Perhaps, he said, we are all like animals in the zoo, and once we see that one of us has got out of the enclosure we shout at him to run like mad, even though it will only result in him becoming lost.

There is a thematic connection with The Mirror and the Light, in that it is about what Julian Baggini’s calls The Ego Trick (“‘I’ is a verb, masquerading as a noun”). We invent ourselves from moment to moment, sometimes through reflections glimpsed in the eyes of others. This can seem like a depressing insight, until you grasp its power and the agency we have in making ourselves. Outline hints at the inner politics, the inner game, of who you are and who you will decide to be, the story you tell yourself when you look in the mirror.

In the strange intense summer after the first lockdown of 2020 in the UK, still in the grip of Covid and its cloying after-effects on my health, this book felt very real to me.
Outline has a deep but somehow nourishing melancholy to it. There’s a sense of consciously seeking refuge in a moment, of enjoying a sunny place in a distanced way, as a trauma recedes for a while, even if it has not been resolved. An aftermath can only be avoided for a short time. Eventually you have to start digging out your life from the remains. Even knowing that, there is solace in the moment of pause, while you wait for your sense of self to come back into focus.

There was a great difference, I said, between the things I wanted and the things that I could apparently have, and until I had finally and forever made my peace with that fact, I had decided to want nothing at all.

It was perfect in the moment that I read it, but it has a hold on me still. I’ve the next book in the trilogy ready for when I’m ready; which will be soon.

Ancillary Justice, by Anne Leckie

Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch, #1) by Ann Leckie

I’d like to connect some themes from the two previous books with this first–rate work of science fiction. Ancillary Justice is a book I turned to for escape; wanting to go to some other worlds far from the weight of life in 2020, but found more there than I’d expected. Set in a far future where a colossal empire that must constantly expand to sustain itself has intelligent and conscious spacecraft that each maintains small armies of ancillaries – human bodies which they have co–opted as agents or avatars: individual but connected elements of the same mind.

In Ancillary Justice there are selves and collectives and different versions of the same self. As the story develops there is a kind of split-personality disorder occurring in a leader that threatens civil war.

The best science fiction invokes a kind of intellectual vertigo, settling you in a reality you think you understand and then spinning your perspectives around like one of those astronaut training machines where the gyroscopes simulate the disorientation of losing all control and bearings in space.

One of the other themes in the book is communication. There are layers to the languages and communications, awareness of languages distinct weaknesses and strengths, even though the languages are imagined and never explicit. A recurring example of this is that the lingua franca of the empire is non-gendered and the default gender is expressed as female. Native speakers are bemused by the importance of gender in other cultures, just as people in those cultures can spot them as other because they struggle to identify not just the gender of words but of people.

The perspective of the speaker is defined not just by language, but by location – or locations – in which their consciousness is speaking. Conversations take place in parallel in different places, informed by events and conversations that linked minds are having.

Non-verbal communication too is important with a gesture mentioned indicating one thing or another but what precisely the movement might be is left to the imagination. For example:

… She made an averting gesture.
… I frowned, and she made a placatory gesture.
… I made a small, doubtful gesture.

There are also unintentional communications – the artificial intelligences and their ancillaries can read emotions from people’s micro-expressions, changes in perspiration, breathing and heartbeats:

Station could certainly see a large percentage of its residents with the same intimate view I’d had of my officers. The rest—including me, now—it saw in less detail. Temperature. Heart rate. Respiration. Less impressive than the flood of data from more closely monitored residents, but still a great deal of information

Apart from the thrill of perspective shifts and strange ideas, I enjoyed Ancillary Justice‘s playfulness and respect for the importance of language and conversation in understanding who we are and the idea of self.

Non–fiction

I’ll kick this section off with a little cheat – three recommendations of non-fiction books that didn’t make my top three:

  • An exploration of what is understood and has been misunderstood about how our breath works and how we can use different techniques to aid our health: Breathe: The New Science of an Ancient Art
  • The Art of Rest was a clever, timely read that combined personal narrative with scientific evidence about why and how we need to have more rest in our lives.
  • The Essential Art of War, is a masterful translation and commentary which explained the much quoted, but much less frequently understood Art of War, by Sun Tzu (or as it turns out, likely the collective of voices that was called SunTzu).

My top three non–fiction books of 2020 are:

  1. Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, by Reni Eddo–Lodge
  2. Daemon Voices, by Philip Pullman 
  3. Arabs: A 3,000–Year History, by Tim Mackintosh–Smith
    Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race, by Reni Eddo–Lodge 

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, by Reni Eddo–Lodge

Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race (Paperback)

This is a book about structural racism. It carefully and methodically explains how racism is part of the systems that we live in, and that change has to be at a systems level. The fact that I hadn’t read it until the BLM movement’s surge in the summer was, I realised, evidence of one of the effects of structural racism. At some level I’d not thought it was that interesting or relevant to me. Or I’d thought it was a someone–else’s–problem sort of a deal. The same reason that despite studying history at a university known for its progressive politics, I’d missed opportunities to study black history, other than in the context of the British empire and the American Civil Rights Movement, both of which felt like the past, even though their effects and struggles are still relevant.

Systems thinking is required and systems thinking is hard. Understanding some difficult ideas and dropping your instinctive defensiveness and dampening your biases, or at least being aware of them is what is required to grasp them. The brilliance of this book is that it helped me do this – even as a white man – apparently without compromise and on its terms. It didn’t hector or patronise, it just calmly – though the author’s anger and frustration was not hidden – unpacked and explained systemic racism. 

It is particularly useful for a British reader or someone familiar with our history, as it starts with a concise black history of the UK. Having studied history at university and – just as the book discusses – half unconsciously side–stepped any specific black or women’s history courses, thinking that they were not for for me, the surprise and shock of reading about things you really should have known about before, things were about a country where we had conned ourselves was less racist and therefore less culpable than, for instance, the USA, was shocking, humbling and disarming. Once shocked, disarmed and with as much humility as you can muster, the book takes you through the concepts of white privilege and other aspects of system racism with a combination of personal experience, history and data. 

Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race is an inoculation against lazy thinking, apathy and abdication of responsibility when it comes to race. It is a call to arms and a practical guide to the terrible iniquity of racism with what–must–be–done advice for all (so much more useful than something–must–be–done sentiments). If you’ve not read it, don’t hesitate. Do it now. If it is in your to read pile put it on the top. If you started it and didn’t stick with it, pick it up and start again. 

The book left me changed, looking back over my life and what I’d learned, at the world around me and seeing it differently. It’s the start of an education that should have started long ago for me, and I’m so glad it is being widely read now, though as Eddo–Lodge has said herself it’s tragic that the deaths of Floyd George and others are the context in which it rose to the top of the best-seller lists.

Daemon Voices, by Philip Pullman

This book is a collection of Pullman’s speeches, lectures, forewords and other non–fiction articles. A lot of it concerns writing and storytelling and some of it concerns religion. 

I’ve somehow not managed to connect with the His Dark Materials series of books. My children enjoyed them but I didn’t read them with them – maybe that would have done it. However, Pullman’s writing is magnificent and his insights about his craft are wonderful. It was a nourishing book, one I came to when I wanted it in the year for a couple of sections and then went away again. 

I don’t know how other storytellers function, but in my case I never start with the theme of a story. My stories are about something, to be sure, but I never know what that is till I’m in the process of writing them. I have to start with pictures, images, scenes, moods – like bits of dreams, or fragments of half-forgotten films. That’s how they all begin. In the case of this one I didn’t realise what it could be about until after I’d discovered dæmons, which happened in the way I described just now. But more especially it was when I found that children’s dæmons change and adults’ dæmons don’t; and I think that that idea and the theme must have leapedtowards each other like a spark and a stream of gas. I don’t really know which came first, but they took fire when they came together.

The hardback of this book is a beautiful object and I will be keeping it near on my desk always. I want to have his advice literally to hand when need it.

>However, if I know anything about about writing stories, it’s this: that you have to do what your imagination wants, not what your fastidious literary taste is inclined towards, not what your finely honed judgement feels comfortable with, not what your desire for the esteem of critics advises you to. Good intentions never wrote a story worth reading: only the imagination can do that. So the imagination was going to win here, if I had anything to do with it; and what I had to do to help it win was to neutralise my uneasiness about fantasy; and the way to do that was to find a way of making fantasy serve the purposes of realism.

Arabs: A 3,000 Year History, by Tim Mackintosh Smith

I’ve still got a few hundred pages to read of this book, which runs to 700 or so, but I include it here as it has had a grip on my thoughts for months now.

After reading Louai Al-Roumani’s Lessons From a Warzone (my favourite business book of the year – see the next article in this series) I realised how little I knew about Arab culture and history. This book, which I saw on Al-Romano’s Goodreads list, was a perfect first immersion into a culture that though I’d grown up close to it in West London, had always felt intimidatingly unknowable. Mackintosh–Smith writes with the passion of an outsider who is completely enthralled and fascinated by the culture. 

Mackintosh–Smith writes the book from his house in his adopted country of Yemen, where war and revolution and political upheaval can literally be seen from the window where he writes. It’s a history book that takes in 3,000 years and ranges across the world, but because of the author’s location it has a sense of place, and time and timelessness, which is utterly apt to the story of the people it describes. 

From the start, Arabs shows the importance of Arabic and of defining themes in the story of its people: unity and schism, the tension between nomadic and settled ways of life, North and South, and how a language can be more powerful and enduring in real terms than any of the physical wonders of the world. 

As native English speaker, I’m rightly proud of my language, its diversity and richness, and there are no shortage of hagiographic books and documentaries about how it is so wonderful. Reading about Arabic, I almost feel embarrassed at its shortcomings:

All the early and subsequent diversity and accretiveness of Arabic mean that the lexicon is embarrassingly rich. Multiple synonyms include 80 for ‘honey’, 200 for ‘beard’, 500 for ‘lion’, 800 for ‘sword’, and 1,000 for ‘camel’. The last figure seems if anything rather low: an old saw among Arabists that says every Arabic word means three things – itself, its opposite, and a camel – is not entirely untrue. There are precise terms for such things that one would never imagine needed a precise term, like the droppings of bustards as opposed to ostriches, and different types of farts, categorized by loudness, and the sound of locusts eating, and the spaces between the fingers, each space having its own term.

Even before the story reaches the founding of Islam, I had learned so much about the way that Arabic and especially its poetry shapes and sustains a culture so strong that much today would be recognisable and intelligible to a time-traveller from a thousand years ago. Mackinstosh–Smith is adept in his use of analogies to give a sense of scale to all of this: 

The standard English of the British empire is dissolving now. A present-day inhabitant of Kingston, Jamaica, would probably have little in common, linguistically or otherwise, with a seventh-century tribesman from Anglo-Saxon Northumbria; in contrast, despite the similarity of distance in time and space, a literate member of the black Moroccan Gnaoua in Tangier could hold a conversation with a seventh-century Meccan. Linguistic links are more powerful than genetic ones; ink is thicker than blood. For this we have to thank Islam, which never had a Pentecost, a revelation in many tongues.

So informative, revelatory, inspiring – Arabs: A 3,000 Year History is a truly magnificent work of history, but also of just good writing – the prose is so rich (partly a result, I suspect of its author having studied Arabic). Its revelations and the scale of its story gives the reader a sense of intellectual vertigo.

Like crop circles, the grand designs of geo-politics often only become apparent from the heightened perspective of future historians; at the time, on the ground, they can be invisible. Also like crop circles, the grand designs may never have been what they are claimed to be.

I suspect this won’t be the last book I read about Arabian culture – Mr Al–Roumani opened the door and Mackintosh–Smith’s flood of wonder and insight has swept me off my feet.

Let’s get right to it – my three favourite business books in 2021 were:

  1. Lessons From A Warzone, Louai Al Roumani
  2. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, by Shoshana Zuboff
  3. No Rules Rules, by Reed Hasting and Erin Meyer

Business books

Lessons From A Warzone, Louai Al Roumani

Lessons from a Warzone: How to be a Resilient Leader in Times of Crisis:  Amazon.co.uk: Roumani, Louai Al: 9780241986769: Books

This book arrived at the perfect moment: just after the terrible phase of the global pandemic when the challenges we faced in my own business were daunting, but beginning to be tamed. The following is my original review of the book posted to Goodreads.

[I gave this book] Five stars because Lessons from a Warzone is such a singular book in the business category. 

It needed to be written because there was nothing else like it. Al Roumani looked for case studies and texts in running a business in an extreme crisis and there were none. The standard sources for business reference were not useful, the advice was not applicable to running a network of banks during mortar attacks, with the threat of ISIS fanatics taking over branches and stampedes to withdraw funds by customers. 

It needed to be read because we are suddenly all in the middle of unprecedented crises – the pandemic, civil unrest, climate change – all feeding into one another. 

I love the details of Arab culture – generosity, the importance of tea, the stories and legends that define Damascus. It grounded the accounts of dealing with operational and strategic business challenges in a real place and made me want to learn more about Syria and the Arab world.

There are two other things that endear the book to me. First, it is short, as every good business book should be. Second, the human passion, the intensity of the experience comes through vividly. The mix of drama and operational detail in the book feels so real to anyone who has been through a major crisis in a business (even if not as terrible as the Syrian War). There’s no sentimentality here, but there is deep humanity. There are lessons learned, there is hope, there are flaws. 

I’m personally – and professionally – grateful to Louai Al Roumani for writing this book. I hope I never have to live and work in a Warzone, but when we face crises in our lives and our businesses there are useful emotional and practical lessons there is huge value in reading the heartfelt and honest experiences of others. 

I recommend this book with a grateful heart.

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, by Shoshana Zuboff

I’ll be frank: this book is hard work and I’d only recommend it if you want to deeply understand this subject. I read it through after a couple of attempts and was glad I stuck with it, using the full free solo reader’s tool box of tricks – going back and looking up referenced concepts I wasn’t familiar with, pausing and reflecting, reading reviews and criticisms to get a handle on some of the chunkier bits. 

If you don’t read it, find some reviews or look at the Wikipedia article about the book to get a sense of the argument and key concepts. Zuboff’s important and brilliant achievement is to name and describe the process that the tech giants are applying to societies and economies through their business models. 

The essential warning of the book is: 

Surveillance capitalism’s ability to keep democracy at bay produced these stark facts. Two men at Google who do not enjoy the legitimacy of the vote, democratic oversight, or the demands of shareholder governance exercise control over the organization and presentation of the world’s information. One man at Facebook who does not enjoy the legitimacy of the vote, democratic oversight, or the demands of shareholder governance exercises control over an increasingly universal means of social connection along with the information concealed in its networks. 

Published at the beginning of last year and likely the work of several years, this is a book that is powerful because it labels and explains a new system of power. 

Surveillance capitalism has taken root so quickly that, with the exception of a courageous cadre of legal scholars and technology-savvy activists, it has cunningly managed to evade our understanding and agreement.

Totalitarianism, the system where the state demands all of its citizens, including their inner thoughts and emotions, arose before the term did. Zuboff is going through the equivalent process in naming surveillance capitalism and “instrumentarianism” her term for the power that surveillance capitalist services like Google and Facebook ads and the data they have about individuals and social groups give to governments and corporations to manipulate the behaviours of individuals:

There is no historical precedent for instrumentarianism, but there is vivid precedent for this kind of encounter with an unprecedented new species of power. In the years before totalitarianism was named and formally analyzed, its critics appropriated the language of imperialism as the only framework at hand with which to articulate and resist the new power’s murderous threats. Now surveillance capitalism has cast us adrift in another odd, dark sea of novel and thus indiscernible dangers. As scholars and citizens did before us, it is we who now reach for familiar vernaculars of twentieth-century power like lifesaving driftwood.

This isn’t an everyperson guide to the subject. What Zuboff has done is lay an intellectual framework for understanding and countering the awesome power of big tech. At the end of 2020 the US Justice Department, Federal Trade Commission and 52 states have launched the largest anti-trust action since the 1970s aimed at Google and Facebook. This was surprising to many, following years of the US system standing back while the EU tried to put limits on the tech giants’ burgeoning monopolies and power, but I would not be surprised if politicians and lawyers were not armed with Zuboff’s ideas. 

No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention, by Reed Hoffman and Erin Meyer 

Why Netflix has no rules | Royal Television Society

This is a clever business book and joins a small collection of works by business leaders who have been through the mill and are genuinely curious about what they have learned that they can pass on. (Creativity, Inc.The Hard Thing About Hard ThingsHigh Output Management and Principles would be my other nominations for this category, books I read and re-read for support and inspiration.) 

As CEO of Netflix, Hoffman is riding high on 15 years success. It is his second business, having run the first with the logic of a software engineer – identifying and eliminating issues with increasing amounts of process – and ruined the culture in the process, he says. The future is far from assured for the company and it has to keep racing to keep its advantage in the face of well–funded companies with huge brand power like Disney and HBO, while the best–funded company in the world, Amazon, also competes with its Prime video service (which it is effectively giving away for free to promote free shipping subscriptions for everything else it sells).

A few years ago, Hoffman’s genius chief creative officer, Ted Sarandos made the most eloquent statement of strategy I’ve ever heard: “We have to become HBO before HBO can become us.” They succeeded. A reinvention from streaming platform to original content creator no less ambitious and radical than its reinvention from a postal video rental service to online. 

What drives the company’s success and ability to reinvent itself is a culture which famously eschews process and policies (including unlimited amounts of leave and no expenses policies) and giving its people a great deal of decision–making power and, despite being a publicly listed company, transparency in almost every aspect of the business.

The book is brilliantly useful for several reasons: 

  1. It doesn’t offer easy solutions. There is a formula for creating a culture like Netflix’s, but it is staged and explained carefully. 
  2. It critiques itself. CEOs are always blind to some of the realities of their business, and the best ones know it. Hoffman invited business school professor and author Erin Meyer to co-write the book by including counterpoint sections where she explains what the reality of a policy or idea is one the ground at the company, having interviewed many employees there. 
  3. It’s about the people, stupid. Despite being a tech company in many’s eyes, Netflix knows that its success relies on creative talent and so is all about how 
  4. It’s not utopia. This isn’t a template for every company in the world, but it is a detailed account of how one of the best operates and how to copy elements of it. Netflix is a growth company and has a more humane version of the reviled “up and out” policy at General Electric and other macho companies of the 90s. It “rewards adequacy with a generous severance package” as its model relies on top performers. This lack of sentimentality extends to senior management and Patty McCord who co-authored the famous culture statement presentation with Hastings developed the “keeper test” policy as it is known and then accepted that she was no longer right for the company in its next stage of growth. 

If you are involved in running a business you should make time to read this as soon as you can. If you run a creative business, you must read it immediately.

Two bonus books about learning

  • How To Take Smart Notes, by Sönke Ahrens, is a concise book relating some of the principles of note taking and indexing developed by Niklas Luhman, a prominent sociologist and a major contributor to the field of systems thinking. Ahrens and Luhman’s ideas have been influential in the development of the Roam Research wiki/database tool that was launched this year and has developed a loyal following. I’m using it myself, but tools aside, I’d recommend Ahrens’s book for anyone working with ideas and writing non–fiction of any kind. 
  • Thinking in Systems: A Primer, by Donella Meadows is a classic of systems thinking, a field I’ve been reading about learning for the last three or four years. Think of it as a serious 101 course on the subject. Even before reading 10% of the book I was applying lessons to my own business planning.

That’s all for this year’s review. Thank you for reading it. I love books and enjoy this annual chance to look back at what I’ve read and pass on some recommendations. Let me know if you have any feedback or questions. And… may all of our 2021s be a little lighter!