Each December I share a round-up of the books I’ve found most compelling throughout the year. If you’re looking for ideas for your 2019 reading list, here are the ten reads I would most highly recommend from the last year, as well as my full list.
If there’s a theme in my reads for the year, it would probably be ‘Attention’. The issue of what we choose to pay attention to (personally, organisationally and socially), what forces are at work to influence that, what is at stake, and how we can be deliberate in focusing our attention, is a thread throughout a number of the books below. I believe it’s a critical issue for us all within our current social context, and I believe there is great hope to be found in the potential for positive change when we are, in a sense, attentive to our attention.
2018 was a bit of an unusual year for me in terms of reading. I had some major life changes going on in early 2018, and ended up not reading at all in the first half of the year. I had to reboot some of my normal routines (I shared the approach I use here), including getting back into reading.
Perhaps you’ve found yourself in the same place, and you are looking to re-start or kick-start a reading habit in 2019. If that’s you, can I encourage you to just pick something small, or something you’ve loved before, and finish one book – I think you’ll be reminded, as I was, how life-giving it can be, and how much richness it adds.
So, in no particular order, here are my favourite reads from 2018 –
3. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do, And How To Change (Charles Duhigg)
“And in almost every experiment, researchers have seen echoes of Squire’s discoveries with Eugene: Habits are powerful, but delicate. They can emerge outside our consciousness, or can be deliberately designed. They often occur without our permission, but can be reshaped by fiddling with their parts. They shape our lives far more than we realize—they are so strong, in fact, that they cause our brains to cling to them at the exclusion of all else, including common sense.”
“Early on in your career, when you’re an individual contributor, you’re graded on the volume and quality of your work. Then one day, all of a sudden, you’re a manager. Let’s assume you do well and move up to manage more and more people. Now you’re no longer paid for the amount of work you do; you’re paid for the quality of decisions you make. But no one tells you the rules have changed. When you hit a wall, you think, I’ll just work harder—that’s what got me here. What you should do is more counterintuitive: Stop for a moment and shut out the noise. Close your eyes to really see what’s in front of you, and then pick the best way forward for you and your team, relative to the organization’s needs. What’s neat about OKRs is that they formalize reflection. At least once each quarter, they make contributors step back into a quiet place and consider how their decisions align with the company. People start thinking in the macro. They become more pointed and precise, because you can’t write a ninety-page OKR dissertation. You have to choose three to five things and exactly how they should be measured.”
5. Stand Out Of Our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy (James Williams)
“Postman contrasts the indirect, persuasive threats to human freedom that Huxley warns about in Brave New World with the direct, coercive sort of threats on which George Orwell focuses in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Huxley’s foresight, Postman writes, lay in his prediction that freedom’s nastiest adversaries in the years to come would emerge not from the things we fear, but from the things that give us pleasure: it’s not the prospect of a “boot stamping on a human face – forever” that should keep us up at night, but rather the specter of a situation in which “people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.” A thumb scrolling through an infinite feed, forever.”
6. I’m Still Here: Black Dignity In A World Made for Whiteness (Austin Channing Brown)
“When you believe niceness disproves the presence of racism, it’s easy to start believing bigotry is rare, and that the label racist should be applied only to mean-spirited, intentional acts of discrimination. The problem with this framework—besides being a gross misunderstanding of how racism operates in systems and structures enabled by nice people—is that it obligates me to be nice in return, rather than truthful. I am expected to come closer to the racists. Be nicer to them. Coddle them.”
“Around 2002 I attended a private party for Google—before its IPO, when it was a small company focused only on search. I struck up a conversation with Larry Page, Google’s brilliant cofounder. “Larry, I still don’t get it. There are so many search companies. Web search, for free? Where does that get you?” My unimaginative blindness is solid evidence that predicting is hard, especially about the future, but in my defense this was before Google had ramped up its ad auction scheme to generate real income, long before YouTube or any other major acquisitions. I was not the only avid user of its search site who thought it would not last long. But Page’s reply has always stuck with me: “Oh, we’re really making an AI.””
8. What Is Populism (Jan-Werner Müller)
“Once again, state colonization, mass clientelism, and discriminatory legalism are phenomena that can be found in many historical situations. Yet in populist regimes, they are practiced openly and, one might suspect, with a clean moral conscience. Hence also the curious phenomenon that revelations about what can only be called corruption simply do not seem to damage the reputation of populist leaders as much as one would expect.”
9. Transitions: Making Sense Of Life’s Changes (William Bridges)
“Our society confuses them constantly, leading us to imagine that transition is just another word for change. But it isn’t. Change is your move to a new city or your shift to a new job. It is the birth of your new baby or the death of your father. It is the switch from the old health plan at work to the new one, or the replacement of your manager by a new one, or it is the acquisition that your company just made. In other words, change is situational. Transition, on the other hand, is psychological. It is not those events, but rather the inner reorientation and self-redefinition that you have to go through in order to incorporate any of those changes into your life. Without a transition, a change is just a rearrangement of the furniture. Unless transition happens, the change won’t work, because it doesn’t “take.” Whatever word we use, our society talks a lot about change; but it seldom deals with transition. Unfortunately for us, it is the transition that blind-sides us and is often the source of our troubles.”
10. Rapt: Attention And The Focused Life (Winifred Gallagher)
“Some decisions about what to focus on, such as which profession to pursue or person to live with, automatically receive serious attention. Other choices may be less obvious but are just as important to the tenor of your daily experience: deciding to concentrate on your hopes rather than your fears; to attend to the present instead of the past; to appreciate that just because something upsetting happens, you don’t have to fixate on it. Still other targets may seem inconsequential: focusing on a book or guitar instead of a rerun; a chat instead of an e-mail; an apple instead of a doughnut. Yet the difference between “passing the time” and “time well spent” depends on making smart decisions about what to attend to in matters large and small, then doing so as if your life depended on it. As far as its quality is concerned, it does.”
And the rest of the list:
11. The Tyranny of Email: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox (John Freeman)
12. God, Money and Me (Paul de Jong)
13 – 19. The Harry Potter series (J.K. Rowling) [re-read]
20. The Spirituality of Fundraising (Henri J.M. Nouwen)
21. Virtual Culture: The Way We Work Doesn’t Work Anymore (Bryan Miles)
22. The News: A User’s Manual (Alain de Botton)
23. My Morning Routine (Jeremy Spall)
24. The President is Missing (Bill Clinton and James Patterson)
25. The Traveler’s Gift (Andy Andrews)
26. Four Futures: Life After Capitalism (Peter Frase)
27. Poke the Box (Seth Godin)
28. The Distraction Addiction (Alex Soojung-Kim Pang)
29. Greater Expectations (Claire Diaz-Ortiz)
30. Sabbath As Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now (Walter Brueggemann)
31. The High Price of Materialism (Tim Kasser)
32. Common Sense (Thomas Paine)
33. Hooked: How To Build Habit-Forming Products (Nir Eyal)
34. Before Amen (Max Lucado)
35. The Jungle Book (Rudyard Kipling)
Happy reading in 2019!