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Summer Reading List: Blasts from the Past

2011 May 29
by Greg Satell

Winter is gone and summer is here!  Time to hit the beaches, refresh, re-energize and have some fun!

It’s also a good time to catch up on some reading, but before you go and waste good time and money on some jackass of the hour making the rounds of the talk show circuit, think again.
You might be better off reading something that has stood the test of time.  There are many great books, full of wisdom and available in paperback (always a plus in these trying times).  So here’s a list of edifying, yet thoroughly enjoyable reads that are a decade old or more.

General Business

CEO memoirs are always hit and miss (and usually more miss).  A chief executive’s ego often lends itself more towards self-aggrandization than to the introspection required for good writing.  However, Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance about Lou Gerster’s turnaround of IBM and Only the Paranoid Survive by Intel’s Andy Grove are both excellent and instructive.

Summer is also a good time to develop your overall knowledge and skills.  Dixit and Nalebuff’s Thinking Strategically provides a useful guide to game theory and Nobel prizewinning economist Thomas Schelling offers a more technical, but still readable account in The Strategy of Conflict.

What Management Is, by Harvard’s Joan Magretta, gives you all the benefits of an MBA without the student loans and while Steven J. Gould was a biologist, not a businessman, his book Full House is a interesting and fun way to learn basic statistical and analytical concepts.

If you’re looking for something more industry specific, Bruce Wasserstein provides a fantastic (albeit lengthy) overview of finance in Big Deal, while Kotler on Marketing and Ogilvy on Advertising are timeless must-read primers.  John Grant’s New Marketing Manifesto isn’t so new anymore, but its concepts are still cutting edge.

Of course, no list of classic business books would be complete without Peter Drucker.  All of his books are worthwhile, but The Effective Executive is a personal favorite of mine.  However, I would recommend even more highly his autobiographical Adventures of a Bystander. An absolute delight!

Technology, Innovation and Creativity

As our lives become increasingly digital, interest has understandably grown in technology and innovation.  There have been a slew of books out in recent years covering these topics.  Some are excellent, but most are crap. You might think that to understand the incredible changes underway you have to read something recent, but you’d be wrong.

The best (and most readable) thing you can read about the Web, even the Semantic Web, is still Weaving the Web, by Tim Berners-Lee, the guy who invented the thing.  John Naughton’s A Brief History of the Future gives a comprehensive account of how the Internet developed  and Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media seems as insightful today as it was when he wrote in 1964.

Of course, many of the trendy tech ideas bandied around today are anything but new.  Thomas Kuhn coined the term “paradigm shift” in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1962.  Richard Dawkins came up with the meme concept back in 1976 in The Selfish Gene.

Interested in disruptive innovation? Clayton Christensen’s coined the term in his 1997 book The Innovator’s Dilemma, which remains the absolute best source on the subject.

Want to understand nanotechnology?  Print out and read Richard Feynman’s 1959 talk There’s Plenty of Room at The Bottom in which he lays it all out in his clear, entertaining style.  Amazing!

Finally, if you want to know how to unlock creativity, Robert Weisberg’s Creativity: Beyond the Myth of Genius is a little known gem and Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things remains the ultimate guide to user experience.

Chaos, Complexity and Networks

As barriers break down and the marketplace becomes more frictionless, we need to manage with a greater understanding of complex systems.  This is a new and emerging area, but yet again there’s a lot of value in seeking wisdom from the past.

E. O. Wilson seemed to see it all coming in Consilence, while Peter Bernstein gives a historical, albeit Gaussian account in Against The Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk.

James Gleick’s Chaos chronicles the development of the new science that Benoit Mandelbrot helped to pioneer.  However, the great man didn’t come up with an account readable for laymen until 2006, so I’m going to have to cheat and recommend The (Mis)Behavior of Markets (although it covers his work from the 1960’s, so I don’t feel so bad).

Of course, the most salient aspect of chaos and complexity these days is network theory. Alas, the basic principles weren’t uncovered until 1998, so I’m going to have to nudge the 10-year rule a bit again.  Nevertheless, Duncan Watts’ Six Degrees and Albert-László Barabási’s Linked both predate Facebook and remain the best (and most readable) books on the subject by far.

Timeless Classics

Ever wanted to know what it would be like to peer into the mind of a genius?  No need to be afraid.  Richard Feynman’s Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman and G. H. Hardy’s A Mathematicians Apology are short, entertaining books that you can polish of in a weekend but will change your thinking for life.

If you’re feeling in a philosophical mood, you might want to pick up Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy.  It’s massive but modular and written in his clear, witty style so it’s perfectly suitable to read a section or two between dips in the ocean.  Godel’s Proof is more challenging, but wholly worth the effort.

To round out the list, I can enthusiastically recommend Robert Heilbroner’s classic survey of history’s great economists, The Worldly Philosophers and Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel.

I’m sure I’ve left some out and am also putting together my own list to read over the summer.  So feel free to leave your suggestions in the comments below.

– Greg

10 Responses leave one →
  1. May 29, 2011

    I think you should add ‘The Long Tail’ by Chris Andersen and Sylvia Nasser’s biography on John Nash – ‘ A Beautiful Mind’ to this list. Even ‘ The Pursuit of Happyness’ is good. Both the latter two have been made into wonderful films as well but reading the books are a must.

  2. May 29, 2011


    Thanks. I’ve read the first two and they are excellent (although I left out The Long Tail because it’s fairly recent). I’ve been meaning to pick up The Pursuit of Happiness. Thanks for reminding me.

    Have a great summer!

    – Greg

  3. Michael Liebowitz permalink
    May 30, 2011

    I was happy to see “Ogilvy On Advertising” on your timeless classics list. As insightful as it is, my favorite part is the list near the end where Ogilvy gives his predictions for the future of advertising. One was that billboards would disappear. Another was that political ads would become more civilized. Even legends can be wrong once in awhile!

  4. May 30, 2011


  5. June 2, 2011

    What a selection, very nice…

    It’s funny that sometimes you don’t have to read the book when you have a curator telling us their story through their own words.

    For the past year following your thought process through your blogs a specific quote came to mind…

    The learner always begins by finding fault, but the scholar sees the positive merit in everything.
    Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

    From hyped up scenarios, myths, exaggerations, opinions to fact based evidence, you’ve demonstrated that you can find fault yet provide constructive criticism.

    I respect that.

    If there’s a book I can recommend it’s The new Psychology of Success, she breaks it p into two Mindsets, Growth and Fixed, what I like about it is the examples she uses talking about Lee Iacocca and his “faults” with Chrysler.

    From education, business, personal, it’s a great book that in some ways should “smack” the attachment right out of you….

    Moral of commentary is learning and growing…
    Have a great summer.

  6. June 2, 2011

    Thanks Spiro! I’ll be sure and check it out.

    – Greg

  7. Robert H. permalink
    June 13, 2011

    Off the top of my head I’d have to say the best two books I’ve read were Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” (“Not much about Zen and not much about Motorcycles”, or something like that). What it *is* about is a fundamental idea of Quality.

    And Hofstadter’s “Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid” is a delight.

  8. June 13, 2011


    I’ve read “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” and it’s a true classic. I haven’t gotten around to Hofstadter’s book, but it keeps popping up in footnotes in other books about complexity and emergence so it’s on my Amazon list. Thanks for reminding me!

    – Greg

  9. Robert H. permalink
    June 13, 2011

    Did you know that after about 15 years he came out with a sequel? Don’t like it as much as the first one but it’s still very good.


  10. June 13, 2011

    That I didn’t know. Thanks!

    – Greg

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