10 January 2015
A Reading List
Languages & Culture
I have known many head-hunters in my time and benefitted from the efforts of several both as a client and a candidate.
One I remember particularly fondly had the pleasant custom of sending his successful candidates a copy of the book he had
most enjoyed reading in the year as a Christmas present. Through this happy routine I was introduced to a number of
new authors including the extraordinary Oliver Sachs whose The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat was one year’s
selection. Inspired by this example I want to wish all my readers a Happy New Year by telling them about some of the
books I most enjoyed last year.
The Earth: an Intimate History by Richard Fortey. I am not a scientist but particularly enjoy well-written popular science. This wonderful example came my way in 2014. It is Fortey’s thesis that geology underlies everything: it founds the landscape, dictates the agriculture, and determines the character of villages. It acts as “a kind of collective unconscious for the world, a deep control beneath the oceans and continents.” The book is nothing less than the life story of our planet told by a brilliant science writer. As he travels the world highlighting the big picture with bright details we are both fascinated and deeply intellectually satisfied.
Seeds, Sex and Civilization: How the Hidden Life of Plants has Shaped our World by Peter Thompson. This is another example of a superbly researched and written popular science book where this time the seed is hero. From evolution to the story of human settlements to the growing influence of genetic engineering, seeds, so often taken for granted, have played a crucial role in human history. This epic tale becomes a gripping detective story of human investigation and discovery, with significant roles played by everyone from Darwin, of course, to a range of world-class eccentrics and amateurs. Yet perhaps most fascinating of all is the inner life of the seed itself.
The War That Ended Peace: How Europe Abandoned Peace for the First World War by Margaret MacMillan. If millions died in the First World War it seems that millions of trees have been sacrificed in its centenary commemoration as thousands of books have been released to mark the occasion. I decided to read Margaret MacMillan’s book as I had very much enjoyed her outstanding Peacemakers: The Paris Conference of 1919 and its attempt to End War, which examined the making of the Treaty of Versailles. In her latest book she comes afresh to the tragic unfolding of war and seeks to be as equitable as possible in her treatment of the protagonists and does not rush to apportion blame. In the end, however, she shows how the German determination to establish themselves as equal to their rivals had inevitability about it’s consequences.
Why Some Politicians are More Dangerous than Others by James Gilligan MD. I have been trying to get hold of this book for some time and finally found a copy. It is unusual, I think, in that it is not so much about politics as the consequences of politics. It is written by a doctor of medicine and seeks to root its conclusions firmly in fact. It quotes a famous politician Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” Gilligan has discovered a devastating truth, namely, that when the Republicans have gained the US presidency, the country has repeatedly suffered from epidemics of violent death. Rates of both suicide and homicide have soared. These epidemics have then remained at epidemic levels until the Democrats have regained the White House and dramatically reduced the amount of deadly violence by diminishing the magnitude of the economic distress (unemployment, recessions and poverty) that had been causing it.
Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly about Security in an Uncertain World by Bruce Schneier. The author is a security expert who has spent his entire career working out how security actually works. I think the irrational if understandable reactions to 9/11 prompted him to explain it here in an entertaining and easily readable book. He covers not only the threats to security of terrorism, but also war, cyber warfare, burglary and every other form of conceivable threat. He demonstrates practical and simple steps we can all take to address the real threats faced by our families, our communities and our country.
The Blunders of our Governments: Anthony King & Ivor Crewe. I think this should be required reading for everyone in Britain who has the vote. Not because it points a particular finger in one direction or the other. Far from it, it is meticulously researched and even-handed in its treatment of a constant series of disasters caused by not only incompetence but also groupthink, constantly rotating ministers and the lack of proper examination by Parliament. Some of the blunders are deeply seared in our collective memories like the poll tax and the millennium dome; others have been largely forgotten but were just as costly like massively overspent IT projects. The book concentrates on the Conservative governments from 1979 -1997 and the Labour governments from 1997 -2010 but in a postscript suggests that the record of the Coalition government will prove just as bad.
Life After the State: Why we don’t need Government by Dominic Frisby. President Reagan said “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help.” His answer was less government. It does seem that the government (any government) is in some way responsible for most of the problems the country faces today. In every instance where government gets involved in people’s lives trying to do good, it can always be relied on to make the situation much, much worse. But most of us believe that a world without the state would be a wild and terrifying place. Frisby shows that human nature proves the opposite to be true.
Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely. The author is a behavioural economist who, in a series of illuminating and ground-breaking experiments, demonstrates how expectation, emotions, social norms and other invisible, seemingly illogical forces skew our reasoning abilities. Not only do we make astonishingly simple mistakes every day, but we make the same kind of mistakes. We consistently overpay, underestimate and procrastinate. We fail to understand the profound effects of our emotions on what we want, and we overvalue what we already own. Yet these misguided behaviours are neither random nor senseless. They’re systematic and predictable.
And now a couple of works of fiction: It is harder to recommend fiction, I think, because it’s more personal. One man’s Dan Brown is another man’s Leo Tolstoy. But here are two thrillers written by extremely popular and durable writers that I think lay claim to being modern classics:
A Delicate Truth by John Le Carré. I have read nearly all Le Carré’s works and enjoyed them all. As he has got older, and he is now in his 80s, he has become more polemical. At one level the book is about a spying operation in Gibraltar that goes wrong and the inevitable cover up. But at another level Le Carré takes a swipe at both the British and the Americans and the hypocrisy they have demonstrated in recent foreign policy. At yet another level Le Carré has revealed in interviews that the book is one of his most autobiographical as one character, a young ambitious civil servant is inspired by his younger self, while another retired civil servant more resembles the older Le Carré who has lived on the Cornish coast for decades.
Sycamore Row by John Grisham. I have also read nearly all of John Grisham’s clever legal thrillers but I particularly enjoyed this one, a sequel to A Time to Kill. Not only is the plotting ingenious, so that one wants to turn every one of its 500 pages, but also Grisham applies his moral compass to a series of issues that face America. There is, of course, a heady dose of racial politics; the customary satire on the greed of lawyers in an excessively litigious culture; there are observations on the class ridden nature of the Deep South, not just divisions between white and black, but more subtle divisions between white and white, usually based on money, and then again on the age of the money. Ken Follett is quoted on the jacket as naming Grisham “the best thriller writer alive.” I agree but I also see shades of Dickens.
And to finish a couple of books about marketing:
The Lucky Marketeer by Tim Ambler. I am fortunate to know Tim Ambler, a distinguished marketeer who made his name at the drinks company now known as Diageo, but has also done many different things, starting as an accountant and finishing as an academic. These memoirs cover a brilliant career with hilarious anecdotes and outspoken comments on those issues which have irked him. The jacket has some great endorsements from other leading marketing figures including several I know like Paddy Barwise, Sir George Bull and Hugh Burkitt, but the best comes from ‘A Wellwisher’: ‘This book is like one of those ghastly Christmas letters – only longer.’ Which suggests that even endorsements can be autobiographical.
The 20 Ps of Marketing by David Pearson. Well, you didn’t really expect me to leave this one out, did you?
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