My favorite reads of 2013

Happy new year! 2013 was a very busy year for me (it included among other things a major move), but I was fortunate to find enough time to read some interesting books. Here are some of my favorites, in no particular order:

Louder Than Words: The New Science of How the Mind Makes Meaning, by Benjamin K. Bergen

Overview of current scientific research into embodied cognition. The gist: language makes meaning by triggering highly realistic simulations in our mind, which use the same neural pathways as our senses. The implications for the field of information architecture are tremendous, especially as we move on to a world in which most information access happens via mobile devices. [amazon.com]

Content Everywhere: Strategy and Structure for Future-Ready Content, by Sara Wachter-Boettcher

Excellent, short book on content strategy. Covered some ground I was familiar with already, but it made me happy to see that IA is alive and well in what is today called “content strategy”. Ms. Wachter-Boettcher even wraps up the book with a chapter titled “Towards a New (Information) Architecture”, which specifically addresses Le Corbusier’s thinking about architecture and how it relates to IA. [rosenfeldmedia.com]

Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian, by Paul Knitter

Mr. Knitter is a former priest, and this is a personal account of his journey to become what he calls a Buddhist-Christian. He explains some of the most controversial aspects of Christianity by comparing them with Buddhist teachings. Inspiring, but I kept wondering: why does he choose to remain a Christian? [amazon.com]

Tim O’Reilly in a Nutshell

Mr. O’Reilly, the founder of the eponymous book publisher, is a personal hero of mine. This collection of his writings (which is available for free at oreilly.com) includes sound, evergreen advice for business and for life. An extended passage:

Most publishers think that their business is to create products that people want, and that accordingly transfer dollars from consumers’ pockets to their own. At O’Reilly, we believe that the core of our business is to transfer knowledge from people who have it to people who need it. Yes, we are in business to make money, but this is a kind of housekeeping, not the purpose of the business.

I like to compare business (or life, for that matter) to an extended road trip. Say you want to travel America by the back roads. You need gas for your car, food and water for your body. Especially before heading across Death Valley or the Utah salt flats, you’d better be darn sure that you have enough gas in your tank. But you certainly don’t think of your trip as a tour of gas stations! What’s the real purpose behind what you do?

Why then do so many companies think that they are just in the business of making money? At O’Reilly, our products aren’t just books, conferences, and web sites: they are tools for conveying critical information to people who are changing the world. Our product is also the lives of the people who work for us, the customers who are changed as a result of interacting with us, and all the “downstream effects” of what we do.

[oreilly.com]

The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life, by Steven Watts

An exploration of the influence of Walt Disney’s life on the development of American culture in the 20th century, and vice-versa. The book is structured in an interesting, episodic manner: it is a biography of Walt, and relates events in his life chronologically. However, it’s also a history of the Disney studio, interspersed with biographic sketches of people who played an important part in the Disney story: Walt’s wife Lilly, his brother Roy, Ward Kimball, Art Babbitt, John Hench, etc. The book does a great job of conveying the broader context that Disney’s enterprise was evolving in. (I posted longer notes on this book earlier this year.) [amazon.com]

Belief Or Nonbelief?: A Confrontation, by Umberto Eco and Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini

An exchange of letters between Eco and Martini, archbishop of Milan, on a series of ethical questions that beset the Catholic Church: abortion, women priests, morality in a secular (postmodern) world. I expected brilliance from Eco, and he didn’t disappoint. The surprise was Martini, a Jesuit: he speaks from an informed, humanist perspective, even as he represents the positions of the Catholic Church. [amazon.com]

The Connected Company, by Dave Gray and Thomas Vander Wal

A compelling portrait of the flexible, responsive, “podular” structure that businesses will have to adopt in order to succeed in the connected economy. A must-read if you are in a position to influence the way people collaborate for a common purpose. (Aren’t we all?) [oreilly.com]

Sadhana: the realization of life, by Rabindranath Tagore

Brief treatise on universal principles of spirituality, as expressed in Tagore’s Hindu faith. Beautiful, simple, and profound. The most striking aspect of the book is how timeless it feels: it was written in the first decade of the 20th century, but could have been written last week or (excepting the reference to “motor-cars”) two thousand years ago. Takeaway: aim to be one with God, but be wary of your possessions; they bind you. [amazon.com]

Kitchen Confidential, by Anthony Bourdain

First book in a long time that made me (literally) cry with laughter. (It helps that I know the sound of Mr. Bourdain’s voice; I could easily imagine him telling these stories.) On the surface it’s about food, sex, and drugs, but really it’s about leadership in high-pressure situations. [amazon.com]

Le Corbusier: A Life, by Nicholas Fox Weber

A massive work derived mainly from Le Corbusier’s correspondence with his mother and his older brother Albert. The Corbu that emerges is incredibly disagreeable, no matter how fabulous his architecture is. Also, he seems completely sui generis, with little that can be emulated: Fox Weber paints him as an innate architect, almost a savant. Perhaps the book relies too much on this correspondence and thus presents a skewed picture of a great man, but it’s still worth exploring if you appreciate LC’s work. [amazon.com]

Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity, by David Lynch

Heard this as an audiobook because it’s read by Mr. Lynch with his glorious sing-song nasality. Good description of the creative work process, and the benefits of meditation — especially for people in creative fields. Mr. Lynch makes a compelling case for the practice of Transcendental Meditation, his preferred approach. [audible.com]

The Year Without Pants: WordPress.com and the Future of Work, by Scott Berkun

As with the other Berkun books I’ve read, The Year Without Pants was brisk, clear, and direct. The book explains in fair detail how Automattic has flourished with an almost completely distributed workforce: the importance of asynchronous communication (primarily using P2, a blog tool built on top of WordPress), of holding in-person team meetings every once in a while (in exotic places like Athens, Budapest, and Lisbon!), and more. Although it’s about working remotely, there are even more valuable lessons about leadership: The Year Without Pants is really about how Berkun built and led his team through a time of change in the company. [oreilly.com]

Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, by Marshall Rosenberg

How to communicate (and listen!) without judging. I’ve seen a positive change in the health of my relationships as I’ve been applying the lessons I’ve learned in this book in my day-to-day interactions.

A poem from the book, by Marianne Williamson:

Our deepest fear is not that we’re inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.

It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us. You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.

There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.

We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us, it is in everyone.

And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.

As we are liberated from our fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

[amazon.com]

Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius

An essential text, and my favorite in 2013. A journal of personal reflections by Marcus Aurelius (Roman Emperor from 161–180 CE) on how to lead a good life that adds value to the world while serving in a high-pressure leadership position. Marcus’s thinking is heavily influenced by stoicism, a philosophy that we would all benefit from studying more closely. Although it has an episodic (and somewhat repetitive) structure (remember: this wasn’t meant for publication), Meditations is very clearly written, and the translation I read (by Robin Hard) feels fresh and relevant. [amazon.com]