Summer Reading List: Books That Make You Think
Ahhhh Summer! It looks like it’s gonna be a good one. Despite the lousy economy, we have a lot to look forward to this year.
London will host the Olympics (let’s hope the weather will be better than the food!), Barak Obama and Mitt Romney will be slagging each other off all summer long, nearly guaranteeing us at least one juicy scandal and even the wars seem to be winding down.
In between the endless hours of sun and fun we also have time to catch up on some reading. Like in previous years, I’m providing a list with a theme. This year, it’s books that inspire thought. Some are very readable, others more challenging, but all open up new worlds, help us question what we thought we knew and well … make us think.
An enormous amount of business books are published every year. Most of them are crap and some of the crappiest are the ones by famous CEO’s. Nevertheless, Andy Grove’s, Only the Paranoid Survive, Lou Gerstner’s Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance? and Jack Welch’s Winning are fun to read and definitely worthwhile.
Almost as bad as the big shot executives are the business professors, who are almost as self congratulatory and twice as boring. However, some break the mold. Take a look at Joan Margretta’s often overlooked What Management Is, which provides a an easy to read, mini-MBA course for under $20.
Further, Clayton Christensen’s classic The Innovator’s Dilemma is an absolute must-read and Stanford’s Jeffrey Pfiefer and Bob Sutton offer an amazingly good sense in their Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths And Total Nonsense.
If you are curious about why so many ingenious ideas turned to shit, pick up Benoit Mandelbrot’s The (Mis)Behavior of Markets, which gives a surprisingly readable explanation of his fractal theory of markets.
Finally, no list of business books would be complete without Peter Drucker, who’s written dozens. My personal favorite is Adventures of a Bystander, in which he describes his life as well as his ideas.
If you want to brush up on economics, Robert Heilbroner’s The Worldly Philosophersremains a classic and Yale’s Robert Shiller explains how to avoid getting caught up in a market bubble in Irrational Exuberance. Daniel Kahneman gives a comprehensive account of the new field of behavioral economics in Thinking, Fast and Slow.
For a more updated view, Richard Florida offers important insights into how to compete in the knowledge economy in The Rise of the Creative Class and The Great Reset. You might also want to check out Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist, which defies categorization.
If you ever wanted to learn about game theory, but were intimidated, Thinking Strategically gives a great non-technical guide which is very practical and William Poundstone’s Prisoner’s Dilemma provides a historical account which is both fun and easy to read.
If you’re more ambitious, Nobel Prizewinner Thomas Schelling’s The Strategy of Conflict is harder to get through, but wholly worth the effort.
Technology and Innovation
Everybody who is interested in digital media should read Tim Berners-Lee’s memoir Weaving the Web in which he recounts how he created the Web. There’s nothing better than reading it from the man himself!
For similar reasons, Six Degrees by Duncan Watts, the The Design of Everyday Things by Paul Norman and Understanding Media by Marshal McLuhan, which feels more like it was written last week rather than in 1964, should be considered must reads.
There have been some great books about technology and innovation that have come out over the last few years and Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants, Brain Arthur’s The Nature of Technology and Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From are at the top of the list.
More recently, Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine, and Tim Harford’s Adapt are fun and well worthwhile. For a broader historical view, you can’t go wrong with Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel and its sequel, Collapse.
Evolutionary psychology is becoming increasingly important in innovation circles and, for those who want to build a solid background, Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, Wilson’s Consilience and Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea are all great starting places, while Matt Ridley’s The Agile Gene gives important insights into the nature/nurture debate.
Finally, James Gleick’s recent book The Information is bound to be a classic and Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near already is so if you haven’t picked them up, you might want to (although reading Kurzweil can be a bit of a slog).
Reading about science isn’t everybody’s idea of a day at the beach, but Lewis Thomas’ classic collection of essays in Lives of a Cell is a real pleasure as is G.H. Hardy’s short memoir, A Mathematician’s Apology.
One of the biggest books of the last year has been Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. If you haven’t read it, pick it up. It’s every bit as good as they say and while you’re at it, take a look at his book about Einstein, which is every bit as good if not better.
Continuing in the physics vein, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! is about the most fun you can have reading and gives an inside look into one of the great minds of the 20th century. Michio Kaku’s Physics of the Future gives a very readable account of what we can expect this century in layman’s terms. Those looking for more of a challenge should check out his Parallel Worlds as well.
If you want to learn more about the new science of decision making, Laurence Gonzales provides a thrilling account in Deep Survival and Gary Klein writes a lively explanation of some of the primary research in Sources of Power. Those looking for more depth can do no better than Damasio’s Descartes’ Error and Ledoux’s Synaptic Self.
History and Philosophy
There is no shortage of great books on American history, but even among that strong field Founding Brothers stands out as does Paris 1919 about the making of modern Europe. Lords of Finance, which covers the same period between the wars and explains the origins of the Great Depression on an international scale is especially relevant these days.
On a grander scale, those willing to work through the over 800 pages of Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy won’t be disappointed nor will those who pick up James Burke’s amazing book Connections, which mixes world history with technology. Hopkirk’s The Great Game covers Great Britain and Russia’s tug of war in Afghanistan in the 19th century and is a little known gem and an amazingly fun read.
If you’re interested in the past-war period, you can hardly do better than The Wise Men by Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas. The eminent cold war historian John Lewis Gaddis squeezes decades of scholarship into his book The Cold War and also gives an insider’s look into how historian’s ply their craft in the pleasantly thin The Landscape of History.
Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy is a massive tome, but is broken down into digestible sections that can be read in any order, so might be a good choice for summer reading.
If you’re looking for more of a narrative, Wittgenstein’s Poker is a delightful read which gives a good accounting of 20th century philosophy as does A World Without Time which describes not only the ideas of but the unlikely friendship between Einstein and Godel.
Finally, if you’re looking for a very well written common sense discussion of the philosophical issues surrounding current events, you can do no better than Harvard’s Michael J Sandel’s excelent book, Justice.
Generally speaking, I believe that literature is a very personal thing so I generally don’t put fiction on my reading lists. However, I’m going to make two small exceptions this time for authors I’ve referred to in my blog.
The first is Jorge Borges, who writes incredibly dense and thought provoking short stories that rarely run more than six pages that are perfect for a beach read. The most popular collection is Labyrinths , but anything by the author that Argentina loves to hate is worth picking up.
The second is Dostoyevski who unfortunately was paid by the chapter so tends to be long winded and therefore too much of a chore for most people’s summer reading. However, if you want a quick hit of his brilliance, check out The Grand Inquisitor which can be read online or downloaded to Kindle here.
So that’s my list for this summer. Have fun, use plenty of sunblock and I’ll see you next year. As always, feel free to add your suggestions in the comments below.