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Summer Reading List: Big Ideas Explained Simply

2015 June 7
by Greg Satell

Most of the year is pretty hectic.  We spend our time huddled inside, running to meetings and putting out fires. Summer, however, offers the opportunity for some relaxation.  Even a few hours on the beach or by the pool can give us some much needed time to reflect on the big ideas.

But not that much time.  Even in the summer, we still have responsibilities that demand our time and attention.  It’s not like we’re back in college and can spend all night pushing through some massive tome, or discussing the finer points with a group of friends.

Luckily, there are some books that explain big ideas in simple, everyday language.  They’re not dumbed down versions of other books, but are original, insightful and get right to the heart of the matter.  So if you want to expand your mind this summer, it doesn’t have to be painful.  Theses books are about powerful ideas, but are also a joy to read.


The Art of Strategy by Avinash K. Dixit and Barry J. Nalebuff

The untimely death of John Nash made headlines recently.  As the subject of the hit movie, A Beautiful Mind, many people have a vague idea about Nash’s life story—a brilliant mathematician who was eventually institutionalized for schizophrenia—but very few actually understand his work.

In academic circles, Nash is best known for the Nash equilibrium, one of the central tenets of game theory.  It is the point in a negotiation at which no party can change their position without making someone worse off.  In other words, there’s always an optimal strategy, you just need to find it.

Unfortunately, most books explaining game theory are nearly impenetrable.  This book, however, explains the Nash equilibrium, as well as many other important game theory concepts, in an incredibly accessible way.  Even better, it applies the principles to everyday business situations.


The Healing of America by T.R. Reid

The heated battle over healthcare in America continues, with a major challenge to Obamacare coming up in the Supreme Court.  Yet whatever the outcome, the US healthcare system will still vastly underperform the rest of the world.  We pay almost twice as much as other developed countries for our healthcare and still get worse results.

It’s a hard debate to follow, because heathcare itself is so complicated.  Yet this book by long time Washington Post journalist T. R. Reid does an amazing job of laying out the issues.  It reads like a travelogue, as the author travels the world getting his bum shoulder checked out and explaining how each healthcare system works.

Although the book was written before the Affordable Care Act was enacted and so does not address it, it’s still very helpful for understanding the issues and is a great read too.


Physics for Future Presidentsby Richard A. Muller

It’s strange that it’s become so fashionable for politicians to say that they aren’t scientists. Certainly, you don’t hear elected officials proudly proclaiming “I’m not a General” or “I’m not an economist” when related issues come up.  What they’re counting on is that most people are confused by science and won’t penalize them for their ignorance.

Unfortunately, many of the great issues of the day are scientific.  Nuclear terrorism, climate change and clean energy, just to name a few, are all things that require some scientific knowledge to think about intelligently.  This book, written by a physicist at Cal Berkeley explains the basic concepts in an incredibly accessible way.


Wittgenstein’s Poker by David Edmonds and John Eidinow

Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper were two of the great philosophers of the 20th century. Yet although they both grew up in Vienna and eventually settled in England, they only met once.  The story, which involved one threatening the other with a red hot poker, is one for the ages.

This book tells that story as well as those of the incredible lives and impact of the two men.  If you’re interested in history or philosophy, this is a must read.  It’s a fun and engaging story, very well told and also does a great job of explaining the ideas of Popper and Wittgenstein in simple, but clear language.


Six Degrees by Duncan Watts

Today everything seems to revolve around networks.  From social platforms to networked organizations, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that formal structure isn’t nearly as important as the tangle of connections that links everything together.

In the late 90’s, Duncan Watts was a pioneer in uncovering how these networks function  In this book, he tells the story of his discovery of small world networks and how they affect us.  Watts, now a principal researcher at Microsoft, also explains how they apply to a wide range of topics from pop culture to economics.

It’s a fascinating book and one of my all time favorites.
A Mathematician’s Apology by G.H. Hardy

G.H. Hardy was undoubtedly one of the great minds of the early 20th century (and also the discoverer of Ramanujan).  In this wonderful little memoir, he endeavors to make the case for a life spent proving obscure theorems with little or no practical applications (or so he thought at the time).  He does so with remarkable wit and clarity.

This one is very short, about a hundred pages, and beautifully written.  It’s the type of thing that you can polish off easily in a single weekend or even in an afternoon and it’s more than worth it.  You wouldn’t think that a book by a numbers theorist would be so engrossing, but this is one of my favorite books ever.


The Innovator’s Solution by Clayton Christensen

Christensen is best known for his ideas about disruptive innovation explained in his first book, The Innovator’s Dilemma.  Yet in many ways, this one is better.  While his earlier work was more focused on proving his case, this one explains the principles with much better clarity.  He wrote it six years after the first one, so he had some time to clarify his thoughts.

Another advantage of this book over its predecessor is that it applies Christensen’s principles to business strategy, rather than just innovation per se.  So it’s much more of a practical guide than merely an explanation of a theory.


Full House by Stephen Jay Gould

Stephen J. Gould became famous as a biologist, but this book has relevance far beyond his chosen field, or even science generally.  It is probably best understood as a guide to understanding data, using examples ranging from baseball to evolution.

It begins with a trip to the doctor’s office where Mr. Gould is diagnosed with cancer. When he asks about the prognosis, he is told that the average person with his condition has only 8 months to live.  Depressed, he returns home and starts to wonder what the doctor meant by “average” and realizes that his chances might not be so bad after all (they weren’t, he lived another two decades before his death in 2002).

I first read this book almost twenty years ago and it was what first got me interested in data analysis.  So if you want an easy guide with interesting examples and no Greek letter formulas, you might want to check this out.


Weaving the Web by Tim Berners-Lee

There are a lot of books about the Web, but only one by the guy who invented it, Tim Berners-Lee.  Published back in 2000, he not only shares his vision for the first Web, but also for the Semantic Web that is just gaining traction now.

However, it’s more than just a technology book, it is also a personal memoir.  He not only chronicles events, but shares what he was thinking and feeling when they happened—how he struggled to get his idea adopted by others, before he went and built it himself—and touches personal details such as the birth of his children.

If you are at all interested in digital technology, this is one you have to read


What Management Is by Joan Magretta

Joan Magretta is a both a business school professor and a former editor at The Harvard Business Review.  This book, endorsed by people like Peter Drucker and Michael Porter, does an amazing job of boiling down an entire MBA’s worth of concepts into a very simple, compelling guide.

It’s a great book.   Even if you’re already familiar with the concepts, she uses such vivid examples that you see them in a new light and if you’re new to management strategy concepts, then you won’t find a better primer.
So that’s my reading list for this summer.  If you’d like to buy one of the books, the links above will take you straight to their Amazon page.  Please also feel free to give me suggestions for my summer reading in the comments below.

Have a great summer!

– Greg

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