Sep 212017

Book Shorts: Summer Reading

I read a ton of books.  I usually blog about business books, at least the good ones.  I almost never blog about fiction or non-business/non-fiction books, but I had a good “what did you read this summer” conversation the other night with my CEO Forum, so I thought I’d post super quick snippets about my summer reading list, none of which was business-related.

If you have kids, don’t read Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant’s Option B:  Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy unless you’re prepared to cry or at least be choked up.  A lot.  It is a tough story to read, even if you already know the story.  But it does have a number of VERY good themes and thoughts about what creates resilience (spoiler alert – my favorite key to resilience is having hope) that are wonderful for personal as well as professional lives.

Underground Airlines, by Ben Winters, is a member of a genre I love – alternative historical fiction.  This book is set in contemporary America – except that its version of America never had a Civil War and therefore still has four slave states.  It’s a solid caper in its own right, but it’s a chillingly realistic portrayal of what slavery and slave states would be like today and what America would be like with them.

Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance, is the story of Appalachia and white working class Americans as told by someone who “escaped” from there and became a marine, then a Yale-educated lawyer.  It explains a lot about the struggles of millions of Americans that are easy for so many of us to ignore or have a cartoonish view of.  It explains, indirectly, a lot about the 2016 presidential election.

Everybody Lies:  Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are, written by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, was like a cross between Nate Silver’s The Signal and The Noise and Levitt & Dubner’s Freakonomics.  It’s full of interesting factoids derived from internet data.  Probably the most interesting thing about it is how even the most basic data (common search terms) are proving to be great grist for the big data mill.

P.J. O’Rourke’s How the Hell Did This Happen? was a lot like the rest of P.J. O’Rourke’s books, but this time his crusty sarcasm is pointed at the last election in a compilation of articles written at various points during the campaign and after.  It didn’t feel to me as funny as his older books.  But that could also be because the subject was so depressing.  The final chapter was much less funny and much more insightful, not that it provides us with a roadmap out of the mess we’re in.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Noah Harari, is a bit of a rambling history of our species.  It was a good read and lots of interesting nuggets about biology, evolution, and history, though it had a tendency to meander a bit.  It reminded me a bit of various Richard Dawkins books (I blogged a list of them and one related business topic here), so if you’re into that genre, this wouldn’t be bad to pick up…although it’s probably higher level and less scientific than Dawkins if that’s what you’re used to.

Finally, I finished up the fourth book in the massive Robert Caro quadrilogy biography of Lyndon Johnson (full series here).  I have written a couple times over the years about my long-term reading project on American presidential biographies, probably now in its 12th or 13th year.  I’m working my way forward from George Washington, and I usually read a couple on each president, as well as occasional other related books along the way.  I’ve probably read well over 100 meaty tomes as part of this journey, but none as meaty as what must have been 3000+ pages on LBJ.  The good news:  What a fascinating read.  LBJ was probably (with the possible exception of Jefferson) the most complex character to ever hold the office.  Also, I’d say that both Volumes 3 and 4 stand alone as interesting books on their own – Volume 3 as a braoder history of the Senate and Civil Rights; Volume 4 as a slice of time around Kennedy’s assassination and Johnson’s assumption of power.  The bad news:  I got to the end of Vol 4 and realized that there’s a Vol 5 that isn’t even published yet.

That’s it for summer reading…now back to school!

Filed under: Books, Uncategorized