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My best reads of 2019

Writing about what I read in the past twelve months has become an annual ritual, part of the seasonal no-man’s-land between Boxing Day and New Year’s Eve when we relax and reflect and get confused about what day of the week it is.

This year I read 59 books (at the time of writing, anyway). You can see all of them and along with ratings and reviews on my Goodreads profile if you like. I’ve selected a top 5 in each of three categories: fiction, non-fiction and business.

It’s difficult to pick out just five, especially in fiction. I’ve not included some books I enjoyed immensely, but these are the five

Fiction top five

1. The Wall, by John Lanchester

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.

2. The Wych Elm, by Tana French

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.

An enticing stack of The Wych Elm in Waterstones.

3. The Testaments, by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood turned 80 a few weeks ago. She won the Booker Prize — shared with Bernardine Evaristo, for Girl, Woman, Other— for The Testaments.

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.

4. Machines Like Me, by Ian McEwan

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.

5. Libra, by Don DeLillo

An account of the John F Kennedy assassination, focusing on Lee Harvey Oswald. I picked it up after reading an interview with James Ellroy, who said it convinced him of the lone gunman theory where previously he had seen a conspiracy. The atmosphere and themes are close to Ellroy’s Underworld U.S.A. Trilogy. The terrible things emerge from a cross-hatch of small, selfish plots and plays by Mafiosi, CIA, FBI and assorted low-lives and one sad, lonely simpleton. The things that look like conspiracies in hindsight are accidents because the actual conspiracies never really achieve coherence.

Libra is the first DeLillo book I’ve read and I want to read more as soon as I can.

I’ll end this section with the opening paragraph of the book, which smacks you round the brain with an image of Oswald as a child, riding a subway train in New York:

This was the year he rode the subway to the ends of the city, two hundred miles of track. He liked to stand at the front of the first car, hands flat against the glass. The train smashed through the dark. People stood on local platforms staring nowhere, a look they’d been practising for years. He kind of wondered, speeding past, who they were. His body fluttered in the fastest stretches. They went so fast sometimes he thought they were on the edge of no-control. The noise was pitched to a level of pain he absorbed as a personal test. Another crazy-ass curve. There was so much iron in the sound of those curves he could almost taste it, like a toy you put in your mouth when you are little.

Non-fiction top five

1. Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, by Benjamin Dreyer

The title page of the American edition of Dreyer’s English

What a book!

After reading an interview with Benjamin Dreyer, copy chief Random House, I knew I would love this book and ordered a copy from the United States. When the UK edition was published, I’ve got two more copies for our library at Brilliant Noise. Here’s what I wrote in my review:

I‘m not sure I’ve ever a style guide — and this is not quite that but close enough — from cover-to-cover before. Certainly, I’ve never enjoyed one as much as this. Dreyer gives us as much of his experience and advice about writing as he can get out of his head and onto the page. He’s clear about where there aren’t rules and where taste and style matter — and then lays down his taste like the law, but in such a charming and wry way that you will love it.

This is a book a joy for people who write a great deal — but I think that anyone with an interest in writing a little better than they do already would get a lot from this book, especially the first two thirds. The last third is more a reference work in list form of things to do or not to do.

I won’t read it from start to finish again, but I will be keeping a copy within arm’s reach of my desk at home and I’ve ordered one for our office library too. I have a feeling that one may not be enough there — it’s going to be in demand.

I note that a game based on the book will be out in the summer. I can’t wait…

Evidence that Dreyer’s English sits on my desk as an essential reference.

2. Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams, by Matthew Walker

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.

3. The Science of Storytelling, by Will Storr

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.

4. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, by Yuval Noah Harari

Many books on this list are ones I found it hard to stop reading once I started. As I read several books at the same time, the sign that I’ve found something really special is often that all the others are set aside for a few days while I focus completely on the one text.

That wasn’t the case with 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. At first, it felt like a series of essays. Less compelling than Harari’s two previous books’ grand narratives about the past (Sapiens) and future (Homo Deus), I wondered if it was cynical cash in on his success, a collection of articles packaged together by the publisher to tide us over until his next great work was complete.

As I read on, however, I grew more engrossed in the themes he was addressing: the of power stories (it’s a great book to pair with The Science of Storytelling), our relationship with technology and change, ways that society is likely to change in the next few decades.

This isn’t necessarily a book with all the answers, but it has some damn good questions. It’s a book for grown-up minds that don’t need all of their answers wrapped up in twenty-minute inspiring talks or feel-good self-help manuals.

Let me share one quote which I have used a couple of times at the end of this year, and that speaks to the challenges of our times and that is typical of the thoughtful provocations and insights in the book:

Panic is a form of hubris. It comes from the smug feeling that I know exactly where the world is heading — down. Bewilderment is more humble, and therefore more clear-sighted. If you feel like running down the street crying ‘The apocalypse is upon us!’, try telling yourself ‘No, it’s not that. Truth is, I just don’t understand what’s going on in the world.’

It’s a good place to start.

5. Systems Thinkers, by Magnus Ramage and Karen Shipp

In the spirit of inquiry and of accepting the uncertainty and complexity of our world, as set out in Harari’s book, I took a whole year to work through the last of my five picks for non-fiction books. For years I’ve been attempting to understand my company as a system, and in the last 18 months or so I’ve intensified my efforts to understand and put to work the ideas in the field of systems thinking. Naively, I was hoping there was a manual somewhere that would have a step-by-step guide to drawing a tube map-like diagram of how an entity like a business works. As none seemed to exist, I realised I needed to go deeper into the topic. Having read Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, I knew some of the principles (Senge is one of the thinkers the book includes).

Looking for a primer on the subject I came across Systems Thinkers, written by two academics from the Open University. It is an expensive coursebook — the Kindle version was nearly £50 — but I treated the expense and the reading of the book like a distance learning course, which made it all seem a little more reasonable.

Over the year I worked through the chapters, each describing a major figure in the field of systems thinking and what they contributed, followed by an excerpt from one of their books or articles. There are 25 people profiled across seven phases in the development of the systems thinking over the past 100 years, from early cybernetics to learning systems. The ideas are big and hard to grasp at times — one book cited is called How Real is Real? — but I did find intellectual slog in some the sections is leavened by details of eccentricities and strange working patterns of some of the thinkers — one knits while chairing intense discussions, one refuses to move universities because it would endanger his vast network of connected ideas that he has captured in a pre-web “hyperlinked” set of index cards, someone else looks and speaks like an 1860s evangelical preacher while working at MIT in the 1960s.

Systems thinking has an influence on so many ideas and — a splinter from it is renamed “artificial intelligence, the concept of ecosystems comes from it, some of those profiled use their insights in work as software engineering consultants, family therapists and management consultants — and insights from the middle of the twentieth century still sound fresh and even challenging today, fifty or sixty years later.

Business books top five

Image: From Libreria bookshop, near Brick Lane in London

My choice of business books is never going to be everyone’s bag. I read business books for specific reasons more than for general knowledge or inspiration. These five are books that made an impression and that I think I will refer again in the coming months. 

1. The Future of the Professions: How Technology Will Transform the Work of Human Experts, by Richard and Daniel Susskind

A superb and in-depth analysis of the prospects for the professions – knowledge workers with barriers to entry to their field, like lawyers, doctors and accountants – which also has a huge amount of relevance for anyone who will be working in the next couple of decades. 

Why this book is useful is because of the rigour and the critical analysis of the authors. It is – depending on the frame you choose to adopt – either inspiring or terrifying. Professionals and knowledge workers are both on the verge of being hugely disrupted by technologies including machine learning and automation. I’ll read it again and would urge anyone interested in these questions to put it to the very top of their reading list. 

A choice excerpt from The Future of The Professions

2. Agile Transformation: Structures, Processes and Mindsets for the Digital Age, by Neil Perkin

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.

3. The Firm: The Inside Story of McKinsey, The World’s Most Controversial Management Consultancy

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 planningconglomeration and core competence and the political and economic contexts of their times. 

4. Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel, by Tom Wainwright 

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.

5. Bad Blood: Secrets & Lies in aa Silicon Valley Startup, by John Carreyrou

What a story…

Elisabeth Holmes, a Stanford dropout, starts a company that will be the iPhone of medicine – unbelievably easy, cheap and fast blood testing. Unbelievable, because it wasn’t true. However, thanks to its charismatic, well-connected founder and a growing pile of venture capitalist cash, it was able to cause people to suspend disbelief for long enough that actual pharmacies started using their service with actual people. 

Books about massive screw-ups, disasters and corruption are fascinating first for the mistakes, but also for the look inside companies that they provide. 

This story is a fable of the hokum of positive thinking (a.k.a. magical thinking) that makes people think it is just wanting something enough that is required to bend reality and deliver a breakthrough. No one believed in this company more than Elizabeth Holmes, to the point where dissent was an unforgivable violation and where unfortunate people’s health was disregarded. 

How could this happen? Well, greed. Incompetence. Cults of personality. It’s not new and it’s not over. There are Theranos-clones in business now, building up their hype and hoping not to get outed before they IPO. We await the books about Adam Neumann’s WeWork shenanigans with interest. 

Previous years’ book-lists

Previously, I posted these lists on Medium and cross-post to my blog. For the sake of consistency and ease of reference, I’ll pull the links together here.

Image: And a little one that I wrote – Better Marketing (free download).

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HBR exec summaries

I love this executive summaries section at the end of the paper version of the Harvard Business Review. I don’t know if it has been running for years or just started, but it’s very useful in helping decide — do I want to give these X,000 words my attention?

They should put it up front really, to make it even more useful.

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One of Microsoft’s new CEO’s strengths? He doesn’t finish business books…

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When Microsoft’s new CEO was announced last week, there was a great deal of commentary about his  – doubtless very carefully crafted – introductory email to the company.

Part of Satya Nadella‘s description of himself made me immediately empathetic:

Many who know me say I am also defined by my curiosity and thirst for learning. I buy more books than I can finish. I sign up for more online courses than I can complete. I fundamentally believe that if you are not learning new things, you stop doing great and useful things. So family, curiosity and hunger for knowledge all define me.

There are two things that make me like Mr Nadella a bit from reading that quote. First: I do that too. Last night I flicked through the books on my Kindle – there are  so many interesting ones there that I’ve barely started or not started at all. It’s a teetering, digital monument to curiosity and to having an appetite for learning that is beyond my current means (in terms of time, mainly) to support. 

The second thing that warms me to his statement is its echo of what I was talking about in my post last week, Finishedness – realising that you can’t, and often shouldn’t, finish everything that you start. This ability is strength, contrary to the puritan work ethic/completer-finisher fallacy.

Mr Nadella’s email  was a positioning exercise – mainly in distancing himself from the style of his predecessor, the bombastic Steve Ballmer. The latter didn’t talk much about his reading habits – and would be more likely to reel off the number of books completed – a PB roll-call of reading velocity.

In the age of digital superabundance of information, leaders must be curious and hungry to learn, but also mindful that they cannot hope to read everything, to learn everything that they would like to. It’s the larger scale version of FOMO (fear of missing out) – applied to thinking and knowledge rather than social network updates, but the same in essence.

Mr Nadella’s statement shows self-awareness, acceptance of his limitations and a desire for continual learning. Whatever he does with Microsoft in the next few years, in this aspect he has the right stuff to be a digital leader.

Image credit: (cc) Official Le Web photos

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New technology boosts the old

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As cheerleaders for incumbent media often point out, the old is rarely replaced by the new. Newspapers weren’t killed by radio, radio wasn’t killed by TV, TV wasn’t killed by online video – etc., etc.

Sometimes new technology boosts the old.

Dipping in again to the excellent Writing on the Wall: Social Media, the First 2,000 Years, I read:

Printing pushed up demand for paper throughout Europe, encouraging production and making it cheaper (its price fell by 40 percent during the fifteenth century) and more widely available. Printed books promoted literacy and writing manuals could be produced in quantity.

We can see a similar effect today with writing and books. Earlier in Writing on the Wall, Tom Standage notes that book writing was a serious undertaking in Roman times. You had to be literate, rich enough to have a dedicated cohort of slaves for scribing and couriering purposes during the research, notable enough to throw a top-notch launch party and – by some advice of the time – spend about nine years perfecting your manuscript before releasing it into the network of copyists (all reproduction was by hand, of course).

Now writing – and publishing – books is within the grasp of anyone. A cynic would say that you don’t even need that high a degree of literacy.

In the US, 391,000 books were self-published, only about a third of these were e-book only titles. In fact, an article in the Guardian notes, this figure is conservative:

The exclusion of hundreds of thousands of titles published without an ISBN, including many titles on Amazon’s Kindle store, means that the increase of 422% since 2007 this represents is likely to be an underestimate of the size of the self-publishing sector.

Rather than reach for the pessimist’s fall-back of the monkey-typewriter paradigm, recognise this for what it is – a golden age of reading and – even more – writing. New forms of media are making old forms easier for everyone to access and work with, once again.

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We don’t just read novels, we live them

A neuroscience research project suggests that when we read novels we create a connection with the protagonist, a change that is visible in fMRI brain scans and that persists for five days.

“The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist,” said neuroscientist Professor Gregory Berns, lead author of the study.

“We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.”

Read with all the usual caveats – a single study, filtered by journalists etc. – but I like the idea, any reader would agree: a good book changes your mind, puts you in an altered state. What's interesting about the study of course, is how long the effects seem to last.

I'd love to see a similar study for watching a good film.

Image: A profile of Jack Reacher by Lee Child, his creator, on the Mysterious Bookshop imprint.

 

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Tools and distraction

20130922-075659.jpgDespite having at least four other devices with Kindle apps on them at any given moment at home or work, my reading weapon of choice is the Kindle Paperwhite.

I rip through books on it, lose myself in them fast and deeply. Two reasons: first, there is less pull from the web and apps; second, the little “time left in book” statistic in the bottom-left corner seems to help me focus. The effect of the latter is a little like using the Pomodoro technique – it gives a sense of manageable scale and progress through the text. There may also be that effect some drivers report of their satnav’s estimated time of arrival at a destination – the temptation to beat the computer’s prediction.

I thought about this after reading this passage in Clive Thompson’s excellent Smarter Than You Think:

For my money, there’s a far more immediate danger to the quality of our in-brain memory: that old op-ed page demon, distraction. If you want to internalize a piece of knowledge, you’ve got to linger over it. You can’t flit back and forth; you have to focus for a reasonable amount of time, with mental peace. But today’s digital environment rarely leaves you any such peace.

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Maria Popova and life as “a reader who writes”

Writing tools

When I look at Maria Popova and her work on Brainpickings, I feel admiration, inspiration and a little jealousy. She takes something that is important to me – blogging, writing and the collecting of fascinating things – to a logical extreme, making a profession of it. She’s made a life and living out of sharing insights and ideas about writing, reading and thinking.

It was interesting to say the least to read an interview with her on Copyblogger. The post begins with her description of herself – “A reader who writes” –  which gives a nice perspective on how she thinks about her work.

You must read the whole thing, of course, but here are a couple choice quotes that I highlighted:

I’m not an expert and I aspire never to be one. As Frank Lloyd Wright rightly put it, “An expert is a man who has stopped thinking because ‘he knows.’” Brain Pickings began as my record of what I was learning, and it remains a record of what I continue to learn – the writing is just the vehicle for recording, for making sense.

 

That said, one thing I’ve honed over the years – in part by countless hours of reading and in part because I suspect it’s how my brain is wired – is drawing connections between things, often things not immediately or obviously related, spanning different disciplines and time periods. I wouldn’t call that “expertise” so much as obsession.

She also reads constantly. I sympathise with this – I’m a less extreme version of the way she reads, but I like to fill as much time as I can with reading and listening to interesting things…

Practically (pathetically?) every waking moment, with the exception of the time I spend writing and a couple of hours in the evening allotted for some semblance of a personal life. I do most of my long-form reading at the gym (pen and Post-Its and all), skim the news while eating (a questionable health habit, no doubt), and listen to philosophy, science, or design podcasts while commuting on my bike (hazardous and probably illegal). Facetiousness aside, however, I have no complaints – as the great Annie Dillard put it, “a life spent reading – that is a good life.”

Lastly, I like the discipline that accompanies her obsession. There’s just one way through a block, she says….

It’s different for everyone, of course, but I find that you break through that alleged “block” simply by writing. As Tchaikovsky elegantly put it, “A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.”

As I say, I completely adore her work, both the output and her approach. Part of me dreams of following the path she has, of giving myself over to the reading and the writing. But, I’ve chosen my path and for now other passions take the centre stage of my attention and the majority share of my time.

 

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Why I finish books

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Living with ebooks, as I have been since I bought my first iPad a few years back, has changed my reading. It’s also given me more ways of understanding how I read and how I want to read.

Let’s get the nostalgia out of the way first. I miss paper books. I still read paper books, occasionally, but usually for specific, diminishing reasons. The first reason is that I can’t get a Kindle version of a book, or I already own the paper version. Both of these reasons are diminishing: the former because more and more books, even ones that were out of print are becoming available electronically; the latter is less of an issue as time passes because, due to the convenience of ebooks for note-taking, portability etc., I will sometimes buy ebook versions of the paper ones I own – if I’m using them for reference on a project, for instance, or in a couple of cases of fiction, because I love them so much and I want to have them with me when I’m travelling or just not at home.

At least that’s the case for non-fiction – sometimes, I love to read on paper. I think of it as hi-fidelity reading though – it’s a luxury, a treat – about time and place as much of the medium.

I’ve always read several books at the same time. Different books for different reasons and different times of day – some for projects, some for things I’m studying, some instructional, some fiction. With ebooks this habit has continued but with the number of books expanding even further. I’ll read some in bursts and then put them aside for a few days, weeks or months, and then pick them up again.

The other habit that has continued from reading paper books to ebooks – and been similarly exaggerated in the transition – is not finishing them.

Business or popular science books that lose their hold on my attention halfway through, get left behind, put on the virtual shelf.

I used to feel bad about not finishing books, but this was some kind of a vestigial puritan instinct, something about not letting things go to waste, finishing what you’ve started. Really, it’s a healthy habit – not all books deserve to be finished, not all need to be finished. There are other things you could be doing.

Rather than asking myself “why don’t I finish books?”, as if I had some kind of reading disorder, or lacked moral fibre, it is much more interesting to ask: “why do I finish books?” and then to wonder what that tells me about good writing.

Not finishing books is mostly a non-fiction phenomenon. Fiction books pull me through to the end with plot, with their beginnings, middles and ends. Non-fiction books rarely pull that trick off and very often fail to cohere past the first third.

A good many non-fiction books would benefit from being either shorter or serialised – Kindle singles hold some promise in this area, thought I’m not sure how well that format is doing. Not every non-fiction work needs to be 60,000 words plus (the minimum length for most paperbacks). A great example of an author showing restraint is Paul Adams’s Grouped, which is exactly the right length for what he has to say about social networks – about 45,000 words/170 pages.

To hold our attention and to be useful, books should be useful in every chapter – I’m not sure that this is the case. I think they get padded – stretched to fit the format. Chunking things up in to 10,000 word segments would suit readers and save authors a lot of time too.

Whether new lengths and formats catch on for ebooks is something I’m watching closely. Especially as I definitely have another book in me right now – I just need to decide how it should come out, as it were.

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Public notebook

Hi-fidelity reading

The paperback book I am reading right now is The Big Sleep and Other Novels, by Raymond Chandler.  It’s a lovely Penguin Classics imprint, thick and light and good to hold.

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I bought it a month ago in paper version because I want to read it slowly, closely (as Francine Prose recommends). I first read Chandler when I was thirteen and fell in love – deeply – with his style. Coming back to it now is thrilling, especially taking time to read it word by word, feeling the shape of the sentences and paragraphs, letting the bright, colourful imagery hang in my mind for a few moments.

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Chandler writes in high definition. It’s prose that you want to play out on the best possible system: a relaxed mind, a calm room, off an analogue page that has texture, where the text has been imprinted.

I’m a reader and sometimes a writer, much more than I am a muso or a musician. So a paper page, read in a softly lit bedroom or attic study, with a warm drink next to me and near silence in the house – that’s the equivalent of an audiophile putting a vinyl disc onto a high-end turntable, connected to some valve-driven amp and played out through some speakers that cost as much as your car.

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Public notebook

Holiday reading

In case you are looking for some ideas about what to read in the remainder of the summer, here are the books that have tickled my fancy over the summer months.

How I Escaped My Certain Fate, by Stewart Lee

Autobiographical story – interspersed with transcripts of some his shows – by my favourite stand-up comedian/ The book recounts his seeming career collapse, re-invention and return to stand-up comedy.

Take that it is utterly hilarious throughout as a given. Beyond that, what it gives a really interesting insight into the business of comedy and Lee’s creative/artistic methods. It doesn’t set out to be be or ever really use the tone of a profound book, but it is – there’s rich inspiration and example here for anyone thinking about being true to their own ideals or trying to remember, re-work what they do for a living.

NB: I read this on the Kindle app, even though Lee says he wrote it hoping it would only work on paper. It worked fine for me, although maybe I missed the point… ;)

Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, by Lawrence Block

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A book about writing fiction by one of my favourite crime authors (Lawrence Block wrote the amazing Matt Scudder series, set in late-70s, early-80s New York – well worth tracking down). Like How I Escaped My Certain Fate, it sets itself against the conventions of its genre, for instance stressingjust how hard writing is, what a work of hackery pulling together thousands of words is, truths I can attest to after my own non-fiction effort.

This is one of a number of books I’d read, or at leat read in part, before. Again, a joy of the Kindle is that I re-visited it on a whim, re-downloading it from my archive while away on holiday.

Anathem, by Neal Stephenson

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This is a multi-layered, cerebral sci-fi joy. But don’t let that put you off…

It’s a lovely book of ideas, but I’ll freely admit, it’s a bit geeky and if you’re not prepared to roll with the conceptual stuff and pages of people explaining scientific or metaphysical theory to each other you might not like it. Worked for me though…

The Psychopath Test, by Jon Ronson

An account by Jon Ronson of his research into the tickbox method of diagnosing psychopathy as a condition. Along the way he prods at fascinating subjects like the way that all mental illnesses are categorised (by some shouty psychaitrists in a small meeting room was the original approach a couple of decades ago – loudest theories win) and how madness exists at the edges of many people’s lives.

I ripped through this in a couple of days. It’s part gripping yarn – scientologists, war criminals and psychopaths-next-door rub shoulders in Ronson’s story – and part essay on what mental illness really means to us all. Highly recommend this…

The Power of Pull, by John Hagel and John Seely Brown

This is another book I pulled back out of my archive, partly because it speaks to a strategy project I’ve been working on and partly because it felt like it was time to revisit the source material for some ideas that have been exerting a strong pull on a lot of my work. It’s a business book, pure and simple, about how innovation and markets are speeding up as a consequence of the social web, and what strategies organsiations can put in place to thrive in this environment.

Business books I read all the way through are a minority. This is one of an even rarer breed: books I re-read… Probably as important to me now as The Origin of Wealth has been for the past half decade or so.

Change by Design, by Tim Brown

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Design thinking has come in for a bit of flack lately, but it still stands as an amazingly useful way to approach any challenge, from designing a physical object to planning a marketing campaign. I’ve put the ideas to work in refining my Networks Thinking perspective and in designing the next phase of my business.

What’s interesting as well, to connect it with The Power of Pull’s themes, is how quickly some of the case studies have aged. This book was written in 2009, but already since then some markets and companies have moved on a great deal – not least the mobile industry which has been turned on its head in the past three years. Is design thinking is optimal as an approach for tactical, practical issues but doesn’t address strategic issues, despite its ambitions? I’m not sure about the answer to that, but its something I’m mulling at the moment…