I took some time over the last few weeks to reread a lot of philosophy. Sometimes I have a hard time justifying these books about business or strategy or people's lives. Does the educational value really pay for the time that could be spent thinking, working or studying philosophy? I'm not sure the answer is always yes - at least when it comes to so many of these books about the internet or PR or marketing. They feel important but they are not. Below are several which I finished knowing that I had made a good investment.

Chief Culture Officer: How to Create a Living, Breathing Corporation by Grant McCracken
Books are always better when you find unexpectedly find yourself in the acknowledgments. That being said, Chief Culture Officer is very good. Grant McCracken is one of a handful of business writers and bloggers who a) has a deep understanding and love for the topics he covers, b) writes about them in an inspiring and unexpected way, and c) isn't a tool. I take a special joy in obscure allusions or connections and I get the feeling that Grant does, too. I really think someone who had previously been completely ignorant about current business thinking could pick up this book and, if they diligently followed every thread and read every book Grant mentioned, leave with a complete understanding. I felt like Grant cited half the books I've read in the last few years. My only criticism is that he regularly got distracted inside of his own book and never finished the stories he started - what happened to the hidden sneaker shop? Someone tell me.

Elephants on the Edge: What Animals Teach Us about Humanity by G. A. Bradshaw
If you look at some of the commonly known trivia about animals - that elephants grieve and occasionally bury their dead, that chimps can speak sign language, that some species of monkeys display exhibit traits like fairness or cognitive dissonance - it's shocking to see how much it conflicts with currently used preservation tactics. For instance, take the culling of a herd of elephants through relocation or hunting. We all sit and watch National Geographic specials that marvel at their social structure, their abilities to communicate with each other and form relationships and then simply assume that these efforts have zero repercussions. The book's premise is that these species suffer trauma much in the same way that people do. It mentions a herd of elephants in Africa where two rogue teenage males deliberately killed dozens of rhinoceros without explanation - this, they say, is no different than the gang violence we see in inner cities, cities racked by the same dislocation, disappearing resources and exploitation. Whether you agree with it or not, there is something to be said for books that turn over entire lines of thinking. I especially like books that take logic and findings from unrelated fields and apply them in interesting and provocative ways. This book does just that.

Googled: The End of the World As We Know It by Ken Auletta
Maybe the best book I've read about Google and tech culture. It has made me think - despite many who are using it to herald the decline of Google - to further invest in the company. This article about the book is quite good - I think it's interesting how rarely writers call these businessmen out on their conflicts of interest or accurately contextualize their position. It bothers me how little real knowledge most of these tech writers have about the companies they cover. Auletta seems to think that Google's engineering culture is problematic because it leads to PR blunders or angers competitors. The problem is really that an engineer is almost an alien compared to most people - people who think emotionally or practically instead of systematically.  Robert has a very good chapter about this, about knowing your audience and feeling connected to it. A product like Google Wave solves a problem that no has complained about and its launch makes sense only to someone who takes communities and groups for granted. This is what an engineering culture does to you - it deprives you of common sense and of a direct kinship with the people whom you're trying to serve.

Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World by Roger Crowley
Very good book. I'm interested in further exploring the Middle Ages, if anyone has recommendations. The thing that jumped out at me: the Knights of Saint John are such a mind-blowing concept. A group of nationless soldiers who, empowered by some Christian or Godly imperative, took an island in the Mediterranean to fortify and live on. Their only real mission was to exist, and with that end in mind had essentially no limits on the means with which they could accomplish it. They chose piracy. I mean, think about it: what if a group of Minutemen took some land on the coast of Somalia and funded their economy by ravaging passing oil tankers? How insane is that?

Samuel Bronfman: The Life and Times of Seagram's Mr. Sam by Michael R Marrus
Long out of print. Samuel Bronfman is one of the classic Jewish hustlers (so is Dov Charney). There is a lot to learn in this book, especially from Bronfman's insistence on vertical integration, quality and design. In a way, early on he was very much the sort of Chief Culture Officer that Grant talks about. He knew that aspiration is a powerful thing and weaved powerful imagery into every facet of his products. Look at the names of some of the Seagram brands - Crown Royal, Chivas Regal, Crown Seven and so on. Even the packaging and bottles - think of the purple cloak on a bottle of Crown Royal. The author makes some connection to Bronfman's heritage as a Canadian Jew, which there is probably some merit to. Coincidentally, Bronfman's grandson is the CEO of Warner Brothers Records. And another interesting connection, there was initially a different chapter planned for The 50th Law (it eventually became the Fearless Leadership chapter) that I thought Bronfman would be good for, but it never came to be.

Some questions to keep in mind:
1) A keen sense of understanding of the market and other people: Is it possible to acquire without self-awareness? Companies that are successful now but clearly lack both traits: how does that bode for their future?
2) How convenient is it that we humanize exotic animals when we want something from them and then convince ourselves of their unthinking, unconscious animal nature when we want to do something harmful to them?
3) Consider how many absurd things we gloss over in history of Christianity. The Knights of Saint John are one. I'm also reading about the Christian prosecution of animals like locusts and pigs in criminal courts.


Like I've said before, I hope that you'll get around to reading whichever books catch your eye and that you'll learn as much as I did. Whether you buy them on Amazon today or six months from now makes no difference to me. You're welcome to email me questions or raise issues for discussion. Better yet, if you know of a good book on a related topic, please pass it along. And as always, if one of these books comes to mean something to you, recommend it to someone else.

I promised myself a long time ago that if I saw a book that interested me I'd never let time or money or anything else prevent me from having it. This means that I treat reading with a certain amount of respect. All I ask, if you decide to email me back, is that you're not just thinking aloud. Enjoy these books, treat your education like the job that it is, and let me know if you ever need anything.



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