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Recommended Books of 2020: Reading and Rudder

By Bob Bruner-

“Never confuse movement with action.” – Ernest Hemingway

“If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.” — Lewis Carroll

There is a difference between speed and velocity.  Physics teaches that speed is the rate at which you move; velocity is speed in a particular direction.  Years of sailing, kayaking, and canoeing impressed on me the difference of those words—so have years of advising students on career choices.  The two epigrams to this post mock those who favor speed over velocity.  Velocity is what matters.  In sailing, it takes a centerboard and a good rudder to be able to tack into the wind.  In careers, it takes a good rudder to tack into the stuff that life throws at you.

The year, 2020, threw a lot at us (a pandemic, a financial crisis, a recession, a polarizing election, and civil unrest to name a few).  The newspapers have been full of stories of people who were thrown off course by these events.  Regaining velocity is not just a matter of living and working harder (i.e., regaining speed), but rather of living and working more purposefully (gaining velocity).

In previous years, I have extolled the importance of reading to sharpen one’s purpose as a leader (see  20112012201320142015201620172018, and 2019).  Thus, reading good books can help you shape your direction.  The best books don’t tell you what to think; they may calm you down or rile you up; but they confront you with ideas that stimulate your own sense of purpose.  I’m leery of the vast self-help literature, very directive stuff that reduces purpose to banal checklists.  Instead, start from your own interests.  During difficult times, self-directed personal reading can help you get a grip on your rudder.

Get some good books (as defined by your interests and by people whose judgment you respect); don’t read junk.  Set aside a few hours each week to read and make notes about the parts you like—I underline, dog-ear, and highlight mercilessly (only in books that I own!)  Pay attention to what resonated with you and follow the trail to more good books.  Give any book the first hundred pages to hook you, after which you either finish it or quit and go on to another.  If you can, read a book with others and discuss it.  Serious reading is intentional.

I read a lot, mostly because I like to, and partly because it’s my job.  A wise guy student once asked, “Why do you read?  Don’t you know everything already?” Nope.  As 2020 showed, the world keeps changing.  I owe it to my students and colleagues to hone my mastery continually.  Abraham Lincoln once explained that if he had six hours to chop down a tree, he would spend the first four sharpening the axe. Think of reading as sharpening your axe.

In 2020, I sampled widely across medicine, history, public policy, fiction, and leadership.  The following items resonated the most and carry my strong recommendation.  Best wishes to you for reading in 2021!

Medicine

This pandemic highlighted the heroism and ingenuity of medical professionals.  It has also forced one to confront the limitations of modern medicine.  A common trope is “If we can send a man to the moon, why can’t we cure X, Y, or Z?”  The X, Y, or Z that I hear most often is cancer, the second-leading cause of death (after heart disease).  According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control, cancer death rates have decreased every year for the past two decades, yet in terms of our understanding it remains the most inscrutable leading killer.  In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared war on cancer; it has yet to be won.  Siddhartha Mukherjee’s, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer explains why in language that the layperson can understand.  The origins of the disease remain elusive; the disease itself takes many forms (Mukherjee calls it “a whole family of diseases”); the technology and treatments are esoteric and yield idiosyncratic results; and the medical and scientific communities struggle to prove the effectiveness of new therapies.  Mukherjee discusses the history of research and treatment and toward the end of the book presents some moving portraits of his patients (Mukherjee is an oncologist.)  The powerful impressions of this book include the sense that specialists are playing whack-a-mole with an especially deceptive adversary.  Mukherjee writes, “To keep pace with this malady, you needed to keep inventing and reinventing, learning and unlearning strategies.”  Another impression is that in the absence of truly effective therapies, the most effective investments for society are in the areas of prevention, detection, and in early treatment.  Mukherjee writes, “our goals could be more modest…death in old age is inevitable, but death before old age is not…It is possible that we are fatally conjoined to this ancient illness, forced to play its cat-and-mouse game for the foreseeable future of our species.  But if cancer deaths can be prevented before old age, if the terrifying game of treatment, resistance, recurrence, and more treatment can be stretched out longer and longer, then it will transform the way we imagine this ancient illness.”

In a previous post, I commended the writing of Atul Gawande, an endocrine surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.  His book Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science is a collection of 14 articles published in Slate and The New Yorker that explore the fallibility of modern medicine.  He draws on personal experiences to illustrate the ambiguity of diseases, the difficulty of treatment, and the profound ethical dilemmas that physicians face.  Rather than doubt and fear, this book instills greater respect for medical professionals.  Arresting insights, fluid prose and gripping anecdotes commend this books as a valuable briefing for the sophisticated consumer on the realities of health care services.

History

“To know who we are, we need to know where we come from,” said economist Michel de Vroey.  The book by Alan Greenspan and Adrian Wooldridge, Capitalism in America: An Economic History of the United States is an excellent one-volume introduction.  Written in easy language, laced with interesting anecdotes, and grounded in solid research and evidence, the authors take the reader through some 243 years of capitalist history.  Greenspan is the former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board and marshals economic data with a light touch.  Wooldridge is a senior editor at The Economist and brings the irony and critical mindset of the Schumpeter column that he penned for years.  Here, they sketch the emergence of the modern American capitalist economy: huge, diverse, open, inventive, disruptive, and prosperous.  At the same time, they acknowledge its shortcomings, the support that some capitalists gave to the slave trade and suppression of Native Americans, the rise of monopolies, and in recent decades, the stalling productivity growth.  They are clear about the episodic downturns that sweep away less efficient firms and open the field for new firms, the process of “creative destruction.”   The same process motivates government to intervene in managing the business cycle.  They note the “mood of pessimism” in the country today but conclude “Yet whenever America has flirted with national decline in the past—in the 1930s, for example, or the 1970s—it has always grappled with its problems and come back stronger.  The underlying vigor of the national economy, and indeed of the national character, has always trumped failures of policy making.”

Andrew Browning’s, The Panic of 1819: The First Great Depression, is a deep dive into a sorely neglected episode of creative destruction.  He tells a story that should be familiar to business people.  Changes in the banking system seeded an expansion of credit.  Easy money fueled a bubble in real estate.  Then a volcano in the Dutch East Indies blew up and worsened the weather in the Northern Hemisphere, impairing harvests, and driving food prices higher.  Next, Britain clamped down on food imports when the weather (and harvests) improved.  Thus, the export market in American foodstuffs dried up, farmers couldn’t service their debts, and banks collapsed.  The Second Bank of the U.S., a proto-central bank, called in loans and restricted the circulation of its banknotes worsening the crisis.  The aftershocks of this crisis extended to the disastrous Missouri Compromise of 1820 that permitted the westward expansion of slavery, and the advent of Andrew Jackson to the White House in 1828.  I enjoyed this book because of its depth of research, its linkage of the crisis to institutional changes before and after, and its rich narrative of events.

One of the dominant puzzles of our age is why Russia failed to make the leap to liberal democratic capitalism after the collapse of the USSR in 1990.  Robert Service’s A History of Twentieth-Century Russia helps to explain why.  From the revolution in 1917 to its demise, the USSR entrenched norms and institutions that proved to be brittle in the face of change and that when change came, morphed into new forms of oppression and dominance by an elite.  This book affirms the importance of institutions (norms, rules, laws, ways of interacting) that the citizens in developed economies seem to take for granted.  Such institutions include the rule with the consent of governed, trial by jury of one’s peers, independent judiciary, sanctity of contract, freedom of speech, etc.  The stark tyranny of Lenin, Stalin, and their successors provides the playbook for tyrants today.  Service withholds no criticisms toward tyranny then and now.

Over the years, I have read installments of Robert A. Caro’s brilliant multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, the final book of which is being written.  Thus, I noted the announcement that Caro had written a reflection on how he writes history.  His recent book, Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing offers wonderful perspective on the incredible effort required to write a masterpiece.  He began his career as a journalist, where he learned the virtues of dogged field research—this is a valuable reminder to writers (especially academic scholars) that there is usually more to any story than the preliminary facts suggest.  “Journalism is the first rough draft of history,” said Philip Graham, former Publisher of the Washington Post.  Caro’s book essentially argues that there is a lot more research necessary to produce a final draft of history.  Caro’s research has yielded important findings.  Caro was the first biographer to document that Johnson’s rise as a powerful Congressman was based on secret corporate donations from Texas oilmen: “Before the campaign was over—in that single month, October, 1940—Lyndon Johnson had raised from Texas and had distributed to congressional candidates campaign funds on a scale that dwarfed anything ever given to Democratic congressional candidates from a single, central source.”  Caro also discovered that LBJ’s 1948 Senatorial election victory was based on fraudulent voting.  Caro attributes his success as a writer to some early advice he received as a rookie journalist: “Turn every page.  Never assume anything.  Turn every goddamned page.”

 

Political Economy

Two books address in didactic fashion America’s declining growth rate and rising inequality.  Robert J. Gordon’s, The Rise and Fall of American Growth, is the best one-volume overview of the growth in economic output from 1870 to the present.  And it is rather downbeat: he argues that the most transformational inventions are behind us.  For instance, he points to the invention of the automobile, telephone, public sanitation, transistor, and penicillin as truly pivotal events, after which the inventions have been derivative and incremental.  What’s worse is that an aging population, deteriorating educational system, and rising debt will be a drag on future growth.  The Upswing: How American Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again by Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett takes a different perspective than Gordon—they focus on a variety of social indicators that suggest growing national stress.  Measures such as social trust, household formation, economic inequality, social mobility, individualism and communitarianism improved from 1914 to about 1968 and have worsened since.  Yet the thrust of this book is more hopeful.  The authors argue that measures of social stress have swung pendulum-like over time.  They summarize the swings from “I to We to I”—from individualism to communitarianism and back again—and that thus “We can do it again.”  The book is long on historical survey and shorter on prescription, but given the authors’ love for the New Deal and Great Society programs, it is no surprise that they advocate greater intervention by government.  Whether or not their prescriptions appeal to you, the survey of social trends over the past century gives an excellent frame of reference for the problems we confront today.

Perhaps the most upbeat recent overview of social trends is Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong about the World and Why things are Better than You Think by Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund.  Hans Rosling was an expert in public health and observed the incredible improvements in global life expectancy, poverty, nourishment over the past several decades.   Documenting these improvements, the authors explore why people tend to ignore them and claim inaccurately that trends are getting worse.  They offer 10 factors—casts of mind—that affect our ability to make appropriate inferences from data.  Such factors include false dichotomies, poor benchmarks, and loss bias.  Factfulness” is the ability to avert these cognitive effects.  The authors wrote, “Being always in favor of or always against any particular idea makes you blind to information that doesn’t fit your perspective. This is usually a bad approach if you like to understand reality.”  Some critics have charged the authors with blind optimism.  But given the negativity of much of the literature on current social trends, this book is a welcome counter-balance.

Readers of my earlier best books blog posts will note that I am a fan of the work of Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson.  Their recent book, Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty, resonates with themes of their earlier Why Nations Fail and addresses why liberal democracy is so hard to create and sustain.  Their thesis is that successful democracies entail two countervailing forces.  One is the “cage of norms” or strict social and economic conventions that ensure order.  The other is a buoyant and open society featuring a critical free press, turbulent commercial activity, and high innovation.  The two forces check and balance each other.  Successful nations walk the narrow corridor between these two forces without giving in to either.  What I liked best about this volume (as I did the earlier volume) is its wealth of anecdotes and cross-country comparisons.  However, I was less persuaded by rhetoric in the book that seemed aimed at the presidential campaign of 2020.  Yet as a stimulus to serious thinking about the sustainability of democracy this book succeeds quite well.

Anne Applebaum’s Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism addresses threats to democracy from nationalists and authoritarians on both the Left and Right.  She identifies as a center-Right journalist living in Poland, part of a cohort of writers that in 1999 “Poles call[ed] the right—the conservatives, the anti-Communists…Free-market liberals, classical liberals, maybe Thatcherites.  Even those who might have been less definite about the economics did believe in democracy, in the rule of law, in checks and balances, and in a Poland that was a member of NATO and on its way to joining the European Union.”  Twenty years later, that same group had shattered into opposing groups of nationalist authoritarians and now center-left liberals. Such a split has undermined democracy not only in Poland, but throughout Eastern Europe and many of the developed economies.  She concludes that “Given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy.  Indeed, if history is anything to go by, all our societies eventually will.”  Her second chapter, “How Demagogues Win,” gives a sobering narrative of the decline in democracy in several nations.  What drives the appeal of authoritarianism is not closed-mindedness, she says, but “It is better described as simple-mindedness: people are often attracted to authoritarian ideas because they are bothered by complexity.  They dislike divisiveness.  They prefer unity.  A sudden onslaught of diversity—diversity of opinions, diversity of experiences—therefore makes them angry.  They seek solutions in new political language that makes them feel safer and more secure.”  Of course, the internet and social media have made easy the dissemination of extreme views and the curation of comforting identities.  She quotes Jeanne Kirkpatrick, President Reagan’s UN Ambassador, “To destroy a society, it is first necessary to delegitimize its basic institutions”—Applebaum goes on to say, “If you believe that American institutions are no different from their opposite [i.e., authoritarian nations], then there is no reason to defend them.”  The denial of a sense of shared moral purpose underlies the decline of democracy.

Fiction

Looking for classic books to inform my understanding of the pandemic, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s, Love in the Time of Cholera, caught my eye.  Yet cholera is mentioned only at a few points in passing, as a condiment to the main course.  A clue to the relevance of cholera in the story is Marquez’s line, “the symptoms of love were the same as those of cholera,” which alludes to feverishness.   It’s a classic story of boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, and then boy-gets-girl—all spread over 70 years.   If you start this book, definitely give it the 100-page trial before giving up: it’s a complex story (I counted 41 characters), set in a fictional land (probably Colombia), and with quirky protagonists, none of whom draw the reader’s empathy.   Yet the plot creates a tension that pulls the reader along: is this a tragedy in which the two protagonists fail miserably, or a comedy in which the flawed and bumbling figures finally succeed in love?  The character development is incredibly rich with exquisite details.  The protagonists are iconic and memorable—and their differences heighten the tension about the basic nature of the story.  The author’s irony sets this apart from a typical romance.  Everyone is skewered, occasionally in laugh-out-loud fashion.  And the writing is lush, with profound observations sprinkled like hidden gems along the way.  For instance, “He was still too young to know that the heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good, and that thanks to this artifice we manage to endure the burden of the past.”  Despite the crazy characters, the tortured relationships, and the cloud of irony overhanging this tale, this is an optimistic book about love.  Written by a Nobel Laureate in literature, and itself the recipient of numerous plaudits, the book has the pedigree of a classic.

Hilary Mantel, The Wolf Hall Trilogy (consisting of three substantial books, Wolf Hall, Bring up the Bodies, and The Mirror and the Light).  These books of historical fiction chronicle the life, career, and death of Thomas Cromwell, who rose from poverty to become the equivalent of prime minister to King Henry the Eighth of England.  Typically regarded as Henry’s evil hatchet-man (see Robert Bolt’s play, The Man for All Seasons), Mantel’s Cromwell emerges as a likeable, rational, ethical technocrat, who sought to protect England from foreign meddling and the King’s rash impulses.  Mantel sketches well the geopolitics of Renaissance Europe: the jockeying among France, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Catholic Church for dominance.  The threat of foreign invasion looms over the entire story.  So does the threat of regime change prompted by the surly Plantagenet family, whom Henry’s grandfather (a Tudor) displaced on the throne.  Henry’s desire to prevent civil war and firmly establish the Tudor dynasty by means of a male heir prompts him to cycle through six wives—in turn, this prompts England’s split from the Catholic Church.  I found the historical background to be fascinating.  And the insights about palace intrigue and the jockeying of advisers for influence are well worth the price of the book.  The trilogy is like a practicum in dealing with an authoritarian leader, rich in psychological lessons.  Cromwell reflects on Henry: “You will see Henry, profound in deception, take an ambassador’s arm and charm him.  Lying gives him a deep and subtle pleasure, so deep and subtle he does not know he is lying; he thinks he is the most truthful of princes.” If you are unfamiliar with the history of Renaissance England, I recommend that you first watch Wolf Hall, a serialized video produced by BBC and streaming on Amazon Prime.  The novels justly deserve the many accolades, including the Man Booker Prize of 2009 and the National Book Critics Circle Award of 2010.

In my earlier best books blogs, I have confessed my love of crime fiction.  In 2020, I read seven novels in Michael Connelly’s, series based on the fictional detective, Hieronymus Bosch.  I’m up to novel #10 out of 22.  Pulp fiction these are not: the characters are credible, the crimes and dilemmas are ingenious, the writing is tight (as is true of other great crime writers such as Raymond Chandler), the pace is fast, justice tends to prevail, and the insights that Connelly tosses to the reader are deep.  For instance, in the most recent novel, The Narrows, he wrote, “You can become unhinged and cut loose from the world.  You can believe you are a permanent outsider.  But the innocence of a child will bring you back and give you the shield of joy with which to protect yourself.”  My wife and I read these novels together and enjoy discussing the clues along the way.  For a sampler of the Bosch stories, see the video series on Bosch streaming on Amazon Prime.

Leadership

Erik Larsen The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance during the Blitz.  This is an extraordinary portrait of a leader at the height of his gifts and in the depths of crisis.  Winston Churchill gained the premiership of Britain in 1940 just as the Nazi war machine was rolling into Holland, Belgium, and France.  With the retreat at Dunkirk, Britain seemed to be next.  Some British leaders quietly advocated settlement with Hitler to avoid invasion.  Churchill staunchly opposed what would amount to surrender.  So Germany commenced a campaign of bombing in an effort to soften the will of the British—this was the famous “Blitz.”  Larsen’s book describes Churchill’s style and policies as a war leader.  He emerges in the story as a man with idiosyncrasies and failings, but also as a spirit that can best be described in one word, “indomitable.”  Interleaved throughout the book are portrayals of Churchill’s family: a ne’er do well son, one daughter in an unhappy marriage, another daughter coming of age, and a wife who is the icon of patience.  The development of these characters is rich, at the level of a masterful novel.  I’ve read a great deal of Churchillian history and can attest to the new insights embedded in this book.  Strongly recommended.

Susan Berfield, The Hour of Fate: Theodore Roosevelt, J.P. Morgan, and the Battle to Transform American Capitalism.  This is a history of President Theodore Roosevelt’s first term in the White House and the pivot in public policy that he sparked.  The story focuses on the relationship between Roosevelt and J.P. Morgan, who was regarded to be the most powerful financier in America.  Both grew up in privileged backgrounds.  Their confrontation today seems inevitable, given the turbulence brewing in American society owing to industrialization, waves of immigration, rising economic inequality, civil unrest, and political upheaval.  Berfield writes, “Roosevelt had to mediate between the assumptions of the past and the hopes for the future.  He had to consider his principles and his circumstances.  Most of all, he had to strive for the possible.”  This volume is an excellent portrait of a leader in times of great civil stress.  The book focuses particularly on two episodes.  The first is Roosevelt’s decision to sue to break up the Northern Securities Corporation, a J.P. Morgan creation that would monopolize rail transportation in the Pacific Northwest.  The second is Roosevelt’s decision to intervene and mediate a major coal strike that threatened to deny the nation fuel during the coming winter.  In both cases, Roosevelt pivoted from established orthodoxy about what the Federal Government could and should do.  I commend the book as both a good yarn and very well-research and wrought history.

Thomas J. DeLong, Teaching by Heart: One Professor’s Journey to Inspire.  I have argued that teaching is leadership and leadership is teaching.  This recent book by Tom Delong is a wonderful meditation on that proposition.  Delong retired recently as a professor at Harvard Business School and previously served in senior positions in business, most notably as head of HR at Morgan Stanley.  His book is a reflection on how to teach by the case method, and more importantly, how learners make meaning of an educational experience.  He says, “I wrote this book to articulate the nuts and bolts of what goes into creating an environment for the transformation to occur.”  The nuts and bolts may surprise the non-academic reader and will draw knowing nods from experienced teachers.  His details merit close attention.  I had one opportunity to observe DeLong as a teacher and was deeply impressed by his skills.  This is not a how-to-do-it book; rather, it is a reflection on the craft that can help case teachers (both rookies and old hands) to grow more effective.  What I liked best about the book were his comments on the consistency of teaching and leading.  He wrote:

“The best leaders and teachers listen deeply, communicate empathically, and motivate adroitly.  Command-and-control leaders and strict, punishment-wielding teachers are stereotypes of the past. Today, leaders and teachers need to relate to their audiences, influencing actions rather than dictating them.  Both must be brave enough to make themselves vulnerable and admit mistakes.  In addition, teachers lead and leaders teach.  Again, this may not be obvious, but think about how teachers model behaviors they want students to adopt, how they motivate by telling stories, how they make decisions that affect all students.  Similarly, leaders have become teachers in knowledge-centric environments; they can’t just tell people what to do but must help them acquire ideas, information, and skills so they can be more innovative, agile employees.  Like teachers, leaders mentor.  This is a role that has gained a lot of importance in recent years.  Finally, the best teachers and leaders build relationships. …When I speak of leadership, I’m referring to the process of bringing others together and accomplishing three central tasks.  The first role of the leader is to set direction…Second, leaders must create buy-in or commitment to the direction….Third, leaders must facilitate execution or implementation…All three of these elements are unwritten promises leaders make to their people: I promise to set direction with you, to secure your commitment, and to help you execute.  If I do these things, you’ll succeed and so will the company. This is the covenant leaders establish with their employees, and it drives performance far better than salary and perks.  Leaders seal this covenant personally.”