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Book Recommendations and Reviews, January/Feb 2012

I’ve read a few books already this year, here are the highlights:

My Bondage and My Freedom: Frederick Douglass. (free) This one is one of those books that I wish I had read years ago. It works on so many levels. First, as a history of America in the mid 19th century, it has details about our country and its working class. Second, as a real depiction of slavery. We read about it in social studies in high school. We see grim pictures of slave ships with people tied to the beds.

We don’t know just how horrific it is on a human, individual level. In the same way that The Diary of Anne Frank taught us that people’s children, families were murdered in Nazi Germany, this depicts the real violence that was slavery. I had never understood it, and even the constant drumbeat of “hey, were YOU whipped? No? Get over it,” had sort of begun to resonate.

But slavery blighted generations, it was a profound horror. It was more than that.

But the most important part of this was Frederick Douglass retained his innocence and sense of wonder. His love for man. He wasn’t bitter and cynical. He was whipped, beaten and worse. And he retained good spirits. He could easily recall how wonderful things were in childhood, and that sense of wonder was easily seen.

He loved his family, and his children. He’s comparatively restrained towards his former masters.

Shadow Ops: Control Point Myke Cole. Years ago, Myke was a roommate of mine at GW He was the first non Midwesterner I ever knew and he seemed to me to be so exotic and fascinating. I keep tabs on people (which is why Facebook is hazardous to me- I had thousands of people, virtually all of whom I knew at one point, and I had to dump people). I saw he was writing a book, so I grabbed a copy.

Turns out he’s written an epic monster of a book that should be the next Harry Potter series if Penguin doesn’t screw up the marketing. I hope that they realize what they have. It’s grounded like Star Wars and it’s got relatable rules. The craftsmanship of the story is on the very highest order.

The book, compared to any fantasy of the type I’ve read is nuanced, and the characters are realistic. Cole’s world has rules that make sense. There are military ideas: Skill beats will and the storytelling is absolutely first class.

I hope for the very best for this thing, and I’m happy to have a friend with what should be movies and more that we get to watch.

The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival: John Vaillant. Wow. This was one of the most impressive modern books I’ve ever read. The number of books that you’d have to read and learn to know enough to be able to write this persuasively and fluently is simply staggering. This is a masterpiece of a tale involving perestroika, Amur tigers, poaching, hunting, Siberia revenge and survival. The pacing is masterful, and I’ve ordered everything that John Vaillant has read.

I was telling my kids of all of the shocking things that a tiger can do, and I don’t want to spoil it, but tigers are hunting machines of monstrous proportions.

The Lean Startup- Eric Reis:This is a fantastic book and we’re implementing many lean ideas into Simplifilm. The first thing we began to do was professionalize our website, and the next thing we’re doing is testing more. This is a framework for thinking about testing.

The phrase here that I just loved was “Shame on us for making it easy for you to break something.” That whole ethos is a fantastic way to view the world, and I Kindleized The Toyota Way.

There’s a culture of cowardice and not wanting to rock the boat. A new employee tries something new or different and it doesn’t work. Generally they are shamed from having balls in the future. This idea – that we need to have systems that are robust enough so that one new hire can’t hurt them – should have been beyond obvious.

Story: Substance, Structure and the Style and Principles of Screenwriting- Robert Mckee: I started this book ages ago, started to annotate it and then lost it. I wasn’t kindle-dependent then, as I am now. I was happy when I found it sitting under my bedside table after probably 4 months of disuse. This dissects the formulas of Hollywood type movies, and it teaches how to tell a story that matters. One of the best ideas we have is that understanding the structure enables us to express ideas. Where’s the conflict? Why does it matter? How do we describe it? What are the units (beats, scenes, acts). All of that is useful to construct something. We don’t want to be pedantic about it. There is a lot of jargon in here, but understanding the construction of a story, and the conflict that exists within is useful. Without mastery of this form, though, it seems that it would be easy to get into a paint-by-numbers exercise involving beats and scenes. This book is important enough to be heavily leaned on in Made To Stick.

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt: Edmund Morris Another one I got from Ryan Holiday’s reading list (go ahead, subscribe, it’s fantastic). It serves to help you understand how America was around the turn of the century. Here was a guy that was both a scholar and an Earnest Hemingway outdoorsman, sportsman and more. This talks about his unlikely journey to the presidency and makes him very alive and real. The vigor of the man is impressive, and it made me want to stop reading and just go make stuff. But, it turns out that TR wasn’t a slouch as scholar, either.

The Flinch: Julien Smith: This is mainly a long blog post made into a Domino book. Seth Godin said it was quite important. It’s fair. It was free at the time I got it, and it’s a short read. The gist is that we flinch too much because we’re afraid of pain we have yet to experience. My beef with it is that it’s commentary without being backed by solid source material. I wasn’t thoroughly convinced that this was all factual stuff. I might have liked this better, had I not just read….

The 50th Law: Robert Greene and 50 CentI blew this book off at first, i’ve never been a giant ‘fiddy’ fan. Compared to the Flinch, it’s a masterpiece. It’s fully accessible, and it’s another “don’t be afraid” book. It’s quite obvious that the world is changing. Being afraid of that isn’t going to help us cope with it, we have to act now, while people are timid. The thing I liked about it was that it used a lot of the persuasion found in Internet Marketing, without trying to ‘sell’ us anything directly.

Confessions of an Advertising Man: David Ogilvy Before I had a kindle, I was snobby about reading in hard copy. I liked a BOOK. Now that I have a kindle, I have avoided books that are not yet on Kindle. This is currently in that category. It’s funny, I think that I read this at first in 2000 or 2001. I found my way back after reading a ton of copywriting books. (Caples, Schwartz, Sugarman etc–I’ll have a copywriting post shortly). The book is largely about salesmanship itself, as opposed to advertising. Ogilvy cut his teeth a door to door salesperson. Part of me wants to sell used cars, just for the experience and hustle of it. People hate you, think they’re about to get hustled, and get hustled anyway. That dynamic is fascinating. I have the same fascination with Amway type network marketing. Maybe I’ll get around to the used car schtick next summer (2013). I don’t think that I’ll ever do the Amway stuff.

Peter The Great: Robert K. Massie: I had started this book in college, and I put it away. I found it cheap somewhere, so I went ahead and got it. It tells a history of Russia that I had to know after I had read The Tiger. I didn’t love it, it was too long by half, and the writing was undisciplined. It was trying too hard to be a novel. I guess this became a mini-series, and was an important book because it was one of the first “novelized” biographies. I found myself skimming long exposition and trying to mine the thing for content and facts. I know a bit more about Peter.

A Consise History Of The Russian Revolution: Richard Pipes: The Tiger (above) got me all curious about Russia, so I returned to this book I had started but never finished. The thing that we have to get is that the course of human history was brutal. Death, scourges, genetic cleansing. Starvation. Rape. Americans are lucky that our wealth has sheltered us from a lot of that. Humans have killed the hell out of each other. This book covers how the Russians did it. Apparently it is controversial, but I’m not qualified to really asses that. We live in times that have – relative to the preceding course of human history – not a lot of that stuff happening. I think of my children, and raising my family in an environment like the US Civil War, or the russian history.

The Culture of Fear: Why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Things Barry Glassner. My friend Eric Bramlett sent this to me some time ago, and I finally got around to reading it. This would have been a better book if not for the fact that Glassner had a liberal, anti-Fox news agenda. I’m obviously libertarian and I won’t bother hiding my bias. It makes me crazy when the left and right take an idea and try hard to propagandize it. Generally, the right is worse (see: the Drudge Report, Pajamas Media, Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity) but this was an echo of Fahrenheit 9/11. The truth is bad. I wished that Fahrenheit 9-11 wasn’t so full of lies because had Michael Moore told the real truth in an accurate fashion, Bush might have been defeated. Instead, all of the enemies of the war were able to discredit the work that Michael Moore did. Lies weaken the case, and the need to tell a story/fit a narrative makes for compromised, undermined writing. This is a book that could have been great, but the Author was trying to do something.

That’s it for me for this month or so. I’ve got great stuff on my list, some business type books and more.

I try to read 6-8 books every month, so that means that I have to be methodical about it. I alternate long and short to keep up. I start my morning by deciding how far I need to get in each book. The time finds itself, the balance comes from when I used to watch TV, play video games or whatever.

Each month, I try to read at least1 biography, 1 cultural classic, 1 business book, 1 fiction book. After that, I just read more, making an effort to keep up and comprehend what I’ve read. Almost every day I read from Meditations for a few moments (generally one of the 12 chapters).

Reading is changing my life more than anything that I’ve ever done, any habit I’ve acquired. I’ve tried them all, affirmations, journaling, meditation, prayer. Reading gets new material mixing with you. You see the best examples from human history, and how hard they worked. You do likewise. You see the sentence structures of powerful, amazing writers, and you think how hard it must have been to get good enough to write that stuff.

The upcoming books: The Autobiography of Malcolm X, The Startup of You, Inside Apple. Search Engine Advertising (Kevin Lee and Catherine Seda) The Power of Un-Popular, I Will Teach You To Be Rich. Maybe the Bialy Pimps if I get to it or need to lighten up.