The best books I read in 2017
Sitting in the rear carriage of 2017 as it approached the annual terminal, I will admit to having been a little befuddled and bemused about what just happened.
There were so many unexpected and hard to believe developments in the public sphere that if 2017 had been a novel I’d think of it as a badly plotted first draft that someone really should have got some advice on before they put it into production. I suppose it might have been the difficult middle book of an epic trilogy, a kind of 21st century The Two Towers — in which case hopefully there are a pair of metaphorical hobbits struggling unseen through the outlands of Mar-E-Lago, set on delivering a figurative ring back into the fires of a firey bunker near the 18th where it was forged. Or something like that.
Perhaps the difficulty of being able to string a narrative about the year together that in any way makes sense has made my reading all the more urgent, and look back over the year’s books all the more satisfying.
In the post below, rather than a list, I’m going to call out the books that really stayed with me after reading them in three loose categories — fiction, non-fiction and business.
It has been a fine year for reading genre fiction, beginning with the incredible The Three Body Problem by Chinese author Liu Cixin and carrying on through the next two books in the trilogy, The Dark Forest and Death’s End. I want to re-read the whole trilogy now, a year later, as it still haunts me. Full of beautiful prose and dizzying ideas it is a truly incredible work of art.
Carrying on with the genre theme, I worked my way through all of Mick Herron’s Slow Horses series. Set in a kind of Craggy Island for spies, the eponymous slow horses are cast-offs from MI5, condemned to carry out repetitive, low status work under the tyrannical eye of their boss, Jackson Lamb. The stories are well told spy stories with explicit nods to the tone and style of John Le Carré, but don’t feel at all derivative. I loved them and am currently re-reading the first, Slow Horses, to savour the prose and storytelling skills of Herron.
Staying with a genre theme, after hearing a recommendation on the excellent Talking Politics podcast this summer, I read To Kill the President by Jonathan Freedland, a political journalist writing under the pen-name, Sam Bourne. It’s a perfectly constructed and written thriller in its own right, although I’m not overly tempted to read the rest of the series. What packs a punch for the contemporary reader is the plot-line about a populist US president who tries to start a nuclear war against North Korea in a fit of pique when he thinks the news channels are poking fun at him. A couple of his staff plot to kill him and mayhem ensues.
Reading this in the summer, when tensions with North Korea and an unpredictable President were in the headlines gave me a slightly thrilling sense of vertigo-like confusion — when I thought about a news story or a bit of the plot I frequently had difficulty telling fact and fiction apart.
Finally, in the fiction category, I spent a large part of the year on an expedition-like attempt to scale Jerusalem, the 1,200-page, 600,000 word Alan Moore book about eternity and Northampton, his home town. I summited, as they say, a few days ago and was largely delighted by the experience, which was accomplished in a series of three or four focused pushes with breaks to recover and let my mind un-warp itself by reading shorter, works.
There are a handful of chapters I found it hard to follow — for instance one written as a script for a play, and another in deep slang, spellings phonetic and tough to follow. In the main though, it was a seemingly unending epic, filled with small moments of awe and awe-striking insights.
I’d like to read more general non-fiction in 2018 — this year’s reading was dominated by business books — see below — and I’ve a pair of history inflected books to recommended.
Homo Deus is a fantastic book and should be required reading for anyone interested in the world and where we are headed as a species. In his previous book, Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari gave us a meta-history of humanity’s story to date. Homo Deus looks to the future and what things like artificial intelligence will mean for us. His thinking is fresh and even on topics you may already familiar with, the book pushes you into thinking more deeply and more long-term about what our current tumultuous technical and social revolutions will mean.
I also enjoyed Prisoners of Geography, which uses the conceit of ten maps to explain why “geography is destiny”. Like Sapiens, it is effectively a meta-history, giving context to the behaviours of governments over the ages. It begins Russia early on, which brings this idea to life. In the current geo-political atmosphere, we have a narrative in the West about a tyrant and gangster state — but seen in the context of that enormous country’s geography, Putin’s concerns and strategies appear as part of a continuum from the first Czars to the present day. The chapters on China and India stuck in my mind also.
Running a growing business, business books are really important to me. They’ve shaped every part of the journey of starting and growing a company, providing in turns inspiration, how-to advice and emotional life-lines. While listening to the FT podcast about business books earlier this year, it was a delight to hear someone recommend the fabulous Station Eleven, by Emily St John Mandel, rather than a business book. It prompted a discussion about how many business leaders would be better served by reading fiction for its insights into humanity rather than books specifically about their field. This is true, on one level, in that being grounded and having a life of the mind beyond balance sheets and boardrooms would improve many an executive, there’s still a place for reading about business themes — as long as you find the right books.
It’s been a good year for my reading in this area, so I’m going to recommend six that were helpful or inspirational and well above the bar set by many books in this genre, neither too breathlessly in love with a single idea, practical, and very, very readable.
Deep Work, by Cal Newport: This is a book that people had been recommending to me for a while, and indeed was on my to-read list, but somehow I’d not found myself reading until now. It deals thoroughly with one the most important subjects for knowledge workers, indeed for anyone with a smartphone who values their autonomy and self-direction in life: attention and focus. Newport brings together interesting research and personal experience of managing an academic and authorial career to suggest how we can resist the distractions of the digital age and get meaningful work done. Priceless advice.
Radical Candor was written by Kim Scott, who worked in several top Silicon Valley companies including Google and Apple. This is a book with a single big idea, but it keeps things short, to the point and doesn’t outstay its welcome for the most part. You could pick up the gist of the book by looking at the quadrant diagram that summarises it (below), but you probably wouldn’t follow through on its brilliant advice. Scott days that most people are poor at giving direct feedback — either they fall short on candour and are “ruinously empathetic”, aren’t caring enough in the delivery and become obnoxiously aggressive (an arsehole in other words), or — usually for fear of being seen as an arsehole, avoid giving critical feedback altogether — which it calls manipulative insincerity.
Avoiding giving — and receiving well-intentioned feedback that could help people grow and improve their performance is an everyday act of cowardice that too many of us fall into on one occasion or another. That’s why I recommend this book to anyone who’ll listen — there’s nothing that would cut the crap more in the modern workplace than actually sharing honest, well intentioned feedback.
Machine, Platform, Crowd is the follow up to the amazing The Second Machine Age, by MIT’s Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson. This may be the most widely read book by my colleagues at Brilliant Noise, as I saw at least three physical copies doing the rounds in the office, and it was cited widely in our work on digital leadership with clients. I’d still recommend The Second Machine as an essential read, giving as it does a clear context for our current digital revolution as being as profound if not more so as the industrial revolution. This book does a good job of setting out frameworks and questions to understand how we can make sense of the digital age and seize the opportunities to improve the world.
Organization Design, by Naomi Stanford is a practical, thoughtful book that pushes the reader to go far beyond the org chart as a means of designing the organisation. Organisation design is fiendishly difficult, not least because, as Andy Grove of Intel once said, organisations are organic, not machines. You’re working with the messiness of culture, of human social networks and the individuals in them when you set out to re-organise or re-design them. I read Standford’s FT Guide to Organisation Design last year and there is some overlap with this book, but I was grateful for the added depth and space to explore the subject that this book offers. It is a book that every executive should read, not just those involved in operations or HR. (It also has a really cool cover, considering it’s a pretty technical business tome — see below.)
Building the Agile Business through Digital Transformation is, like Organization Design, a book for people who want to engage deeply with the subject and get things done. It was written by Neil Perkin, in collaboration with Peter Abraham, who is a brilliant curator of ideas and insights on his blog, and his famous Google Firestarters series of events. He’s also — full disclosure — been involved in the Brilliant Noise Dots conference since it started, finally taking to the stage as a speaker this year to talk about this book. It’s rich in examples, case studies and frameworks for analysis and planning change. It’s so close to my heart and Brilliant Noise’s focus that we bought at least 50 copies for friends and colleagues. It’s a textbook for getting on and changing how your organisation works with digital.
I went looking for a book about leadership and leveling up at the start of this year. Brilliant Noise has been growing quickly in the past few years and in 2017 we went from 28 to more than 40 people. Sensing the change in the company that was coming and realising its leaders would need to re-invent themselves once again to be what the company needed them to be I bought What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. If I’m honest, I was little worried and disappointed at first — I was hoping for manual on how to run a fast-growing business as it scales and what I got was a simple and straightforward guide to getting out of the way of the talented people and teams that you’ve developed. It’s a very specific book about leadership — if you’re stepping up into a new role and can feel the imposter syndrome kicking in, it is time to pick up this book. It’s about stopping the things that made your career so far and moving into a role of supporting and coaching your teams to help them succeed. So simple, as simple as the brilliant title implies, it’s a humbling, inspiring management classic.