From the 61 books I have read so far this year, I have culled ten, warranting your careful consideration for holiday gifts or your own reading ambitions in 2019. For years, I have encouraged business people to devote more time to reading a diverse range of books and periodicals (see 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017). To read actively and broadly builds a ‘T-Shaped” mind, in which one can come to know a little about a lot, and a lot about a little. Bill Gates reads 50 books a year. Warren Buffett said, “Read 500 pages…every day. That is how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest. All of you can do it, but I guarantee not many of you will do it.” President Harry Truman said, “Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.” He argued that reader-leaders become constructively curious, well informed, prone to think independently, and appropriately skeptical. The examples of Gates, Buffett, and Truman are relevant to business leaders and the public.
Here are my ten “best hits” for you:
- Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. This winner of the Pulitzer Prize, originally published in 1997, is by now a classic. It addresses the question, why some nations advance rapidly and others slowly. This is a question worth the time of all business leaders. In the past, I have recommended great books on that topic by Landes, and by Acemoglu and Robinson—both offered explanations heavily rooted in economics. Diamond’s take on the subject begins from a much longer time-span (thirteen millennia) and argues, “History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples’ environments, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves.” (page 25) In short, this engaging book is about the influence of environmental geography on the fate of nations. Diamond’s title, “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” is but an ironic reference to the conventional view that he actually challenges. Sure, the Spanish conquered Peru with the aid of guns, germs, and steel, but Spain’s ability to muster those advantages began much much earlier and in a favorable location. Diamond points the reader toward “time of onset of food production, barriers to diffusion [of technology], and human population size.” (page 250) In the afterword to his 20th Anniversary edition of this book, he pointedly discounts the importance of political and economic institutions relative to environmental geography. I’m not sold on his arguments, but found his side of the debate to be entirely stimulating.
- Scott Berg, Wilson. Woodrow Wilson’s presidency marked a dramatic pivot in domestic and international policy. Wilson’s Progressive Era launched a central bank, income taxes, regulation of monopolies, and wartime central planning. Wilson led America into a European war for the first time and then offered a framework for peaceful resolution of international conflicts—Henry Kissinger said, “Wilson’s principles have remained the bedrock of American foreign-policy thinking.” (Page 123). Recently ranked 11th out of 45 presidents by political scientists, he is among the “near-great” presidents. He left a deep imprint, yet a veil of disappointment covers his record. Berg brilliantly illuminates why. A leader with transformational vision, Wilson seemed to be a bit of a prig, a perfectionist, a narcissist—one who, across the span of his presidency, connected well with large audiences through the written word and major speeches, but who engaged less effectively in the rough-and-tumble world of politics. Referring to his presidency of Princeton University, Wilson said, “If you want to make enemies, try to change something” and then later said that he left academia for public service in order to get out of politics (page 8). Wilson’s second term was cut short by a stroke, which removed him from the public eye, crushed his advocacy of his signature proposal to create a League of Nations, and which his wife, Edith, hid. His administration ended in drift. Scott Berg’s biography is frank about Wilson’s shortcomings, but sympathetic to his achievements and the enormous effort to surmount the obstacles that Wilson confronted. I enjoyed this book immensely.
- Jonathan Sperber, Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life. This is the go-to biography of Marx. His writings inspired incredible repression and revolution in the 20th Century and to this day underpin analyses of economic inequality and social distress. I read this book in an effort to understand the origins of some of our current political ferment and concluded that Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and others exploited Marx’s ideas badly. Ironically, Marx hated authoritarian rule. His writings presented a hodge-podge of economic insights rather than a systematic theory on par with Adam Smith, John Maynard Keynes, or John Bates Clark. Some of his ideas, such as the labor theory of value, were downright wrong. Marx was a better sociologist than he was an economist. And at what cost: neglect of his wife and children, living on the edge of poverty, alienation from his extended family, exiled from his country, and in constant conflict with other radicals everywhere. Sperber’s biography brilliantly presents Marx’s intellectual and personal contradictions, without taking an ideological stand. Instead, Sperber argues, “The view of Marx as a contemporary whose ideas are shaping the modern world has run its course and it is time for a new understanding of him as a figure of a past historical epoch, one increasingly distant from our own: the age of the French Revolution, of Hegel’s philosophy, of the early years of English industrialization and the political economy stemming from it. It might even be that Marx is more usefully understood as a backward-looking figure, who took the circumstances of the first half of the nineteenth century and projected them into the future, than as a surefooted and foresighted interpreter of historical trends.” (page xiii)
- Dennis Rasmussen, The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship that Shaped Modern Thought. This is a book about friendship, how two contemporaries in eighteenth century Scotland inspired and energized the path-breaking writing of each other. Rasmussen writes, “Aristotle divides friendships into three types: those motivated by utility, those motivated by pleasure, and—the highest and rarest of the three—those motivated by virtue or excellence. …Smith’s relationship with Hume represents a nearly textbook model of this kind of friendship: a stable, enduring, reciprocal bond that arises not just from serving one another’s interests or from taking pleasure in one another’s company, but also from the shared pursuit of a noble end—in their case, philosophical understanding. …there is arguably no higher example of a philosophical friendship in the entire Western tradition.” (page 6) I enjoyed Rasmussen’s portraits of these two unusual individuals and of their milieu during the Scottish Enlightenment. After Hume passed away, Smith wrote, “self command is not only itself a great virtue, but from it all the other virtues seem to derive their principal lustre” and that true friendships arise from “natural sympathy,” or “an involuntary feeling that the persons to whom we attach ourselves are the natural and proper objects of esteem and approbation.” (page 235)
- Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow. In this novel, a Russian nobleman is sentenced to house arrest in 1922 in a large hotel across the street from the Kremlin. This is not exactly solitary confinement in a prison. But his foreshortened liberty defines a world of fresh discovery of the micro-society of people who inhabit and work in the hotel. Can one be a person of high purpose in a world so small? Towles answers in the affirmative as the gentleman assumes responsibility for the care of others, and ultimately for the liberation of a young woman. This is a charming book, written with humor, compassion, and style. A sample: “History is the business of identifying momentous events from the comfort of a high-back chair. With the benefit of time, the historian looks back and points to a date in the manner of a gray-haired field marshal pointing to a bend in a river on a map: There it was, he says. The turning point. The decisive factor. The fateful day that fundamentally altered all that was to follow. (page 173)
- Robert Louis Stevenson, Kidnapped. I read this novel as a pre-teen and was delighted to find it as endearing here, later in life, as I did then. It is an adventure story, laden with sudden twists, and colorful characters. Set in Scotland in the wake of the Jacobite Rising of 1745, young David Balfour seeks to gain an inheritance upon the death of his father, only to be sold to a corrupt captain sailing for America. In the fog, the ship crashes into a boat carrying Alan Breck Stewart, a leader in the rising. Balfour and Stuart become allies when the ship’s crew attempts to rob Stuart. The ship founders on a reef, freeing both men and setting them on a chase across Scotland to avoid capture by the English army. A close-run thing, the story ends happily. I especially enjoyed Stevenson’s portrayals of character and his use of dialect. The higher lesson in Kidnapped regards the value of loyal comradeship.
- Benn Steil, The Battle of Bretton Woods. A new monetary regime emerged after World War II, in an effort to prevent a recurrence of the conditions that sparked the Great Depression, and war. The creation of new multilateral institutions (World Bank, International Monetary Fund, United Nations, and so on) were thought to be able to fend off a tendency among countries toward competitive devaluation, trade wars, and financial crises. Steil presents the evolution of the Bretton Woods Accord as the product of a negotiation between the British and American governments—and particularly between John Maynard Keynes and Harry Dexter White. The profiles of these two figures sparkle with intellectual and psychological insights. This is excellent economic history told in a style so engaging that it almost brings you along like a novel. And the book could serve as a case study in bargaining and negotiating—in the end, American demands are met (at the expense of Britain’s interests) since American military and economic dominance illustrates the hoary aphorism about the Golden Rule that “he who has the gold rules.”
- Sebastian Edwards, American Default: The Untold Story of FDR, the Supreme Court, and the Battle Over Gold. On April 19, 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt took the United States off the gold standard. Was this Executive Order constitutional? It demanded that Americans turn in their gold to the government. And it appeared to abrogate most debt contracts that included a gold clause by which the debtor promised to repay the debt in gold coin. Two years later, the Supreme Court opined (in a 5 to 4 decision) that the president’s action was But the Court’s minority lamented that “The Constitution as many of us understood it, the instrument that has meant so much to us, is gone.” (page xiv) Edwards is an economist expert in the subject of currency devaluations and has found that modern rulers refer to the U.S.’s devaluation as a precedent for their own. The case history that Edwards presents is intriguing not simply as a story in policy development, but also for the fact that the U.S. suffered little or no adverse impact from the abrogation of gold clause contracts. He writes, “The most plausible explanation has to do with the theory of “excusable defaults.” According to this view, there are certain circumstances when the market understand that a debt restructuring is, indeed, warranted, and beneficial for (almost) everyone involved in the marketplace. A very clear example of an excusable default is given by situations of natural disasters. In general, creditors understand that after a major earthquake, for example, the debtor will have to restructure its liabilities. Under these circumstances, creditors will even be willing to lend additional funds to the debtor, in order to avoid deeper problems and more serious calamities. …According to the historical evidence, it is more likely that a default will be considered “excusable” if the debtor acts in good faith, and if the restructuring is done within the context of legal institutions, including impartial and independent courts. The devaluation of the dollar in 1933—and the concomitant abrogation of the gold clauses—fit, to a large extent, the case of an excusable default.” (pages 197-198)
- Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. This wildly popular book is the unofficial successor to Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. Where Diamond aims to explain why nations developed at different rates, Harari asks a more profound question: how did the human species come to dominate the world? And where Diamond brought the reader up to the present day, Harari goes further to speculate about the fate of humankind. Harari writes, “Three important revolutions shaped the course of history: the Cognitive Revolution kick-started history about 70,000 years ago. The Agricultural Revolution sped it up about 12,000 years ago. The Scientific Revolution, which got under way only 500 years ago, may well end history and start something completely different. …these three revolutions have affected humans and their fellow organisms.” (page 3.) And not all for the better. This book is an impressive amalgam of evidence drawn from numerous research disciplines to pose a sobering outlook for the future: “even the brief golden age of the last half-century may turn out to have sown the seeds of future catastrophe. …we can congratulate ourselves on the unprecedented accomplishments of modern Sapiens only if we completely ignore the fate of other animals. (page 379.) Harari is particularly critical of capitalism as a cause of individual unhappiness, environmental degradation, and social breakdown, while ignoring the fact that such outcomes can have many causes unrelated to the market-based economy. But I recommend the book for its sweeping synthesis, stylish prose, and provocative challenge to the business reader.
- Mason Currey, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. How do really creative people manage their time and lives in ways that enable them to do their work? This little volume consists of biographical profiles of the work habits of 161 of history’s most prominent writers, painters, composers, scientists and mathematicians. These are entertaining glimpses into the creative mind. The big surprise is that the vast bulk of the people profiled here followed disciplined—even bourgeois–lifestyles: early to bed and early to rise; avoiding distractions; consuming lots of caffeine; skirting the addictions to drugs and alcohol; nurturing friendships; balancing work with pleasure; and so on. The profiles are inspiring in the granting the reader a sense of possibility from organizing one’s own habits. This short and enjoyable book is especially useful at this point in the calendar when you are contemplating New Year’s resolutions.
Good reading and best wishes to you, dear reader, for the holidays and for the New Year!
 Though Truman presented a rather blunt and homespun figure, Truman’s memoirs and David McCullough’s excellent biography of him depict a leader who was intelligent and well-grounded in the practicalities of the world and yet purpose-driven and devoted to high values.
 Wilson was ranked just behind Lyndon Johnson (#10) and just ahead of James Madison (#12). See “How Does Trump Stack Up Against the Best — and Worst — Presidents?”. The New York Times. February 19, 2018. Retrieved February 19, 2018.