How to see things differently... with the books
A few years ago, a client, who I suspect was going through a midlife crisis asked me: “When was the last time you did something different?”. I looked at him blankly, as the answer seemed so obvious: “The last time I started a new book”. I still find it amazing that a combination of symbols on a printed page should have the capacity to transport me to another world, or to bring into my own concepts and ideas that can change the way I see and understand things. So, at a time when we struggle to find a gift with some meaning, here are some of the books I have read recently that have made me see things differently.
If I had only one recommendation to make, this would be it: “A Short History of Nearly Everything”, by well-known travel writer Bill Bryson. I bought a physical copy some years ago, but had only managed to read the introduction, and the first somewhat forbidding chapter explaining the beginning of the universe. But an audio version got me going again, and persistence was richly rewarded. Very quickly, successive chapters evolve into an investigation of the nature of our universe and the planet we reside on, and into the fascinating stories of those who endeavour to work it all out for us.
“A Short History” is not a short book, but it manages to condense a huge amount of science, history and personal biography in a way that is not only educational, but also highly amusing. It will feed your curiosity and wonder about the physical and natural world and ignite your admiration for the weird and wonderful people whose efforts have allowed not just greater understanding, but the also the technological progress we take for granted.
Less enjoyable, but still worthy of inclusion, is another “brief history”: Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens” . His tone is irritating, and some of his thesis distinctly uncomfortable, but the framework he provides for understanding the processes behind human history make it a compelling read. His contention is that our imagination is what differentiates us from other animals, allowing us to be driven by factors other than the biological drive for survival. Imagination, he posits, permits common beliefs to take hold, and these enable fellowship and cooperation between humans unconnected by family bonds. According to Harari, these shared beliefs -including religion, ethical values, economic and political ideas, the rule of law, and so on- are just convenient human constructs for organizing ourselves and our understanding of the world. While a difficult concept for some to accept, it helps to understand the powerful force of narratives such as nationalism, and thus offers a necessary antidote to fundamentalism and fanaticism of any kind.
Next up are two medical histories. While not everyone shares my fascination with the medical world, both these books do much more than describe the history of a disease and its treatment. They combine the human stories of doctors, research scientists and patients with fascinating explanations of the biological structures and processes each of them is addressing.
The first, and perhaps most impressive, is “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer” by Siddhartha Mukherjee, an American oncologist. He calls it a “biography”, but it reads like a compulsive detective story. With rich literary and historical references, he recounts how the pursuit of answers to the questions of what cancer is, what causes it, and how to treat it, have evolved over time. Journalist Thomas Morris has done something similar with “The Matter of the Heart: A History of the Heart in Eleven Operations”, also surprising the reader with the fact that our capacity to understand and treat many diseases is so recent.
Both books are worth reading for their inspiring illustration of the process of scientific discovery. They show how curiosity, brilliance, dogged determination, patience and risk-taking have to battle against received wisdom, fear of failure, inflated egos and general lack of understanding in order to break new ground. And there is no steady upward path: many false starts, wrong turnings and dead ends are faced before progress takes place. Equally, both illustrate that these efforts do not occur in a vacuum: certain cultural, academic, political and economic conditions are necessary for science to advance. It remains a sobering fact that a disproportionate amount of this research takes place in the U.S. and a smattering of other countries.
And to finish up, a really upbeat, insightful and inspiring business book. It is interesting that with the press ensnared by the bad news that seems to be endemic to politics (and has been specially fraught this year), business stories offer a more optimistic message. I think this is because they reflect not just the dreams and ambitions of founders or managers, but they also offer a practical guide to coping with the difficulties and challenges faced in making their businesses work.
Lawrence Levy was a highly successful, Harvard-trained lawyer specialising in the technology sector, when in 1994 he got a call from a disinflated Steve Jobs to help him bring his floundering investment in Pixar to life. In “To Pixar and Beyond: My Unlikely Journey With Steve Jobs to Make Entertainment History”. Levy tells the story of how a $50 million investment was valued at $1.5 billion in its 1995 IPO and was finally sold to Disney for $7.6bn in 2006.
This feat required much more than finding a business case for Pixar and managing its finances. As Levy recounts, it was essentially a humbling and at times gruelling learning experience: not only was the new medium of computer generated animation untested in feature-length films, but the business and legal practices of the Hollywood to which Pixar had tied its fortunes a completely different set-up to the Silicon Valley tech world where Jobs and the Pixar team were nurtured. Further, the personal agendas of Pixar’s owner had to be aligned with those of its creative team in order to move the projects and the company forward. And finally, to achieve Jobs’s ambition of a stock market listing for a company just launching its first film, he had to find and convince the right financial partners that this creative venture would become a sustainable business. Levy recounts his contribution to this process in an unusually modest and candid manner, and to anyone interested in what it takes to build a fantastic creative business, it is makes fascinating reading.
Does a Pixar film represent progress? It may not rate as highly as discovering the laws of thermodynamics, landing man on the moon or finding a cure for cancer, but anyone who has seen Buzz Lightyear’s flamenco dance must surely also see that it is triumph of human ingenuity and imagination. In the spirit of Christmas, let us concentrate on the bright side of what the human mind can appreciate, understand and achieve. And if a book is able to make us do any of these, that is surely an achievement worth sharing.