My annual round up of books I read this year. In what was a ridiculously busy year for me, I’m quite proud of how much I managed to read.
The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, and their race to save the world’s most precious manuscripts, by Joshua Hammer
This book was one of my favourites this year, continuing my theme of reading about places in the world which had much more education and science than our Eurocentric history would have you believe. It is the story of the manuscripts of Timbuktu, and one local’s enormous efforts to save them from the Islamic warlords who had taken over his city.
Timbuktu is one of those names of places to conjure with. Sadly, reading about it didn’t make me want to go there. It is seriously unsafe, and the Sahara desert is encroaching. Nevertheless, the story of the 15th century precious manuscripts being saved, and, by implication, the story of the culture centre that Timbuktu once was is a fascinating one.
Stop Fixing Women, Why building fairer workplaces is everybody’s business, by Catherine Fox
Catherine Fox is one of my favourite writers on women in the workplace. I’ve reviewed her previous books here and here. After many years of writing about women in the workplace, Fox seems to have written the book she was mulling over all along. The fundamental point is that we will never have equality in the workplace without changing the workplace. Women are not the problem, workplaces are. This book came out well before the Harvey Weinstein scandal made the point forcefully about how unfair many workplaces are for women. But even without an additional serving of sexual harassment, the unwritten rules for recruitment, performance reviews and promotion tend to favour behaviours that are regarded as positive in men, and negative in women, such as assertiveness.
Sadly, given the book is really aimed at those in charge of large workplaces, every review I have read of this book has come from a woman, so there is a way to go.
Recommended, highly recommended for senior corporate men
David and Goliath, Underdogs, Misfits, and the art of battling Giants, by Malcolm Gladwell
Gladwell’s books are always a great mix of research, provocative points, and well told stories. I enjoyed this one, gulping it down as always.
Nevertheless it did feel a little more like painting by numbers than most of his. He is probably better at structure, but also better at spinning out less content than previously. If you’re after something interesting from Gladwell, I’d actually recommend his new podcast, Revisionist History, first. He finds an episode from history that everyone thinks they understand, and finds the aspects that make that episode completely different from what you thought it was. Gladwell is always worth your time, but this isn’t his best work.
Light and Shadow, Memoirs of a Spy’s Son, by Mark Colvin
Mark Colvin was a foreign correspondent, until he became too sick to travel, when he hosted the ABC’s PM program for 20 years until he died in May 2017. These memoirs are almost as much about his father, a British Spy, and their secretive relationship, as they are about himself.
Although I’d followed Colvin on twitter, I had resisted these memoirs for a while, as I’m not that into autobiography. But they are a fascinating portrait of two lives, and how they intersected with world history for quite a lot of the 20th century. Colvin is incredibly well read and curious about the world. He wears his knowledge lightly, and weaves it into the narrative, so you don’t even notice how much you are learning as you read it.
Sadly Mark Colvin died last year, not from the kidney disease that had made him an invalid for 20 years, but from melanoma. And I happened to be in the middle of reading this book at the time, which made it especially poignant.
The Complacent Class, the Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream, by Tyler Cowen
Tyler Cowen is the polymath economics professor who writes an enormous amount at the blog Marginal Revolution. He is the source of many of the books I read, and always has something provocative and interesting to say about the world we live in.
This book, though, while it was an interesting read, didn’t really have a conclusion. The thesis is that American society has become complacent in a whole lot of different ways – people don’t move states, they don’t protest as much, they’ve stopped innovating so much, they self segregate into communities just like themselves and marry people like themselves and so on. All of these things happen because they are good for individuals, even if they aren’t as good for society.
All the points are interesting, and insightful, but there isn’t much to say what should be done about it. It’s all a little depressing really. The book was written before Trump was elected, but published after. Enjoyable, but I get more out of the blog.
Born a Crime, Stories from a South African childhood, by Trevor Noah
Trevor Noah took over hosting The Daily Show from the much loved Jon Stewart. It took Noah a while to find his feet, on a format that had been created by someone else, and I still enjoy his stand up more than the show. But this book is much more than either of those. Being born from a black mother and white father in South Africa made him literally born a crime (many people in that situation were forced to leave the country as they were non persons).
Noah’s life wasn’t easy, and in apartheid South Africa, having a black mother and white father meant he really didn’t the categories by which society functioned. So he learned to be a chameleon, and a hustler. This is a more thoughtful book than I was expecting, and made me go back to the Daily Show, which I had stopped watching regularly after Jon Stewart left.
We should all be Feminists, by Chimamnda Ngozi Adichie
This Kindle Single is the text of a TED talk on why feminism matters. Adichie is a Nigerian author of literary fiction, and talks about all the examples from her own life of how men and women are treated differently and more importantly, why that matters. She particularly points out how important it is to raise both girls and boys to believe in equality, and why girls and boys will have more complete lives as a result.
A small book, but an enjoyable one.
Paper, paging through History by Mark Kurlansky
Kurlansky has written some great books with one word titles – my favourite is Cod, about the fish. He specialises in taking something that seems quite narrow, and interweaving its history with that of all the people it affected. In one sense, paper isn’t narrow. We all use it. But its history as something that was almost a niche product, until printing became popular, and now is used in surprising ways (here is a Japanese exhibit of origami made from chopstick sleeves). Paper was one of the first industrial processes in Western Europe, with paper mills being located anywhere a good river with enough power for a wheel could be found. I really enjoyed this, as I love books about how technology interacts with the economy and other technology.
The most surprising insight? That paper didn’t have much to offer the economy until the printing press became widespread. Then it was unstoppable.
Quarterly Essay – Moral Panic 101 – Sexuality, Schools and the Media, by Benjamin Law
Before reading this, I only knew of Benjamin Law from his amusing column in the Sunday Herald. This quarterly essay is much more serious; a well researched polemic about the stupidity of the “Safe Schools” panic. The Australian newspaper and many coalition politicians campaigned against Safe Schools. And I must admit I tended to turn the page and ignore the articles, as the whole thing was too annoying.
So Law does everyone a service and goes to the source – what exactly is Safe Schools, what are the arguments against it from conservative commentators and politicians, and do they stack up at all? Spoiler alert, the arguments against Safe Schools are more ludicrous than they seemed on the surface, and are based on twisting the whole program out of all proportion to find controversial sticks to beat the program with. It’s basically a program to help schools work out how to make their schools safe for LGBTIQ students, mostly to avoid bullying for them but also (and this is the controversial part) celebrating the positives about being LGBTIQ. Schools commit to “building a school that is free from homophobia and transphobia and to support gender diversity, intersex and sexual diversity.”
It’s a detailed read, but a worthwhile one, and I ended up not being able to put it down.
Sadly, I couldn’t check whether the school my children attend has joined the Safe Schools program (and now that I know what it is, I would like it to). The list of schools had to be taken off the Safe Schools website as there abuse to the staff of participating schools after the campaign.
Sapiens, A brief history of humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari
You will find this book on many “best of” lists. The first time I saw it was on Bill Gates’ annual reading list (always worth a look if you are interested in good books). I enjoyed the first half, which is a history of the prehistory of humans. It’s particularly fascinating on the changes in humans and human society as we started to settle down and become farmers. Harari’s point here is that for most humans this was not a positive – sure there were more of us, but were our lives better?
But as you get to the parts of human history that I know more about, I found it a bit lightweight – which is what you would expect if you are trying to cover the whole history of humankind in 400 pages. It is harder to be original and thought-provoking when telling that story to anyone who has spent time thinking about economic and technological history.
Fifty Inventions that shaped the modern economy, by Tim Harford
Harford is one of my favourite economics writers. He’s my number one recommendation for who to follow on twitter. So this is an easy read, with some great ideas in it. As a bonus, Harford also wrote up some of his favourite sources here (which is where I found the Kurlansky book on Paper, above). Harford has some surprising choices for his inventions that shaped the modern world – partly deliberately to add something original, and partly because he thinks very widely about the modern world. The Shipping Container was the least surprising to me, and the most surprising was probably the Billy Bookcase.
The Good Girl Stripped Bare, by Tracey Spicer
I enjoyed enough memoirs this year that I rewarded myself on my Christmas Holidays with another one. Tracey Spicer was a journalist and newsreader until in 2006 she was sacked by email 10 days after returning from her second maternity leave. She sued, and settled out of court. Since then she has worked in a number of media roles, and what made me buy this book is that she was one of those who was instrumental in the exposure of Don Burke as a serial sexual harasser and bully. She has a lot of anonymous stories of sexual harassment of both herself and others in the book (which came out in April last year, well before the Harvey Weinstein allegations), but what I enjoyed about the book was the stories that made me realise how much of a real journalist she (and presumably most other news readers) are. She treads a sensible line between showing the compromises a woman has to make to succeed in television (and which she made) and pointing out how hypocritical and useless to the job they mostly are.
The Ostrich Paradox, why we underprepare for disasters, by Robert Meyer and Howard Kunreuther
This book is by two business school professors who look at the various biases that make people take disasters less seriously than they rationally should. In a fairly sobering set of reasons, the authors first go through a formidable set of biases (seven in all, including myopia, amnesia, optimism and herding) that make us underprepare. Then in the second half they suggest solutions for all these biases, using a behavioural risk audit that systematically goes through each bias and addresses the reasons for it (although unfortunately some of the biases actually conflict).
Interesting, one of the suggestions for how to overcome all those biases goes through better ways to persuade people to buy insurance. Many of the strategies are one that any insurer would be familiar with,. For example, a no claim discount is a way of reducing the amnesia bias – people’s tendency to forget that a disaster could happen the longer time has passed since the last one.
In the end my favourite section was about climate change – how can we help society prepare better for what we know is coming. “Unlike the highly uncertain hazards that most of our book has focused on, one might think sea level risk would be an easy risk to manage: We know it’s coming, and we have the time and resources to deal with it preemptively.” But of course we are not. The authors recommend improving decision environments; ie helping individuals make better decisions by better regulations and standards. Sadly (as the authors themselves acknowledge) the political environment is just as prone to the ostrich paradox as the rest of humanity.
I read a bit of fiction this year also. My favourite new find was actual very old (first published in 1969) – the Flashman books, which I found via this great article in the Economist. I couldn’t read them all at once, but reading one every now and again all year has been a lot of fun.
Happy New Year!