This year I’m trying something else: I’ve selected a top few in each of fiction and non-fiction, and want to tell you a little bit more about these in a quick series of blog posts. Here is my selection for:
Non-fiction was the toughest to whittle down to just a few. I read tons of non-fiction and have enjoyed most of them. This is the cream of the crop.
I didn’t expect much when I first started Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. You couldn’t board a tube train without seeing at least one copy of it being held high, which somehow reminded me of that time where shades of grey were all the rage.
Was I set for a surprise? Harari’s book is nothing short of a masterpiece. His brief history is extremely well researched but the book is much more than an enumeration of facts and well-trodden theories.
As I was listening to the audiobook I found myself at times smiling, frowning and genuinely thrilled by the book’s many new ideas, brilliant connections and the many smart connections that the writer makes.
The one thought that stuck with me the most is the realisation that culture, society and the economy are all myths, and therefore it makes sense to think about many of what we call natural laws as man-made ideas that we choose to base our lives on, but do not exist in the world beyond ourselves. In that light, communism and capitalism are natural law religions and so is liberalism. The implications for such deeply-held foundations of our modern world, such as democracy and individual liberty, are truly mind-boggling.
Clearly a labour of graft and hard thought. the world is a better place for this book to be in it.
Mythos is Stephen Fry’s vivid retelling of the Greek myths. Bringing to life the Gods, monsters and mortals of Ancient Greece, he reimagines their astonishing stories for the modern world. Expecting brilliance from Fry’s prose, Mythos still managed to overdeliver. It gave me unexpected pleasure and made me quote the stories of old Greece in every converstion for weeks, to the annoyance of more than one interlocutor.
Fry has been fascinated by Greek mythology since he was a boy. Noticing that children’s books are heavily sanitised and adults’ can be rather dense and dry, Fry’s set out to write something that would cure both maladies. His retelling presents us with a distinct and colourful cast of heroes, Gods, and monsters, whilst not omitting all the adult content which make them all the more interesting, compelling, and realistic.
Mythos is a storybook, not a textbook, providing a narrative that’s both authentic and compelling. These are myths for the modern reader and I personally greatly enjoyed Fry’s portrayal of each figure, giving them voices and personalities that fitted their domain and powers.
Fermat’s Last Theorem
Fermat’s Last Theorem: The Story Of A Riddle That Confounded The World’s Greatest Minds For 358 Years is an unexpected delight to read as a work of literature.
A boast in the margin of a book by 17th century judge and amateur mathematician Pierre de Fermat that he had discovered a truly marvellous demonstration of this proposition which this margin is too narrow to contain is the starting point for a wonderful journey through the history of mathematics, number theory and logic.
Like Mythos, this book is proof that a good non-fiction book is, at its heart, a story. The rewards for reader are plenty: a wonderful journey through 26 centuries of ingenuity, perseverance and brilliant thought beginning all the way back with Pythagoras, he of triangles fame.
I am setting up an innovation community inside a company in my day job, so Loonshots was immediately attractive in a professional capacity.
Loonshots was a difficult read. I found it hard to identify with Bahcall’s forced comparisons between the microscopic world of molecules and the macroscopic world of corporate organisation. I appreciate what he’s trying to do, but the simile doesn’t work for me and reminds me of similar arguments anti-science proponents make using a twisted and misunderstood take on quantum physics to make all sorts of dangerous claims and pray on the weak. Let’s just say that corporations, as all complex systems, show emergent behaviours that can be understood, managed and designed around: that is an observation I can get behind.
The core of the book is dedicated to Bahcall’s recipe for creating the ideal Loonshot environment, and it is a very good recipe indeed. Not entirely original (The Innovators Dilemma made some similar observations many years ago) but well presented and updated, the central idea that franchises and loonshots require radically different systems of management is entirely true, and the book goes on to describe in very good detail what is important to support both in an organisation.
- Separate the phases
- Create dynamic equilibrium
- Spread a system mindset
- Reduce the return on politics
- Use soft equity
- Increase project-skill fit
- Fix the middle
- Bring a gun to a knife fight
- Fine-tune the spans
There is much detail on each of these phases, and the book has given me new tools to continue to develop myself professionally and be more successful at what I do.
The Body: A Guide for Occupants
I love a book by Bill Bryson, and this year’s pick was The Body: A Guide for Occupants. I picked it up mostly for the guaranteed joy of reading Bryson’s prose and enjoying his wit. The book delivered that, and a lot more!
Written in deceptively accessible language, The Body is chock-full of knowledge. Not a physiology treaty, it uses a journey through the components of the human body as a smart device to explore the history of so many of the people and beliefs that shape modern western culture, and some more remote as well. The book systematically covers various organs, and then proceeds to the immune system, disease and medicine. Bryson is a brilliant storyteller, constructing a narrative that builds throughout the book. Facts mentioned early-on reappear to be given context and content later. The historical explorations add a captivating layer, making the book a brilliant read all around.