The Books I Read in 2012

Inspired by Tony Haile I have decided to write a yearly post in which I list the books that I have read for the year. This year I managed to read 57 books (still 18 books short on my seemingly unattainable goal of reading 75 books a year. Please note that the categories are quite arbitrary, but mean something for me. Having a Goodreads account really helped me with this exercise.

Some people ask me how I manage to read this much. I’ll give away my secret recipe: don’t have children, do not watch any TV (or use Facebook) and make sure you commute by train (45+ minutes in each direction) every day. That is all there is to it.

Covers of the books I read

Covers of the books I read

Innovation

Doorley’s book showed me how simple changes in the physical space can change people’s behavior and Dyer showed how being innovative is just a set of behaviour. I will put those two together in the next year. Checklist have stopped me forgetting things after reading Gawande’s book.

  • Make Space: How To Set The Stage For Creative Collaboration – Scott Doorley (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators – Jeff Dyer (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • Sustainism Is The New Modernism – Michiel Schwarz (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think – Peter H. Diamandis (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right – Atul Gawande (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • The Rainforest: The Secret to Building the Next Silicon Valley – Victor W. Hwang (Goodreads/Amazon)

Philosophy

French has showed me that corporations are the best positioned lifeforms to show sustained moral behaviour. Illich was truly enlightening, I expect to read more of him in 2013 (Deschooling Society!). I will continue to explore McLuhan’s thinking with a reading group on Understanding Media. Sandel’s book on the moral limits of market is chockfull of incredible examples of things that can be gotten with money nowadays (e.g. prison cell upgrades). The three weirdest books I’ve read this year are also in this category: Stone, Burrell and Goertzel, all thanks to Daniel Erasmus. The book which made me think the most per page must have been Eagleman’s.

  • Corporate Ethics – Peter A. French (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • Tools For Conviviality – Ivan Illich (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? – Michael J. Sandel (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets – Michael J. Sandel (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • The Medium Is the Massage : An Inventory of Effects – Marshall McLuhan (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age – Sandy Stone (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • Pandemonium: Towards a Retro-Organization Theory – Gibson Burrell (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • A Cosmist Manifesto – Ben Goertzel (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • In Praise Of Love – Alain Badiou (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives – David Eagleman (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • You Kant Make It Up!: Strange Ideas from History’s Great Philosophers – Gary Hayden (Goodreads/Amazon)

Technology

The anthology edited by Zerzan was probably my favourite book of the year and I was amazed to see how relevant the Cluetrain Manifesto is, 12 years after it has been written.

  • Questioning Technology: A Critical Anthology – John Zerzan (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual – Rick Levine (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency – Micah Sifry (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • Dreaming in Code: Two Dozen Programmers, Three Years, 4,732 Bugs, and One Quest for Transcendent Software – Scott Rosenberg (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • Total Recall: How the E-Memory Revolution Will Change Everything – C. Gordon Bell (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle For Internet Freedom – Rebecca MacKinnon (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other – Sherry Turkle (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age – Viktor Mayer-Schönberger (Goodreads/Amazon)

Learning

Postman’s book was full of provocative thinking. It made me wonder why we don’t seem to have this kind of insight into education nowadays (and are being put up with Ken Robinson).

  • Teaching As a Subversive Activity – Neil Postman (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • Beyond the Hole in the Wall: Discover the Power of Self-Organized Learning – Sugata Mitra (Goodreads/Amazon)

Business/Management

I will use Osterwalder’s canvas in an upcoming workshop on business models for learning. Rodgers defies management orthodoxy by showing how we need (mostly informal) conversation to do sensemaking in this complex world.

  • Business Model Generation: A Handbook for Visionaries, Game Changers, and Challengers – Alexander Osterwalder (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • The Shareholder Value Myth: How Putting Shareholders First Harms Investors, Corporations, and the Public – Lynn Stout (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • Informal Coalitions: Mastering the Hidden Dynamics of Organizational Change – Chris Rodgers (Goodreads/Amazon)

Lifehacking/Self-Improvement

Berkun’s book on speaking is probably the most useful on the topic that I’ve come across. Zinsser is a well deserved classic. The Pomodoro technique has increased my productivity tremendously and has given me an idea of being in control of the work that I do.

  • On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Non-Fiction – William Knowlton Zinsser (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • Pomodoro Technique Illustrated: Can You Focus – Really Focus – for 25 Minutes? – Staffan Noteberg (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • The Pomodoro Technique – Francesco Cirillo (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • Verslaafd aan liefde – Jan Geurtz (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • Confessions of a Public Speaker – Scott Berkun (Goodreads/Amazon)

B00kc7ub 4 N3rd5

Together with four other nerds I started a book club where we will read technology related books. Holiday’s book was irritating as hell but did lead to a great discusion. Expect ten books or so in this category next year.

  • Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator – Ryan Holiday (Goodreads/Amazon)

Fiction

I didn’t read a lot of fiction this year. Thompson was long overdue (and didn’t disappoint). Stephenson was a bit disappointing (although also mindblowing at times). I thought Scott Card was morally despicable.

Other

Some great books don’t fit in the above categories. DeKoven wrote down how I intuitively taught physical education a few years back. I had a wonderful few days with MacGregor. The picture in MacArthur’s book are the opposite of Doorley’s book in the innovation category. Laties made me want to quit my job and start a book store.

  • The Well-Played Game: A Playful Path to Wholeness – Bernie DeKoven (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • A History of the World in 100 Objects – Neil MacGregor (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • The Soccer War – Ryszard Kapuściński (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • Richard Ross: Architecture of Authority – John F. MacArthur (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • A General Theory of Love – Thomas Lewis (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry – Jon Ronson (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • Rebel Bookseller: Why Indie Businesses Represent Everything You Want To Fight For From Free Speech To Buying Local To Building Communities – Andrew Laties (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • A Life with Books – Julian Barnes (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • Bezeten: Ton Boot, de winnaar & het laatste seizoen – Igor Wijnker (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • the Science of Love and Betrayal – Robin Dunbar (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • How to Be Black – Baratunde R. Thurston (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • Arcosanti: An Urban Laboratory? – Paolo Soleri (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • Radical Evolution – Joel Garreau (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media – Mizuko Ito (Goodreads/Amazon)
  • Don’t Tell Mum I Work On The Rigs: (She Thinks I’m A Piano Player In A Whorehouse) – Paul Carter (Goodreads/Amazon)

The 6 Books That Had the Most Influence on Who I Am Today

Arjen Vrielink and I write a monthly series titled: Parallax. We both agree on a title for the post and on some other arbitrary restrictions to induce our creative process. For this post we agreed to write about the 6 books that had the most influence on who we are today. For each book we include a first read section. You can read Arjen’s post with the same title here.

Writing about books that you like is one thing, writing about books that supposedly have changed your life is another. The influence of books on one’s life is very indirect. Books might change your beliefs, they can change your disposition, they might even influence your decisions and change the path of your life course. I found it hard to pinpoint books that really did any of this for me. However, I did try. In chronological order of when I first read them:

The Blind Watchmaker

The Blind Watchmaker

The Blind Watchmaker – Richard Dawkins
Although this is not my favourite Dawkins book (that would be The Selfish Gene), it is the one that got me started on his writing and has instilled in me a love for popular science. This was the first time I read a science book that was written with such clarity and eloquence. Evolution theory is incredibly compelling, as it is capable of answering many questions about who we are today and why we are like this. Dawkins showed me the value of a good metaphor (“the blind watchmaker” is one of them). Many of his metaphors have stayed with me for years. His books are an excellent introduction into the scientific method: nobody is better at explaining how progress is achieved in the scientific enterprise. After reading this book I went on to read Dennett, Hofstadter, Pinker and others. Their books satisfy my personal curiousity, helping me understand how humans work in this world. I still read every book that he publishes, but get increasingly irritated by the presence of his arrogant personality in his writing.
First read: 1993

History of Western Philosophy

History of Western Philosophy

History of Western Philosophy – Bertrand Russell
This book is one of the reasons why I studied philosophy (an inspiring teacher being the other).  The full title of the book is History of Western Philosophy: and its Connection with Political and Social Circumstances from the Earliest Times to the Present Day. Russell manages to not only give a relatively objective and complete overview of western philosophy, he also infuses the book with historical anecdotes and his personal opinion. This is a big book (800+ pages) and the scope is immense. It is not just philosophy, it is also a history of the ancient Greeks, Christianity and the enlightenment. Here is his definition of philosophy from the introduction:

Philosophy, as I shall understand the word, is something intermediate between theology and science. Like theology, it consists of speculations on matters as to which definite knowledge has, so far, been unascertainable; but like science, it appeals to human reason rather than to authority, whether that of tradition or revelation.

What a brilliant writer and thinker! By the way, in the “atheist manifesto” category, I far prefer Russel’s Why I am Not a Christian over Dawkin’s The God Delusion.
First read: 1994

Catch-22

Catch-22

Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
No other book has shown the absurdity of war better than Catch-22. I couldn’t stop reading when I first read this and it is one of the only books that I have read twice. I barely ever remember the names and personalities of characters in novels, but Yossarian and Milo Minderbinder (“Everybody has a share”)  are still clear in my mind. As a critique of bureaucracy, Catch-22 is even more compelling than Kafka’s The Trial. Here is the explanation of the title:

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. ‘Orr’ was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to.

This is probably the funniest book I have ever read, I can’t wait to read it again..
First read: 1994

If This Is a Man/The Truce

If This Is a Man/The Truce

If This is A Man/The Truce – Primo Levi
If I was allowed to set the curriculum for all schools in this world and could only put one book on it, this would be it. Levi was an Italian chemist who got deported to Auschwitz and lived to tell the tale. For the rest of his life he struggled with his fate and self-perceived guilt (survival was only possible if you inhibited the gray area of collaboration in the camps). If This is A Man was written right after the war and describes his time in Auschwithz. The Truce is a book about his months long travel home after liberation. Both these books show humanity in its most naked form. I read these books in complete shock. They give an insight into the darker side of the human psyche, while at the same time proving that human dignity can prevail in the harshest of circumstances. This is as close to understanding the human condition as you can get.
First read: 1995

Charley Dancey's Encyclopædia of Ball Juggling

Charley Dancey's Encyclopædia of Ball Juggling

Charlie Dancey’s Encyclopædia of Ball Juggling – Charlie Dancey
I taught myself how to juggle one holiday in Prague. I believe juggling is a very healthy activity. The symmetry of the movement and the required concentration provide for a liberating workout (see The Zen of Juggling and Lessons from the Art of Juggling). Charlie Dancey’s book brought my juggling to the next level. Dancey is an excellent writer, illustrator and juggler. His goal was to provide an encyclopædic overview of all ball juggling tricks. The form of the book is very suitable for jugglers: it is wide enough to stay open by itself. Not only did this book teach me a lot of new tricks (e.g. Mill’s mess, blind juggling, the box, orangutan, juggling with children, eating the apple, etc.), it also gave me a firm understanding of the mathematical underpinnings of juggling (e.g. measuring difficulty, siteswap and ladder notation) and it served as an introduction into the juggling community. I still cannot juggle five balls, but have recently picked up the book again and am sure I will eventually get there with Dancey’s humourus advice!
First read: 1996

Le Ton Beau de Marot

Le Ton Beau de Marot

Le Ton Beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language – Douglas Hofstadter
This book is unlike any other. Hofstadter set out to write a book that could convey his passion for language. While writing the book his wife died of cancer. Parts of the book were turned into an eulogy for his wife, giving the book an emotional depth that it would not have had before. This book had to compete with Metamagical Themas to be included on this list. Metamagical Themas is collection of incredibly diverse essays, including my favourite essay about the nuclear arms race. Le Ton Beau de Marot wins out, because of the unity of its message: language is fascinating and translation is not just about function, but also about form. The core of the book is 72 different translations of a poem by Marot from French into English. Hofstadter comments on each of these and encapsulates them in an exploration of literary language. On the journey we encounter an immense amount of word-play, Eugene Onegin, machine translation and much more. He vigorously argues for giving due attention to the non-semantic aspects of the written word. This is masterful book in both its form and function (or medium and message if you will).
First read: 1998

Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations

The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, book cover

Here Comes Everybody

I am convinced that the web will change our society in many ways that we cannot currently grasp. Clay Shirky‘s Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations is a book which everybody who is interested in these changes should read. Many books on technology take a very shallow approach. Often they focus on the technology itself or only look at one particular aspect of how technology can be used (e.g. books on “How Wikis can change the way you collaborate”). Shirky’s book is the first one I have read which takes a very deep sociological and often philosophical perspective on the ubiquitousness of the net and its wider implications.

He is not the first author to draw an analogy with the invention of movable type. The social effects of this invention lagged decades behind the technological effects:

Real revolutions don’t involve an orderly transition from point A to point B. Rather, they go from A through a long period of chaos and only then reach B. In that chaotic period, the old systems get broken long before new ones become stable.

We are just now entering the chaotic period. We cannot accurately predict the changes that will happen to society now that we have the Internet. It will be many years before we can oversee and look back at the consequences. I can instantly see how the above is true for education. Currently the old institutions are still in full reign, but they are more and more broken (e.g. look at the percentage of students who prematurely quit their vocational tertiary education in the Netherlands). These institutions have not harnessed the new possibilities of technology.

So what are these new possibilities? The book is full of wonderful examples, but Shirky’s main point is that the Internet allows groups of people to self organize without the need for organizations, firms or (governmental) institutions. Traditional communications were always one-to-one (like the phone) or one-to-many (broadcasting, like television). The net enables many-to-many communication which we never had before. E-mail was the first example of this, but IM, (micro-)blogs and social networking sites enable this too. These new tools are “eroding the institutional monopoly on large-scale coordination”.

Shirky has a great observation on media:

The twentieth century, with the spread of radio and television was the broadcast century. The normal pattern for media was that they were created by a small group of professionals and then delivered to a large group of consumers. But media, in the word’s literal sense as the middle layer between people, have always been a three-part affair. People like to consume media, of course, but they also like to produce it [..] and they like to share it [..]. Because we now have media that support both making and sharing, as well as consuming, those capabilities are reappearing, after a century mainly given over to consumption.

Social tools are coming into existence that support new patterns of group forming and group production. My personal favourite example is open source software. Clay Shirky attributes the success of this method of producing software to the way that it gets failure for free. For this reason, he considers open source software to be a threat to commercial software vendors:

Open source is a profound threat, not because the open source ecosystem is outsucceeding commercial efforts, but because it is outfailing them. Because the open source ecosystem, and by extension open social systems generally, rely on peer production, the work on those systems can be considerably more experimental, at considerably less cost, than any firm can afford. Why? The most important reasons are that open systems lower the cost of failure, they do not create biases in favor of predictable but substandard outcomes, and they make it simpler to integrate the contributions of people who contribute only a single idea.
The overall effect of failure is its likelihood times its cost. Most organizations attempt to reduce the effect of failure by reducing its likelihood. [..] The obvious problem is that no one knows for certain what will succeed and what will fail. [..] You will inevitably green-light failures and pass on potential successes. Worse still, more people will remember you saying yes to a failure than saying no to a radical but promising idea. Given this asymmetry, you will be pushed to make safe choices, thus systematically undermining the rationale for trying to be more innovative in the first place.
The open source movement makes neither kind of mistake, because it doesn’t have employees, it doesn’t make investments, it doesn’t even make decisions. It is not an organization, it is an ecosystem, and one that is remarkably tolerant of failure. Open source doesn’t reduce the likelihood of failure, it reduces the cost of failure; it essentially gets failure for free.

Do yourself a favour: If you haven’t read this profound book, please read it as soon as you can.