This isn’t a review, it is a reflection, an act in keeping with the lessons shared by a master of his crafts – of writing, research and explaining power. Robert A Caro is well-known for taking a long time to write his books (a biography of Robert Moses, the person who shaped modern New York from behind the scenes, and four–soon–to–five volumes of a biography of LBJ, the president who passed the first Civil Rights Act in the US since the Reconstruction, but also waged the disastrous war in Vietnam.
There are many reasons I love this book: learning about Caro’s process, the intensity of his mastery of writing, the depth of his work, how he explains political power, and his humility in his understanding of himself.
You understand why it takes after reading this book. There are years of research and then intense thinking and writing about what the book is about, which produces between one and three paragraphs that are the essence of the book. Then the outlining begins, and once it is all laid out the first draft of the book, three pages at a time, with redrafting happening all the way up to the galley proofs – “I’d rewrite in the finished book if I could…”.
As well as the long process of producing the book there is the depth of commitment to the subject and the theme. Surprisingly, Caro is not obsessed with LBJ as much as his life’s mission – to explain political power to the world.
Caro is also very self–aware. He knows himself so far as he he knows how he has to work, what he is working for and where his strengths and weaknesses in the process are. He also knows what he doesn’t know about himself – he doesn’t know why he has to write in this way or to this end. He accepts who he and why he must write like this, but is aware that parts of him are a mystery even to him. He understands his subjects and their motivations better than anyone, perhaps better than they did themselves – Moses’s pursuit of a complete vision of what New York could be, Johnson’s drive to get away from his isolated, poor origins, and the drive to improve the lot of those in poverty and his shame at his upbringing.
Caro is 87 now, and still pushing to finish his final volume about LBJ, after which he wants to write his own full memoirs, though he’s realistic about the odds of being able to complete the latter project. Perhaps.
A last note. I read and listened to this book in turn. The Audible narration is by the man himself, and the better for it, a rich, rolling old New York accent it has a sense of place as much as the one he tries to evoke in his work. (Have a listen for yourself to the sample on Audible.)
I’ve not read any of Caro’s thousand–page plus biographies yet – and I don’t think I would have had it not been for opening Working and realising what works of genius they would be.
On working slowly on purpose:
When I decided to write a book, and, beginning to realize the complexity of the subject, realized that a lot of thinking would be required—thinking things all the way through, in fact, or as much through as I was capable of—I determined to do something to slow myself down, to not write until I had thought things through. That was why I resolved to write my first drafts in longhand, slowest of the various means of committing thoughts to paper, before I started doing later drafts on the typewriter; that is why I still do my first few drafts in longhand today; that is why, even now that typewriters have been replaced by computers, I still stick to my Smith-Corona Electra 210.
On his first mentor’s advice about investigative reporting that guided all of his work thereafter:
I responded with my usual savoir faire. “But I don’t know anything about investigative reporting.” Alan looked at me for what I remember as a very long time. “Just remember,” he said. “Turn every page. Never assume anything. Turn every goddamned page.” He turned to some other papers on his desk, and after a while I got up and left.
On hearing about how hard it was for black people to vote in the South in the mid–twentieth century:
When I asked David Frost if he himself had ever attempted to register he said he had, some years before—and had in fact succeeded. But, he said, that had not turned out to be a happy experience for him. Previously, he said, white people in Eufala had always been friendly to him, had called him “David” or “Boy.” But after he registered, they called him “Nigger,” a word, he said, “I just hated, hated.” And when whites heard that he was planning to actually cast a ballot on Election Day, he said, a car had pulled up in front of his house, and the men in it had shot out the lights on his porch. He had thought of calling the police, but as the car drove away, he saw that it was a police car.
On how he manages to stay silent in interviews, and how…
…silence is the weapon, silence and people’s need to fill it—as long as the person isn’t you, the interviewer. Two of fiction’s greatest interviewers—Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret and John le Carré’s George Smiley—have little devices they use to keep themselves from talking, and let silence do its work. Maigret cleans his ever-present pipe, tapping it gently on his desk and then scraping it out until the witness breaks down and talks. Smiley takes off his eyeglasses and polishes them with the thick end of his necktie. As for myself, I have less class. When I’m waiting for the person I’m interviewing to break a silence by giving me a piece of information I want, I write “SU” (for Shut Up!) in my notebook. If anyone were ever to look through my notebooks, he would find a lot of “SUs” there.
On his routine for writing:
It’s not fixed. I write each day as long as I can. As I’ve said, I write my first drafts in longhand—pen or pencil—on white legal pads, narrow-lined. I seldom have only one draft in longhand—I’d say I probably have three or four. Then I do the same pages over on a typewriter. I used to type on what they called “second sheets,” brownish sheets, cheap paper like the paper used in the Newsday city room when I was a reporter. But those sheets are letter size. When I started writing books, I switched to white legal-size typing paper. You can get more words on a page that way. I triple-space the lines the way I did as a newspaperman, so there will be plenty of room to rewrite in pencil. I rewrite a lot. Sometimes I look at a page I typed but have reworked in pencil, and there’s hardly a word in type left on it. Or no words in type left at all—every one has been crossed out. And often there’s been so much writing and rewriting and erasing that the page has to be tossed out completely. At the end of the day there will be a great many crumpled-up sheets of paper in the wastepaper basket or on the floor around it.
On the purpose of all of his work:
I wasn’t interested in writing a biography but in writing about political power. I could do urban political power through Robert Moses because he had done something that no one else had done. He had shaped the city with a kind of power we didn’t learn about in textbooks, which tell us that, in a democracy, power comes from being elected. He had shaped it with a different kind of power. So if I could find out and explain where he got his power and how he kept it and how he used it, I would be explaining something about the realities of urban power—how raw, naked power really works in cities.
His emotions while writing sound very familiar to me – it’s comforting to know someone as accomplished as Caro feels this way too:
If you saw me during this process, in the first place you’d see a guy in a very bad mood. It’s very frustrating. I can’t actually say anything nice about this part of the work. It’s a terrible time for me. I sometimes think, You’re never going to get it. There’s just so much stuff to put in this book. You’re never going to have a unified book with a drive from beginning to end, a single narrative, a single driving theme from beginning to end. There’s just too much stuff.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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 –’
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 Hotel, American 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.
The Mirror & The Light, by Hilary Mantel
Outline, by Rachael Cusk
Ancillary Justice, by Anne Leckie
The Mirror & The Light
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
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
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.
I’ll kick this section off with a little cheat – three recommendations of non-fiction books that didn’t make my top three:
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:
Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, by Reni Eddo–Lodge
Daemon Voices, by Philip Pullman
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
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:
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
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 Things, High 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:
It doesn’t offer easy solutions. There is a formula for creating a culture like Netflix’s, but it is staged and explained carefully.
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.
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
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!
This article is adapted from a letter to my team at Brilliant Noise last week. It has a special resonance on the eve of the 75th anniversary of VE Day.
Dear Brilliant People
They are beginning to ease the lockdown in Italy. And other places too. It looks like we’re past the peak in deaths in the UK. The first wave may be passing.
Coronavirus is a slow-motion natural disaster. It’s invisible and slow compared to an earthquake but it manages to reach across the whole world.
In a previous century’s pandemic, artists imagined the disease as an archer firing invisible arrows – because no one could see the cause, but they could see the damage, the people falling ill and dying all around them. Maybe we can imagine the results of coronavirus as invisible bombs falling from the sky.
We’re not living through the Blitz, but this ain’t nothing. Around 32,000 people died in the Blitz across the UK, and we’re just passing 20,000 coronavirus deaths right now and some estimates put the real total at 50% higher overall. [At the time of publishing this on LinkedIn, UK coronavirus deaths are over 30,000.]
It’s embarrassing sometimes when people draw parallels between our current crisis and the Second World War experience on the Home Front. They are invoking folk stories, memories of memories that risk being oversimplifying, misleading or horribly nationalistic.
The “Blitz Spirit” wasn’t some kind of British superpower –apart from anything, London and other big cities were stuffed full of Poles, West Indians, Jews and Irish, French governments in exile, and a throng of different nationalities. London’s an international city, always has been. The Blitz brought out a lot of kindness, mutual help and gritty determination, but it still left a bunch of grieving people and undiagnosed PTSD cases. As well as volunteers manning soup kitchens and forming human chains to dig people out from the rubble there were looters, black-marketeers, profiteers, busybodies, rich people fleeing the cities to countryside boltholes and fake news gossip-merchants galore. Londoners, Brummies, Liverpudlians and people in cities across the country were just like us today: they endured because they had to – and made the best of it, or the worst, depending on their character and choices.
In 1942, a year after the Blitz, my Grandmother was living with her three young sons in one of the great pre-welfare state social housing Peabody Estates, at the top of the Fulham Palace Road in Hammersmith. My Grandfather was operating an anti-aircraft gun on the south coast, so they didn’t see him for long stretches. One of her brothers was fighting in Africa and another was dying slowly in a prisoner of war camp in southeast Asia.
One night a bomb took the roof off the block they lived in and they had to leave. They didn’t know it, but they were lucky. A council map of bomb sites in West London shows their home was later destroyed completely by a V2, one of the first long range missiles. Homeless and without anyone around likely to help, she set off with the boys in tow to look for somewhere to live.
Image: The Peabody Estate in Hammersmith after a V2 attack in 1944.
In nearby Chancellors Road, she found a terraced house that had been abandoned. It was at a slight angle, as the whole terrace listed slightly toward a bomb crater three doors down. She persuaded a carpenter to change the locks and claimed the house. My family ended up renting it all the way up to 1989, not long before the Berlin Wall fell. My Mum was born in that house in the early fifties, had her wedding reception there and I was brought back to it from hospital when I was born a few months later. I lived there on and off with my Mum until I was seventeen. The house was still wonky – if you put a ball on the floor it would roll all the way to the wall.
My Grandmother was from Wexford in Ireland. She came to England in the twenties because an invisible bomb called Spanish Flu (which actually originated in Kansas during the First World War) killed her Dad and his poultry business, pushing her whole family into some very hard times.
So, I was born to the daughter of an immigrant who had herself come to London fleeing post-pandemic poverty. My first home was a house that my family claimed with squatters rights in the middle of a war-zone.
I’ve never thought of it like that.
Now I sit here with nothing apparently happening outside in comfort that would astonish my Grandmother. Despite the invisible bombs falling, and the struggle to save lives going on in care homes and hospitals around me, there is peace and time to reflect.
All these stories. Memories come up unbidden in lockdown. I’ve heard its quite common. A side effect of the sometime–stillness. Novels will be written about it, I’m sure.
Thank for reading this very personal letter. Like I said – they are a box of chocolates and this is the one that came out this morning.
I’m going to shake the remembering out of my head and get on with this week.
A friend asked on Twitter: “What two books would you recommend a new people manager reads and why?”
One book I recommended was The Prince, by Niccolò Macchiavelli.
Why on earth would I recommend a book by him? To people managers?
Well, I wouldn’t advise treating The Prince as a management manual – HR will have issues if you start destroying your enemies completely, and some of Niccolò’s misogyny is unforgivable to modern eyes. But if you’re going to read about leading and managing you might as well read something interesting, something that’s stood the test of time.
But isn’t Machiavelli short-hand for cunning and conniving and untrustworthy?
In short, yes – but we confuse Machiavelli with Machiavellian, the adjective that conjures scheming, sneakiness and self-interest. Such is the popular image of Niccolò Machiavelli that if you’d not read The Prince, you might think it was the intellectual equivalent of reading a shady pick-up artist guide or Donald Trump’s guide to deal-making. Why would you bother? You’re not that kind of person, are you?
Here are a few reasons why The Prince is still one of the best books on management and politics (often the same thing) and why you should read it and if you read it years ago (perhaps under academic duress) read it again, now that you are engaged in whatever variation of the Great Human Game of getting things done in groups has ended up as your calling.
Start with the source. The Prince is the original getting-things-done manual. A lot of advice about work, business and power is diluted re-telling of previous writers’ insights, watered down with platitudinous cant and fashionable feel-good-isms. Why bother reading recycled and re-packaged insights when you can read them in the original.
It is the longest surviving management manual. In the natural selection process of whether texts survive, The Prince pre-dates the printing press and hasn’t been out of print since print was a wave of disruptive new media.
Everything is political. Power is always a part of how organisations work. Politics are unavoidable. If you aren’t Machiavellian, you should understand how people who are that way inclined will behave to get their way, even at your expense. If you say – and I said it myself for years – “I try to steer clear of politics”, then you may as well say “I steer clear of ambitious projects that might make a real difference”. Politics is how everything gets done in groups.
It is a reminder that every author has an agenda. Few books make money for their authors, especially business books and leadership manuals. Niccolò wanted to save his backside by ingratiating himself with a Duke. He did this by providing the best demonstration of his usefulness that he could, The Prince. Some business books these days are written to boost a consultancy, set up a sideline in punditry and public speaking, or to boost a reputation.
It’s short. This is a virtue shared by too few business books. It makes its points and then leaves you to get on with its life. It has some respect for the reader.
The above are general points about the book. Here are some specific lessons from The Prince that will help any new people manager:
You lead for the benefit of the led and with their implicit consent. If you expect respect or compliance because of a new job title, you’re already on the wrong track. If you’re managing a person or a team you need to succeed by making them successful and not seek the credit for what they do.
Be unusual. Reputations are built on what you do differently, on the big challenges that you overcome.
Be alert to the need to adapt — and do it boldly when it is time to do so. Change will come, but we act as if it never will. Best to accept that it is coming and be ready when you see signs. The positive version of this is – change is good, and there are always opportunities if you look for them.
If you’re going to make changes an organisation, best to do it quickly. Ever lived through a six-month re-org? If not, I hope you never do. Everything else stops, no one can think about anything other than the change that will come.
Innovation requires power. To innovate you need to be in power, or as Thomas Cromwell puts it in Wolf Hall, “pick a prince”. In modern corporate parlance, find a senior sponsor for your brilliant project. Having a great idea and being passionate are not enough to get things to happen – you need support. That’s politics.
One more reason to read The Prince: If you’re a Hilary Mantel fan, this is a text that Thomas Cromwell owned in the original Italian. With the final part of her trilogy The Mirror and the Light out in March 2020, this would be a great preparatory read.
Herminia Ibarra was building on an insight from John Kotter‘s study of general managers which showed that the most successful individuals had the most unstructured time in their days, the most gaps in their diaries. Effectively they made themselves less busy.
“Capacity to lead” is such a useful phrase when thinking about being a leader and our relationship with being busy. Kotter’s more successful general managers had more capacity to lead because they hadn’t overcommitted themselves to meetings and other scheduled activities in advance.
Unstructured, uncommitted time means that you have more ability to respond to things in the moment. Perhaps it also means that you’re more available, more present in the main workplace, instead of being sequestered away in meeting rooms. You get to see and hear what’s going on, get a better idea of what’s happening.
Ibarra’s phrase – “capacity to lead” – is striking because it is so fundamental to the role of a CEO or another leader. If you are too busy, you reduce your capacity to lead, which is irresponsible if not incompetent. Worse, you are implicitly saying, through your actions and demeanour – this is what a leader looks like: busy, over-stretched, unavailable.
In saying your responsibility is to create and protect your capacity to lead, we head off that other unconscious bad habit of busy people, that being less busy – having time to reflect, talk to people, lend a hand where it is needed – is an aspirational luxury, and probably an unattainable one. This attitude is an abdication of responsibility and a denial of the power that they actually have in their working lives. “I’d love to spend some time thinking, but it isn’t going to happen.”
Leading is an endurance sport
The Olympic marathon champion, Joan Benoit Samuelson, talking about long training runs, says “You need to have the guts to go slow at the start”.
Guts. You have to be brave enough to hold back. To go slower than you know you could. It’s harder than it sounds.
On long runs –in races as well as training – when you start out on a 90 minute or longer run you start full of beans and a bit excited about the challenge. You discover you have lots of energy and want to go faster. Suddenly you’re moving a minute or two faster a mile than you wanted to. Perhaps you’re fitter than you thought? Maybe all the training and the rest has paid off more than you thought. The endorphins begin to enter your system and –wow– it occurs to you that you might actually be a superhuman.
An hour later with miles still to go and you’ve run out of glycogen and the easy stores of energy in your body, it’s harder to keep moving and you don’t feel like you’ve anything in the tank. You will finish through sheer bloody mindedness, but it won’t be pretty and there won’t be anything like a sprint finish. Kind of the opposite, in fact.
When you run well, you go slower at the start of a race, even if that means you see runners you know you could keep up with heading off into the distance. Then you go a little faster each mile, or maybe speed up a lot more towards the end–it’s called a negative split. In the middle of a race, if you run like this, you start to catch up the people that sped off at the start but have found out the hard way they won’t be able to keep that pace up. In the last third, you start over-taking people and keep doing so all the way to the end. I heard one coach describe this experience as “the tide goes out at the start, stops in the middle and comes in at the end”.
Perhaps because it is the beginning of the year her words came back to me in January. Rested and raring to go after the long Christmas break, I thought that I would come in and hit the first week at full speed. That’s what I need to do, right? That’s what bosses do.
No. No, it’s not.
Have the guts to go slower at the start. Have the guts to increase your capability to lead. January is a good time to spot behaviours you want to change as they start to reassert themselves after a long break.
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
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.
Tana French’s In the Woods was turned into the BBC series Dublin Murders this year, and The Wych Elm was published along with heartfelt endorsements from authors like Gillian Glynn and Stephen King.
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.
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.
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.’
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 TheFifth 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.
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.
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.
This is a very short book. You’re either going to read it because you like Lee Child’s writing or are curious what the author of the most successful contemporary series of books about an archetypal hero has to say on this subject. If you know someone who likes Lee Child, this may be the perfect gift.
I like Lee Child’s writing a lot. He delivers great Jack Reacher books on schedule once a year and more often than not they are brilliant, and always they are exactly what you want and expect from these stories. I am not damning with faint praise here – he is a superb writer. I heard – or read – him say once that he took a great deal of care over his sentences, and was always delighted by ones he liked, but that success was writing that didn’t draw attention to itself.
I mention this because this book is a lovely example of his writing outside of the Reacher series. It’s an essay on the origins of fiction and of the idea of the hero. Both the prose and the structure are a joy to read – just like Child’s fiction they pull you in, carefully, steadily and keep you transfixed. Friends have told me they read Reacher books faster than any other and the reason is the writing – it’s hard to take your attention away. It’s almost as if you are afraid you will miss something. That’s good writing.
I read it in one sitting.
The essay takes you on a waltz through history and anthropology and evolutionary psychology without ever showing off or slowing down.
TL;DR: “dynamic, self-adjusting system cannot be governed by a static, unbending policy” is academic for “everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face”.
Mike Tyson said, “Everybody has plans until they get hit.” In the odd process that popular quotations go through, it is often misquoted as “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.”
Tyson also said: “When you see me smash somebody’s skull, you enjoy it.” And: “This country wasn’t built on moral fiber. This country was built on rape, slavery, murder, degradation and affiliation with crime.” Unsurprisingly, neither of those one-liners has made it to as many inspirational slides in keynote presentations and self-help seminars as the one about plans going awry.
Donella Meadows was an environmental scientist, who contributed a lot to the developing field of systems thinking, especially in her books Systems Thinking: A Primer and The Limits to Growth, the latter being an ur-text in the environmental movement. The quote below is of the principles Meadows proposes in her article “Dancing with Systems”, in Whole Earth (published in 2001, the year she died).
I couldn’t find any accounts of Mike Tyson, world champion boxer and quotable killer, meeting Donella Meadows, but they were thinking along similar lines.
“You can imagine why a dynamic, self-adjusting system cannot be governed by a static, unbending policy. It’s easier, more effective, and usually much cheaper to design policies that change depending on the state of the system. Especially where there are great uncertainties, the best policies not only contain feedback loops, but meta-feedback loops–loops that alter, correct, and expand loops. These are policies that design learning into the management process.” – DH Meadows
There’s a lot going on there. I’m going to need to break it down and make some connections.
“…a dynamc, self-adjusting system…”
There are all kinds of systems. Once you understand them – throw in a working knowledge of network theory and ecology to speed you along – you see the whole world as systems, from the weather, the sun, the wildlife around us, to human cities, supply chains and less visible infrastructure. But I’m most interested in human social systems, and that’s what I’m talking about here. Partly because I lead – and what lead means in this context is a slippery concept – a group of humans in a company, and help leaders in other organisations do work in this area too.
All groups of humans are dynamic, self-adjusting systems. We lived in layers and interlocking lattices of human social networks. Someone does something, others respond then even more people feel the second and third order effects of those actions and make decisions and take actions as they perceive a new reality. Even with just a few people the connections and contexts people are working with and that are affecting each other makes the group a complex-adaptive system. Our brains probably evolved to be so big and capable because of the advantage that being able to live in and get things done with these social networks. There’s a perspective that says that high-order intelligence, language, art, culture and the whole shimmering wonder of humanity is a side-effect of our getting better at living in dynamic, self-adjusting systems.
…cannot be governed by a static, unbending policy.”
Planning is not a bad idea, unless you then pretend that what you have planned is the only way that things can play out. That’s the “unbending policy” that Meadows is talking about. A policy is another word for a plan. This is how we’re going to run things people, please read the paper and then do exactly what it says Or as close as you can…
A static policy is one that once the exhausted planners have agreed upon it, they will not change course. It has emerged in the plan as the answer, and fuck you if you don’t like that answer. This kind of plan, or attitude to plans is utterly pointless.
We’ve always known this. The two best quotes about plans are, of course Tyson (see above) and Moltke, the 19th Century military theorist who said “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.”
The reason that we get “static, unbending” planning is that we are simple creatures who like to understand the world through stories, and once we have a good story we will do almost anything not to let go of it.
So there are plans that might as well be cosmic ordering mumbo-jumbo – universe, please grant me this order of things (and accept the burning of this budgeted amount of money as tribute to your might). There are plans that are fantasy – this is how things will be because I will them to be thus.
You can’t bend complexity to your will by pretending it is just complicated and imposing your will upon it via “levers”.
Complicated vs. Complex A quick aside on this distinction, because it comes up a lot and I don’t think I’ve written one down before, although I’ve discussed the idea of tame and wicked problems (tame = complicated and wicked = complex). A process is complicated if you can, with sufficient analysis, accurately predict or control the outcome. If a process is complex you may be able to predict the outcome, but only after it has taken place. Connect 4 is complicated, chess is complex. Choosing which trains to get from London to Vienna is complicated, driving around the Arc de Triomphe is complex.
It’s a case of learning to see systems. Have a working model of your own organisation’s systems and then how it interacts with other systems. Start building and refining systems views. Don’t think of them as creating accurate maps, but as a way of exercising your ability to visualise systems. When I started reading about systems thinking I think I was hoping for a simple visual language and methodology for mapping systems. They don’t really exist. It’s useful to borrow from electrical systems, flow charts, and systems diagrams of all kinds, but ultimately you need to develop your own way of seeing them and explaining what you see to others.
No one of these systems views is going to show you the world as it is. They will give you other perspectives. Maybe you combine a few and try to triangulate the truth from their reference data. Whatever you do don’t pick a favourite, it means you are making yourself willfully blind to possibilities.
“…the best policies not only contain feedback loops, but meta-feedback loops–loops…”
That annoying acronym KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) is useful in mass communications but useless when it comes to managing systems.
None of them are pointless exercises, as long as you don’t cling to them too tightly once the enemy has been sighted, once causes generate effects, once actions start to be taken.
The most useful kind of planning is going will do two things:
Allows the planners to practice decision-making, responding, thinking about how they will measure and decide upon new courses of actions.
Sees the things that are within their sphere of control and influence, usually the team or company they are working within, as a dynamic system and how that system might change if they need it to.
“…design learning into the management process.”
This is about cadence of feedback loops. Building in reflection to rhythms of decision-making and review. Simple things that need to be repeated to the point where you don’t think about them, where you know that they are going to happen. But it also means that when you are drawing a system, or being so precocious as to design a system, you need to acknowledge the bits in the flows and the loops where the system can improve itself. It’s not just results, data, metrics that flow back in those feedback loops, it’s learning. “Learning is a deliverable”, is a useful catchphrase we sometimes bandy around. When you’re innovating, experimenting or – more importantly, having the humility to realise that the best laid plans are questions, and the best executions may be ones that bring back answers you weren’t expecting. Think of every outward flow in a systems loops diagram as a question and everything that comes back as a provocation, facts and findings that demand nothing less than another, slightly better question.
Systems thinking, more generally
Over the past few years, I’ve been learning about systems thinking and applying some of what I have learned to both what we do at Brilliant Noise and how the company itself works as a system.
So I know that I know a little, but also that I may be standing at “the peak of Mount Stupid” on this field. Must. Tread. Carefully. Treat this post then, dear reader, as notes from a novice rather than an authoritative account on the topic. (An attempt to dress it up as such would make the sermon from Mount Stupid, I suppose.)
On the recommendation of our excellent team coach, David Webster, I read Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline Handbook, a brilliant and applicable collection of practices and ideas about systems thinking in the workplace.
I’m now working my way steadily through Systems Thinkers, a collection of articles and essays by people who have contributed to the field since the 50s, when it was known as cybernetics. It is edited and given a useful commentary by Karen Shipp and Magnus Ramage.
I imagine, if you come back here, you’ll hear more on the subject soon.
The different approaches at WPP and Publicis are examined in an FT article today. While both companies have endured falling share prices for the past few years, there are signs that WPP may be beginning to recover. Meanwhile, Publicis is talking a good game, but the markets are impatient for them to deliver better results.
Mr Sadoun [CEO of Publicis] is attempting to survive a revolution with Publicis’ margins — the highest in the sector — intact. It is investing in its own data and technology to help brands “take back control” of their customer relationship, a service it believes clients will prize more highly. Mr Read, meanwhile, is trying to steady a listing ship, paying down debt, selling data assets and trying to bring closer the traditional and digital wings of the WPP empire.
The FT says that digital disruption has hit European advertising groups especially hard because they invested heavily in media agencies. Automation, declining media viewing, and better targeting have made digital ads more attractive and CPG / FMCG clients have “slashed their marketing spend” accordingly.
Publicis is taking a “bold and strong” approach to transforming the company, while WPP is:
managing expectations, tidying up the corporate structure and repairing its balance sheet, in large part by raising $3.1bn from the sale of a majority stake in Kantar, its data and research business. WPP returned to quarterly growth for the first time in a year, albeit with slimmer margins; the 0.7 per cent rate was even a touch ahead of the Big Four’s average.
The future for neither company is certain, however.
“What worries me,” said one gloomy veteran of the industry, “is that both of them may be wrong”.
The are complexities in this sector that may be hidden from the view of market analysts. Agency groups are good tackling tame problems, where the solution is known and just needs expertise and competence to manage the system, but marketing in the age of digital disruption does not have a set of challenges in a steady state. What’s required is rapid experimentation and learning, something that favours in-house marketing organsiations working with partners to speed up planning and execution. Media agencies are being hollowed out with talent migrating to jobs with platforms like Google and Facebook while many media agency jobs are being replaced by algorithms. Meanwhile, clients are deepening their digital capability and their relationships with the big ad platforms.
Marc Pritchard, CMO at P&G, is right when he says that the challenge is to reinvent the whole marketing ecosystem. That doesn’t mean a more technologically adept media agency, it means a re-framing of what the challenge is for marketers and a new system of technology, processes and partners to get brands the results they need.
Scott Galloway kills it with his combination of lo-fi diagrams and deadpan insights. For example, how much it costs each of the three streaming giants to win an Emmy:
Not that he leaves it to the pictures to do all the trash talk:
I believe Amazon’s $6 billion spend on original content is the most expensive hair plugs in history. Put another way, it costs a tech guy who looks like Jeff Bezos $6 billion to take his new girlfriend to the Emmys.