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Recommended Readings for 2019

By Bob Bruner-

Former President Harry S. Truman said, “Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.” I cited this in an earlier blog post to argue that reading broadly and deeply is fundamental to making a good difference in the world. One should aim for a ‘T-shaped’ mind, in which one knows a little about a lot of things, and a lot about a few things—such a mind well describes Thomas Jefferson, the founder of University of Virginia. Pundits might quibble with the literal interpretation of Truman’s maxim. But I find that few would argue with the notion that active reading is associated with leadership that is more effective, sustainable, and transformational. Michael Hyatt argued that reading improves your interpersonal and communication skills. John Coleman averred that reading enhances one’s creativity, empathy, and health. 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, 2017, and 2018). Continuing this practice, here are my top recommendations of books for you from the 52 volumes I’ve read so far this calendar year:

Ancient History

The “great man” theory of history held that great individuals (men and women) influence the course of history through their heroic characters, high intelligence, visionary leadership, and/or physical strength. Though such attributes do make a difference, the theory ignores the influence of chance and contingency (“but for the want of a nail the horse is lost…”) and the context (political, economic, social). Nonetheless, studying history through the lives of leaders is an excellent way to make sense of the flow of events. Barry Strauss’s, Ten Caesars: Roman Emperors from Augustus to Constantine, lends great perspective on the growth and collapse of the Roman Empire. Strauss focuses on the ten “best” emperors during this long period, writing that, “They were Rome’s most capable and successful emperors—or, in the case of Nero, at least one of the most titillating, and even he was a great builder. Success was defined variously according to circumstance and talent, but all emperors wanted to exercise political control at home, project military power abroad, preside over prosperity, build up the city of Rome, and enjoy a good relationship with the divine. And every emperor wanted to die in bed and turn over power to his chosen heir.”[1] His profiles on the ten emperors amount to an extended discussion of pragmatic leadership. The drama and intrigue beat anything in Game of Thrones. And the sweep of history contained in one volume grants an overview of Rome at its peak than, say, Gibbon’s multivolume The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Engagingly written, inspiring, and sobering, this book is a cautionary reminder that the leader bears a heavy burden.

Daniel Mendelsohn’s An Odyssey: A Father, A son, and an Epic gives three stories in one. First, it sketches Homer’s Odyssey, the journey of the Greek war-hero, Ulysses, back home after sacking Troy. Second, it recounts the awakening of students to the life lessons contained within The Odyssey, and the work of a classics professor to achieve it. Finally, it relates the engagement between the middle-aged classics professor with his father, an elderly former engineer, who decides to attend his son’s course on The Odyssey. The framework of 3-in-1 is risky: one could easily get lost in toggling between ancient and modern times, between the class and the father, and between Ulysses and the students. Who is teaching whom here? What I especially enjoyed about this book were Mendelsohn’s periodic reflections on that question, such as:

“One of the strange things about teaching is that you can never know what your effect will be on others; can never know, if you have something to teach, who your real students will be, the ones who will take what you have to give and make it their own—“what you have to give” being, in no small part, what you yourself learned from some other teacher, someone who wondered whether you would absorb what she had to give, someone who is, by the time you’re old enough to write about the experience, as old as your parents, perhaps even dead—can never really know which of the young people clustered around the seminar table is someone whom the teacher or the text has touched so deeply, for whatever reason, that the lesson will live beyond the classroom, beyond you. But then, the process of education, of pedagogy, of leading a child into knowledge, is a delicate and unpredictable one, its mechanisms and effects often mysterious to student and teacher alike.”[2]

What Mendelsohn says here about teaching, is immediately relevant to all managers and leaders, who will never truly know the impact they have on others, but who, in order to do their work really well, must believe that the leadership vision and values will live well beyond the meeting, the workplace, and the current version of the product or service.

The West

Last August, I rafted with some old college friends down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. It was a magnificent experience, and one that I cannot recommend too highly. The trip boosted my awareness of the particular ecological issues of the American West. These issues relate in one way or another to water. And the Colorado River is the iconic example of how water shaped the West, and how it remains an ongoing challenge. The Colorado carved out the Grand Canyon and today supplies American agriculture in the Southwest, and especially Southern California.

Wallace Stegner’s, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West, tells the history of early exploration of the Grand Canyon and of the government policy issues that the exploration served up. Powell was an amateur explorer who obtained modest support from the U.S. government by proposing to gain insights to help settlement of the West and commercial navigation of the Colorado River. The river proved to be unnavigable (there were/are dozens of serious rapids from the headwaters to the mouth). But Powell’s two trips down the Colorado converted him into an early anthropologist (to preserve Native American culture) and a conservationist. Stegner’s biography of Powell is a metaphor for the sea change in American sentiment in the 19th Century, from exploitation of natural resources, toward conservation. Stegner wrote of Powell,

“Leading the party was a man who before he was through would challenge almost every fact and discourage every attitude that [other people] asserted or held about the West—challenge and attack them coolly and on evidence—and in place of come-all-ye frenzy would propose a comprehensive and considered plan for the opening of the regions beyond the 100th meridian…Major John Wesley Powell was just as surely working against the current of popular optimism in the policies he developed, and decades ahead of it in his vision. It was to be his distinction and in a way his misfortune that in an age of the wildest emotionalism and nationalist fervor he operated by common sense, had a faith in facts, and believed in system. It was also one of his distinctions that in an age of boodle he would persist in an ideal of public service which most public men of the time neither observed nor understood.”[3]

Before rafting the Colorado, I sought to gain a sense of the river experience, and turned to Kevin Fedarko’s, The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Through the Heart of the Grand Canyon. This is an outstanding story, told at breathtaking pace, about three river guides who took a wooden boat down the Colorado in 1983, when unexpectedly high snowmelt turned the river into a raging torrent. Under ordinary circumstances, the Colorado is difficult: it drops eight feet per mile, a steeper grade than any other river in the U.S. and exceeded by only a few rivers in the Himalayas. Looming over this story is the Glen Canyon Dam, constructed in the 1960s to generate electricity for the West and the stability of which was threatened by the surge of water from the Rocky Mountains. In the interest of saving the dam, the government opened floodgates to release rising waters. Into the maelstrom, the three guides launched their boat. Thirty-six and a half hours later, they emerged at Lake Mead, slashing the previous speed record by ten hours. At heart, this is a story of conflict between the subculture of cranky individualistic river guides and the Federal Government, and thus is an allegory for the tensions that prevail today, between westerners and a bureaucracy that seeks to manage the West. Fedarko explained it thus:

“The tempestuous stretch of river below that dam, however, represents something no less central to the national ethos: the fact that another aspect of our character as a people derives from an extended encounter with wilderness…it survives and flourishes to this day within the community boatmen who have made the canyon their home. The subculture that they have created is cantankerous and incorrigibly headstrong—its members are irritatingly independent, impossible as cats to herd. But they have preserved an aspect of the American persona that is uniquely vital to the health of this republic. Among many other things, those dirtbag river runners uphold the virtue of disobedience: the principle that in a free society, defiance for its own sake sometimes carries value and meaning, if only because power in all of its forms—commercial, governmental, and moral—should not always and without question be handed what it demands.”[4]

Fiction

Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending, is about the fraught relationship among two young men, a girlfriend between them, and the girlfriend’s mother. I’ll skip a summary of the plot, to avoid ruining the big reveal in the final pages of the book. The protagonist is now in his retirement years and reflects back on the tangle of relationships. At one point, he says, “My younger self had come back to shock my older self with what that self had been, or was, or was sometimes capable of being. And only recently I’d been going on about how the witnesses to our lives decrease, and with them our essential corroboration. Now I had some all too unwelcome corroboration of what I was, or had been.”[5] People of a certain age gain the “sense of an ending,” from surprising revelations that explain paradoxes that had troubled one earlier in life.

Mrs. B and I particularly enjoy following the video series, Bosch, streamed on Amazon Prime. This focuses on the puzzles resolved by Detective Hieronymus (“Harry”) Bosch of the Los Angeles Police Department. Now in its sixth season, the series draws from the crime novels of Michael Connelly. Unable to slake my appetite for Bosch mysteries from the television series, I turned to Connelly’s novels (of which there are 18 in the Bosch series). The first three (Black Echo, The Black Ice, and The Concrete Blonde) met my criteria for great crime fiction, the prime elements of which include a) a truly puzzling offense; b) rich character development; c) non-obviousness; d) a detective worthy of special empathy; and e) a surprising ending. Connelly configures “Harry” Bosch as a maverick detective within a large, bureaucratic, and occasionally corrupt police department:

“He loved the city most at night. The night hid many of the sorrows. It silenced the city yet brought deep undercurrents to the surface. It was in this dark slipstream that he believed he moved most freely. Behind the cover of shadows. Like a rider in a limousine, he looked out but no one looked in. …facts weren’t the most important part of an investigation, the glue was. [Bosch] said the glue was made of instinct, imagination, sometimes guesswork and most times just plain luck”[6]

Financial Crises

I teach a course on the history financial crises and found three books especially illuminating. James Grant’s, Bagehot: The Life and Times of the Greatest Victorian is a biography of Walter Bagehot, the editor of the Economist magazine in the mid-19th century. In the wake of the crisis of 2008, Bagehot’s wisdom was frequently cited by pundits who were critical of monetary policy makers. Bagehot argued that in a crisis, the central bank should lend freely against good collateral and at a penalty interest rate. This flew in the face of early 19th Century banking practice, in which a crisis would dictate the curtailment of lending. But Bagehot recognized that most banking panics are crises of illiquidity, not of insolvency. Thus, the lender of last resort, the central bank, must resupply the financial system with liquidity even if banks and other lenders are withdrawing liquidity. As sage as Bagehot’s dictum might be, it is generally more honored in the breach than in the observance—since 2007, central banks have tended to lend liberally at very low rates of interest. Walter Bagehot is a sadly neglected icon in the history of finance and public policy: he was a prominent voice in the rise of liberalism (small ‘L’) in the 19th Century. Liberalism was a child of the booming Industrial Revolution and favored Free Trade, relief for the poor, a broader voting franchise, municipal reform, wiser administration of colonies, and an end to mandatory tithing to the Church of England. Bagehot’s trenchant perspective on human behavior has framed a classic caution to lenders (and borrowers) over the years. In his masterpiece, Lombard Street, Bagehot wrote,

“The good times too of high prices almost always engender much fraud. All people are most credulous when they are most happy; and when much money has just been made, when some people are really making it, when most people think they are making it, there is a happy opportunity for ingenious mendacity. Almost everything will be believed for a little while, and long before discovery the worst and most adroit deceivers are geographically or legally beyond the reach of punishment. But the harm they have done diffuses harm, for it weakens credit still further.”[7]

I like Grant’s books and have cited some of them in earlier blogs: his prose bubbles with insight, wit, and criticism.

The second book that bears on crises is Robert Shiller’s Narrative Economics: How Stories Go Viral and Drive Economic Events. This book expands on Shiller’s speech to the American Economics Association following his receipt of the Nobel Prize in Economics. I like this book because it addresses two of the most important questions about financial crises: how they start and how they spread. In essence, Shiller argues that crises begin and spread on the basis of stories (or “narratives”) “that are largely creative and innovative, not simply a logical reaction to economic events…[taking] place over many days, during which the public has plenty of time to read the sometimes creative and sensationalistic writing of the various news media, whose job is to attract attention.”[8] Shiller’s point is that “Trying to understand major economic events by looking only at data on changes in economic aggregates, such as gross domestic product, wage rates, interest rates, and tax rates, runs the risk of missing the underlying motivations for change.”[9]

Finally, I enjoyed Reid Hundt’s, A Crisis Wasted: Barack Obama’s Defining Decisions. The book recounts the onset of the crisis of 2008, Obama’s election, and the efforts to frame a public policy agenda that would respond to the crisis and then address longstanding priorities of the Democratic Party. The book’s title alludes to a saying of Rahm Emmanuel (and others), “Never let a crisis go to waste,” that is, one should exploit the urgency of a crisis to pursue major reforms. Clearly, the Democrats enjoyed a rare opportunity, in which the same party occupied the White House and controlled both houses of Congress. Hundt, the former Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission during Bill Clinton’s presidency, served Obama as an adviser during the presidential campaign and on the transition team. The book steams with Hundt’s frustration over his inability to gain acceptance of dramatic new progressive programs: massive spending for infrastructure, clean energy, digital commons, and so on. What obstructed the progressives were a panoply of challenges: the lingering financial crisis, the neoliberal hold-overs from the Clinton administration, and “no-drama Obama” himself. Sure, Obama’s first term achieved financial reform and the establishment of national health insurance. But, given the opportunity, more should have been accomplished. Hundt observed,

“People choices are policy choices…[Obama] was cool and calm, and also inclined to keep his concerns and thinking within a small group. His personal style helped him in the campaign for nomination. He kept mistakes to a minimum, made decisions quickly, and delegated effectively. After the election, the same style limited his access to information about what was happening in the economy. He had no way to hear ideas that the Clintonian neoliberals did not endorse. He began announcing decisions before diagnosis of the situation could be completed.”[10]

This book is loaded with practical lessons for aspiring policy-makers.

The Rise and Decline of Nations

Readers of this blog will note and ongoing fascination with the fate of nations. This past year, I was particularly stimulated by two books. Paul M. Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 is a classic in the field, first published in 1987 and subsequently updated through 2000. Through detailed examination of the rise and fall of major nations over 500 years, Kennedy persuasively argues for a relationship between a nation’s “general economic and productive balances and the position occupied by individual powers in the international system.”[11] In other words, economic productivity is foundational to influence in the world. The rise of Britain as the global hegemon in the 19th Century, and the advance of the U.S. after World War II draw special examination by Kennedy. This is a very big book, through which the reader might labor. But the investment of time and effort is well worth it—and is highly relevant today as the unipolar world led by the U.S. begins to shift toward a multipolar world in which the U.S., China, Euroland, and perhaps India and China vie for advantage.

Kennedy’s book grants an overview of perhaps the most dramatic rise and fall—that of Spain—but leaves it for Geoffrey Parker’s, Imprudent King: A New Life of Philip II to give the details on why the country ascended and sharply receded within a century. In 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella expelled the Moors from Spain, chartered the voyage of Christopher Columbus that would discover the Americas, and unified principalities into what is modern Spain. The flood of gold and silver from the Americas offered a remarkable resource base to sustain the Holy Roman Empire, into which Spain was absorbed through royal marriages. But during the 42 years of Philip II’s reign, Spain’s decline began and accelerated: the disastrous attempted invasion of Britain in 1588, fruitless wars to quell the rebellious Dutch, and lavish spending on palaces are some examples. Parker summarizes two general explanations for Spain’s decline:

“A problematic inheritance. Some blamed the size and composition of the Monarchy: it had become too big for its own good, impossible to defend. The failures were therefore in essence structural: neither Philip nor any other ruler could have held his inheritance together.

A problematic king. Others argued that the problem was not that Philip lacked sufficient resources but that he used them inefficiently in the pursuit of impossible goals. A monarch with superior political skills could have succeeded where Philip failed—or, in modern parlance, they blamed agent rather than structure.”[12]

Would you rather be lucky or smart? Philip’s saga sustains both answers.

Poverty

So much of the current policy debates focus on economic inequality, giving particular attention to the rich. But that is only one side of the inequality phenomenon. In larger measure, poverty is more complicated, opaque, and therefore, difficulty to remedy. Is eliminating poverty a matter of simply giving the poor more money? Probably not, as two first-hand accounts suggest. J.D. Vance’s, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis tells an arresting story of a white boy, growing up in the hills of Kentucky and Southern Ohio, who surmounts a family riddled with alcoholism, verbal and physical abuse, drug addiction, and poverty to rise through college and Yale Law School to become an attorney. The book gained prominence during and after the 2016 presidential election as the white working poor voted their grievance over an economic system that appeared to leave them behind. Globalization, automation, and rising requirements for skills and advanced training appeared to cancel the candidacy of the working poor for paying work. Vance acknowledges these economic forces but argues that there is more to the story. He criticizes defeatism, passive-aggression, laziness, and a “lack of agency:”

“Too many young men immune to hard work. Good jobs impossible to fill for any length of time. And a young man with every reason to work—a wife-to-be to support and a baby on the way—carelessly tossing aside a good job with excellent health insurance. More troublingly, when it was all over, he thought something had been done to him. There is a lack of agency here—a feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself. This is distinct from the larger economic landscape of modern America.”[13]

Tara Westover’s, Educated: A Memoir is another up-by-the-bootstraps story of a girl in rural Idaho, who was raised by parents who rejected much of what civil society offers, such as education, civil justice, growing gender equality, and material prosperity. A home-schooled child, her future looks like marriage, child-bearing at an early age, and life in the orbit of her rejectionist family. But one day she decides to apply for admission to Brigham Young University, to which she is admitted after cramming for the SAT exam. At BYU, she is shocked by the chasm (economic, social, you name it) between herself and her classmates. By dint of hard work, she masters the material, graduates with honors, and wins a scholarship to attend Cambridge University in the UK. There, she overcomes still-lingering self-doubts to win a doctoral degree. The sheer improbability of this story highlights what university professors witness almost annually: the central importance of personal will in shaping the person. Near the end of the book, Westover describes the final confrontation between her and her father, who aims to bring her back to Idaho:

“Everything I had worked for, all my years of study, had been to purchase for myself this one privilege: to see and experience more truths than those given to me by my father, and to use those truths to construct my own mind. I had come to believe that the ability to evaluate many ideas, many histories, many points of view, was at the heart of what it means to self-create. If I yielded now, I would lose more than an argument. I would lose custody of my own mind. This was the price I was being asked to pay, I understood that now. What my father wanted to cast from me wasn’t a demon: it was me.”[14]

The Alternative Narrative about Capitalism

Readers of this blog will note my past recommendations of books that cast capitalism in sharp light: Marx, Piketty, activists and reformers of various ills. Business leaders and scholars should pay attention to criticisms of capitalism. But what can capitalism say for itself? Two recent books offer stimulating replies. Tyler Cowen’s Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero is probably the most readable and comprehensive response to critics of big business that I’ve seen. He argues that “business at its best is a fundamentally ethical enterprise”[15]—no more fraudulent than the rest of us; not overly generous to CEOs; the source of work that can be fulfilling (even if not necessarily fun); corporate influence in Washington is overrated and so are political contributions by corporations. Cowen acknowledges that the growing concentration of competition in certain fields (such as air travel and health care) warrants scrutiny, as does the threat to privacy by big tech. Unlike the banal literature that cheerleads for capitalism, Cowen cites credible data and research in support of his points. If Cowen’s argument makes you queasy or angry, then you should read this book. And if you find yourself getting caught in debates about the value of capitalism, this book would be a handy reference.

The book by Torben Iversen and David Soskice, Democracy and Prosperity: Reinventing Capitalism through a Turbulent Century, is a careful study of the questions, “Are democracy and capitalism fundamentally inconsistent and antagonistic? Or might they be mutually-supporting?” Such questions matter immensely because of the growing research on economic inequality, periodic economic crises, concerns about automation and globalization, and of course the imminent presidential elections in which such questions loom. What we hear from some prominent candidates is that capitalism rigs the outcomes of democratic processes—thus, democracy must quell capitalism to preserve itself. In contrast, Iversen and Soskice present evidence that advanced democracy and global capitalism are mutually supportive. They note that companies tend to reside in advanced democracies because of the “institutions” (laws, norms, and other protections) they afford. Think of sanctity of contract, patent and trademark protections, rule of law, freedom of speech, and so on. Moreover, advanced democracies make large public investments in public education and ensure “rules of the game” to create an environment of fair competition. Capitalism serves advanced democracies by providing jobs, taxes, innovation, economic growth, and support for the rising aspirations of voters. Thus, the authors conclude,

“Very broadly, democracy and advanced capitalism have been symbiotic in the advanced nation-states. Democracies positively reinforce advanced capitalism and well-functioning advanced capitalism reinforce democratic support. ..And in this process the autonomy of the advanced nation-state has increased even as globalization and mutual dependence have risen. This is very far from any received view.”[16]

Bonus: Recommended Video Series

My annual blog post aims to boost the quality and quantity of your reading. But if one has been reading most of the day, where can you turn for relaxation in the evenings? My wife and I enjoy watching classic films (over the past summer we watched most of Cary Grant’s corpus) and multi-part streaming series. I recommend the following:

1. The Crown (available on Netflix): this series is a dramatization of the life of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II. At first, I hesitated to view it thinking it would be essentially a soap opera. But the first season hooked me because of its grounding in modern British history and the lessons for leaders that it depicts. This prize-winning series has presented three seasons to date and expected to run to ten seasons.

2. Bosch (available on Amazon Prime): this is the detective mystery that I mentioned earlier. The casting is excellent; seeing Connelly’s characters come alive actually fuels one’s interest in reading the books. The video series does not simply duplicate the books.

3. Endeavor (available on Amazon Prime): a young detective in Oxford, England, solves intriguing mysteries alongside a tough and experienced senior partner. The detective (named Endeavor Morse) displays unusual intelligence and intuition. The complexity of these cases rivals anything in Sherlock Holmes.

4. The Roosevelts: An Intimate History (available on Netflix): in the pantheon of U.S. Presidents, the two Roosevelts stand out—how and why they and their First Ladies do is well explained by this series. Directed and produced by the master of documentaries, Ken Burns, the series presents profiles of Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Franklin’s wife, Eleanor (whose maiden and married names were also Roosevelt). Though the series is clearly sympathetic to the Roosevelts, it does not hide their flaws: TR’s bellicosity, FDR’s adultery, and Eleanor’s low self-esteem. Nonetheless, the series illustrates several traits of excellent leadership, paramount among which is the ability to articulate a vision around which followers can rally.

5. Lonesome Dove (available on Amazon Prime): this is an adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name. The story is quite simple: two old cowboys drive cattle from Texas to Montana, there to make their fortune. But character development and depiction of the culture of the Old West are exceptionally rich. Originally broadcast on television in 1989, the series drew some 26 million viewers and marks an exception to the purported death of the Western as a film genre.

* * *

I hope you find these recommendations to be useful and interesting. Please accept my sincere wishes for a lovely holiday season and a healthy and happy New Year!


[1] Strauss, page 3.

[2] Mendelsohn, page 241.

[3] Stegner, page 6.

[4] Fedarko, page 344.

[5] Barnes, 107.

[6] Connelly, The Black Ice, pages 124 and 186.

[7] Quotation of Bagehot, Lombard Street, in Grant, 277.

[8] Shiller, 75.

[9] Shiller, 74.

[10] Hundt, 99-100.

[11] Kennedy, xxii.

[12] Parker, ebook loc. 7953.

[13] Vance, 7.

[14] Westover, 304.

[15] Cowen 15.

[16] Iversen and Soskice ebook loc 143-154.