What I’m Reading

This page is to aid my failing memory in case I buy or attempt to read a book twice. It is simply a growing list of the books I have read or am reading or are on my shelf waiting to be read. It is entirely for my benefit as I work through the pile of books on my shelf that I have been given or bought and seems always to be getting bigger and not smaller. Feel free to recommend books you like or to argue with my reviews.

Born Digital

Book cover photo of born digital

Dec:11 I am not sure which came first. This book or Josh Spear coining the phrase but either way I read it too late. The book was first published in 2008 and I suspect at the time provided much-needed insight about the digital future and the generation that was / is growing up with it.

However, four years on and we know everything the book reveals and if, like me, you have kids it is impossible to avoid the way the digital generation has seamlessly integrated their lives with the digital world. The biggest catastrophe that has impacted my family recently was when broadband didn’t work for 7 weeks and we had no internet connection. My children, and my wife who was late to digital had their lives seemingly thrown into turmoil and their complaints we long and loud.

The main take-away therefore is not to leave it so long to read books about trends.

Love in the time of Cholera

book cover of love in a time of choleraOct:11  My good friend Richard Sedley was asked to recommend a book for World Book Day 2011 and he chose ‘Love in a time of cholera’ and was rewarded with some copies to give away and I was the lucky recipient of one of those. The book is by nobel prize-winning Columbian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, was first published in Spanish in 1985 and translated into English 3 years later.

The story is set in an un-named city on a Caribbean island in the late 19th century and beginning of the 20th in a story spanning some 80 years. It is about love and the relationship between Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza who fall in love as children but are pulled apart when Fermina’s father forces her to stop meeting him. She then marries Dr Juvenal Urbino for security and position but Florentino never stops dreaming and hoping that they will be together.

There is something about books written around this time and set in the Caribbean islands that captivates me. As Florentino runs a river boat company, part of this story entails a boat trip down a river and it is so beautifully written you can imagine yourself there.

I am not a cultured reader and came to reading relatively late for reasons I won’t go into, and so for all the good of this book I personally found it hard work to push through to the end. I was glad I did, because it is a good story and the style of writing quite different to anything I had previously read. There are huge chapters, only 4 or 5 as I recall, and they can feel very long and sometimes drawn out. Nevertheless I would recommend it as I have strong memories of the story and the setting and the effort was worth it in the end.

The Private Patient

Quite Thrilling

Sep:11  This is the first P. D James book I have read and I enjoyed it enough to make me want to try another if for no other reason that to get a better grip on the main character – Commander Dalgliesh. He is one of the Met’s best police officers operating in a Maverick department constantly threatened by closure. But, and this is the bit I didn’t get in this book, he is also a poet and apparently of some notoriety as he is recognised by other characters in the book. I didn’t experience him actually writing any poetry in the book and this is not least because he is a workaholic so every minute was taken up with solving the case.

I imagine this is the type of story that could easily be turned into a stage play or episode in a TV series as it has a nice neat cast and is mainly set in a stately home in Dorset. Everyone is a potential suspect until we get 3/4 of the way through book and then work out that only one person could really be responsible for the crimes. That the reveal comes so soon was a bit of a disappointment for me and I found the last couple of chapters a bit of a waste of time other than for the enjoyment of the way they were written. That said, I know I like to be kept on the hook until the end if possible so it is a frequent complaint.

Apparently Dalgiesh has been around in 1962 so I will look forward to learning more about him in other mysteries.

The Rational Optimist

Change the way you think about everything

Aug:11 Matt Ridley is a well known and well respected journalist and is the author of several books, many that deal with sensitive subjects such as the human genome. This book bombards you with argument after argument for why things are getting better and we should be optimistic and I found it compelling. He tackles global warming, population growth, famine, just about everything.

The style of the writing is similar to Malcolm Gladwell (Tipping Point, Blink) and Steven Levitt & Stephen Dubner (Freakonomics and Superfreakonomics) and I’ll be recommending to all my friends that I know enjoyed those books. Whether they will agree with what he says is another question although there is a mile of evidence and he tries to cover all the possible counter arguments.

There is a lot to like about this book and I particularly enjoyed the way the story unfolded from early civilisation (and before) up to present day. I learnt so much about man’s evolution, trading and empire building and how this enabled human beings to overcome problems both man-made and natural. I am convinced by Ridley that man can overcome virtually anything and that, yes, life will be better. Bring the thunder!

Moa’s Great Famine

Finally, the truth

Aug:11 This book won the BBC’s Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction and the author, Frank Dikotter deserves great credit for this work. The book communicates the findings of years of research delving into local Chinese government archives that have become available. By piecing various data together he has built a detailed description of the carnage enacted upon the Chinese people by Chairman Mao.

This is a long book, with lots of detailed information such as financial records, but it doesn’t feel long when you are reading it. It is really well organised and doesn’t glamorise the atrocities to keep the reader’s attention despite the volume of acts that took place.  It is estimated by various sources in the book that in excess of 45,000,000 people died between 1958 and 1962 as a result of the great famine. What followed was the cultural revolution which resulted in the deaths of many more which is not covered in this book and frankly there isn’t room.

It would appear that the Chinese people still do not blame Mao for what happened and seem to believe that he was unaware of what was going on but this book puts that myth to bed once and for all. Hopefully the internet age will allow this important work to be circulated amongst the people and facilitate the changes needed in China so that human rights violations are no more .

The Evolutionary Void

The third in the Trilogy

Apr:11 The third book in the trilogy, which didn’t arrive for a couple of years after the second book. I checked regularly at bookshops and online and waited and waited and then finally it arrived. Finally I could catch up with Edeard and what would happen to the void.

Sadly, the final book didn’t live up to the first two (in my humble opinion) and although I ploughed through it and enjoyed it I found it lacking a little. I have being trying to work out why and the only thing that strikes me is that the book was full of the usual highly detailed descriptions of technology, life in the distant future and alien races, but lacked in the depth of the story. The ending was a bit cheesy also and seemed to leap to a conclusion where in the rest of the book we stepped towards it.

Nevertheless, as a massive Peter F. Hamilton fan I will be getting the next book and moving it up the list of books to be read – if only the bibliography on his website helped me to do that!

Eric Clapton Auto Biography

The autobiography

Feb:11 This book took a year to get off my shelf as I wasn’t sure I’d enjoy it. I am still not sure if I like Eric Clapton after reading it although it is a fascinating story and he is very open about the problems he has had as a result of alcoholism. But it is hard not to wonder at the story.

Imagine sitting at your dining room table while George Harrison sits at the sofa strumming his guitar and starts to come up with “Here Comes the Sun”. The book is full of little snapshots like this as it tells the story of Clapton’s life; although he must have had some help as it would seem he was stoned for the majority of it. Not that it would have appeared to be the case of his audiences. I was at one of the gigs he recounts – The pros and cons of hitch-hiking playing guitar for Roger Walters, and Clapton was outstanding.

The problem with the book is that Clapton doesn’t appear to take responsibility for what happened to the people around him who were caught up in his alcoholism. The women in his life seem to have particularly suffered, one even died and although he may not be directly responsible he was certainly the centre of the storm. That said, he pulls no punches when talking about alcoholism and the journey he has taken to sobriety which includes significant contributions to helping other alcoholics.

It was a compelling read, and an enjoyable review of nearly five decades in the music business and all that the different decades entailed. He has had an incredible life.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Moonlight

Pure Genius

Jan:11 A Christmas book and a very light-hearted and enjoyable read. The concept of the story is pure genius – perfect in its simplicity, and you can’t help thinking anyone could have come up with the idea. But anyone didn’t, Mark Haddon did.

The book is a murder mystery novel but the story is narrated by the main character Christopher Boone, a fifteen year old, Asperger’s syndrome sufferer. His analysis of the situations he finds himself in is heart wrenching and hilarious at different times and the characters around him are rich and full of interest.

It reminded me a bit of “A short history of tractors in Ukrainian” but also has a bit of the “Julian Barnes” about it. I really enjoyed it and have passed it around my family and friends.

Rare Business

I am in this one (yes really)

Nov:10 I had to read this book by Adrian Swinscoe because I was interviewed for it and am named in it. Brilliant, I never thought I would see my name in book print (p222 if you want to look).

The book is about building a great business and Adrian kicks off by explaining that he uses “rare” in the title because it means something “unusually great” as apposed to rarely seen. It is in essence a manual for small (and large) business owners about how to create a better business and what a better business looks like. It is a very useful tool for visualising a better future so that you can plan toward a goal.

The sections are punctuated by interviews with small business leaders that are getting an element, or many elements of their business right and that therefore serve as examples to the rest of us. My story and Foviance’s comes in the leadership section and really talks about company culture and that you have to work at that element as you do with areas like selling, and finance.

I had the pleasure of meeting with Adrian during this process and found him to be an insightful and passionate business leader – and a bit of a rock climber to boot!

The Economic Naturalist

The answer to everything

Sep:10 This type of book is usually right up my street and I have read quite a few of them. However this one, whilst full of the usual eye-opening evidence that connects economics with real life, is set out almost like a collection of academic research papers knitted together and published whilst the bow wave of Feakonomics et al was still around.

I realise that is a cynical view but question after question is answered with a few lines of text stating (sometimes) what is obvious. For example, why do colour prints cost less than black and white? A paragraph later we find it is because more people want colour photos so there are volume benefits that don’t exist with monochrome. That Sherlock, I would never have guessed.

There are some gems in the book, such as petrol lines would be longer if all cars had petrol caps on the same side, but they are a bit few and far between and I think the books by Tim Harford are a better introduction to economics and behavioural economics.

In Cold BloodTruman Capote’s master piece

True Story

Aug:10 Truman Capote’s masterpiece about the true story of the cold blooded murder of four members of the Clutter family in 1959 is well worth a read. It is written with such style you can hear the voices speaking from the page. Apparently Capote never wrote another novel such was the impact of this story and the people in it on him.

There were two films made about this story that came out at almost the same time. “Capote” starred Philip Seymour Hoffman which was released in 2005 and the second was “Infamous” which starred Daneil Craig, Sandra Bullock and Toby Jones and came out in 2006. Personally I preferred Infamous and thought Toby Jones was a more believable Capote but both are good films and fairly accurately retell the story set out in the book.

The book provides much more of the back story, particularly about Perry Smith although also about Dick Hickock and the upbringing that made them the murderers they were. They seem at first to be normal people who have just run out of luck but there is more too them than that. The impact on the small town of Holcomb must be felt to this day. A terrific book and gripping read.

The Logic of LifeThe Logic of Life

We are rational decision makers

Apr:10 This is the second book by Tim Harford, the first being “The Undercover Economist”, and this carries on in a similar vein to the first. This book brings a few of the more racier subjects in such as sex and drugs (but no rock and roll) and is very readable as a result.

The book also covers areas covered by Malcolm Gladwell in Blink, but in more detail and in particular the section on rational racism which looks in detail at research carried out in a US university. He also covers areas that Levitt and Dubner cover in Freakonomics but the stories are told really well and there are different twists and turns to keep you interested.

I suspect a little like Superfreakonomics, that the primary purpose of this book is to ride the wave of the first book but he is an economist after all so it is hard to blame him.

SuperFeakonomicsFreakonomics2 – the sequel

Sex Sells

Mar:10 The follow up to “Freakonomics” so we could call this Freeakonomics 2 – the sequel, and like most sequels this one has more sex and more crime in it. That said, it is written in exactly the same style and is therefore a real page turner, and the subjects are interesting and well presented. There is a risk it rather glamorises prostitution and shows the economic value of having a Pimp, but presumably the economics don’t apply to everyone.

So good book, similar style, different subjects.

Transition

Iain Banks Transition (Uk Edition)

Feb:10  Another great SciFi book from Iain Banks, the second of his I have read, the first being “The Algebraist”, which is also very good. I could see Transition being made into a film, particulary after the movie Inception came out as the cleverness of the story line is very similar.

In Transition we are dealing with parallel universes and people who can travel between the dimensions. There is an organisation called “Concern” that recruits people from different universes and trains them so they can influence the evolution of the populations. They might sweep in and execute someone before they detonate a suicide bomb for example or assist someone who has the potential to do good. But of course this is a good versus evil book and so the story develops into a gripping thriller that takes place across the different dimensions and universes.

I really enjoyed this book as it was a challenging read that kept me thinking and guessing. The depth and detail in the descriptions was superb and the different landscapes and cities really come off the page.

Note to self: Read more Iain Banks!

The Alchemists Secret

The Alchemist Secret

Jan:10  Written in a similar style to Dan Brown, this is a pretty good read for the beach, tube or train. Scott Mariani is a best selling author and this book is a “Ben Hope thriller”. Set in France mainly, but with plenty of travel this is a proper high-speed thriller and highly entertaining read.

The star, Ben Hope is a borderline alcoholic, orphan and a former elite member of the SAS – he also sounds like he is pretty good looking but then he would be wouldn’t he? There is a love interest of course, the beautiful and yet intelligent Dr Roberta Ryder (not a euphemism) and the whole thing hangs together rather well. A page turner if ever there was one.

My thanks to my niece Hayley for this one – a Christmas present and she obviously knows how to keep her Uncle happy!

 Buy-Ology

Martin Lindstrom with his book

Nov:09  Martin Lindstrom is a marketeer that has made himself famous through his success working with major brands on massive campaigns. In this book he proposes that the future of market research is in brain-waves or neuro-marketing and uses various examples to illustrate why. Although the information in the book is compelling I think it could have been delivered with 50% fewer pages as there is quite a bit of padding before in each chapter, we get to the meat. However, the ideas are insightful and in my experience, true.

At Foviance we have been working with brain-waves, using EEG (electroencephalography) and found the result to be very interesting. We can definitely prove different emotional reactions to online adverts, web pages etc., and the next step is to see if this correlates to click through rates so that the method can be used for creative selection.

The book is well worth a read for anyone who wants an introduction to neuromarketing as it is a quick read with some good anecdotes.

The Experience Economy

The central theme of “The Experience Economy”

Sep:09 I decided to re-read this book when I was preparing to run a customer experience master class and I am glad I did because the themes are still relevant. Although it was first published in 1999 business has not yet fully embraced the central theme of the book, or at least if they have they are struggling to execute their strategies.

The book centres on the idea illustrated in a chart called “the progression of economic value”. There are three axis on the chart: Competitive position; Pricing; and needs of customers. As we move from bottom left to top right we change from a “Commodity”, (which is market priced, lacks differentiation and is not closely aligned to the needs of customers) to “Experience”, which is the polar opposite. There are various examples of this progression in the book and the one that is most used in business is that of coffee.

The coffee example begins with the coffee bean. It is undifferentiated, not at all aligned to the needs of consumers and market priced at about £1 a sack. If the coffee bean is now processed, bagged and perhaps varied to provide [say] after dinner coffee, or morning coffee it is more differentiated, closer to customer needs and we can now charge £1 a bag. Put it in a cup and provide milk and sugar and we can charge £1 per serving. Then we get to Starbucks where we can charge nearly £3 a cup, provide various ways for customisation, also offer a comfortable environment with free wi-fi and we have premium pricing, closely aligned to customer needs and highly differentiated.

The challenge for the business reader is that nearly all the examples are B2C and we are invited to make the leap to B2B ourselves without, in my view, sufficient guidance. That said the examples are both powerful and nicely communicated and so the foundations are certainly here. Given also that is was written over a decade ago perhaps it was most important to convince the reader that experience matters and the book certainly does that. The launch this year of Metro Bank, although still B2C, suggests that at least someone is listening and building a new business differentiated using the experience rather than pricing.

In the experience masterclass I ran there were four insurance companies amongst the attendees. I ran an exercise that considered the company’s competitive strategy (based on Porter) and nearly every one claimed to have a differentiation strategy yet when we drilled into what they were actually doing through their marketing activities it was nearly all about price. Perhaps it is time for an updated version for 2009.

The World is Flat

Book Cover from The world is flatAug09: Thomas L. Friedman will be remembered for many things but without doubt, chief among them will be the service he has done in helping people like me understand the many layers of globalisation. The “story” of globalisation is told with story after story from people who have experienced the flat world phenomena first hand. There is the salesman who can no longer talk to his clients because they just want him to “email me back your bid” and the accountant who provides tax return services to US citizens where the work is actually all done in India. These are alongside the story of Netscape and the challenges facing educators and students.

I started reading “The World is Flat” whilst I was on holiday in the summer and could not put it down. It is a book that requires total immersion and provides blow after blow of rich, thought-provoking content that made my head buzz. The implications for the business I work in, the UK, my family, my children are all their to be confronted and worked through. I found myself frequently caught in a day-dream working through the implications for a particular area of my business or personal life.

The only draw back for me was when I returned from holiday and got to the implications for the US section. Now this is a big book: 635 pages plus acknowledgements and by the time I was at page 450 I was starting to find the US implications a little too “local” for me. In fact I ended up skipping forward for fear of hitting a road block. Having said that I couldn’t recommend the first 400 pages more strongly – it is a brilliant book and contains things you need to know. Read it!

Subject to Change

Jun09: Before buying this book I was already a subscriber and admirer of Adaptive Path – a US based user experience agency and their newsletter, so I was fairly easily convinced by a friend and colleague when they suggested I read it. However, I haven’t made it past page 60 and I think the reason is that I am not finding the book enormously ground breaking – but then again I am not sure that is what it is designed to be.

As a method for convincing the non-believer that customer experience matters and that customers must be put at the heart of product development it is very effective. The book provides solid examples and details of methodologies for putting the customer experience at the centre of design thinking in an engaging and easy to connect with style. And, for many people who are searching for the ‘how’ of customer experience research and design they will find the book easy to read, clear and simple – as is always the case with anything the Adaptive Path team produces. I remain a fan, but may never finish the book.

Robbo

Captain Marvel
Captain Marvel

Apr09: Bryan Robson or “Captain Marvel” as he is known to many, was one of the greatest English midfield footballers of all time and when I received his autobiography from my parents at Christmas I was eager to read it. If I am honest it is not a brilliant book but it is a brilliant story and as a result I romped through it.I watched his career through Manchester United but had missed out on his early years at West Brom. His stats, and I appreciate not everyone is in to that type of thing, are incredible. He scored 147 goals from Midfield in 732 appearances, many of them match winners in major competitions. He played 90 times for his country, 65 times as captain and scored 26 international goals. In 1989 he scored the fastest goal in a professional match at Wembley against Yugoslavia in 38 seconds and in 1982 he scored against France in a then record time for World Cup finals of 27 seconds.

Robbo the manager has had a tougher time but still achieved considerable success. As an outsider reading his biography it is hard to understand why he is not managing a premier league club now. He took Middlesborough from absolutely nowhere to become a regular premier league club only to be lied to by Steve Gibson – one of the considered gentlemen of the game, who apparently denied bringing Steve McClaren in to replace him after the press leaked the story, only to admit it two weeks later. He did a decent job in crummy circumstances at both Bradford City and West Brom, where he returned as a manager, and both times left or was fired due to circumstances somewhat outside his control.

To me there is a bit of the Burt Reynolds about him. Burt Reynolds became a major movie star and then chose some really crummy movies which resulted in one flop after another. He didn’t stop being a good actor and a star he just made bad choices. Robson’s passion for football means he would rather be in work, managing almost (but admittedly not entirely) any club than not managing at all. I wonder what he could achieve at a club with decent resources and a Chairman willing to back him. But then I suppose that applies to the vast majority of managers that work in football.

What the Dog Saw

Book cover photo of what the dog saw by Malcolm Gladwell
and other adventures

Mar:09 I gave this book at Christmas to the same person who gave it back to me (thank you Eileen Pevreall) and as I am already a fan of the author Malcolm Gladwell, I got stuck in to it as soon as I could. Unlike Blink and the Tipping Point, “What the dog saw” is a collection of stories that pre-date these books (and Outliers although I haven’t read that yet) from Gladwell’s time working as a writer for the New Yorker.

Many of the ideas that were explored in detail in his later works are introduced through these short stories and the book is a rapid read because of the engaging way the stories are told. Gladwell has a gift for telling stories and central to this is his ability to connect seemingly unconnected items and weave them together so that it is impossible to identify where one begins and the other ends. An example of this is in the story titled “True Colours” that has the sub-title “Hair dye and the hidden history of postwar America”. This story explained the significance of L’Oreal’s long running campaign using the slogan “because I’m worth it” which eventually evolved to be “Because you’re worth it”. Women who dyed their hair in the 30’s and 40’s were considered to be of lower virtue than those who didn’t. This wasn’t just advertising it was cultural revolution and Gladwell picks up the story and runs with it to the present day.

What most of Gladwell’s stories rely on, beyond the observation and vision he brings is research from anthropologists and social scientists amongst others. I can’t help but think these subjects should be introduced at school or at least the underlying science that goes in to them. As with economics, the subjects are introduced too late if at all and I can imagine whole portions of the population being completely oblivious to the disciplines.

There is a great deal to learn about the way people think and behave and many of Gladwell’s stories educate about why we think the way we do about certain aspects of our lives and the world we live in. Surely, when we read about the link between dangerous dogs, dog attacks and the attitude and behaviour of the owners we should take this away and create policy around it rather than have politicians’ create policy based on popularism? Gladwell provides facts and he can’t be the only person who has them available.

The Element

Feb:09 I have been waiting for this book, by Sir Ken Robinson, my entire life. I nearly got it in Daniel Goleman‘s book on Emotional Intelligence but now realise that was just a side bar – exemplified by Goleman’s apparent attraction for writing books that stick other words like “Social” or “Ecological” in front of “Intelligence” to milk the legacy. Nothing wrong with that I suppose except when you compare him with Sir Ken Robinson, who absolutely lives and breathes his subject, which is precisely what The Element is all about.

This book has single handedly allowed me to make sense of large parts of my life and personality. That is not to say that I am fixed just that my behaviours are more explained. But I shouldn’t position The Element as a self help book because what it focusses on is the need for people to find their element – that is the thing that makes them come alive, become animated,  passionate even, and to find a way to make this a central part of your life whether in work or in play.

It is beautifully written and if you have seen Sir Ken speak you can hear him saying the words on the page as you read – he even includes a few of the humorous stories he uses in his live talks. But the strength of the book is in the stories about real people and how they stumbled upon or wildly pursued their element. The book starts with the story of Gillian, an eight year old who seems to be having behavioural problems at school. The teachers finally advise the parents that she may have learning difficulties and because this is the 1930’s she is referred to a psychologist for assessment. Thankfully the psychologist identifies the problem which is that Gillian is inspired by music (“she needs to move to think”) and that the classroom holds few opportunities for enjoyment for her. He advises dancing lessons and lo and behold Gillian grows up to be Gillian Lynne the now famous dancer and choreographer of such shows as Cats and The Phantom of the Opera.

As we read on we find that the education system, family and peer pressure are often creating an environment where our natural creativity and passion are suppressed. At school I was a good singer and my teacher, Mrs Colthroppe tried endlessly to get me in to the school choir. Looking back it is to my huge regret that I didn’t pursue it although the combination of a lack of inspirational teaching and an environment where for singing in the choir I would probably have been hung out to dry didn’t give them much chance. How we overcome this situation across all its dimensions is the subject of “The Element”. It is quite simply the best book I have ever read.

World without end

Jan09: It is no coincidence that for Christmas the same person that bought me pillars bought me the sequel “World without end” and I was very grateful as Pillars was so good I wanted to get straight in to the next instalment.

World Without End - ken Follett
World Without End – Ken Follett

Make no mistake this is a monster of a book. 1,400 odd pages and to be fair not as good as Pillars, but still and great story set 300 years on from the original in the same fictional cathedral town. The main characters are direct descendants of the original cast and the politics surrounding the church, women and the local area is well told. I felt a couple of the characters were a little less believable than in Pillars but I guess the problem with any sequel is living up to the expectations set by the first.

World Without End also captures the period when the plague struck and provides a real sense of what it might have been like to deal with such a problem with limited medical knowledge and an over reliance on the power of god for a solution. The conflict caused by the Church and in particular relating to their treatment of witches was well represented and developed in to a really good story line.

Where I felt the book was weaker was surrounding the lack of reality, or at least for me believable reality surrounding the expedition of the young priestess who travels to France during a war. I am no historian but the ease with which she and her companion travelled all over France and in to Italy with soldiers of both sides, that had raped and pillaged ignoring them seemed a little far fetched. That said this is a small detail and in fact it is the small details that make the book such a great read.

Follett seems able to really connect you with the intricate lives of people living in medieval times and tells the story so well you feel like you really do know what it’s like to live at that time.

The Pillars of the Earth

Nov08: I was given Pillars for Christmas 2007 and it sat on my shelf being overtaken by various other candidates for my bag and it really didn’t appeal to me. I hadn’t read anything by Ken Follett – although I had seen “Eye of the needle” which is a great film based on one of his earlier books and the one that launched his career. Then came a 12 hour flight which just happened to coincide with me finishing “Lost for Words” and so I reluctantly packed it in my bag hoping it would keep me occupied for the long flight ahead.

Ken Follett's "Pillars of the Earth"
Ken Follett’s “Pillars of the Earth”

I couldn’t put it down. The book is terrific and I thoroughly enjoyed it. At over 1,000 pages it is long but it covers nearly 60 years and it is only toward the end that I felt there was slightly too much repetition as the author looked back and recapped key aspects of the story.

Set in twelfth century England, the story follows the life of ‘Philip’, a orphaned Monk who becomes Prior of Kingsbridge, a fictional village and transforms the village in to a bustling town as he pursues the building of a Cathedral Church. As the story unfolds there is civil war, treachery, love, and heartbreak as the characters surrounding Philip develop and play their part in the building of the Cathedral.

It begins with Philip and his brother Francis witnessing the murder of their mother and father and being saved by a Priest. Brought up by the church Philip devotes his life to God and whether you are religious or not you can’t help backing him as he fights for good against evil, which is often portrayed as greedy, ambitious religious men or other men in power.

If you are interested in Cathedral Architecture this book is definitely for you as Follett has a passion for Cathedrals and lets his passion fully express itself  as he describes the developing building. There is also an insight in to how the Mason’s operated in these times, their importance and the power of the collective. And the level of detail surrounding what life was really like during these times makes the entire book feel like a factual historical account rather than a fictional tale.

I was bought the long awaited sequel “World without End” for Christmas 2008 and this one won’t be sitting on my shelf for long. It picks up the tale 200 years later with the descendents of the characters from Pillars. I can’t wait to get my teeth in to it.

Penguins Stopped Play

Aug08: There are few books, very few in fact, that have made me laugh out loud – Lake Wobegon Days by Garrison Keillor being one and Penguins Stopped Play by the late Harry Thompson went even further. Not only did I cry with laughter but also the final chapter had me welling up and trying to swallow the enormous lump that had appeared in my throat. Not easy to do on the 19.15 from Paddington.

The book takes us on the journey of a round-the-world cricket tour organised by the great man where camaraderie and sporting achievement go hand in hand as a village cricket team take on some of the finest teams the various countries they visit have to offer. Thwarted at every turn by the evil British Airways the book is a struggle of good over evil. They manage to play on every continent and even to beat an entire country – on a Tuesday!

Although the book is about a cricket tour don’t let that put you off. The story telling is so compelling and engaging that anyone who has ever been on a tour of any kind will find it a superb read and a real page turner. I finished it and within only a few hours was on the web looking up the Hong Kong 5-aside tournament with a view to organising a tour of my own.

I feel compelled to thank my friend and colleague Mark Gristock for convincing me to take it on holiday. As a die hard football fan I was pretty ambivalent toward the book but so glad he convinced me – it is one of the best books I have read. I hope you enjoy it to.

Lost for words: The mangling and manipulation of the English language

Jul08: I cannot write a review of this book without worrying that my English grammar will not live up to the high standards of John Humphries the author of this jovial but underneath it all quite sinister look at the evolution of the English language. Or should that be ‘to John Humphries high standards’? I am still not sure. But I am thinking about it and that is the purpose of the book.

English language is changing and sometimes for the better but not often it would seem based on the number of examples on offer here. Simplicity is the key and Humphries quite rightly asks why the language has become complicated with words that are spoken just to make the speaker look clever? There are examples everywhere such as the recent use of “outwith” which seems to be entering editorial everywhere.

What I found surprising about reading the book is that it made me realise how much my own use of English has been changed by the language used around me. Why have I substituted the word issue for problem? Why has bored with become bored of? The questions are endless and the blame is place firmly at the feet of dear old America – can it do anything right one wonders?

In fact it is only five Americans who are to blame and these are they cast of the famous sitcom – Friends. And this is so not an exaggeration. Personally I can forgive Jennifer Aniston but the rest of them are obviously ruining the language for our children and our children’s children!

Future of Management

Jun08: I actually started this book late May but what’s a few days between friends? I am a fan of Gary Hamel, the author, having already read “Competing for the Future” which he co-authored with C. K. Prahalad back in 1994. Future of Management argues very effectively that the management models we use today were designed for a different time and that innovation now needs to come from management techniques rather than process and product improvements. He uses loads of examples as to why this is the case and overall the idea is compelling. I am only two chapters in so will blog more when I have finished.

So finally finished and if that sounds like it took a while then I apologise. The book is very good and about as thought provoking a read as I have recently had. I didn’t pick up another book for two weeks afterwards as there was so much to take in.  To try and put what Hamel has written into perspective try and imagine a book that deals with management theory in as radical a way as open source dealt with software development. This just about does it justice. I liked it so much I have written a book review about it for another website and rather than regurgitate that here, I will link to it when it goes up.

Family Village Tribe: The story of Flight Centre Ltd

Book Cover imageMay08: I was given this book by a colleague who wanted me to read it because of the way Flight Centre used small teams to create growth in its business and what this might mean for our business and the way we structure it. The story of Flight Centre is told by an ex-employee who has had total access to all the information required to make this a great story and a really good read.

From the early days of buying, refurbishing and then driving double decker buses all over the world to the massive global expansion to become a multi-billion dollar business. The first few chapters are gripping and I should finish it next week. Good news as I received two more books for my birthday plus a book voucher.

Well, finished the book now and is as good at the end as the beginning. I highly recommend this for anyone entrepreneurial and it reminds me of Ricardo Semmler’s book about his work “Maverick”. Some really good ideas around organisational structure and reward mechanisms. Lots to think about!

A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian

Apr08: Like many people I normally have a couple of books on the go and tend to have some sort of fiction at home and a more cerebral text for my commute. However, when I finished YES! I decided to have a change and read something lighter on the train. I chose from the pile, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian. A couple of my colleagues have read the book with mixed reviews (“what was the point” and “nothing happened”) but I actually quite enjoyed it. You can read The TImes review here.

It is a fairly rapid read – I got through it in a week – and in places is very funny. Not laugh out loud funny, more of a chuckle and mainly around the eccentric behaviour of the central characters Father – Nikolai Alexeevich. A great deal of the book is flashbacks to the period preceding and immediately after second world war and gives a fairly graphic account of what life was like for displaced Ukrainians. Nikolai’s own story is filled with difficulty, from growing up as a clever boy in a time when brawn was valued over brains, to deserting the army. The two daughters, barely on speaking terms since the death of their mother, come together to try and stop their crazy father giving everything he has to a money grabbing 30 something Ukrainian wanting to marry him for a passport. her breasts, apparently, are magnificent.

YES!

Apr08: Having finished Out of our minds at last (hard work toward the end, although the final chapter picks up the pace again) I decided to read a book recommended to me by Richard Sedley. Richard is Head of Customer Engagement at and agency called CScape, and someone I’d love to come and work with me – if this were the Premiership that would be called tapping up. Richard has a ranged of interests and I know persuasion is one of them and YES! is the non-specialists introduction to the science of persuasion.

The book contains fifty facts delivered in fifty short chapters with a summary at the end. It is an easy read and I finished it in a week or so as it is essentially a collection of stories. It contains brilliant snippets such as ‘you are more likely to be a dentist if you are called Dennis’, and a lot of advice on sentence structure and word order to illicit the response you are looking for. Toward the back of the book it covered some specific persuasion research to do with websites. Here the team looked at a website for selling Sofa’s and researched with two products. one was inexpensive and not very comfortable, the other very comfortable but also expensive. The low cost Sofa sold more on a website where the background was copper pennies on a green background and the comfy one more when white clouds on a blue background were present.

At the back of the book you are invited to subscribe to their newsletter and there is a website Influenceatwork.co.uk. I have subscribed and will update this page when I have received a couple of newsletters.

The Dreaming Void

Mar08: At home I am reading The Dreaming Void – Peter F. Hamilton (http://www.peterfhamilton.co.uk/) having previously read the Nights Dawn Trilogy and the duology of Pandora’s Star and Judas Unchained.

Dreaming Void Cover

I love Peter Hamilton’s books for two reasons. Firstly I get trapped by books and once I start to read them have to finish them – even if they are not very good. This has dire consequences for me and drives me toward finding an author whose works I like, and also who writes big books, preferably in sets (I have read all seven of the Gunslinger books by Steven King for example).

The second reason I like them is that the universes Peter creates are centered in reality. I am a big fan of Baroness Greenfield (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Susan_Greenfield) who wrote a terrific book called Tomorrows people which describes how people will live, work and play in the future. Many of the near future developments she is talking about come to life in Peter Hamilton’s books and give a sense of reality that is sometimes missing. The Dreaming Void lives up to the same high standards as the previous books I have read and I can’t wait until part two is released.

It took me ages to finish, as this is my bedside cabinet read but I finally managed to yesterday. It is very much part one and the story is just beginning. Like most of Hamilton’s books there are lots of rich characters and you have to wait and see how their lives will become connected. The next book is out in October so I have to start something else in the meantime and can’t make up my mind.

Out of our minds: Learning to be creative

Mar08: I am halfway through Ken Robinson’s (Sir Ken) excellent book that I acquired after seeing him at a talk organised by the London Business Forum (LBF) (http://www.londonbusinessforum.com/). LBF organise a number of events during the year and in my view provide a reasonably inexpensive way to see some pretty highly influential people. Ken was excellent and if you want to get a flavour of him in action take a look at his session on Ted Talks: http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/view/id/66

The book goes in to greater detail on the same themes. Why is it essential to promote creativity, why the current education system is designed for a different age and is no longer relevant and what should be done about it. The book is packed with stories and facts which for me make things more memorable but the area that resonates most with me was his explanation of the impact of the 11 plus – the UK selection exam for grammar schools. As someone who failed the 11 plus I have lived with a chip on my shoulder for years that my relative intelligence compared to my peers was somehow below standard. The book has helped me realise why I feel like I do although it is fair to say ‘I am not cured’!

Valley Boy: The Education of Tom Perkins

Mar08: I have just finished reading this having been given it for Christmas by my colleague Marty Carroll. This is a great book and is not just about Tom’s extensive business career.

You can get a snapshot about his life in Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Perkins) but it doesn’t do justice to the man. He’s in his 70’s but must really be about 170 to have achieved all he has. From his Board Room experience at HP, to setting up the first major tech VC in the silicon valley to marrying Dannielle Steel and to creating the Maltese Falcon – the worlds largest privately owned sailing yacht. he has done it all.

Maltese Falcon

Wikinomics

Mar08: I am going to go out on a bit of a limb here because I know this book has received rave reviews and have become a bit of a cult classic among wannabe new world economists. I enjoyed the first few chapters and actually it was a bit of a page turner as I raced through ideas about open source software. But having read Freakonomics, and The Undercover Economist (both excellent by the way) I was hugely disappointed at the level of repetition in this book.

I have developed a real issue with not finishing books once I start them and find it almost impossible to put them down. In the last ten years I have put one book down after I began it and that was (ironically) from an Amazon recommendation – “people who like Pandora’s Star also like Woken Furies by Richard Morgan”. Not me, this book broke my will to finish it and that was back in 2005. (I know this because of the genius that is Amazon order history). Wikinomics did thew same. I carried that damn book in my back for 6 months, picking off a page at a time after the initial few chapters and eventually gave up.

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Subject to Change

<!–[if gte vml 1]> Picture of the cover of the book subject to change<!–[endif]–>Jun09: Before buying this book I was already a subscriber and admirer of Adaptive Path – a US based user experience agency and their newsletter, so I was fairly easily convinced by a friend and colleague when they suggested I read it. However, I haven’t made it past page 60 and I think the reason is that I am not finding a great deal to learn from it – being as I am from the same industry. That is not to say that the book fails to provide solid examples and details of methodologies and approaches for putting the customer experience at the centre of design thinking – it does. And, for many people who are searching for the ‘how’ of customer experience research and design they will find the book easy to read, clear and simple – as is always the case with anything the Adaptive Path team produces. I remain a fan, but may never finish the book.

On My shelf:

Onward – the story of Starbucks

Bold – how to be bold in business

Getting to Yes

A history of economic thought

Information Architecture for the World Wide Web

The Rise of the Mafia

Alan Leighton on Leadership

Mental Models

Multichannel marketing

Human Sigma

The service profit chain

3 thoughts on “What I’m Reading

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