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Reading Highlights from 2009

Today is the last day I’ll be in the Newfangled office in 2009. What a year it’s been! Over the last week, I’ve had numerous opportunities to reflect upon the year with Mark and other coworkers, which has been a very enlightening and edifying experience; we’ve all certainly learned a lot.

Then, this morning I saw Michael Surtee’s interview with Inaki Escudero, who read 52 books in 2009 (one per week). Though I read quite a bit, I honestly can’t imagine reading that much. In responding to the interview, I was able to look over and count the list of books I read this year, which totaled 32–much more than I thought (you can browse my Google Books library here). I’ll reserve final judgement as to whether I can add another twenty this coming year for sometime later, but at this point I’m doubtful.

Above is an image (courtesy of P Donovan’s flickr set) of the Providence Athenaeum, where I would occasionally go to find a quiet place to read while I was studying at RISD. Whenever I think about books, I think of that place. So as I review the list of books I read this year, I’m at least mentally hiding out in a quiet corner of that old, beautiful library.

Among the 32 books I read this year are a few really great titles; here are seven that really impacted how I think and work this year…

 

The Numerati, by Stephen Baker
Measurement has been a major theme at Newfangled this year. We’ve been pushing to improve our utilization and our level of service simultaneously, which requires extremely close attention to the numeric details of our operation. Last January, I read The Numerati and was inspired by the connections that I made between ways that other companies approach data analysis and how those methods might apply to us. Since then, I’ve applied that inspiration to establishing methods of analysis that consider our company in an ecosystemic way–where revenue trends affect and are affected by seemingly unimportant statistics such as the frequency of employee blogging. I’m confident that in 2009 we’ve created a Numerati-esque culture within Newfangled and among our clients, as well.

 

The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell
I first heard about this novel from an interview with the author on the Speaking of Faith podcast about the idea of the novelist as God. I was so charmed by the author’s fiesty personality that I sought out the book right away, though I must admit that the book’s premise–the story of a Jesuit mission to a newly discovered alien world–appealed to me on a number of levels. But the core of this book would probably be appealing to anyone. It’s a beautiful character study of a man who’s faith is challenged by unimaginable circumstances and is confronted with the reality of how our choices are interwoven with the grand scheme of the universe. I feel as if I read this book at exactly the right time–a time in which circumstances have challenged my faith and have shown me how in the past I rarely considered my own choices but just felt as if life was “happening” to me. Today, I am much, much more aware of my own choices.

 

What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, by Marshall Goldsmith
I saw this book emphatically recommended by several people I read and respect and though I wasn’t expecting much from it, I went ahead and ordered a copy. It’s just got one of those too-snappy-to-have-substance titles, and I’m just far too likely to pre-judge, especially when it comes to “business” books. But part of the way through the first few chapters, I realized why it came so heavily recommended. Goldsmith, a corporate coach, takes executives through what he calls “360 reviews,” evaluating people on the basis of peer feedback and identifying habits and traits that hinder growth. He points out that these traits are often in place prior to the achievement of success; indeed, that many are often successful despite having some significant bad habits, yet continued success is hindered by them. He profiles about 21 of these traits in the book, and as I read through them, I realized how applicable this information was to my life and work. I suggested that Mark and I read it together, which we did in less than a week. I credit reading and discussing this book as an experience that really enabled us to grow significantly in our working relationship and as leaders within the company.

 

The Light of Other Days, by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter
If you recognize the author’s name, you’ll know right away that this is a science fiction novel. But bear with me! The story centers around a man, who, with the less-than-voluntary help of his two sons, creates a technology that, though intended for a fairly innocent business communication application, actually allows people to see into the past. Nevermind the scientific explanation of how this all works- the point is the affect this technology has on society: the end of privacy. Seeing in time allows you to see into the past in any increment, whether to spy on your parents a decade ago or to spy on someone one second ago. Clarke portrays a very realistic and human reaction, which imagines some finding ways to live “cloaked” lives, while others dive headfirst (and sans clothing) into their newly public lives. This resonates with me as I see our industry at the forefront of prompting technology driven societal change. Is technological progress worthy simply for the sake of achievement, and at what cost to our humanity?

 

On Writing Well, by William Zinsser
After I gave a presentation on what I call Professional Writing for the Unprofessional Writer, Nolan recommended that I check out On Writing Well, which specifically deals with non-fiction business-related writing. Within the first chapter, Zinsser had identified several no-no’s of professional writing- most of which I knew I was guilty of doing often. Reading this book gave me just the jumpstart I needed after having taken over writing our newsletters from Eric over a year and a half ago.

 

Massive Change, by Bruce Mau
I bought this book for someone else as a Christmas gift this year, knowing enough about Bruce Mau’s project to be sure it would be inspiring and of interest to them. But as I flipped through it I realized that I needed to read it, too. I ordered a second copy right away. As Mau says, this book is not about the world of design, but the design of the world, and he doesn’t let any convention get in the way of the combined vision of his studio and the Institute Without Boundaries. They tackle world-shaping trends, from housing and transportation to human-computer interfaces and nanotechnology. As a generationally-removed student of Buckminster Fuller, this book spoke to the future-oriented wonder I have for our world.

 

Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob, by Lee Siegel
I’m wrapping up reading this book currently. I may be too close to it to comment on Siegel’s ideas in an objective way at this point. As I mentioned in reference to The Light of Other Days, the philosophical question of the cost of technological progress is on my mind at all times, so I naturally resonate with Siegel’s angst. Yet, my livelihood rests on the foundation of the particular technology he is most skeptical toward- the internet. With that said, I’d recommend that anyone in my field read this book, if not for the challenge to our perceptions of our newly web-enhanced world, for his great writing. To get a sense for what he’s all about, here’s a brief quote from the first chapter:

“As the Viennese philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein famously said, ‘The world is all that is the case.’ We have been flung into the world whether we like it or not. But the internet creates a vast illusion that the physical, social world of interacting minds and hearts does not exist. In this new situation, the screen is all that is the case, along with the illusion that the screen projects of a world tamed, digested, abbreviated, rationalized, and ordered into a trillion connected units, called sites. This new world turns the most consequential fact of human life—other people—into seemingly manipulable half presences wholly available to our fantasies. It’s a world controlled by our wrist and finger.

The sudden onset of web culture is really a dramatic turn in the timeless question of what it means to be a human being. What a shame that transformative new technologies usually either inspire uncritical celebration or incite bouts of nostalgia for a prelapsarian age that existed before said technology—anything for an uprising against cellphones and a return to the glorious phone booths of yore! The advent of new technologies pretty quickly becomes a pitched battle between the apostles of edge and Luddites wielding alarmist sentiments like pitchforks. Because each side is a caricature of itself, no one takes what is at stake very seriously at all.”

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