I’ve read some corking books this year.
Here are my top 10.
All the reviews below were featured in my irregular reading list email: I issued seven in 2016.
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Towards the end of 2015, I was feeling distracted.
I had a fuzz in my head. I couldn’t focus properly. I wasn’t getting quite enough done.
It’d been creeping up on me for years.
No longer did it feel weird to take my smartphone to bed with me. Sticking it under my pillow. Like some technological teddy.
Always on, like many people nowadays, I wasn’t hitting the big goals.
So, in the new year, I Googled the indescribable teeth-grating background hum. And this book came up. Here’s what it can teach you:
There’s loads more. And after laying out the theory of his argument, the writer, Cal Newport, gives a raft of practical tips. Including why the current vogue for open plan offices is not necessarily a good thing.
Reading this book inspired me to write this blog post, which has been shared more than 1700 times on social media.
Quite simply the best marketing book I’ve ever read (and I’ve read a few).
I live in Glasgow. This year the Turner Prize was held here, at one of my family’s favourite haunts, the Tramway.
One of the exhibits (it didn’t win) was, and I quote: “A study room exploring what ‘consensus reality’ is and how it is formed, drawing from physics to philosophy, psychology, witchcraft, quantum theory and warfare.”
More than 100 books. I spent a happy hour there, rifling through. This was one.
Cialdini explores why people are influenced to act in certain ways: “Just what are the factors that cause one person to say yes to another person.”
The author, a social psychologist. characterises them as: consistency; reciprocation; social proof; authority; liking; and scarcity. Mental shortcuts to compliance.
It’s a revealing book. Years in the making. To back up his various hypotheses, Cialdini went undercover for weeks on end among various “compliance professionals” ranging from Hare Krishnas to fundraisers.
Written in 1995, it’s even more important now. Writing then, Cialdini said: “Because technology can evolve much faster than we can, our natural capacity to process information is likely to be increasingly inadequate to handle the surfeit of change, choice, and challenge that is characteristic of modern life….When making a decision we will less frequently enjoy the luxury of a fully considered analysis of the total situation but will revert increasingly to a focus on a single, usually reliable feature of it.”
And, if that’s the case, it’s good to be aware of what buttons people are pressing.
P.S. Cialdini brought out a follow-up book in September 2016. It’s on my bookshelf. I can’t wait to read it.
You may not have heard of Gary Vaynerchuk. If you told him that, he probably wouldn’t believe you.
Gary is a stream of laser-focussed consciousness. A self-made man who’s learnt more about social media through his various disruptive businesses (most famously Wine Library) than anyone I know.
He’s an acquired taste. But isn’t everyone?
I didn’t think I’d like this book; but I love his style. And he’s much more thoughtful than I expected. Here’s an extract:
“How to create interesting content for a boring product or stale industry.
“A white lawyer defends a black man in a small southern town. A spoiled rich girl gets married three times and survives the Civil War. Boy meets girl. Recognize (sic) any of these? Shaved down to their core, To Kill a Mockingbird, Gone with the Wind, and Romeo and Juliet sound pretty damn boring. Their lasting power lies in the fresh, imaginative, daring, surprising storytelling of their creators. There is no boring if you tell your story right.”
This book, his fourth, is a compilation of the most insightful verbatim unscripted answers he’s given to his community during the live q+a element of his YouTube show. All 160 episodes since July 2014. Hot off the printed press.
Jab Jab, right hook. The man’s crushing it. I don’t know what’s more impressive. That fact he’s built two $50M businesses, has investments in 150 companies, or that he has his own catchphrases.
If you’re an entrepreneur, own a business, or are interested in digital marketing, this book’s a must.
This is a different book about starting and running a business.
It’s 271 pages long and 27,000 words. The first draft was 57,000 words. The type is big, the chapters are short, the points are succinct, and go beyond common sense. You may find them counter-intuitive (even more so when the book was published in 2010).
The authors deserve respect. They run 37signals. You might have heard of Basecamp, Highrise, and Campfire.
You will enjoy this book if you’re an entrepreneur, small business-owner, or someone trapped in a day job and dreaming of a way out. Someone afraid of starting a business. If you fit into the latter category, this book will give you hope.
Here’s what stood out for me:
Youngme is chair of the MBA program at Harvard Business School. She’s a marketing expert.
I read this book because it struck a chord in my business life.
I’m different. I’ve consciously veered off at complete tangents to a conventional PR company’s core skillset (media relations) since setting up my own business nearly 2.5 years ago.
Reading it has redoubled my confidence in the range of integrated services I now provide to clients as a PR company (a unique offering). And given me a whole host of ideas for furthering this differentiation.
Being a bit different, a bit weird, works. Here’s what I took from this book:
It’s a bleak point, that we are being hoodwinked into meaningless distinctions. As product categories mature there really isn’t much difference between company x and y, or the range of products/service they provide.
Until some company comes along and offers something different.
I’ll leave the last word to the author:
“There is a kind of difference that says nothing, and there is a kind of difference that speaks volumes.”
Be the latter. Google and Apple did. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Julia Cameron wrote the Artist’s Way.
It’s sold more than four million copies.
Armed with two recommendations I Amazoned and found out there was a follow-up, designed for parents. Here’s what I got out of reading it:
1. I’ve started doing Morning Pages. Like a diary for adults. You write it as soon as you wake up. It clears your head “as if you’re sending a telegram to the universe”. No, didn’t think it’d be my cup of tea either. Trust me, it works.
2. Now, every night I ask the kids what the favourite bit of their day was. I write down their stream of consciousness on my phone. They love it.
3. I’ve cooked a three-course-meal with the kids. For their Mum. Zak made the dough for pizzas. Jude chose Slimebag Chocolate Cake. He loved making it; refused to eat it.
4. I’ve learnt the 72-pick-up game (a fun way to tidy up mess with the kids). You count down from 72 and that way help them take responsibility for clearing up all the toys they’ve been playing with during the day.
5. “Doing a 15 Minutes” is now commonplace. It’s amazing the amount of small nagging tasks I have managed to complete or half-complete.
6. Zak and I have started a little book club. He’s reading more, and so am I.
7. I’ve sticky note-bookmarked all the bits I want to go back to. All the exercises and activities I want to do with my family. It is THAT good.
Four years ago I read a book.
I didn’t read many books back then.
But I did consume a lot of news, particularly the Saturday Guardian.
One of the columnists at the time (and still now) was Oliver Burkeman. Like a cross between Jon Ronson and Jon Krakauer.
His book, the one what I read, Help: How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done was memorable.
Oliver had read every single self-help/self-improvement book/theory and boiled each down to a one-word precis.
And his contention was that each (usually running to 200+ pages) has one big idea. One thing you can learn. And maybe you don’t need to wade through all those pages.
I kind of agree.
Darren Hardy’s grand idea is that if you do the right things, make small changes, consistently, every day, over a long time, “Big Mo” will pay you a visit, and you’ll meet your goals.
Now you can’t argue with that.
But it’s the sort of thing me four years ago would have discounted in a flash as “obvious” (I remember reading Oliver’s book and thinking the only actionable advice was the ticking tomato, which I introduced at my workplace, much to the amusement of a colleague and now friend of mine).
Which brings me to my point (where I kind of disagree with Oliver).
To get anything out of work/self-improvement/happiness/success books you have to read them properly.
You have to get into the mind of the author, learn about her/his life, and out up with a bit of autobiographical self-promotion.
The Compound Effect is one you should read. Here’s what I got out of it:
I went to Berlin to run the Berlin Marathon at the end of September.
I’ve been there eight or so times now (my brother in law and his wife, Robyn, live there).
Atmospheric, vibrant, at once liberal and open, yet hiding dark secrets. That’s Berlin.
Alone in Berlin is a thrilling work of fiction. The author wrote it in 24 days, and died three months later before the book was published. But he knew he’d produced a “great novel”. He told his sister so.
It centres on the Quangels, a husband and wife living in wartime Berlin, minding their own business. keeping their heads down. He a foreman; she a housewife.
Until one day their son dies, in the war. And an old lady who lives in their apartment block jumps to her death after being persecuted for being a Jew.
They start writing postcards and dropping them; leaving their seditious messages for people to find. Postcards which, if their origins were uncovered, would lead to certain execution.
The book, brilliantly translated by Michael Hofmann, is 600+ pages long yet un-put-downable.
A searing portrait of what happens in a police state where the silent majority have no voice, everyone is scared, and, like Lord of the Flies, people turn on each other, to devastating effect.
Another superb book; a steal at £3.99.
Half the time I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
It’s the story of Douglas and Connie. He a straight-laced but decent scientist who’s lost his zeal to corporate life. She, a rather cold artist who has become a gallery manager and lives for her son.
They grow apart until one day Connie tells Douglas she thinks, just thinks, they may be better off apart. But decides they should go on a grand tour of Europe before Albie (who adores his mother but hates his father) goes to university.
This is a book about love, relationships, family, dreams, modern life, and an exceedingly painful father-son dynamic.
Very sad but very funny, the characters were brilliant observed and I defy anyone not to give this classic five stars.
Talk about a nostalgia trip.
I grew up in the 80s. I wasn’t a gamer but I did like computer games. Horace Goes Skiing, Jet Set Willy, Daley Thompson’s Decathlete, man my ZX Spectrum (128K!) took a battering.
I watched Life of Brian, loved War Games, and even, for a year or two, got into Dungeons and Dragons.
But these were passing fancies; not obsessions. That clearly wasn’t the case for the author of this book.
Set in a dystopian future where most of the world lives in abject poverty, Ready Player One centres on the quest for Halliday’s egg.
Halliday is the 1980s-obsessed multi-trillionaire creator of the Oasis, a virtual reality game that has become so synonymous with the Internet that the Oasis now IS the Internet.
Large swathes of the population – including our hero, 18-year-old Wade Watts – live in the Oasis, are educated in the Oasis, and only remove their VR headset and haptic gloves to eat enough food to keep their bodies going so they can return to the Oasis.
Part love story, part thriller, part social commentary, the book is unputdownable for anyone who knows their Breakfast Club from their Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Read it now before the Spielberg-directed film-of-the-book hits the screens in spring 2018.
One of my favourite reads of the year.
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