One of the reasons I started this blog is because I wanted to keep track of, comment on and discuss my latest obsession. Over the last couple months I’ve been really making an effort to spend a lot less of my time mindlessly refreshing Twitter, Instagram and Facebook and a lot more time reading.
I’m busy just like everybody else so I’ve even taken some pretty drastic measures to increase my productivity. I now keep my phone on “do not disturb” mode 90% of the time. This feature (which you can turn on in the “settings” section of your iPhone) is incredibly useful. When I’ve got it on, nobody can bother me; I can only bother myself. I’ve taken to leaving my phone in the car for 4 or 5 hours at a time, something that I could have never imagined even just a few years ago. And now whenever I’m working online, I close out of Facebook and Twitter unless I’m actively using them because I find the constant notifications distracting.
I’ve also taken to dedicating entire days to reading. When I don’t go out riding I try and get all my work done by 1 or 2 PM so that I can spend 3 or 4 hours reading. At first I couldn’t go much longer than an hour but now I rarely tap out before the 3 hour mark. My concentration is increasing steadily and it’s kind of exciting, like setting a personal record at the gym every time I spend a whole afternoon lost in a book.
Anyway here are the 5 most recent books I’ve read. I don’t read for relaxation or enjoyment, I read because I want to become smarter and more well informed. I’m writing about books because I want to share them and hopefully get more of my readers interested in self-education.
Teenage: The Prehistory of Youth Culture: 1875-1945 by Jon Savage
I actually found out about this book while Googling a friend’s clothing line. I saw “the creation of youth culture” and my ears perked up (it’s not hard a stretch to say that any book on this topic relates to my career). Written by Jon Savage, the author of England’s Dreaming,Teenage traces the history of the word “teenager” from it’s inception and it provides a fascinating look into the Western world’s relationship with the concept of youth. The chapters alternate between Britain, Germany and America as trends pass from one to the other and wars shape their collective experience.
I found Teenage captivating and it left me eager to gain a more complete knowledge of US history. It’s not particularly long (450 pages) but it’s so dense that it can be hard to get through at times (if you’re anything like me you’ll probably end up Googling dozens of people, places and things that you aren’t familiar with). If you stick with it, you’ll gain a real understanding about how the very notion of youth has changed in the last 150 years. The pragmatic value of understanding how advertisers think about young people can’t be overstated.
Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger
I got a big shipment of books in from Amazon and out of the pack, this one stood out to me so I grabbed it first.
It sucks. Jonah’s analysis of why things go viral is full of cliche examples, most of which you’ve surely heard before. You know that Malcom Gladwell/Freakonomics “A-ha!” technique where an author brings together two stories and uses one to explain the other in an utterly unexpected way? Jonah tries to pull that off repeatedly in here and he fails more than he succeeds
Why did the Livestrong bracelets succeed? They were bright yellow causing people to talk about them a lot.
Why do people talk about Honey Nut Cheerios more than Disney World? Because you eat breakfast every day and you only go on vacation once a year.
The Budweiser “Wassup?” ads are better than the Geico “Caveman” ads because people greet each other a lot more than they talk about cavemen.
These, and other weak examples of virality get trotted out over and over but I never found myself impressed. Even someone who isn’t particularly well read on marketing probably won’t find any of these conclusions convincing, nevermind useful.
If you’ve never spent any time reading about how ideas spread online, you might find this interesting. But if you’re looking for something more advanced, you’ll probably be let down. Or maybe it was just me; this book has 81 5 star reviews on Amazon and essentially no negative reviews. Either way I ended up skimming through half the book and I wouldn’t recommend it. If you want to read a book about this sort of thing, get Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator, which is stuffed with revealing tales of how the media works.
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
When I started this blog I thought I would be writing posts every day because, well, I have a lot to say. But I’ve found writing far more difficult than I ever would have expected. So I bought a bunch of books about the craft and this is the first one I read.
I’ve never opened a Stephen King novel before but based on this memoir it’s easy to see why he’s become a legend in his field; he’s got an amazing grasp of the English language and he treats each sentence with a divine reverence. He presents you with weak sentences and rips them apart, sectioning them off into their essential parts and reassembling them. If nothing else, his dedication to the integrity of his paragraphs is something an aspiring writer can’t help but find inspirational.
This isn’t an instructional guide though. He also offers insight into his upbringing, his struggles with drug abuse and getting back to writing after being hit by a truck and nearly dying. He describes his own writing habits in meticulous detail and talks about what you need to do to create an atmosphere in which you can write effectively (I’d also suggest The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield if that topic interests you). He writes earnestly about his early days, toiling away trying to get his work seen and he offers some good general advice about how to contact publishers, although it was written in 2000 and is painfully outdated,
If you have any interest in becoming a writer, this book is a must read. And even if you aren’t, his magnificent prose guarantees you’ll find his story engaging and inspirational.
The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life by Alice Schroeder
“Who is Warren Buffett?” asks the average reader of this blog. In short, Warren is the greatest investor of all time and one of the richest men on Earth. You probably don’t know or care about the stock market BUT I still think you should read this. You shouldn’t read it with the intention of learning about stocks (although you’ll surely learn a lot about investing which is useful stuff to know about), you should read it because Warren is the kind of person you want to be, or at least the kind I want to be.
Buffett is a man who has always known his purpose. Most of us can’t say that. He’s had a lifelong obsession with acquiring information. As a child, he endured a hospital stay and to pass the time, he fingerprinted all of the nuns, reasoning that if one of them committed a crime, he would be the only one with the evidence necessary to convict them. The amateur forensic experiments turned into a paper route (he filed his own tax return at 14) and that turned into a small business placing pinball machines in barbershops. It didn’t take long for him to realize that that Wall Streets was rife with opportunity and it soon became his passion. The descriptions of his stoic discipline and lust for learning are the sort of things I probably wouldn’t have thought possible prior to reading this book.
Alice Schroeder does a great job telling his story. She treats Buffett and and his family with an uncommon respect and explains complex financial transactions in a way that shouldn’t be too difficult for the inexperienced to understand.
There are countless lessons to be learned here. Don’t read this book because you care about stocks; read it because you care about your own life. This book will help you actualize your own purpose by learning about someone who never wavered in theirs. The takeaway? If you want to be successful, find something you love and do it every day.
If you’re still not convinced, this might help you understand why Buffett is worth knowing about.
Russia, New Edition: A Short History by Abraham Ascher
I picked this book up because I’m going to Moscow in July to judge a contest and I wanted to get a better understanding of the country. I read The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival last year, based on Ryan Holiday’s recommendation and it got me interested in learning more about Mother Russia. In the past I’ve never really made any serious attempt to learn about the countries I visit beforehand and I have come to see that as a big mistake. Without a basic understanding of a country, your visit inevitably lacks context.
Russia’s story is one of enigmatic, ambitious and often evil leaders. It’s also filled with failed economic systems and governments. If you’re anything like me, you’ll probably finish this wanting to learn more about both.
Oh, it’s also worth mentioning that Ascher crams 1000+ years of history into 250 pages, making it ideal for the easily intimidated.
If you think any of these sound interesting, I urge you to spend some time with them. I know it may not seem like reading fits into your busy schedule but I think books are worth making time for. If you have any thoughts, go ahead and leave them in the comments and if you want to be notified when I write something new, please subscribe to me on Facebook and follow me on Twitter. Thanks!
*I should note that all of these links include my Amazon affiliate code, so if you buy one of them through Amazon I’ll get some tiny commission. But if that’s inconvenient for you, by all means acquire them in any other way possible.