Summer Reading List: Blasts from the Past
Winter is gone and summer is here! Time to hit the beaches, refresh, re-energize and have some fun!
It’s also a good time to catch up on some reading, but before you go and waste good time and money on some jackass of the hour making the rounds of the talk show circuit, think again.
You might be better off reading something that has stood the test of time. There are many great books, full of wisdom and available in paperback (always a plus in these trying times). So here’s a list of edifying, yet thoroughly enjoyable reads that are a decade old or more.
CEO memoirs are always hit and miss (and usually more miss). A chief executive’s ego often lends itself more towards self-aggrandization than to the introspection required for good writing. However, Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance about Lou Gerster’s turnaround of IBM and Only the Paranoid Survive by Intel’s Andy Grove are both excellent and instructive.
Summer is also a good time to develop your overall knowledge and skills. Dixit and Nalebuff’s Thinking Strategically provides a useful guide to game theory and Nobel prizewinning economist Thomas Schelling offers a more technical, but still readable account in The Strategy of Conflict.
What Management Is, by Harvard’s Joan Magretta, gives you all the benefits of an MBA without the student loans and while Steven J. Gould was a biologist, not a businessman, his book Full House is a interesting and fun way to learn basic statistical and analytical concepts.
If you’re looking for something more industry specific, Bruce Wasserstein provides a fantastic (albeit lengthy) overview of finance in Big Deal, while Kotler on Marketing and Ogilvy on Advertising are timeless must-read primers. John Grant’s New Marketing Manifesto isn’t so new anymore, but its concepts are still cutting edge.
Of course, no list of classic business books would be complete without Peter Drucker. All of his books are worthwhile, but The Effective Executive is a personal favorite of mine. However, I would recommend even more highly his autobiographical Adventures of a Bystander. An absolute delight!
Technology, Innovation and Creativity
As our lives become increasingly digital, interest has understandably grown in technology and innovation. There have been a slew of books out in recent years covering these topics. Some are excellent, but most are crap. You might think that to understand the incredible changes underway you have to read something recent, but you’d be wrong.
The best (and most readable) thing you can read about the Web, even the Semantic Web, is still Weaving the Web, by Tim Berners-Lee, the guy who invented the thing. John Naughton’s A Brief History of the Future gives a comprehensive account of how the Internet developed and Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media seems as insightful today as it was when he wrote in 1964.
Of course, many of the trendy tech ideas bandied around today are anything but new. Thomas Kuhn coined the term “paradigm shift” in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1962. Richard Dawkins came up with the meme concept back in 1976 in The Selfish Gene.
Want to understand nanotechnology? Print out and read Richard Feynman’s 1959 talk There’s Plenty of Room at The Bottom in which he lays it all out in his clear, entertaining style. Amazing!
Finally, if you want to know how to unlock creativity, Robert Weisberg’s Creativity: Beyond the Myth of Genius is a little known gem and Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things remains the ultimate guide to user experience.
Chaos, Complexity and Networks
As barriers break down and the marketplace becomes more frictionless, we need to manage with a greater understanding of complex systems. This is a new and emerging area, but yet again there’s a lot of value in seeking wisdom from the past.
James Gleick’s Chaos chronicles the development of the new science that Benoit Mandelbrot helped to pioneer. However, the great man didn’t come up with an account readable for laymen until 2006, so I’m going to have to cheat and recommend The (Mis)Behavior of Markets (although it covers his work from the 1960’s, so I don’t feel so bad).
Of course, the most salient aspect of chaos and complexity these days is network theory. Alas, the basic principles weren’t uncovered until 1998, so I’m going to have to nudge the 10-year rule a bit again. Nevertheless, Duncan Watts’ Six Degrees and Albert-László Barabási’s Linked both predate Facebook and remain the best (and most readable) books on the subject by far.
Ever wanted to know what it would be like to peer into the mind of a genius? No need to be afraid. Richard Feynman’s Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman and G. H. Hardy’s A Mathematicians Apology are short, entertaining books that you can polish of in a weekend but will change your thinking for life.
If you’re feeling in a philosophical mood, you might want to pick up Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy. It’s massive but modular and written in his clear, witty style so it’s perfectly suitable to read a section or two between dips in the ocean. Godel’s Proof is more challenging, but wholly worth the effort.
I’m sure I’ve left some out and am also putting together my own list to read over the summer. So feel free to leave your suggestions in the comments below.