A series of appalling terrorist attacks. The UK vote to leave the EU. And the ongoing pantomime of American politics. The summer quiet season has been slow arriving this year. That has not stopped a regular supply of reading lists to fill the holiday hours. This list from Y Combinator is but one recent example.
Reading is one of life’s great pleasures. The act of losing oneself in a good book is a joy unto itself. The benefits of broadening the mind and engaging the soul accrue long after the covers have closed. Books can be a great way to learn new skills. Or educate yourself about any number of business topics. But those that live longest in the memory? The works where the writing raises questions and opens the mind to boundless possibilities.
So I offer a small selection of my own choices. It reflects my personal bias. More fact than fiction. A love of Africa. A fascination with the lessons of history. And a total absence of the 'how to' manual or the consultant led business theory. I hope you find something to enjoy.
Breathtaking simplicity. The most beautiful, advanced and complex ideas in science explained in 7 essays. Just 83 pages in total. Reading Rovelli’s book I felt as if the mysteries of space and time were within my grasp. General relativity, quantum mechanics and more. I wish I could describe and clarify any set of ideas in such elegant and concise prose.
And now I cheat. My second choice is two books. Heart of Darkness is the classic novel of the destruction evil wreaks on the mind and soul of man. Francis Ford Coppola adapted the idea for the brilliant movie Apocalypse now. In it he exposes the brutality of the Vietnam war using Conrad’s story and characters as the allegory.
I grew up with the idea of Vietnam as some sort of hell on earth. That example grossly underestimates the depths to which man’s inhumanity can sink. The true arena for Conrad was the Congo under the rule of the Belgian King Leopold. The business of extracting rubber from this vast, intractable jungle was a study in evil. The extreme point of colonialism, slavery and racism. The worst inflicted by Europeans on the African continent. King Leopold’s Ghost is an excoriating work of history. Detailing the circumstances and methods of this crime against humanity.
Read either of these books. They are both brilliant and illuminating in their own right. Strange but each author’s exposition of evil leaves you with an uplifting view of the human spirit.
Of all my selections, this is the book found most on other lists this year. It is as ambitious as Seven Brief Lessons On Physics. Its aim is to cover nothing less than the entire history of the human species. In the case of this book, history means natural history. The author has taken a naturalist’s view of human behaviour and development. The result raises more questions and insights than any book I have read for a long time. How can you not be inspired to think differently by questions like: “Did man domesticate wheat or did the crop tame man?"
At the end, the book feels a little unfinished but I guess the end of this story has not yet been told. I would not read this book for message. But for education and enlightenment it is hard to beat.
We are in the middle of a long period of memorialising the centenary of the First World War. Remembering the sacrifice of those who died at the Somme, Verdun and the rest is a solemn duty. Yet we dishonour those millions of the mouthless dead if we forget the lessons from that traumatic conflict.
Nothing brings those learnings into sharper focus than the peace treaties. The multiple diplomatic documents that brought the Great War to a formal end. It is well known that the seeds of World War 2 were sown in the great hall at Versailles. But do you realise the extent to which the troubles of the Middle East today were designed in the treaties of Sevres and Lausanne?
Make no mistake, this is a work of serious and heavyweight history. It recounts the politics and pressures of the peacemaking process in 1919. And illuminates many of the historic challenges the world has faced since. The author brings the characters of the conference and the important circumstances of the time to life in a brilliant and readable way. If you take the time and trouble, you will see the world in a different way by the end.
Despite the title this book is not really much to do with Africa. The Serengeti in the title is a bit of clickbait to draw the reader in. The purpose of the book is to explain the rules that govern the balance of ecosystems. Whether those be on the African plain or in a rockpool in the Pacific North West.
I have to make a further admission. This is not that well written. The prose is a bit tabloid journalist. The conclusions are drawn through lazy logic. Without proper explanation of the weaknesses in the propositions the author puts forward. Yet it does make you think. Since I read it early this year, I have been mulling over the application of these concepts to the world of business. Not everything works but that’s fine. It passes the test of raising interesting questions so worth a look.
My final choice, although little known outside of South Africa, is a genuine classic in my opinion. Through a series of stories, Rian Malan examines the character of the rainbow nation. He looks at the full spectrum of people and lives that make up the rainbow nation. The rational and explicable is in here. But much more is the unexplained. The way desperate circumstances, twisted traditions and the fragile working of human minds combine to create unexpected results.
Whether savage or tender, the author peers through multiple layers. The most successful war tribe in Africa. Intermingled with a huge nation of peaceful pastoralists. Together replacing an ancient hunter gatherer culture that reaches back to the earliest days of our race. All filtered through the experience of colonialism and apartheid. It is no wonder that the results defy the obvious. It takes a wonderful writer to bring such deep insights to life. And leave the reader wondering and wanting for more.
Whatever you choose to read, listen, learn and keep questioning.
Kenny Fraser is the Director of Sunstone Communication and a personal investor in startups.