Three surprising books I read in 2018

Natalie Cernecka
Jan 4, 2019 · 5 min read
three surprising books ©ncernecka

During the winter holidays, I always look forward to the moment when writers, scientists, and business people share their lists of favourite books.

Many avid readers have personal systems for finding new books to read. My system is based on serendipity, proximity browsing, and book recommendations. It is thanks mainly to book recommendations (from real people, not algorithms) that I was able to discover many hidden gems.

I would like to return the favour and recommend my three preferred books from 2018.

This is not the “top three books that will change your life”, nor the “top three books you must read before the clock strikes 12”, but a personal selection.

Why three? On average, I read about 30 books a year, but three is the number that human beings can easily remember. Although my readings are 50% business and 50% fiction, two of the three books are novels, as they surprised me most.

None of the three books first appeared in 2018: one was published in 1937, another in 2016, and the third in 2010. When choosing a book, I belong to the school of thought that quality precedes quantity and great beats new.

Number #1 is Ali und Nino (“Ali and Nino”) by Kurban Said, which is a pseudonym. Since the novel was published in 1937 in Vienna, the true identity of the author has never been established: a Viennese intellectual, a refugee Orientalist, and a multilingual translator are all probable candidates.

The novel is set in Baku in the early 20th century, as this ancient Oriental city is being transformed by newly discovered oil, which attracts money, technology, and attention from imperial powers. Ali, a Muslim youth, and Nino, a Georgian Christian girl, obtain, despite religious and cultural differences, their families’ acceptance to marry. Then World War I begins and changes forever the life of the protagonists, their city, and the whole region.

I read the book in November 2018, as Western Europe celebrated the 100th anniversary of the 11th of November Armistice.

Looking from the West, it is easy to forget that 1918 did not mark the end of the war on the Eastern Front. From the Baltics to the Caspian, bloody battles were fought, states declared and perished, and numerous lives lost for five years, until 1923. The freshly traced borders had profound impact on the history of the region and the entire world during the 20th century, and the consequences are still felt today in areas far from Versailles.

Secretive people with unpronounceable names sat in Versailles and decided the destiny of the East.

Number #2 is Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depended on it, by Chris Voss, former FBI lead international kidnapping negotiator turned negotiation trainer and consultant.

Among many negotiation books available, this stands out by its approach based on neuroscience, emotional intelligence, and techniques that had been field tested in extreme life-or-death situations. These techniques seem counter-intuitive, yet, the author explains that negotiation is not magic, but a process, and guides us through this process step by step.

If you want to learn about negotiation, I also recommend reading his blog and listening to podcasts featuring his work.

The win-win mindset pushed by so many negotiations experts is usually ineffective and often disastrous. At best, it satisfies neither side. And if you employ it with a counterpart who has a win-lose approach, you’re setting yourself to be swindled.

Of course, …, you need to keep cooperative, rapport-building, empathetic approach, the kind that creates a dynamics in which deals can be made. But you have to get rid of that naivete. Because compromise — “splitting the difference” — can lead to terrible outcomes. Compromise is often a “bad deal” and a key theme … is that “no deal is better than a bad deal”.

Even in a kidnapping?

Yes. A bad deal in a kidnapping is where someone pays and no one comes out.

Number #3, probably my most unpredictable discovery, is La mujer que buceó dentro del corazón del mundo (“The woman who dived into the heart of the world”) by Mexican writer Sabina Berman.

It is a story of a Mexican girl with autism who inherits a failing tuna fishery and, against all odds, develops it into a prosperous international enterprise.

When a Spanish friend recommended the book, I was not convinced. I knew nothing about the fishing industry, had little contact with autism, and had never been to Mexico. The context did not resonate, as it was too distant from my universe.

Yet, as I began reading, I could not put it down. The gripping plot features Descartes and Darwin, ironic observations on human nature, kidnappings by eco-terrorists, the narrator making the most of her “different abilities”, and her business empire spreading from Mazatlán to Tokyo to Paris.

‘Let’s forget the 90% of your abilities that are subpar, and bet on the 10% that are exceptional’.

2018 was marked by misunderstanding between people who are different in one way or another: tech industry vs women; millennials vs older folks; educational establishment vs foreign students.

For 2019, I have a suggestion. Let’s escape our echo chambers and embrace the difference.

Strike a conversation with a perfect stranger. Interview an unusual candidate. Talk to a colleague whose name you can’t pronounce.

At least, read a book that differs from what you usually like.

Happy 2019! Vive la difference!

Natalie Cernecka

Written by

Academic (Cambridge, Keio, CNRS) converted to tech. Linguist. TEDx speaker & organiser. Diversity is the spice of life.

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