Looking back over the list of books I read in 2008, I'm realizing now that it wasn't a big year for fiction for me last year - lots of software related books, business books and lots of biographies. I have some ideas on why I veered that way last year, but I'll save that for another post. Usually my reading list is predominately fiction and, within that, predominately mystery/thrillers.
Here's my list of the most interesting books I read during 2008 - they're not presented in any particular order and they were not all newly published in 2008.
1. Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds - a new way of thinking about preparing & presenting talks. Powerpoint basically encourages sloppy and difficult to follow presentations via the templates that come with it and bad presentations have almost become an ingrained cultural phenomena in this decade. Reynolds outlines new ways of approaching communicating ideas. His blog, PresentationZen, is a great follow up to the book and there he provides lots of additional examples, both good and bad, that he runs across. This, along with Slideology (see below) helped me tons last year as I was preparing and rolling out a number of new classes at work.
2. Slideology by Nancy Duarte. Duarte is the founder and co-owner of Duarte Designs, a Bay area-based consulting/graphics design firm involved in designing and preparing presentations. This is an awesome book with great examples of concepts to keep in mind while designing and giving presentations. If you've seen An Inconvenient Truth, you've seen their work.
3. The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. An intellectually engaging look at risk, probability and how they apply in business and in life. The book is essentially unclassifiable - part business book, part statistics primer, part autobiography, part fiction - I imagine librarians and book store employees pulling their hair out figuring out where to shelve the book. I found the book entirely fascinating, maybe the best (i.e., most useful) business book I've read in at least 10 years. In spite of the author, who comes across as condescending toward nearly everyone else in the entire world - he'd be an interesting dinner guest, but I'm very glad I don't work with Taleb. Taleb's ego notwithstanding, this book is very very much worth reading.
4. Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. I re-read this book last year. Again. I've read this book a number of times now & will, at some point, need to buy another copy. This is the funniest book I have ever read. Easily. As you'd expect from a book about the End Times where, via a major screw up, the baby AntiChrist is placed in the wrong home and the baby everyone thinks is the AntiChrist is actually a perfectly normal boy.
"God does not play dice with the universe; He plays an ineffable game of His own devising, which might be compared, from the perspective of any of the other players [i.e. everybody], to being involved in an obscure and complex variant of poker in a pitch-dark room, with blank cards, for infinite stakes, with a Dealer who won't tell you the rules, and who smiles all the time."
5. Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. This is being made into a movie that will supposedly come out later on this year. Watchmen is actually two stories being told simultaneously. The book is difficult to describe - I'll just leave it at that - it is, however, worth reading.
6. The Bloomsday Dead by Adrian McKinty - the final book in the Dead trilogy (at least I think it's the final book and not a quadrology or whatever 4 books are called) this concludes the tale of Michael Forsythe. The stage (maybe the need) for this book in the Forsythe story was foreshadowed by the epilogue in Dead I Well May Be. There's tons of discussion on the intertubes about the story of TBD, so I won't repeat it all here. If you're interested in Ireland, James Joyce and/or finding out what happens to Forsythe if you've read the earlier two books, or just appreciate McKinty's writing (which I do), then this is a must read. McKinty is a great writer, the weaving of the Joyce homage into the story is seamless & the story (and conclusion) is extremely satisfying. I'm looking forward to McKinty's next book.
7. Keith Richards - the Biography by Victor Bockris. This is the definitive (at least so far) biography of Keith Richards. Bockris has done extensive interviews & original research in addition to leaning on earlier biographies and published interviews with Richards. Make sure to get the updated version of the book, the first edition covered only through 1993, the most recent version covers events up through 2002. Comparing and contrasting this to other Keef bios (particularly the Kris Needs book - Before They Make Me Run), I think Bockris relied heavily on interviews he did with Anita Pallenberg - not only is she extensively quoted, but the story is very Pallenberg-centric. In any case, the Bockris book is a fascinating look at Richards and the relationships within the Rolling Stones.
8. The Education of Ronald Reagan by Thomas Evans. This was a very interesting book about the political education of Ronald Regan during the years he was the television spokesman for GE.
9. Faces of Ground Zero by Joe McNally. McNally is a really well known photographer, having done numerous cover shots for magazines including Life, Sports Illustrated and tons of others (you'd recognize any number of the shots in his recent book on photography called The Moment It Clicks, which I also recommend). Faces of Ground Zero is now out of print, but you can find copies online. After 9/11, McNally (who's based in New York) borrowed a huge (room-sized) Polaroid camera) and took a number of life-sized photos of people involved in the 9/11 crisis & clean up process. It's an emotionally hard book to look at, McNally describes each person's story and the part they played. A really beautiful book.
10. The Answer to How Is Yes by Peter Block. An interesting take on asking the right questions in business. Block discusses how business decision making is (or should be) a process that involves collaborative intelligence and he suggests reframing the common questions that most people ask. Block discusses that businesspeople often ask six questions in evaluating what direction to take and shows how irrelevant those questions often are. One of the most thought provoking (at least for me) is a chapter in the book where Block explains how Thomas Jefferson might have answered those same questions in trying to convince colonists to join the Founding Fathers in fighting for independence:
This from Verasage:
"Imagine after Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. Now he has to convince others to sign it, at great peril to their life and liberty. Using the six questions Peter Block uses in his book, here’s the questions that would most likely be posed to Jefferson—that is, if our Founding Framers thought like today’s businesspeople:
How do you do it?
How long will it take?
How much does it cost?
How do you get those [other] people to change?
How do we measure it?
How have other people done it successfully?
How would Thomas Jefferson have answered these six questions?
I don’t know.
I don’t know.
Possibly your life.
I don’t know.
I don’t think you can measure Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.
No country has ever done it successfully the way we are proposing. Sign here.
Block suggests two better starting questions:
“What [type of future] do we want to create together?”
“What is the price [we are] willing to pay to achieve it?”
It is simply impossible to know “how to” do something until you attempt it. In a free market system, it is the leap, not the look, which generates the indispensable understanding and the necessary knowledge to generate wealth."