Four non-fiction book favorites from 2020

Reading books is an addiction which began for me in grade school and only in my busiest years have I not been in its clutches. You will learn my top four non-fiction books for 2020 in this newsletter, but not before I make you wade through the story of how I became a reader.

By the end of third grade at Lincoln School in Fairmont, MN, I suspect I’d not yet learned to read. Maybe a wee bit, but not very well, certainly. I have reproduced my third grade report card chronicling my failures and my teacher’s recommendation to repeat third grade. My parents, sensitive to the trauma I would undergo the following year as my classmates moved on and I remained with a group of younger kids, transferred me to what was then called a “parochial school” – a church sponsored school. Starting in this new school in the 3rd grade (again) had no noticeable stigma as all the kids were new. What was different was what had happened over that summer.

In the summer of 1959, following my grade 3 failure, I began playing with a neighborhood kid a year older whose parents allowed him to have comic books. This was way cool, as comics were not allowed in our house. I loved reading them, except at first, it was hard to figure out the words in the bubbles above the various characters’ heads. Remembering “sounding out” exercises from school and with my friend’s help, by the end of the summer I was reading pretty well, albeit just comics. My mother noticed my interest in comics and, while she refused to buy Superman, Batman, Archie or Donald Duck, she found “Classics Illustrated,” a publisher who took “stories by the World’s Greatest Authors” and turned them into comic books. Soon I’d read and re-read A Tale of Two Cities, Lorna Doone, The Man Without A Country, The Virginian, Hamlet, The Last of the Mohicans, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Moby Dick, Wuthering Heights, Crime and Punishment, The Iliad, The Count of Monte Cristo, A Tale of Two Cities, War and Peace, Silas Marner, Lord Jim and many others. I still have 17 of these comics in decent — although well-read-condition. When I got older, I felt compelled to read the full novels, and in some cases I did.

In my second shot at 3rd grade, I still hated school, refused to pay attention or cooperate. But a librarian at the school introduced me to Jack London’s novels (White Fang, The Call of the Wild, To Build a Fire) and then to a whole shelf filled with historic fiction. I began tearing through the entire lot. I discovered I could hide a book behind a notebook, out of sight of the teacher, and read throughout the school day, only looking up toward the teacher when I turned the pages. While I could read, I still stunk at school and hated it.

In high school one semester they offered a class in speed reading. That class, along with typing and driver’s ed, were the only classes where I got decent grades. But then, in the 11th grade, two teachers took an interest in me. From one I discovered the debate team and theatre, completely changing who my friends were, and from the second, a single comment changed my life: “You know, you write very well. You should come help us on the school paper.” From C and D grades in 10th grade I made the dean’s list in the 11th, and when I transferred to Mayo High School in Rochester for my senior year of high school, I left the bad student persona behind and spent grade 12 as an A student.

In college I found time to get through my assigned textbooks while adding what my student colleagues were reading as “recreational literature.” I remember devouring The Lord of the Rings books, Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, and anything by C.S. Lewis. My roommate at the time, Lloyd Schley, was a philosophy major and introduced me to new books and writers. Although having read Huxley, Orwell, Dostoevsky, Vonnegut and Voltaire in my high school Humanities class, Lloyd expanded my philosophical novel list extensively: Hermann Hesse (Glass Bead Game, Steppenwolf, Siddhartha), Camus (The Stranger, The Fall), Ayn Rand (The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged) and Huxley (After Many a Summer). These were before hitting me with harder stuff from Bertrand Russell, Being and Nothingness, Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus and Friedrich Nietzsche (Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Beyond Good and Evil), his favorites. I got lost on Nietzsche. I think Lloyd wanted me to read them so we could argue. Whatever the rationale, it worked.

Out of school, in my twenties, I started to care about my job and how well I was doing. I re-read Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, and a host of self-improvement books from Napoleon Hill, Zig Ziglar and about how to sell and manage. I’d just bought my first motorcycle and so loved Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig.

In my thirties, at Control Data, there was one area in which I was insecure. To work in the group I led, you were required to have an MBA to even apply. I wondered if anyone knew I had no advanced business degree. Books like In Search of Excellence, anything by Peter Drucker, Future Shock by Alvin Toffler and Megatrends by John Naisbitt became my instructors. CDC would later hire Naisbitt as a consultant and he and I became friends. I also listened to audio tape training programs. One of my favorites was William Oncken’s Managing Management Time. It was a brilliant treatise on how to be effective in large organizations and I listened to it over and over. He was a brilliant speaker and hilarious, and his techniques for bothering to do only the work that mattered as a manager, helped me a great deal. For entertainment, spy novels were the rage and I loved all of John Le Carre’s books as well as those by Robert Ludlum, Tom Clancy, Graham Greene, Ken Follet and Frederic Forsyth. My friend David Barnett this year recommended John Le Carre’s autobiography and it was a delight to read. This was also the period in which I read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and from there fell in love with anything Douglas Adams wrote.

My forties and fifties stuck mostly along the lines of the above, but added skilled Scandinavian writers like Stieg Larsson (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series) and Jussi Adler-Olsen (Department Q series) and Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole books. I’ve read everything Christopher Moore has written although I’m especially fond of The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove and Bloodsucking Fiends, and a host of other humor writers. I recently feigned shock and surprise to my good friend and riding buddy Kevin Brown, a former minister and theological seminary graduate, when he admitted he’d never read Moore’s book Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal.

So, now I’m retired. I no longer read business advice books. Over the past year I’ve given away over 250 business and investment books, some dearly loved. I now re-read favorite classics and find new authors. I still love fiction and probably pick it up more often than non-fiction. This coming year I will re-read Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy as I hear they’re making a movie or series about it. My nephew Robert has got me re-interested in Science Fiction and so I’m well into several multi-book epics like The Expanse series.

You made it this far, so you deserve this, my list of the four best non-fiction books I read in 2020. It goes without saying I recommend each highly.

  1. The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World, by Simon Winchester (He also authored The Map That Changed the World, Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, The Surgeon of Crowthorne: A Tale of Murder, Madness & the Love of Words and many others.) A master story-teller, Winchester uses precision as a lens to examine history beginning in the Industrial Age. I found the book impossible to put down. I read it earlier in the year and recently listened to it again. I’ve recommended it to several friends who’ve thanked me profusely for the suggestion after they read it as well. Chapter 1 of the book is titled: “Tolerance 0.1” and Chapter 2 is titled “Tolerance 0.0001” and Chapter 3 is titled “Tolerance .000001” and on it goes.
  2. Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari and their Battle for Speed and Glory, by A. J. Baime (He also authored The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months That Changed the World, Big Shots: The Men Behind the Booze). Technically, I may have read this in 2019, I forget. It’s still one of the best page-turning history books I’ve ever read. And they made the movie “Ford vs. Ferrari” staring Matt Damon and Christian Bale from this book.
  3. The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed Our Minds, by Michael Lewis (He also authored Moneyball, The Big Short, The New New Thing, and Liar’s Poker)
    I’ve read several other Michael Lewis books, and along with Malcolm Gladwell, he makes highly compelling stories of seemingly dry, complex subjects and events. In this book he explores the spider web of concepts influencing human judgement and decision-making and errors in the human psyche. He makes the research of Tversky and Kahneman interesting and their odd friendship relatable.
  4. The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters, by Tom Nichols.
    I started this book in 2020 and am still reading it, but got more than half-way through in 2020, so am including it here. While scary, it’s very good, never preachy. Unfortunately, this is highly accurate reporting on where things stand right now. If Nichols is going to make recommendations on how we get out of this mess, I’ve yet to see it. But I’ve still got two chapters to go.

For every non-fiction book, I probably read ten fiction stories. So, that list is considerably longer and I’ll save that for another post. If you liked this post, let me know. I know many people don’t read books anymore, but I still love them, although I’m just as likely these days to listen to a book via digital audio as read it. I just don’t fly as much anymore, where I tried to read a book per flight. Here are four quotes from the above books:

“…the inherent properties of matter start to become impossibly ambiguous.”
― Simon Winchester, The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World

To take control of this materialized energy, to draw the reins over this monster with its steel muscles and fiery heart—there is something in the idea which appeals to an almost universal sense, the love of power.”
― A.J. Baime, Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari, and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans

When you are a pessimist and the bad thing happens, you live it twice. Once when you worry about it, and the second time when it happens.”
― Amos Tversky in The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed Our Minds, by Michael Lewis

“…the bigger problem is that we’re proud of not knowing things. Americans have reached a point where ignorance, especially of anything related to public policy, is an actual virtue. To reject the advice of experts is to assert autonomy, a way for Americans to insulate their increasingly fragile egos from ever being told they’re wrong about anything.”
― Thomas M. Nichols, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters

And now that report card.

TV Top Pick #8: The Glorias

When I was growing up, the name Gloria Steinem was mostly used derisively by many in my family, if she was mentioned at all. This 2020 documentary movie, shows how childhood experiences influenced this iconic writer, activist, and organizer for women’s rights.  Irrespective of how you feel about her politics and causes, I highly recommend this remarkable directorial achievement. Four actresses play Steinem at various ages and she appears as herself, too.  It’s the best biographical documentary I’ve ever seen.

Before telling you more about this film on Amazon Prime, let me share what it was like for me to meet this movie’s director, Julie Taymor.  Unlike my friend, Rich Marin, who knows so many film celebrities (both those in front and behind the camera), my brushing shoulders with individuals in this profession has been rare, although it’s happened a few times and has always been memorable.

In 2000 I was invited to speak at the TED (Technology, Education, and Design) annual conference in Monterey, CA.  My company was commercializing collaborative filtering software and making waves in the Artificial Intelligence technology circles because of our software’s uncanny ability to predict people’s preferences.  I was invited to TED to explain how it all worked.  Then as now, TED was a big deal and  attracted an exclusive crowd. I will never forget mounting the stage with its amphitheater seating and seeing that my eyes were exactly parallel with people sitting in the sixth row, and I was looking directly into the faces of Jeff Bezos, Walt Mossberg, Mitch Kapor, Bill Gates, and other notables, as they waited to hear what I had to say. I felt more stage fright in front of this assemblage than any other audience I had ever addressed.

Each session of TED was similarly structured.  The TED staff arranged for all speakers in each segment (typically 4-5) to sit together in the front row making it easy for us to take the stage without walking over other people.  We sat in order of how we’d be called to the stage.  I was the second speaker and Taymor, who would speak third, was on my left.  In position well in advance of the session’s start, we had a few minutes to introduce ourselves to each other.  When Julie Taymor told me her name, I had no idea who she was, but we had a nice conversation about the weather, our previous day’s flight, etc.  After I’d given my presentation, I returned to the same row, but at the opposite end, and listened to her talk.  Taymor focused on the challenges she faced in converting one of the best-loved films ever, Disney’s The Lion King, to the stage.  Of course, I was mesmerized by her talk – how she was so intimidated by the task of competing on stage with an animated film, where they “could do anything – if it could be drawn, it could happen.”  Also, how she hit upon the one thing the movie couldn’t do, which was to show things in three dimensions, giving her the idea to move the action off the stage, over and through the audience, creating a live theatre experience that thrilled millions and played on Broadway for 21 years. It went on to become one of the most popular musicals in the world, with 100 million people seeing twenty-five global productions of her play. I also recall being exceptionally happy and relieved that it was not I following her onto the stage.

Unsurprisingly, the movie of Gloria Steinem’s life is brilliantly done and I loved it.  It was easy for me to see Taymor’s fingerprints all over it. Not only does it tell a wonderful and inspiring story of a woman who dedicated her life to the causes she believed in, but it does so using four different actresses playing her at different times in her life. Other biographical documentary filmmakers have used multiple actors to play a single individual, but never have I seen a director bring all those actors into the same scene and have them interact with one another. I found it to be a stunning effect, ingenious and creative and so like Taymor.  If your politics are more conservative, you may not be as intrigued by watching her campaign for women’s rights, the ERA, transgender rights, and other causes as some will be. But there’s a good chance you will like it anyway. It is a fascinating study that weaves memories of her youth, her parents, and early life experiences into a believable and memorable human being. As I commented in another film recommendation, be sure to watch this if, by any chance, you have daughters, or if you had a sister… or a mother.  Then you should be sure to watch it.

TV Top Pick #7: The Queen’s Gambit

opening screen from trailer

By now you’ll know my top picks aren’t timely. My recommendations are along the lines of “this is something you really should watch and why,” versus trying to keep up with what is hot or trending. So this recommendation to watch The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix, is probably a bit late.  But here is what I found noteworthy and compelling about it.

First, as a guy surrounded by smart, self-reliant, independent, strong-willed women (not the least being a wife, two daughters and two delightfully independent granddaughters), I cheered for this character from the start and blanched at the many ways in our not so distant past, society put women down and marginalized them at every opportunity.  Next, the time period of the series is the late 1960’s, so the cars, fashions, retail store layouts rang so true, it was just captivating to watch.  Anya Taylor-Joy playing Beth Harmon in the lead role puts on an acting master class in just about every scene.  Anyone studying acting to the point they learned how not to blink when the camera is on you, will admire her remarkable control and expressive eyes, most notably when she stares across a chessboard at her opponents.

Like many people, I learned the rules of chess when I was young, but was never able to get very good.  But one needs to know nothing of chess to enjoy this film.  Friends who’ve beat addiction issues have told me the film accurately captures how significant bad judgement can be viewed not only as normal, but as the only logical alternative in certain circumstances.  My good friend Chris Locke wrote: “Of course this movie is great. It’s based on a novel by Walter Tevis, who also wrote three other books made into films: The Hustler, The Color of Money and The Man Who Fell to Earth. I’m heartened, nay positively CHUFFED, that Beth escaped that horror show – and so did Bowie and your current interlocutor.”

The writing and directing is top notch, plainly done by professionals at the very top of their game. The sets show a exceptional eye and sensitivity in choice followed by what had to be budget-busting dedication to perfection. I would not be surprised to find myself watching the series again, just to focus on the sets.  One most capturing me were the hotels, in Las Vegas and Russia, specifically.  The hotel fronts, common areas and rooms were just unerringly correct.  The 1960s home, the New York basement apartment of Benny, the orphanage, the small drug store where she shoplifts Chess magazines and the women’s department store – and many more – hit just the right note.

I learned the term cinematography and what it meant while attempting to figure out why Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 movie, Barry Lyndon, was so good. Steven Meizler is the cinematographer credited for bringing it all together here, the writing, directing, set design, costumes and landscapes, knowing when to show wide shots and then cutting to close-ups that pull you into this incredible story of Harmon’s world.

Highly recommended.

TV Top Pick #6: The Newsroom

profile, sitting at a desk

Let me be clear up front, I am not recommending you go back and watch this Aaron Sorkin created TV drama from 2012-2014.  However, there is one scene I’d like you to check out.  The scene features Jeff Daniels in his role of news anchor Will McAvoy, being interviewed with two politicians at a local college.  The part I’d like you to pay attention to comes 2 minutes and 10 seconds into this 5 minute clip, if you want to skip ahead. The current political divisions in the country inspired this idea.  Hear me out.

What bothers me is why acknowledging the lack of US supremacy on even the smallest item somehow is translated into “you hate our country.”  Coaches on a sports team look carefully at other teams to see where they’re deficient; always trying to find areas to improve so they can become the best.  That doesn’t blemish their team loyalty, does it? During my years building high-tech companies, we used radar charts to aid competitive analysis.  These charts highlighted our assets and liabilities, forcing us to focus on shoring up weaknesses while capitalizing and leveraging our strengths.  Acknowledging someone else performing better in a particular area was an opportunity to examine what they were doing and figure out how we, using our creativity and innovation, could get better at it than them.  As it says in this clip, it starts by understanding the problem.

What if we, as US citizens, came up with a scorecard to honestly rank ourselves against other countries?  A list might include some of the things below.  Then, every four years, before an election, we ask the administration who’s asking for another four years, how they did on the scorecard?  Of course we’d want to stick to metrics easily measured and difficult to fudge. A host of domestic and international agencies are well-equipped to make calls like this.  If a concern arose that scores may be less than honest and precise, do what they do at the Olympics: hire a dozen firms, six chosen from each political party and when the ratings come in, throw out the highest and lowest rankings and average the rest. Easy!

Here are some ideas on measurable things that could be on the scorecard:

  • Biggest economy, largest GDP. Rate of Growth.
  • Average household income.
  • Maturity and quality of infrastructure: roads, bridges, electrical and Internet coverage (measured by internet/electrical penetration), etc.
  • Safety of citizens. (Murder, violent crimes, property crimes per 100,000 residents).
  • Access to clean air and water.
  • Health care quality, perhaps measured by average life span of citizens, infant mortality rates, wait times for elective procedures, responsiveness if/when emergencies occur.
  • Amount of freedom citizens have. (Would be interesting to see how the measurements would be developed for this one, but it’s important to nearly all Americans, so needs to be included).
  • Incarcerated citizens per capita. Rates of recidivism. (We want to measure all things that matter, not only the things we know where we’ll do well.)
  • Literacy ranking. Percentage of population graduating high school, college, post college and advanced degree percentages. (While some may or may not think this important, investing in citizen’s education is a metric worth keeping track of.  Are there ways to determine where we stand internationally in math, science, languages, art, music, sports, etc.)
  • Amount of national debt. Owed to US Citizens vs. owed to other countries.

This is just a quick start to provide some ideas.  You might have some as well.  Maybe it eventually leads to the Top 50 (or Top 100) attributes making up a great country.

At the end of their four years in office the President and his administration, would be forced to stand up and say, well, in the area of X we moved from #16 in the world to #9, and in area Y we moved from #4 to #1.  Now, we ran into a problem on item M where we went from #17 in the world to #22, but let me explain what happened and why.

I’ve no idea if New Zealand has any sort of formal scorecard, but I found this video of New Zealand’s Prime Minister summarizing her accomplishments and making the case for another term rather interesting.  If I were a citizen of New Zealand, I think it would make it clear to me if I would want her in office for another two years.  Some will find this compelling and others, repugnant, I suspect. What did you think about her focus? On the right things? Unlike the above clip from a television series, this one is actually the real deal, no high-paid writers, no Aaron Sorkin, just reality.

My hope if this idea got legs and were to come to pass, we would see politicians start to work on the things that help our country with citizens holding them accountable for moving forward and getting things done.  It might very well cause a shift in focus to the things that really matter in government and less on the things that don’t. My two cents and deepest apologies if this is too political.

Epilogue: Everything that happened during Jacinda Ardern’s first two years in office, occurred during her pregnancy and delivery of her first child.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern