Reading the Crowd: Why I Write Book Reviews — Though No One Asked

Four months into my semiretirement, I have not adjusted completely to the changed boundaries of my life. Where once there was no limit to the hours of attention and effort associated with whatever job I held, now I am part time and need to protect portions of my days so that they are not swallowed by the supposedly reduced job. I never had this problem because I always had jobs that were all-consuming. Or I made them so because that was the only way I could figure out to guarantee success. I enjoy the questions that I get to chase now as a knowledge broker working mainly with the wonderful people who live in ETS R&D, but what of those other activities that promised considerable rewards when contemplated from the perspective of being the Chief Learning Officer at ETS for over 15 years?

Two of those activities were reading and writing. There were plenty of articles and documents that occupied my calendar prior to last April, but the sort of reading and writing I imagined being able to do once I was freed from corporate accountabilities was broader and less attached to some specific business purpose. From a very young age, I read — as the cliché goes — voraciously. My mother could not recall when I started reading because she could not remember me not reading and as her fifth boy in seven years she had a few other things claiming her attention. Libraries in Rutherford and then Ridgefield Park New Jersey blessed my childhood just as later the same sort of organizations at St. Peter’s Prep and Manhattan College would bestow upon me moments of grace, the experience of connectedness to other readers. I kept on seeking out libraries and they played a significant role in my career. I passed the civil service exam that allow me to interview successfully for the position of alcoholism counselor in Saratoga County because of three books on the subject in the Kingsbridge branch of the Bronx Public Library. Books by Virginia Satir, Murray Bowen, Jay Haley, and Salvador Minuchin from the Skidmore College Library opened up the world of family therapy to me. The most valuable compensation for being an adjunct at first New York University and then Mercy College was the unrestricted access to their libraries so that I could explore the worlds of organizational development, learning theory, strategy, and even employee relations. Someone in that latter field can gain a great deal from burrowing through the records of arbitration cases and might even emerge with an idea for a satiric novel or two.

Each book read is a node on an almost infinite network. The author may cite another work or just returning a volume to its shelf causes you to notice yet another title that you start to read, which leads you to another set of books. There is a sense among some authors whom I admire that perhaps this fascination or even obsession with reading is at least insufficient to a fully realized life and perhaps even harmful. Hermann Hesse offered that “Life is short and no one will be asked hereafter how many books he has mastered. It is therefore harmful and unwise to waste time in worthless reading.” (‘Das Leben ist kurz’ begins this quote in its original German, which to my ear is a more chilling phrase.) Joseph Epstein thoughtfully and provocatively observed that “Sometimes reading supplies the most cunning of all means of avoiding thought. It would be good once in awhile to try thinking without the stimulus of books, to become not an out-of-the-box — never, please, that — but at least an out-of-the-book thinker.” The conclusion is that reading by itself won’t make a difference and the premise is that we want to make a difference. Peter Drucker noted that Joseph Schumpeter had observed to Adolph Drucker, his father, that “You know I have now reached the age where I know that it is not enough to be remembered for books and theories. One does not make a difference unless it is a difference in people’s lives.” According to one source, Schumpeter died eight days after making this statement suggesting that reaching that age and coming to that conclusion of moving beyond books should spur one to immediate action:. Das Leben ist kurz.

In an era where everyone is free or to write and publish on social media and so many more are reading via those platforms, can writing about books because they convey important understandings make a difference? Can leading others to particular books or at least acquainting them with their essential messages allow them to learn — to interpret the world differently so that their actions are more effective? Will they find the view worth the climb? These are not going to be reviews hemmed at 140 characters. They are as the phrase goes ‘long reads’ although never as long as the books themselves. Part of the testable proposition is how much people want to read at that length and of my authorship and obviously I am testing that as well.

One difference between these book reviews and others that are written so wonderfully in places like the New York Times, Financial Times, and Wall Street Journal is that I’m writing from the perspective of a practitioner. My experience is not in writing books or reviewing them, but in trying to apply knowledge to the actual workings of organizations whether as manager, a consultant, or an officer. Previous posts on LinkedIn betray this perspective in covering a few books that I thought worthy of consideration: Tyler Cowen’s Average Is Over, Economism by James Kwak, Class Clowns by Jonathan Knee, Henry Mintzberg’s The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning, and even my big read of last summer, The Collected Works of Primo Levi. Did the reviews make a difference to anyone but myself? Did one person form a different mental model as a result of something they encountered in what I wrote or more directly in the book itself? I have no idea. I did get some encouragement from people I like and respect, but I don’t know of any difference made.

That might be enough to persuade someone else in my situation to move on to one of those other activities envisioned, but I’m intrigued by something that Penelope Lively once said: “Your books tell you where you’ve been — they’re the story of your own mind. Getting rid of them would be like getting rid of that.” One of the differences desired is for myself: I’m trying to better map the story of my own mind because doing so might enable me to write my own book. So as I begin this series — or continue it — I am testing two propositions: writing these reviews might help me and/or they might help other people. I am not going to rely exclusively or even mainly upon ‘views’ or ‘likes’ for evidence because the information they convey is incomplete and unsatisfactory. Instead, I’ll try some other ways of asking questions. And now for the first of these experiments in my next post: Economic Fables by Ariel Rubenstein.