The summer reading list is a time-honored tradition (dating back to 1894, apparently). Puritanical as Americans are, we can’t simply enjoy a vacation and read trashy novels. Instead, we’re expected to lug some tome to the beach and Improve Ourselves, even though it’s too dark to read through sunglasses, the book is too heavy to hold far enough away from our aging eyes to focus on it, and we get SPF 45 and sand stuck on the pages.
There’s certainly no shortage of prospects for summer books, either; everyone from Bill Gates to GE to business owners to small business owners to marketers to geek technologists to a group of TED speakers has released their own list. Naturally, there’s been particular interest in Bill’s, because of course if we read the same books he does, we’ll all also become multibillionaires.
People are also interested in what Bill’s reading because, when he gets inspired by a book, he can do something about it. “The thing with Gates, though is that while you and I and your be-Dockered dad read books about oh, say, school reform, and think ‘Hm, that’s interesting! Ah well, back to impotent wage slavery and thence the grave!’ Gates reads those books and thinks ‘Hm that’s interesting! I wonder if tossing this author headfirst into a vast pit of cash as if she were some kind of lispless Scrooge McDuck will solve this problem?’” writes Dustin Kurtz at publisher Melville House. “Because of that, knowing what Bill ‘Fat Stacks’ Gates is reading is a pretty interesting bellwether for where we might see some heavy philanthropic attention in the coming year.”
That said, we would be remiss if we didn’t put forth our own prospects for the tome-worthy.
- 1491: The various catastrophe books by Jared Diamond tend to be popular on these lists. 1491, by Charles Mann, is another of the same ilk, all about the civilizations that peopled the Americas before Europeans came and killed them all with terrible diseases. There’s also a sequel, 1493.
- Influence: This book also happened to be on a list of books for business leaders from the University of Maryland School of Business. “Influence by Robert Cialdini is the classic reference on how to sell,” says Brent Goldfarb, associate professor of management and entrepreneurship at the school. Cialdini organizes compliance techniques into six categories based on psychological principles that direct human behavior: reciprocation, consistency, social proof, liking, authority and scarcity. “Based on rigorous academic research, the book helps one understand why people say ‘yes’ and how to apply this information,” says Goldfarb.” Honestly, it’s more interesting than he makes it sound.
- The Evolution of Cooperation: Using the game theory classic Prisoners’ Dilemma, this book talks about how people work together and how to get it to happen better. (It goes well with Cialdini.)
- The Rise of the Creative Class: Richard Florida’s seminal work is what made everyone decide they were actually a “knowledge worker.” That said, it’s an interesting description of the knowledge economy and in particular how the U.S. changed from a place where people moved to where the jobs were to the jobs moving where the people were.
- Bowling Alone: Around the time when people all decided they were creative knowledge workers, they also quit getting together in groups in their communities (including bowling leagues, hence the title). Ever wonder why the same ten people show up for all the community meetings and PTAs, and why it’s so hard to find Scout leaders these days? This book explains why. (Though we’re seeing some pendulum swing the other way, with groups such as Meetups and the grassroots efforts of the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns. And do online groups count? Discuss.)
- Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping: Ever wonder why stores are set up the way they are? Wonder no longer. It’d be interesting, though, to see an expansion of the chapter on “cybershopping,” which makes the book sound positively ancient.
- Going to Extremes: Regardless of your political views, you may have noticed that people of all political persuasions are less and less willing to compromise, and persist in their own views even when confronted with facts to the contrary. Indeed, they may hold to their views even more strongly. This book explains why and what to do about it.
- Accidental Empires: If you’ve ever wondered about the very, very beginnings of Silicon Valley, here it is, written by one of the people who was the gossip columnist for InfoWorld at the time. (If you saw Triumph of the Nerds on PBS, it was based on this.)
- Inside the Tornado: This book, the second in a series, explores how a company can become innovative — but not too innovative. “The problem with breakthrough technological innovations that create a new market is that the market doesn’t really exist if you’re the only one in there,” notes reviewer Dave Concannon. “Without competitors you’re just a weird little company doing something a little crazy.” And in addition to tornadoes, it also uses metaphors of bowling alleys, Main Street, gorillas, chimps, and monkeys.
- Traffic: Dangerous roads are actually safer. More warning signs make the road more dangerous and increasing the speed limit can actually make driving safer. The book also takes a look at how different people in different parts of the world drive. It’ll be good preparation for the ride home from the beach.
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