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6 January 2018

This Year’s Reading List

Tag(s): Languages & Culture
For the fourth year in succession I want to open my blog account with some recommendations on books I found particularly interesting and/or enjoyable. With more time on my hands in 2017, after my hectic year in 2016 as Master of the Worshipful Company of Marketors, I read twice as many books, more than 60 in the year, so am somewhat spoilt for choice.

To start with two history books:
  1. Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers, from the Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-First  Frank Trentmann
As a former history student whose first profession was in marketing consumer goods I found this fascinating. But it is so much more.  In Empire of Things Frank Trentmann demonstrates that the lifestyle of materialistic consumerism is far from a recent American invention but has been with us from Renaissance Italy and late Ming China. The desire for formerly exotic goods like coffee and tobacco, chocolate and sugar, Indian cotton and Chinese porcelain drove first trade then empire and formed the modern world. Then came department stores, mail order, advertising and credit cards but also the rise of the concerned shopper and the belated realisation that unlimited consumption of stuff will kill the world as we know it.

With an eye to the present and the future, Frank Trentmann provides a long view on the global challenges of our relentless pursuit of more – from waste and debt to stress and inequality. A masterpiece of research and storytelling many years in the making, Empire of Things recounts the epic history of the goods that have seduced, enriched and unsettled our lives over the past six hundred years.
  1. The Guns of August  Barbara W. Tuchman.
We are still commemorating the centenary of the First World War and I came across this book by chance while running out of reading material on an extended visit to Chile. This book is not new, it was published in 1962 and John F. Kennedy gave a copy to Harold Macmillan, observing that somehow contemporary statesmen must avoid the pitfalls that led to August 2014. Barbara Tuchman won the Pulitzer Prize for this extraordinary exposition of the opening rounds of the War. While neither trying to explain why it happened nor describe the whole aftermath, with painstaking research she gives pointers to both although just focusing on the tragic events of August 1914.

Here are two books on major economic events:
  1. Treasure Islands: Tax havens and the men who stole the world  Nicholas Shaxson.
One of the great scandals of our age seems to be the ease with which major corporations and hugely rich individuals arrange their affairs to avoid the taxes that lesser companies and mortals have to pay. As most countries’ governments fail to balance their books it seems obvious that one answer would be to solve this conundrum. But Shaxson goes much further than this simple analysis and demonstrates that much of the tax avoidance is onshore as well as offshore.
  1. The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon  Brad Stone.
Stone has gone to great lengths to chart the progress of Jeff Bezos and his colleagues to build Amazon from a somewhat chaotic experimental online retailer to one that is challenging to dominate every market it can find, both online and on the ground. Stone has interviewed Bezos and many of his senior colleagues including several who have turned against him. Amazon, too, successfully avoids paying too much in taxes, not least because most of its businesses are unprofitable; but also because it builds its warehouses away from the heavily taxed high streets and though its concrete footprint is enormous it defies economic logic to destroy the business model of traditional retailers. No one can make money doing what it is doing, but the world is getting hooked on its apparent convenience until we turn round one day to find we only have one place to buy our goods. And then we will pay through the nose.

And one for the future:
  1. Fast Forward: The Technologies & Companies Shaping Our Future  Jim Mellon and Al Chalabi.
This is a most unusual book in which two investors have analysed a number of potential growth markets and the likely companies that will best exploit these trends. But this is not the lazy journalism of the investment writers in the financial press but rather the serious researches of two successful entrepreneurs willing to share their findings. As the pace of technological progress intensifies, agile businesses and entrepreneurs are discovering new applications that take advantage of faster and cheaper computer processing power. The status quo is being upended across all industries, and totally new industries are being created. This book filters this chaotic landscape and identifies the areas that will have the greatest impact on our lives, highlighting investment opportunities along the way. These disruptive technologies span the fields of robotics, transportation, the changing internet, life sciences, 3D printing and energy, all of which are experiencing tremendous growth.

And now a reminder of a series of books on which I blogged during the year on a range of topics:
  1. Wilful Blindness  Margaret Heffernan.
 I blogged on 8th April about this incisive analysis of the pervasive factor of wilful blindness in many common strands of human behaviour, from phone hacking to Enron, from Nazi Germany to public healthcare. Distinguished business woman and writer Margaret Heffernan examines what makes us blind and what it is in human nature, in the structure of our brains and of our institutions that makes us so prone to this weakness.
 
  1. Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction  Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner.
 Regular readers of my blogs will know that I am sceptical of forecasting, though with due hypocrisy I indulge in it myself from time to time.  I blogged on 29th April on this marvellous book which describes a landmark twenty-year study showing that the average expert was only slightly better and often worse at predicting the future than a layman using random guesswork. Professor Tetlock has gone on to demonstrate that selected ordinary people do have real, demonstrable foresight and if their predictions are tracked and revised over time can show much better results.
 
  1. Pinpoint: How GPS is changing our world Greg Milner.
I blogged about this riveting book on 13th May. It tells the story of the Global Positioning System (GPS) from its conceptual origins as a bomb-guidance system to its present status as one of the most important technologies there is. It shows how it is affecting our culture, our technology, and our brains – and how we think about ourselves in the world.  Our ability to navigate is a long evolved skill and it is not just a convenience, but a fundamental part of how our brains work and the excess reliance on GPS information may be altering that for ever.
 
  1. How to Master Workplace and Employment Mediation Clive Lewis OBE.  
I blogged on this on 24th June. Clive worked with me as my HR Director at NXT plc and has gone on to become a leading expert on workplace mediation. Mediation is growing in popularity as a dispute resolution option for UK organisations. The management of conflict at work is not easy and this is partly due to the fact that there are few practical tools to help. The formal processes designed to deal with workplace disputes including grievance procedures and employment tribunals are as much part of the problem as they are the solution. This book helps readers understand more about what mediation is and how it can be applied effectively in places of work.
 
  1. No Ordinary Woman Angela Penrose.
 My sister Angela wrote this book about her remarkable mother-in-law Edith Penrose and I blogged about it on 11th November. Among other things , Edith and her second husband Ernest Francis Penrose, ‘Pen’, worked in London through most of the Second World War with John Winant, US Ambassador to the United Kingdom, planning how to feed Europe on the conclusion of the war; in the embryonic United Nations after the War she assisted Eleanor Roosevelt in her historic role as the chair of the Human Rights Commission  as it drew up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; teaching at John Hopkins University, Baltimore, Edith and Pen vigorously defended their fellow academic Owen Lattimore who was falsely accused by Senator Joe McCarthy of being a Soviet spy; disillusioned  with the US they put themselves in a form of voluntary exile taking sabbatical leave first to the Australian National University  in Canberra and then to Baghdad University; she published The Theory and Growth of the Firm in 1959 which secured her reputation as an original thinker and one of the leading economists of her generation; while in Baghdad Edith studied the economics of the oil industry which led to the publication in 1968 of her book The Large International Firm in Developing Countries: The International Petroleum Industry; after the overthrow of the Hashemite monarchy the couple were expelled from Iraq and drove across the Syrian desert through Turkey and onto the UK where they settled permanently; in 1994 the Academy of International Business elected her an Emeritus Distinguished Fellow of the Academy – an honour only bestowed once before – clearly No Ordinary Woman.

Fiction:  In 2017 I read good books from my favourite writers: John Grisham, Scott Turow; Michael Dobbs; Bernard Cornwell; Anthony Horowitz; Sebastian Faulks; Simon Brett; Boris Akunin et al but two to recommend that might not be so familiar:
  1. Children of the Master Andrew Marr
Andrew Marr is, of course, one of our most distinguished political journalists, first as editor of The Independent and for many years as successor to David Frost as the host of the most important BBC Sunday morning political show. He has written excellent history books but more recently tried his hand as a novelist. His first, Head of State, was not well received, but his second, Children of the Master, has fared better.

I enjoyed it very much. Written in 2015 it runs the risk of improbable plotting. Britain has decided to leave the EU (that could never happen), Boris leads the Tory party (still possible, I suppose), the Labour party wins an election in 2018. The new prime minister is weak and is unpopular with voters. A senior figure in the old government known as The Master decides to find a new prime minister who he can mould into the new leader.
  1. Words of Command Allan Mallinson
This is the 12th in a series about Mathew Hervey, a fictional cavalry officer in the British Army at the beginning of the 19th century. Brigadier Allan Lawrence Mallinson was himself an officer in the British Army and writes with true understanding of the life. Most of the earlier works chronicle Matthew Hervey’s life serving in the (fictional) British 6th Light Dragoons from the late Napoleonic Wars through subsequent colonial conflicts in India, North America and South Africa. The challenge this time was to write an exciting but still authentic novel when the regiment returns to Britain.

It is January 1930 and the prime minister, the Duke of Wellington, is resisting growing calls for parliamentary reform, provoking scenes of violent unrest in the countryside. There are no police outside London and most of the yeomanry regiments, to whom the authorities had always turned when disorder threatened, have been disbanded as an economy measure. Against this inflammable backdrop Lieutenant-Colonel Mathew Hervey, recently returned from an assignment in the Balkans, takes command of his regiment. His fears that things might be a little dull are quickly dispelled by the everyday business of vexatious officers, difficult choices over which NCOS to promote not to mention the incendiarists on the doorstep of the King himself. But it’s when the sixth are sent to Brussels for the fifteenth anniversary celebrations of the battle of Waterloo and find themselves caught up in the Belgian uprising against Dutch rule that the excitement really starts.
  1. And we can’t forget Marketing for Good is Good Marketing by David Pearson, my book about my year as Master of the Worshipful Company of Marketors!



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