Years ago the International Journal of Advertising asked me to write a column called Ex Libris about books that inspired me, and I've done it a few times since.
Here is my bumper Summer 2016 reading list for your delectation, elucidation and edification.
Reading is for awesome people, and is unfortunately in long term decline:
"The number of adults who read at least one novel, play or poem within the past 12 months fell to 47% in 2012 from 50% in 2008, according to a new survey of over 37,000 Americans, “A Decade of Arts Engagement,” by the National Endowment for the Arts, a government agency that promotes artistic excellence."
This seems sad to me, not just selfishly as an author, but in general because reading is a whetstone for the mind, to paraphrase Game of Thrones,
[somewhat alanis morissette ironically since the incredible amount of quality television available on demand is surely a contributing factor to this decline. Coupled with Americans working the longest hours in the world and reading takes more effort than grazing television.]
I tend to choose what to read via recommendations from friends or via Twitter, so thanks to everyone who led me to these ones, and this is me paying it forward. Plus adding in Amazon links, to add minute amounts of affiliate kickbacks to help fund my book habit. [See? Full disclosure of rebates isn't hard.]
Let's start with non-fiction
I have noticed that as men get older [like me] they [I] seem to read an increasing percentage of non-fiction - and this is borne out by sales data, which suggests men make up only 20% of the fiction readership [USA].
"Theories attempting to explain the "fiction gap" abound.Cognitive psychologists have found that women are more empathetic than men, and possess a greater emotional range—traits that make fiction more appealing to them."
In general, fiction sales are in long term decline, and one contributing factor is the ongoing obsession in USA with productivity.
Why the slump in reading fiction? Self-help books and biographies may have a certain utilitarian appeal, says New York-based author Christopher Sorrentino. “Who wants to spend two weeks reading a novel that you might not like very much?”
An obsession with productivity is a trap, a Sisyphean task, endless and demoralizing, since you can never get enough done, there's always more to do, and you end up working longer and longer hours and getting less and less productive. Especially if your doing any kind of creative work because the imagination needs constant feeding, since one can't invent without inventory.
Focusing on being more productive overweights self-help and guide and business books [yes I'm aware I wrote a business book but I also flatter myself that it's a philosophy book that happens to have some practical applications] in the endless drive to be a better employee in this age of uncertainty, and underweights all the things that aren't immediately useful but are the stuff that fills up your cognitive toolbox and become the spark of the idea down the line.
By focusing too much on short term utility, we lose a great deal of long term utility. That's why Bill Gates takes a month to just read every year. He isn't teaching himself to code but rather filling his mind with an ever growing web of connections.
That's also why thinking about education purely as a way of getting a high paying job diminishes it, both as a cultural idea and in terms of the actual education you get, since vocational degrees by their nature teach you things that are best practice now, or recently, not what will be useful in the future. However, this earning potential of degrees is necessarily factored in when college is so incredibly expensive and incurs debt that follows you forever. Very sad.
When I went to University, I had no thought at all about it being a way into a job, and this was possible because university education was free in the UK when I did it. The value of education is not measured solely in money, and you often don't know what you need to know until you need to know it.
I remember distinctly learning about tachyons [hypothetical faster than light particles] from a comic book when I was a little kid, which I can now bring up in conversation with physicists.
But I also learned a lot reading these books this year.
I'm reading this at the moment and find myself tweeting a lot of it. It's about "Attention [being] the faculty through which we encounter the world directly." which is obviously in area of interest but this is a significant philosophical treatise on modern life. In essence, he speaks about the problems Western liberalism's drive to free us from arbitrary authority has the side of effect of being unable to define a true moral code , how our attention has been colonized, and how being an individual is something that requires work. I'm not doing it justice but it's impressive.
We massively underestimate the impact of randomness in all spheres of our lives, which makes people think they are responsible for their own success, even though there is a huge amount of luck in all success. This leads us to pay CEOs far too much money, and to gamble badly, and to do lots of things that we wouldn't do if we factored the drivers and odds in.
Markets are very good at certain things, but are there things that shouldn't be decided simply by who has the most money? "Should we pay children to read books or to get good grades? Should we allow corporations to pay for the right to pollute the atmosphere? Is it ethical to pay people to test risky new drugs or to donate their organs? What about hiring mercenaries to fight our wars? Auctioning admission to elite universities?" We have seen markets creep into areas of human life that it's not suited to.
One of the most fun things I've read in ages, the author takes us through the science of stomachs and saliva and basically nearly everything you think you know about how eating works is wrong.
Bill Gates and Zuck have both recommended this. How did human beings become number one top species - and are population numbers alone a measure of evolutionary success? [Think how many chickens there are.] "Why have humans managed to build astonishingly large populations when other primate groups top out at 150 individuals? Because our talent for gossip allows us to build networks in societies too large for personal relationships between everyone, and our universally accepted “imagined realities”--such as money, religion, and Limited Liability Corporations—keep us in line." You should read this, it's about you.
Now for Some Stories
When I noticed [i.e. when my wife Rosie pointed out] that I was reading mostly non-fiction, I thought about this for a while. I did a literature degree because I loved stories and words. So I was a bit saddened by this observation. I also felt that I was getting more impatient with people, and this makes sense, since reading fiction increases our empathy.
Literary fiction, by contrast, focuses more on the psychology of characters and their relationships. “Often those characters’ minds are depicted vaguely, without many details, and we’re forced to fill in the gaps to understand their intentions and motivations,” Kidd says. This genre prompts the reader to imagine the characters’ introspective dialogues. This psychological awareness carries over into the real world, which is full of complicated individuals whose inner lives are usually difficult to fathom.
So I made a concerted effort to read some. I had a couple of false starts, books that didn't grab me, so I asked for some recommendations and, because my friends know me, I started to find gold, and have really got back into reading fiction, which I'm hoping will make me a nicer person.
Since we live on the road, we travel very frequently, and travel is full of annoying frustrations with airlines and so on. It's easy to start to get grumpy. It's like how everyone commuting is in a terrible mood and will flare up in anger at the smallest thing, because they are carrying the cumulative stress of every single commute.
Personally, I found that when I made the shift to commuting by bicycle, it made me much happier, and was one of the high points of my day. It's one of the only things I miss about having a corporate job.
So here are some books I loved reading, that helped remind me that other people have their own lives and worlds. I especially focused on reading books by women because I'm a man and know what that's like.
A beautiful, layered and wonderfully constructed novel about an apocalyptic pandemic and a comic book.
A historical novel set in New Zealand's gold rush, it's a fantastically well realized parody of a 19th century novel and super fun. It's also incredibly complex in its construction. I keep being reminded how planned novels are, so at odds with the romantic Kerouacian image of smashing at a typewriter until the book comes out.
An aristocrat detective goes undercover at an advertising agency to solve a murder and drug smuggling ring and gets into all kinds of hijinks. Lovely period piece, full of the class boundaries of the English of the era, it's a cross between Agatha Christie and P G Wodehouse. The descriptions and observations of an agency decades before television, staffed entirely by posh men and the tension between departments and clients are depressingly familiar and hilarious at the same time.
When I say this is an epic science fantasy novel of rare and confident imagination, I mean epic. It's expansive and unlike any other fantasy I've read, playing with the standard tropes and creating new one. One species have massive bugs for heads. I'm told it's the least good of the trilogy, about to start the next one.
Probably my favorite novel of last year, it's both hilarious, deeply moving and profound. An alien disguised as a human is the perfect vehicle to analyze the best and worst of humanity.
Wow this post is getting long isn't?
Well, nearly there, except I have a new section for this Ex Libris - comics.
Thanks to a couple of friends and geeky conversations, I got the Comixology app and started reading comics again after years. Goodness me, the medium has matured dramatically and there are some incredible, bold, adult comic books to read at the moment. Here are just a few, all of which were recommended to me.
A sweeping sexy space opera.
A magical musical tale of reincarnated gods, recently optioned for television.
Both true to the spirit of Batman and totally fresh, this is a remarkable run on one of the best known and over exposed superheroes. It's very, very dark and invents brand new parts of the myth.
What if superman like character decided we weren't worth saving and instead decided to kill millions? The trope of superhero gone bad has never been done better.
From the writer of Kingsman and KickAss and lots of other comic book now films, this time travel adventure is charming, smart, funny and fun.
Happy reading, you awesome people.