I’m a firm believer that every book holds at least one lesson for its reader.
Even if you’re reading a book as an escape from reality, you’re probably gleaning one or two lessons about life from it.
Even if you’re reading a book that isn’t very good, you can at least learn the lesson, “this is not a very good book.”
I’ve learned a few lessons from the books I read in 2016. Here’s the list, presented in roughly chronological order, and the lesson or lessons gleaned from my read.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari. Why was it that our species, homo sapiens, managed to become the dominant species on our planet, and what does the future hold for us and for the world we’ve conquered? Why did sapiens not only survive but thrive while other human species, such as Neanderthals and Denisovans, did not? These are the big questions Harari, a historian at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, attempts to answer in this dense yet engaging book. One answer to the question of our ability to survive the harsh world of 50,000 years ago had to do with our species’ ability to cooperate. Will we maintain that ability moving into the future? Harari explores our past thoroughly, from our species’ conquest of the world during the “cognitive revolution” to our latest experiences, such as the quest for immortality. Throughout it all, he leaves the reader to wonder, “What does it mean to be truly human?” It’s a question we all should continue to ponder.
The Vitality Imperative, by Mickey Connolly, Jim Motroni and Richard McDonald. This is a book about leadership, but not really my cup of tea. Contains a lot of worksheets and references to online resources. It’s more of a work book (emphasis on work) than a book to read at leisure. But I did learn more about two leadership styles — the “superior” leader (a more traditional model that follows the “hire great people and get out of their way” approach) and the “connected” leader (which emphasizes the value of connecting with others). I learned that I could stand to do less of the former type of leadership and more of the latter.
Works Well With Others, by Ross McCammon. McCammon’s book is great for aspiring leaders in any complex organization, or for anyone who wants to succeed at work. As I wrote in my review of this book last January, Works Well With Others is the type of book “I wish had existed 20 or 25 years ago, when I was still trying to figure out the rules of the game called workplace dynamics.” Still, it served as a good refresher and was a breezy read.
The Sun & The Moon & The Rolling Stones, by Rich Cohen. Say what you want about the Rolling Stones’ music, but few can dispute the fact that this band has survived far beyond what anyone would have imagined 20, 30 or 40 years ago. So even if they’re not the greatest rock band the world has ever known, the Stones are the undisputed veterans of the genre. Author Rich Cohen (co-creator of the HBO series Vinyl with filmmaker Martin Scorsese and Stones front man Mick Jagger) is an unabashed Rolling Stones fanboy, and that’s one of the things that makes this rock’n’roll history so fascinating. It’s more than a romp through Cohen’s memories, but as one who came of age roughly around the same time as Cohen, I could definitely relate to the sensations he experienced upon first hearing “Honky Tonk Women.” And I appreciate learning more about the Stones’ most creative period, the late ’60s through early ’70s.
Brand Seduction, by Daryl Weber. This was the only marketing book I read all year. I picked it up because of Weber’s focus on the emerging field of neuroscience and its applications to marketing. Higher ed is woefully behind on understanding and incorporating neuroscience, and I want to learn as much as I can about this topic. Weber’s short book is a good start, as it provides a survey of work to date and case studies of brands that have moved beyond traditional market research to better understand the underlying motivations of our purchasing decisions. (For more background: Read this Friday Five interview with Weber.)
Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates, who writes for The Atlantic, recently expressed via Twitter his disappointment that his work (including this 2015 book) has become “‘the go to’ for white readers” to better understand the black experience in the U.S. I think there could be worse things for Coates. This book, a mini-memoir that takes the form of an extended letter to his son, helped me understand that experience all the more, and showed me of the myriad influences of great African Americans of the past — men like W.E.B. DuBois and James Baldwin — live on.
Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, by Reza Aslan. I’ve read a handful of books about the historical Jesus. Most of them were scholarly treatises that were hard to understand. Aslan builds on the historical evidence of Jesus and his times to weave a magnificent story. Warning: this book could be unsettling to Christians, as it raises important questions about Jesus’s divinity. It also may lead you to consider the New Testament Book of James as a more accurate portrayal of Jesus’s faith, rather than the myriad writings of Paul the Apostle.
Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren. The university where I work has a significant enrollment in the STEM disciplines, but, like many similar universities, there are few women enrolled, and fewer women on the faculty. I picked up Lab Girl hoping to learn more about the challenges facing women in STEM. (Jahren is a geobiology professor at the University of Hawaii, and has paid her dues). What I learned was so much more. For one, this woman can flat-out write. As I mentioned in a blog post last summer, the opening sentences of Lab Girl hooked me. I also learned from Jahren that the world of plants and soils holds many life lessons for we humans. There is much more connecting us to our vibrant but fragile biosphere than we sometimes notice.
There Is Life After College, by Jeffrey J. Selingo. As I did with marketing books in 2016, I also slacked off on reading books pertaining to college and university life. But I didn’t want to pass up the chance to read the latest book by Selingo, whom I consider one of the most astute observers and chroniclers of higher education today. This book is aimed at parents and prospective students, and is designed to help them understand that the nature of higher education has changed significantly in the past few decades. As I point out in my review of this book, “Crushing debt and an uncertain job market have left many to wonder whether college is worth it.” But Selingo offers “a hopeful view of the future for students” — even though it is “a future much different from the one envisioned by members of my generation.”
Paper: Paging Through History, by Mark Kurlansky. I confess: I will read just about anything by Kurlansky, mostly in homage to the fact that he has written the only truly accessible history of my people (The Basque History of the World). I’ve also appreciated his knack for writing compelling histories about obscure topics — cod, salt, the Basques, etc. — and so I had high hopes for Paper. It was interesting in parts, but dragged on at times. The most fascination sections, to me, had to do with how Europe moved from a global backwater (during China’s and the Middle East’s ascent, due to paper) to a superpower, thanks in large part to Europeans’ development of paper as a tool for communicating science. Most fascinating, though, was learning that at one time, urine was saved and sold for paper production, as it was a prime source for the ammonia needed to turn rags (also sold) into paper. Gross, but fascinating.
Grunts, by John C. McManus. I finally got around to reading this excellent book by Missouri S&T military historian McManus. Published in 2010, Grunts engagingly tells the story of the U.S. infantry from World War II through Iraq and convincingly makes that case that, despite our military’s and politicians’ infatuation with technology to win wars from a distance (usually from the air), it always takes “boots on the ground” — the unheralded “grunts” of the Army and Marines — to ultimately gain victory in battle. That’s an important lesson for future commanders in chief to learn as well. (Note: McManus’s Grunts should not be confused with Grunt, by Mary Roach, which came out in 2016.)
But What If We’re Wrong? by Chuck Klosterman. Klosterman is best known for being a sort of pop culture savant. But in this book, he moves beyond that niche he’s carved to look at the possibility that we could be wrong about many things we think we know the truth about. There’s plenty of pop culture references in there; one good one is a chapter about how “rock’n’roll” will be remembered a century from now (Which rock icon will come to represent the genre the way John Philip Sousa represents marching music? he asks). But he also explores the possibility that what we think we know about gravity, dinosaurs, the very lives we live (could we be mere characters in a future version of SimCity?) could all be very, very wrong. It’s mind-bending, unsettling but ultimately very funny stuff. Klosterman can be pretentious and an annoying know-it-all, and the book cover for this issue doesn’t help. But if you can get past those things, you might enjoy this book.
Clash! How to Thrive in a Multicultural World, by Hazel Rose Markus. Last spring, following some training on intercultural communication, I decided to learn more about the many ways cultures can be perceived and sliced and diced at a macro level. Clash! reinforced some truths I learned through the intercultural communication training and from experience, but also prompted me to think more intentionally about how the students, alumni and employees I interact with — and how I myself — are influenced by many clashing or overlapping cultural experiences. I would recommend this to anyone who wants to learn more about culture from a macro and sociological perspective.
The Next America, by Paul Taylor. Anyone who loves statistics or demographics should love this book. It’s for political and data wonks like Taylor, who worked for the Pew Research Center and took advantage of Pew’s wealth of data to form the basis for this work. It’s an important look at the trends shaping the United States’ demographic future, and the growing divide we will continue to see between young and old, rich and poor, white and multiracial.
Life Reimagined, by Barbara Bradley Hagerty. I picked up this book base on the recommendation of a friend who works at our local National Public Radio affiliate, who first shared an NPR story about Hagerty and her mid-life decision to take up cycling. The book is an examination of midlife by Hagerty, a former NPR journalist, and an encouraging read for anyone at that age who is caught between the empty nest and caring for aging parents or relatives, and who feels an existential sense of drifting at a time when so many of us feel we should be experiencing our greatest life and career success.
So, Anyway…, by John Cleese. The memoir of Monty Python’s Flying Circus funny man John Cleese was a fascinating and enlightening read of his experiences growing up, teaching, working with comedy troupes in college and in his early career. There wasn’t as much about MPFC as I had hoped, however.
Assholes: A Theory, by Aaron James. I thought this book might be comparable with Bob Sutton’s wonderful The No Asshole Rule, which provides good guidance for dealing with jerks in the workplace. But that was not the case. Maybe there was just too much assholeishness in a single volume that kept me from fully appreciating this book. But now that we have a Grade-A Asshole about to take office as our commander in chief, I might need to revisit it. (Lest you think I’m being harsh on our commander-in-chief-to-be, Donald Trump is mentioned on page 2 of this 2012 book, proving that, when it comes to assholes, he was at the front of the line even before Obama’s second term. He’s also mentioned on page 67 as one of the newer types of a-holes.)
Mindwise, by Nicholas Epley. A good and quick read about why we really don’t know as much about how our minds work as we think we do.
Born to Run, by Bruce Springsteen. One of the better rock’n’roll memoirs I’ve read in a while. Most rock stars have healthy egos, and The Boss is no exception. But throughout the pages of this tome runs a thread of humility and vulnerability, whether it’s Springsteen discussing his bouts with depression, his conflicts with E Street Band mates or his troubled relationship with his father. Through it all, of course, run the stories behind so much of his great music. It’s a thick book, but the short chapters keep it moving along like a 3-minute single. A must-read for any Springsteen fan.
Together Is Better, by Simon Sinek. A short, inspiring picture book given to me by a good friend and colleague. Fun to read and to open at random when the need for inspiration strikes.
I have two books on my to-read list for 2017. One of them — J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy — I just started today. I think I’ll be done with it very soon — possibly before I go back to work next Tuesday.
The other on my list is Jean Edward Smith’s biography of President George W. Bush, simply titled Bush.
What about you?
What were your favorite reads of 2016, and why?
And what do you plan to read in the new year? Any recommendations for me?