When I was a kid, my nickname in my family was Johnny Number 5, after the robot in the 1988 movie Short Circuit who could read a book in seconds.
My earliest memories are of the revolving door, beeswaxed floor and orange plastic chairs of my local library.
My idea of the best possible day out was when I could persuade my dad to take me to James Thin in Edinburgh, where I’d lose myself scouring the shelves, and emerge hungry and dizzy hours later, surprised to return to the real world.
The first time I was allowed to pack for myself to go on holiday, I packed twelve books and no underwear.
All of which is to say, I really love reading. Mostly these days, though, my passion is quite contained and restrained. Reading happens on a commuter train, or for a few minutes at night before I fall asleep, and rarely any at other time.
Except at Christmas, when – in that glorious no-man’s land between one enormous meal and another, when the children and the dog are all otherwise engaged and the email chatter is silent – I can curl up in a chair, and lose myself in a book. Or fourteen…
This year, for some reason, my reading went bonkers. Truly Johnny. I was eating words faster than I was eating mince pies – and that was fast!
The photo at the top shows the books I read over the Christmas break. They are all magical in their own way and each has something special to offer, and so I thought I’d shout them each out separately below – but what this big book binge also reminded me is how exciting it is when reading widely also enables you to make connections between things that you might not otherwise have connected.
And when you can connect the apparently unconnected, well, that’s when new ideas arrive. We know this. It’s exactly what Steve Jobs says in one of his most-quoted quotable quotes:
“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious after awhile. That’s because they were able to synthesize new things.”
So, reading at pace and across a variety of topics felt like a rich wellspring of innovation and creativity. It was messy, and confusing, and volatile – my brain felt a bit like that firework display in Oban a few years ago when everything exploded at once – but it was also beautiful and just so exciting.
Just before the festive break, I came across this Venn diagram (oh how I love a Venn diagram!) from Adam Grant (the King of the Venns) as a neat way to assess how worthwhile a non-fiction book is. I like it a LOT … but the bit I now think it’s missing is the extra dimension overlay of the magic that can happen when you read two books alongside each other, like eating chocolate and crisps together (don’t knock it till you’ve tried it), or bacon and banana (seriously…). You might not get those top left novel insights from one book alone, but rather from the combination.
So, here’s a brief run down of the books I read, and a few examples of learnings that emerged in the overlays….
I started by blowing my mind with The Purpose of Capital by Jed Emerson. This was hard going for me because much of the subject matter is still relatively new to me, but I loved the rigour and the stretch it gave my brain, and the inspiration it gave my soul. Emerson is a leading thinking in the impact economy and presents a brilliantly unified view of the interconnectedness of the economy, society and the natural world that both draws on ancient wisdom and is deeply relevant to this moment.
The Simplicity Principle, by Julia Hobsbawm was the perfect book to follow Emerson, presenting a lovely structure to order thinking (hexagons being almost as much fun as Venn diagrams). It was also a brilliant reminder to escape the clamour and focus on what really matters … as was …
Four Thousand Weeks, by Oliver Burkeman – which went a long way to answering a question I’ve been asking myself for ages about how to live a meaningful, purposeful, impactful life while avoiding the productivity trap. It also contains a compellingly and moving argument for the power and importance of embracing limitations …
Which is also the main theme of Stretch by Scott Sonenshein, which is an inspiring treatise on why being resourceful with what you’ve got is so much more worthwhile and rewarding, and leads to much more creative outcomes, than a posture of always chasing down more. That message encourages gratitude and appreciation …
And so, too, does Kate Bowler’s memoir No Cure For Being Human, which gently and beautifully dismantles the myth that we can have it all and constantly live our ‘best life now’, and reminds us that we are all together on this incurable adventure called life and shows us how to begin to embrace the whole messy experience.
Wintering, by Katherine May, works on a similar part of us, focusing on those seasons in our lives where we need to retreat to care for and repair ourselves, and, like Burkeman, delivering a strong challenge to our culture of constant productivity.
Bowler and May both deliver their messages by way of memoir, as does Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement in Unbound. The power of Burke’s book is in how she weaves together the intensely personal and the powerfully political …
And Pragya Agarwal also masters this in (M)otherhood, which is a brilliant critique of the socio-economic and political factors that drive how we treat women and mothers in society. Her rigorously researched arguments are made even more impactful by the inclusion of her own story.
Annette Simmons’s new book Drinking from a Different Well is about just that – the power of women’s stories to change the leadership paradigms we all subscribe to by challenging how we think about power and influence.
Good Talk by Mira Jacobs is the only graphic novel – or rather memoir – on my list (this is a relatively new genre for me, encouraged by my littlest boy who is dyslexic and loves consuming stories this way), and by simply telling her story she presents one of the most powerful books about race I have ever read.
If the need to tell our story is central to the human experience, so, too, is the need to be listened to, and that’s the central takeaway from the latest book by coaching guru Jenny Rogers, Are You Listening?
The other book about coaching on my list, Helping People Change by Richard Boyatzis, Melvin Smith and Ellen Van Oosten, also centres people’s stories and presents a great model for how coaching centred on a person’s future vision can be transformational.
That frame for coaching is rooted in positive psychology and helps us to overcome our limiting beliefs and fears – also the subject of Fear Less by the wonderful Dr Pippa Grange. Her book’s main trick is to so normalise fear that it sort of dissipates and skulks off in the face of the open hearted connected posture that Grange advocates for.
And finally, when we are afraid, or suffering, or seeking inspiration, or just full of gratitude, many of us turn to prayer or its equivalent, and the book of Daily Prayer by the wonderful Irish poet Padraig O’Tuama is one of the most beautiful and inclusive I’ve ever read.