“The worst thing about new books is that they keep us from reading the old ones,” said Joseph Joubert. At least that’s what The QI Book of Advanced Banter says, and it was one of the more enjoyable ones I read last year. It is a book of quotations so perhaps it’s not everyone’s cup of tea even though I do believe that reading outside pure technology and business still informs what you do in those spaces. I asked the Radar folks for the best books they read in 2010 and perhaps somewhere in this list of recommendations you’ll find something that tickles your fancy enough to push aside the old books.
T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets is a masterpiece. I don’t know how I missed it before this year. How can you not love a poem that says things like:
There is, it seems to us,
At best, only a limited value
In the knowledge derived from experience.
The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in every moment
And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been….
Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.
So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.
On a more work-related note, Atul Gawande’s Checklist Manifesto has got me thinking a lot. It’s a really interesting take on the problem of complexity and how to get better results when we know what the right process ought to be but don’t find ourselves following it.
I continue to be fascinated by the financial collapse and I keep trying to read as much as I can about it.
My favorite book on the subject is Michael Lewis’s The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine. Lewis has found a good story in a group of outsiders who figured out what was going wrong with mortgage-based securities and bet against the industry. I wanted Lewis to go further and reflect on what the collapse meant but he didn’t.
I also went back and read Lewis’s Liar’s Poker which was based on his experience becoming a trader at Salomon Brothers after graduating from Princeton with a degree in Art History. He recognized the ways that Wall Street were changing.
One of my favorite quotes:
Ask any astute trader and he’ll tell you that his best work cuts against the conventional wisdom. Good traders tend to do the unexpected. We, as a group, were painfully predictable. By coming to Salomon Brothers, we were doing only what every sane money-hungry person would do. If we were unable to buck convention in our lives, would we be likely to buck convention in the market? After all, the job market is a market.
Not only is his personal story interesting but the first mortgage-back security industry was created during the late 1980s when Lewis was at Salomon Brothers.
I also read Too Big To Fail by Andrew Ross Sorkin. It’s informative and a good read but it’s short of enlightening. You do get a feel for who was doing what when and the utter surprise expressed by players such as Richard Fuld of Lehman Brothers that Wall Street and their professional lives were in crisis.
I’m currently reading the delightfully titled All the Devils are Here: A Hidden History of the Financial Crisis by Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera It’s opening chapter is about Lewis Ranieri of Salomon Brothers. I’m still trying to understand what it all means but it’s pretty clear that the government and Wall Street conspired to create the crisis and failed to work to avert it.
On a separate subject, I enjoyed Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne. It’s a history of the Comanche Indians, their mastery of horses and warfare, and their ability to survive on the edge of white settlements in West Texas.
It is one of history’s great ironies that one of the main reasons Mexico had encouraged Americans to settle in Texas in the 1820’s and 1830’s was because they wanted a buffer against Comanches, a sort of insurance policy on their borderlands.
Violence and Social Orders. A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History, by Douglass C. North, John Joseph Wallis, and Barry R. Weingast.
Read this book and next time you read in the paper that Karzai’s government is corrupt, instead of releasing a deep sigh and shaking your head at the futility of it all, you will instead think “well, no shit, Afghanistan is an immature natural state and the distribution of patronage is how they keep from killing each other.” This book’s framework of “Natural States” and “Open Access Societies” will give you new lenses to view everything from the devolution of Putin’s Russia to the authoritarian trajectory of growth in China to the emergence of the Tea Party in the United States and you will certainly view third world development programs differently. You may find yourself shaking your head at all the fuss about constitutional literalism when it is more likely state-level laws of incorporation that have had the greater practical impact on America’s success as an open access society. But you may also find yourself wondering about the fundamental robustness of open access orders and under what circumstances one might regress, in particular the one you might be living in. Simply put, this book has had more impact on my worldview and the subtlety with which I grasp world events than any other ten books I’ve read in a decade.
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann.
A gem of a novel comprising interwoven stories set in New York during the days around Philip Petit’s 1974 twin-tower tightrope walk. The book drew me in with characters–hookers, socialites, broke Irish immigrants, a priest, a judge, a nurse (to name just a few)–who grapple with intriguing relationships and gripping dilemmas. The writing is beautiful, which is a funny thing to say about a book that’s permeated by a sense of decay (this is one of those books in which–cliche alert–the bankrupt-era New York is itself a character). And it also manages a gratifying balance of nine parts despair to one part hope. I came away from it feeling like I understood people and New York and great writing a little better. PS. Everyone I’ve recommended it to has loved it.
Sh*t My Dad Says by Justin Halpern.
An hilarious book with quips from a dad to his son; but not your typical dad, this guy is smart, very smart, medical research smart. His dialog with his sons teeters in and out of the proverbial gutter. Got to love a book like this as it not only will have you belly-laughing but will also make you think a bit more when you get into discussions with your kids.
Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer.
I’ve been a vegetarian for 22 years and very little in this book was a surprise to me. However, I was riveted from page 1. The book is beautifully written and takes a different approach from many of the other books I’ve read on the implications of eating animals. The author considers everything from animal welfare to the dynamics of family when considering food. His main purpose in researching and writing the book was his new son; he wanted to know if it was safe and a good idea to feed his son meat. His conclusion was a definite no. Along the way, we learn about the life of animals on factory farms and how the life of animals on farms has changed so drastically over the past 80 years. We learn about how the factory farm business is not just bad for animals, but bad for the humans who work (and are often exploited) there. And we learn just how devastating factory farms and modern food chains are to the planet.
For anyone who cares even the slightest little bit about what they put in their body and the implications of your food choices on… well, pretty much everything, this book is a must read.
Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth about Climate Change by Clive Hamilton.
I already knew we (the human species, the planet and every other living thing on it) are pretty screwed, but this book lays out just how screwed we really are. While the author doesn’t promise some wind, solar, carbon capture or geo-engineering solution nicely packaged and ready for us, he does end a slightly positive note – even though we’re screwed, we are human beings and we don’t give up easily and after we despair for and then accept our lost future, we will act and in the process discover another, different future (although surely one with significantly fewer numbers of us in it). I liked this book because while it discusses the mechanics and causes of climate change, the focus is primarily on the psychology of climate change, which is an endlessly fascinating topic if you’re interested in why humans do the things they do. And the psychology of why we are destroying the very thing that allows us to live is ultimately fascinating.
Ben pointed me to two of his blog posts about books he’s read:
- What every aspiring Investment Banker should know about Wall Street (about Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street)
- Manufacturing in China: Two Recent Perspectives (about Poorly Made in China , but also mentions a book from the previous year Factory Girls)
I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett. There aren’t enough stars for this character and this book. You might not like Pratchett’s style or his sense of humour but his sense of humanity, and what it means to be human, is unparalleled. He makes us find sympathy for people even as he unveils their ugly side, and writes as though he loves us, warts and all.
What To Do When You Become the Boss by Bob Selden. Really enjoyed this: full of down-to-earth practical advice for the new manager. He divides the job into leadership, management, and operations. He talks about how to motivate other people, how to set performance standards, how to hire, how to fire, how to manage your boss, and more. None of it is theory only–he talks about what you want to achieve, and then shows the meetings and steps you’d take to achieve it. I’m going to keep referring back to this one until I have it under my skin.
Packing for Mars by Mary Roach. Mary Roach remains one of my favourite writers. “Bonk” was hilarious and “Packing for Mars” is just as good. She has Bill Bryson’s gift of gentle humour, classic timing, and graceful yet straight dealing of topics others tiptoe around. I annoyed everyone in the house by laughing out loud nearly continuously as I read the book. Unreservedly recommended.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. What is informed consent? Those four words are the crux of this brilliant piece of non-fiction, which traces the follow-on effects of a poor black woman’s cancer cells becoming the most widely-used and widely-copied cells in science. The author is sensitive, intelligent, and an excellent writer. I loved it, and it made me think hard about our attitudes towards doctors, towards patients, towards research, and towards ethics.