The Big Read

Tower of BooksHaven’t done a “What I’m reading” in a while. Embarrassed at how much stuff is sitting in the nearby pile, and the fact that I’m not comfortable going on so short as a two-day trip (tomorrow, to CA) with less than a dozen books. (But what if I were hijacked or ended up in the hospital?)

Hence, in three categories …


Stephen Jay Gould, Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets. My (not so) secret passion-compulsion is statistics. Reading these two books honestly (heaven help me) makes my hands shake with excitement.

Forget means, medians, and modes—all three are downright dangerous. It’s looking at the whole distribution of data that leads to the great insights (and helps us avoid the stupidest of errors). Taleb is new to me, and stunning; but I’m re-reading Full House for perhaps the 6th or 7th time—what a collection of dog ears! (Love this: Taleb is the Dean’s Professor of the Sciences of Uncertainty at the Isenberg School of Management at U Mass/Amherst—my God, signs of intelligent life in a B.School!)

One practical implication in my-our world: We pay far too much attention to the giants of industry, and far too little attention to the far more numerous pygmies which rarely even make it into our data sets; consider China, whose productivity is a wee fraction of ours, and not really catching up all that fast—its jillions of farmers, for example, are among the world’s least productive people while our farmers (and hair salons and tanning salons and spas) are by and large computerized relative marvels of productivity. As to the “life altering” in the title, I can no less than guarantee that if you train yourself to look at and assess full distributions instead of the likes of simple-minded trend lines that ignore 98% of the data, your life will never be the same!


Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander, The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life. (Opening epigraph: “A shoe factory sends two marketing scouts to a region of Africa to study the prospects for expanding business. One sends back a telegram saying, SITUATION HOPELESS STOP NO ONE WEARS SHOES. The other writes back triumphantly, GLORIOUS BUSINESS OPPORTUNITY STOP THEY HAVE NO SHOES.”) Frank Smith, The Book of Learning and Forgetting. Derrick Jensen, Walking on Water: Reading, Writing, and Revolution. (These two set the conventional wisdom about how we learn on its ear—now, if only some of the “teach-to-test” goons were listening!) Robert Crease, The Prism and the Pendulum: The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments in Science. (Hey, I love the history of science—it’s so, so far from the “logical,” “emotionless” process that most conjure up.) Fred Siegel, The Prince of the City: Giuliani, New York and the Genius of American Life. (Goes beyond 9/11 to examine the 75 years of decay in NYC that Giuliani successfully faced down against all odds—reminds me of Margaret Thatcher’s “turnaround” in the UK.) Tom Lewis, Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio. (Radio’s impact was arguably as great as the Internet—watching this technological and social revolution unfold is both instructive and fun; I love stories of unintended consequences.) Sir Ranulf Fiennes, Race to the Pole: Tragedy, Heroism, and Scott’s Antarctic Quest. (I’m a “Scottie,” and one could argue we have more than enough books on the subject and the man—this one, however, is the first by an explorer, probably the most intrepid explorer of the last 75 years.) Fara Warner, The Power of the Purse: How Smart Businesses Are Adapting to the World’s Most Important Customers—Women. (This is a re-re-read; I simply need to absorb these “first ever” detailed cases on one of the most important opportunities business faces or, rather, fails repeatedly to face.) Kerry Patterson et al., Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High. (Crucial Conversations and Crucial Confrontations are arguably the two most powerful business books of the last 10 years—if you take them aboard.)


Marshall Browne, Inspector Anders and the Ship of Fools. Bill Eidson, The Repo. Mark Helprin, A Dove of the East and Other Stories. (Helprin is an amazing writer who can develop character in a paragraph better than most can in 400 pages; his A Soldier of the Great War may be my favorite work of fiction.) John Lawton, A Little White Death. Carl Hiaasen, Double Whammy. (I’m late to Hiaasen, but hell bent on catching up.) Juris Jurjevics, The Trudeau Vector.