So, here’s the request that came in an e-mail:
We are going on a cruise in September and I want to load my Kindle with three books. What are the three best books you would recommend for my reading? The request came from a very sharp, keen-minded, successful, independent business consultant. He attends one of our book synopsis events. This is my attempt to answer his question.
I am tempted to simply list some of my all time favorite reads (not necessarily the best books I’ve ever read, although they are close — but definitely books that I am very glad I have read), like: The Doorbell Rang, one of my favorite Nero Wolfe mysteries, by Rex Stout; and The Powers That Be and The Reckoning by the truly great David Halberstam; and Defining a Nation, edited by the same Halberstam.
And then there is this: what are the business books from the last few years (and even a little longer ago) that should be on your “I’ve definitely read that book” list? I would certainly include Good to Great by Jim Collins; something Gladwell (it’s tough to choose — probably Outliers); Servant Leadership by Robert Greenleaf and The Leadership Engine by Noel Tichy; almost anything, but definitely at least one thing, by Peter Drucker. Add to this The Art of Innovation by Tom Kelley, and a major personal favorite, The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp.
But – I still have not answered the question. If I had but three books to load on my Kindle for a September cruise, what titles would I choose? Here’s a list of five; you will have to narrow it down to the three that most interest you.
Choice #1: Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond. Diamond, a Pulitzer Prize winner with his earlier book Guns, Germs, and Steel, has written a tour de force in Collapse, sweeping us through the societies that collapsed, and providing warnings regarding the decisions societies make. An important book!
Choice #2: Inside the Kingdom: My Life in Saudi Arabia by Carmen Bin Laden, or, The Looming Tower: Al-Queda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright. Of course, the Wright book is the heftier of the two; it won the Pulitzer, and provides an amazing education about the rise of Al-Queda, what went into their thinking, and especially their animosity toward the West. But there is a personal tone and a very personal take on life in the strict Muslim world of Saudi Arabia in Carmen Bin Laden’s book — the former wife of Yeslam, one of the brothers of Osama Bin Laden. It is a captivating read, and noticeably shorter than The Looming Tower. (You can tell, from this response, that I think we ought to seek to understand this “other” culture that is so foreign to our own).
Choice #3: OK, which two business books to put on the list? Not necessarily which books to read for enjoyment, but which books provide the most important and useful information? I list two choices. I would put The Other 90%: How to Unlock Your Vast Untapped Potential for Leadership and Life by Robert Cooper, because everyone would benefit from reading an occasional “let’s aim high, and take things higher” book. Unfortunately,this book is not available for the Kindle. (Yes, I checked on all the others). So, for this category of business book, I recommend The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz. (I haven’t yet read the new Schwartz book, The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working: The Four Forgotten Needs That Energize Great Performance, which could be a better choice). And, for the other business book, I would have to go with The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right by Atul Gawande, just because I think it deals with the complexity of this age and provides really valuable suggestions. (And, it gives every patient going in to surgery an important question to ask his or her surgeon: “do you use a checklist?”).
And you will notice that there are no novels on my list. I read about a novel a decade (except for my relatively frequent re-reading of the Nero Wolfe mysteries). But I have actually bought a novel – in the past week. It is: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. I might actually read it – one of these days soon.
Two personal footnotes:
#1 – thanks, Tom, for providing a great idea for a blog post. I apologize for answering you in this fashion.
#2 — And, it would be interesting to have Bob Morris give his list of “only three” in response to this request? I’m pretty sure he would have different titles – all absolutely worth the investment of a Kindle purchase and a few hours of reading. So many books… so little time!
update: I definitely should have put The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis into the mix — as the book I would recommend to help you understand the financial meltdown of the last couple of years. So now I am up to six to choose from, to then narrow down to three. Sorry about that.
It’s been a while since we discussed this. Karl Krayer, my First Friday Book Synopsis and blogging colleague, is convinced that books will more than weather the Kindle/Nook/iPad storm. I’m not so sure.
The loss will be immense. How about this one: “what are you reading?” has always been a conversation starter, prompted when you see someone holding a dog-eared hardback or paperback. I don’t feel the same freedom to say “what are you reading” to a Kindle user. In fact, the question is usually “how do you like the Kindle?” The shift from content to delivery system is not a good one for our conversations and our intellectual development.
And, as some have already observed, we are about to lose the marketing genius behind good dust jackets. Think about the great old music album covers (do you remember the cover for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band? It is a distant memory; and graphics are really not the same on iTunes).
This may indeed change the way “books” are “read”. But I remain convinced that there is a singular experience – of devoting time to read a writer’s sustained and crafted words of more than, say, 50,000 words – that cannot be supplanted by anything else. Maybe this solitary absorption of another’s words will become the activity of a precious few. But anyone seeking wisdom or learning over knowledge and entertainment will still look for it. And treasure it.
I hope he is right.
Sometime in the late 1980’s, my oldest son was taking piano lessons, and we stood in line for about two hours to meet Van Cliburn. He was signing autographs on one of his record album covers.
(Note to young readers: in the old days, we bought record albums — big flat disks that were played on a turntable with a needle. And by the way, the needle fit in the grooves of the record, and at some point, some person described listening to such a record as “groovy.” I know, it sounds so primitive).
Van Cliburn was appearing for this rare opportunity at a — record store — on Mockingbird near SMU here in Dallas. I think its where the La Madeleine is now. Though it carried all kinds of music, this particular record store was especially known for its comprehensive selection of classical music. We did meet Van Cliburn. He was gracious, encouraged my son to keep practicing, and we left with a wonderful memory.
During that same era, when I wanted to buy (and browse for) books, I went to a wonderful bookstore called Taylors, situated on the outer parking lot of Northpark mall.
Today, the record store is gone. In fact, practically every record store is gone. In fact, I do not know of a record store in Dallas anymore. Taylors bookstore? Gone.
So yesterday, in Barnes & Noble, I asked the young sales clerk at the Nook counter whether he thinks the Nook (and/or the Kindle and the Apple Tablet) posed a threat to the bookstore that sells the Nook. It was an interesting conversation. I told him about the record store/Van Cliburn story. (He would have been about 4 years old when I met Van Cliburn).
I wonder — if you had asked the people in that record store on the day that Van Cliburn signed autographs if they could conceive of a technological advancement that would threaten the very existence of record stores, would anyone had said “yes, I see the threat…?”
And where will the Van Cliburns’s of the future sign their autographs for young boys taking piano lessons?
In a previous post in our blog, you read this quote from Seth Godin, who proclaims that the e-readers have killed the bookstore. His rationale for this is that heavy users have already switched to the electronic format. Here is that quote:
If you want to know if a ship is going to sink, watch what the richest passengers do. iTunes and file sharing killed Tower Records. The key symptom: the best customers switched. Of course people who were buying 200 records a year would switch. They had the most incentive. The alternatives were cheaper and faster mostly for the heavy users. Amazon and the Kindle have killed the bookstore. Why? Because people who buy 100 or 300 books a year are gone forever. The typical American buys just one book a year for pleasure. Those people are meaningless to a bookstore. It’s the heavy users that matter, and now officially, as 2009 ends, they have abandoned the bookstore. It’s over.
One of the heaviest user types for book sales is a school system, which authorizes and purchases thousands of copies of approved textbooks for student use in multiple grades. The evolution of how students access, read, and study these books is already underway. They are now involved with electronic books at a very young age, and this trend will continue.
This is hardly the typical in-store customer for a commercial bookstore. While it is certainly true that many collegiate students purchase their textbooks from internet sources such as Amazon, B&N, and others, these are not lost customers to the bookstore.
Seriously – how many times do you really think a customer in a bookstore asked a clerk, “do you carry Texas History for 7th graders by McGraw Hill?” How many times do you believe that a customer asked, “I need the sixth edition of Introduction to Psychology,” for my PSYC 1301 course? If there have been such requests, the clerk would escort them over to the counter where he or she would look up the book and ask if the customer would like to order it.
Hundreds of thousands of textbooks roll through systems such as these throughout the country. And their use is already evolving into the electronic format. But, these are not the books in a typical bookstore. Nor are they the types of books that customers waltz in to purchase. These bookstores were not built for the purpose of serving customers who purchase textbooks.
In essence, these heavy users are not lost customers to a bookstore. They were never customers in the first place.
David Halberstam tells the story of the board meeting when William Paley tells the rest of the board that it is time for CBS to begin phasing out its focus on radio and put all of its effort into the new medium television. It’s been a few years since I read the story in the book The Powers that Be, but as I remember, Mr. Paley pulled this power play when there were only a few thousand television sets in the entire country. And, in case you missed it, Mr. Paley was correct – radio did fade, and television won the day. Mr. Paley knew that the battle was already over, and he chose to be on the right side of that battle at exactly the right moment. (By the way, CBS was dominant in the ratings in radio first, then television, because of the incredible vision and timing and leadership of Mr. Paley).
Which brings us to the current battle. My colleague Karl Krayer is convinced that the Kindle is just a flash in the pan, a fad, something that has no chance of winning the battle over the traditional/physical book. (read his post here).
He may still be right – but I don’t think so.
Barnes & Noble sold out of The Nook this holiday season. Rumors are swirling that Apple will soon have its fabled tablet, which will at some point have a competitive e-reader built in. And now, Seth Godin proclaims the battle is already over – and the Kindle has won. (I assume that he means the e-reader has won. We will wait to see if the Kindle itself is the long-term winner). Here are Godin’s words from a recent post:
If you want to know if a ship is going to sink, watch what the richest passengers do.
iTunes and file sharing killed Tower Records. The key symptom: the best customers switched. Of course people who were buying 200 records a year would switch. They had the most incentive. The alternatives were cheaper and faster mostly for the heavy users.
Amazon and the Kindle have killed the bookstore. Why? Because people who buy 100 or 300 books a year are gone forever. The typical American buys just one book a year for pleasure. Those people are meaningless to a bookstore. It’s the heavy users that matter, and now officially, as 2009 ends, they have abandoned the bookstore. It’s over.
“It’s over,” says Godin. Nothing is worse that winning yesterday’s competitive battles when the battle field has shifted.
And, on a personal note, this is a classic case of “it doesn’t matter what I want — the future is upon us!” I prefer real books, with pages, and weight… But what I want and like may not matter much at all.
(For a far more serious version of this contest, we really don’t know where Al Qaeda is mustering its forces and planning its next actions. Afghanistan; Pakistan; Yemen, somewhere else? We really do have to get this one right!)
News item: Tony Romo got a Kindle for Christmas, his favorite gift — he is a voracious reader…
Slate.com has a terrific interview conducted by Daniel Lyons with Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon (borrowed from Newsweek). Here are two key lessons to learn from Bezos from this interview:
1) Start with the customer, and work backwards from there. This reminds me of the foundational truth from Drucker: “Who is your customer? And, What does your customer consider value?”
2) Innovation is an ongoing necessity, because “the world changes out from under you,” so you always have to be innovating, and learning new things, always adding to your skill set.
Here are the key excerpts:
Lyons: Amazon started off as a retailer. Now you’re also selling computing services, and you’re in the consumer-electronics business with the Kindle. How do you define what Amazon is today?
Bezos: We start with the customer and we work backward. We learn whatever skills we need to service the customer. We build whatever technology we need to service the customer. The second thing is, we are inventors, so you won’t see us focusing on “me too” areas. We like to go down unexplored alleys and see what’s at the end. Sometimes they’re dead ends. Sometimes they open up into broad avenues and we find something really exciting. And then the third thing is, we’re willing to be long-term-oriented, which I think is one of the rarest characteristics. If you look at the corporate world, a genuine focus on the long term is not that common. But a lot of the most important things we’ve done have taken a long time.
Lyons: You’ve talked about Kindle being this example of working backward from the customer. Can you explain that?
Bezos: We had to acquire new skills. There’s a tendency, I think, for executives to think that the right course of action is to stick to the knitting—stick with what you’re good at. That may be a generally good rule, but the problem is the world changes out from under you if you’re not constantly adding to your skill set.