Books I read in…April 2017

I don’t know what I was thinking when I compiled my reading list for April — let’s just say there weren’t many laughs in my selection. Nevertheless, there were some excellent reads.

THE TIPPING POINT: MALCOM GLADWELL

After reading and enjoying Outliers a couple of months ago, I was eager to read more by this author. The Tipping Point was next on my list and was another great read.

The book examines why certain ideas, trends, products and behaviours cross a threshold (“tipping point”) and spread like wildfire. It starts with the example of Hush Puppies — a brand which was seriously uncool in the early 1990s, with sales down to around 30,000 pairs a year in 1994. Until that is, a small group of youngsters in Manhattan started wearing them (precisely because they were so ‘anti-cool’). The result? In 1995, 430,000 pairs of the shoes were sold.

Gladwell calls these sorts of instances of little changes having big effects, ‘contagious behaviour’, and the book goes on to examine a whole host of examples, from the reduction in crime in New York and syphilis epidemics in Baltimore to the story behind the incredible success of Sesame Street.

He categorises the people behind social epidemics into three types: Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen, all of whom have the power to influence the world around them to a massive degree and who each play a unique and vital role in a product, behaviour etc. reaching tipping point.

It’s a fascinating book, hugely engaging, and enlightening. Highly recommended.

WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR: PAUL KALANITHI

A while ago I read a piece in The Sunday Times about this book and its author. It has stuck with me ever since, and I always knew that I would one day read the book.

Kalanithi was just 36, coming to the end of a ten-year residency training as a neurosurgeon and on the verge of a glittering career, when he was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. This book was written by him to tell the story of his journey to death, a journey which included becoming a father shortly before he died.

Beautifully written and achingly honest, it is as haunting as that original article and equally as heart breaking. If you can get through this book without shedding a tear I’d be surprised.

THE SHADOW OF THE WIND: CARLOS RUIZ ZAFON

This was our book club’s read for April. I had never heard of the author or the book (shame on me) so had absolutely no preconceptions going into it.

The book is set in Barcelona in the years just after the Spanish Civil War and is narrated by Daniel, the son of a second-hand bookshop owner. At the age of 10 his father takes him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, where he is allowed to choose one book from the thousands available. The book he chooses will change his life forever.

Part murder mystery, part love story, this is a cracking read — although I found it wasn’t a book I could pick up and of which I could just read a few pages. It needed a decent amount of my time to become engrossed in the story and to escape fully into the world painted by the author, which he does incredibly well. It’s a very atmospheric novel, the events through the years always taking place in the winter, which required me to adjust my vision of Barcelona. I have visited the area in which the book is set but did so in the late summer when heat and blue skies predominated, rather than the biting cold which seemed permanently to envelop the city throughout the novel.

Although funny at times, to me it was, at its heart, a sad story but one I’m extremely pleased to have read.

STEVE JOBS: WALTER ISAACSON

Well, this one really threw me a curved ball.

Obviously, I’m aware of Apple — I own their products and, largely, love them. I know who Steve Jobs was and that he was indisputably a genius, and I had a sense of his reputation as being ‘difficult’ to work with. However, I’d never had more than a passing interest in his life and I don’t really know what made me buy this book. But I’m so glad I did.

It is very much a ‘warts and all’ biography and I think the fact that Jobs was happy to allow Isaacson to write it without wanting any restrictions or control, and in fact encouraged those involved in his story to speak honestly about him, contributed to this being such a good book. Sadly, he didn’t live long enough to read it.

Isaacson pulls no punches about what an absolute jerk Jobs could be — how he treated people so badly, including his own wife and kids — so I was somewhat surprised to find myself as affected by this book as I was. It’s a fascinating story of the creation of the most valuable company in the world and the man who, with his vision and single-minded sense of purpose, changed that world forever.

It took me a week to read the book, during which time I was over in London for my week in the office. The whole time I was reading it I felt an overpowering sense of sadness at what the world has lost in his death, which I never expected and which hit me hard. I finished the book on my flight home and when I got to the last page I cried.

While I was in the office that week I took delivery of a new iPhone, but didn’t open the package until I got home. Sitting there, looking at the iconic box, and now understanding the thought process behind it and what it was Jobs tried to achieve and succeeded in achieving, I cried again.

THE PSYCHOPATH TEST: JON RONSON

After reading ‘Steve Jobs’ I was really in need of a pick me up, and this was it.

It’s a very light read, won’t win any literary prizes and Ronson can sometimes try to be too clever for his own good, but it did the trick of cheering me up. I think.

It’s a largely light-hearted tale of Ronson’s quest to learn the art of psychopath spotting, but with some serious undertones.

Chilling fact: whilst only 1% of the general population is psychopathic, in the corporate world that rises to 10%. The chances are you’ve either worked with or for a psychopath (I know I have), or you are one.

Favourite quote from the book:

“I heard a story about her once,” said James. “She was interviewing a psychopath. She showed him a picture of a frightened face and asked him to identify the emotion. He said he didn’t know what the emotion was but it was the face people pulled just before he killed them.”

MAN’S SEARCH FOR MEANING: VIKTOR E FRANKL

I finished the month with this classic, which although it deals with harrowing events (Frankl’s experiences during three years as an inmate at Auschwitz and other concentration camps), it is ultimately a book about hope.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way”.

He is also fond of quoting Nietzsche, “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.

The book is split into two parts: the first deals with Frankl’s experiences in the concentration camps. He describes the three phases of the prisoner’s mental reactions to life in the camps: shock, relative apathy and the psychology of a prisoner’s mental health after his liberation. During the years that he was incarcerated he learned to recognise the signs when a prisoner had given up on life and every time they would be dead in a matter of days.

The second, shorter, part of the book provides a brief explanation of the branch of psychotherapy which Frankl subscribed to and developed — logotherapy. The principal belief behind this form of therapy is that human nature is motivated by the search for a life purpose.

I’ve read a number of books written by Holocaust survivors and their sheer guts never cease to amaze me. Frankl is no different, although of those I’ve read, he best sums up the ability for someone in his position to move on and not spend the rest of their life bogged down in trying to deal with man’s inhumanity to man:

“…man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.”