50 books I can recommend was inspired to write this after having read Zen Habits 50 Amazing and Essential Novels To Enrich Your Library. However it would be presumptious of me to assume that your personal collection of books needed enriching through my intercession, so I decided to choice a more humble title. Some of the books I have picked aren’t novels but I found them influential in their own way. I tried to create the list with a couple of guiding principles – to make the list representative of my tastes and interests, to not overly represent one part of my life and not overly represent a particular author.
I missed out out a number of writers whose work I really enjoy: Robert Louis Stevenson, JRR Tolkein, Terry Pratchett, Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard and Bruce Sterling immediately come to mind.
I’d also be interested in hearing your recommendations for the list, feel free to comment or link back to this post.
- Robert X Cringely – Accidental Empires: How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make Their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition and Still Don’t Get a Date. What Hollywood Babylon did for the film industry Cringely’s book did for technology a decade and a half before Valleywag was even started. The fact that Cringely never got sued by anybody in the book lends credence to the books content. What’s more reading this book in college helped me to easily get a job in technology PR.
- Tom Wolfe – The Right Stuff. I prefer the new journalism to fictional works of Tom Wolfe, mostly because the truth is usually more fantastic than the imaginary world. Wolfe honed his style in the counterculture of the 1960s with The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test or Radical Chic and the low/popular culture works featured in Kandy Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby. Going against the grain Wolfe painted a picture of heroism and goodness in science and engineering at a time in the late 1970s when hippy values had gone mainstream.
- Michael Wolff – Burn Rate. Wolff was an early ‘Silicon Alley’ net entrepreneur who went through the trials and tribulations of start-up life. Ultimately the only riches it gave him was experience which he shared in this book published at the height of the dot.com boom in the UK.
- Hunter S. Thompson – Fear and Loathing: On The Campaign Trail’72. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Hell’s Angels make more interesting reading because of their portrayal of a seedy drug-fueled underbelly. But On The Campaign Trail ’72 is a better example of new journalism, opening up the inner workings of the body politic for our own amazement and disgust.
- Tim Pat Coogan – Michael Collins. Collins is the founding father of modern Ireland and died at the age of 32, he was was a complex polymath and military figure. His actions were subsequently studied by other countries leaders including Yatzik Shamir and Mao Zedong during their fight for independence. His life and death are still emotive issues in Ireland. Coogan provides a comprehensive, authoritative and independent biography of Collins.
- Will Hutton – The State We’re In. Up until I went to college I wasn’t that interested in reading books about economics. Hutton was then an editor at The Observer and put together The State We’re In which was an analysis of British society from the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s together with lessons learned from more successful economies. The book shaped early policy thinking of the 1997 Blair government. I still consider it to be a great read and would also recommend its sister books The State To Come and The World We’re In.
- Michael Collins – The Path to Freedom. This is a collection of speeches and essays written by Michael Collins before and during the Irish struggle for independence. What comes out is the well-thought out words of a man who is self taught about the world and is highly literate. One can see a man who was both an idealist and a pragmatist and gain insight into how his views changed from his first essay in the book Freedom Within Grasp For Ourselves To Achieve It to his last published speech before his death.
- John Gribbin – Deep Simplicity: Chaos Complexity and the Emergence of Life. I first came across Deep Simplicity from my interest in chaos theory and fractals that I developed in college. This book is one of a number of popular science books which are selling well, providing the answers to big questions for a society that has never been more divorced from both science and religion. I revisited Deep Simplicity because the book shows how small simple rules can develop into complex behaviour, the `unforeseen consequence’ that drives a lot of things that currently interest me like behavioural economics. Gribbin treads the line between sexing up science and explaining the mathematics behind it in a clear unambiguous way. The value of Gribbin’s book for me is that it helps me understand phenomena. Many of the unrelated mathematical principles that he discusses to explain physics-related phenomena provide great analogues for my own experience in our changing influence landscape.
- Sun Tzu – The Art of War. The best and cheapest version to get is Wordsworth Classics. They picked a really good translation of The Art of War. Unlike many business books about The Art of War, this one works best because they have not tried to over analyse it or directly tie it into business strategy. I think that this book is powerful because it acts as a framework to think about problems rather than suggesting answers to business issues. Also for the money, you can’t argue. Probably ties for the most read book in my collection with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
- Don Tapscott – Paradigm Shift. Don Tapscott’s Paradigm Shift was required reading when I was in college in the mid-1990s, many of the important concepts such as enterprise collaboration and the co-opting of consumers in the production process are extended and expanded upon in Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything to include web 2.0 services and the latest iterations of open source software.
- W.G. Beasley – The Japanese Experience: A Short History of Japan (History of Civilisation). Beasley manages to explain Japanese history from the sixth century to the economic miracle in a clear manner that belies the amount of information that he also gets over. Unlike many similar books this is easy to pick up and read without being well informed about the subject manner and has an excellent glossary at the end. A good start to find out about Japanese history.
- M Mitchel Waldrop – The Dream Machine: J.C.R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal tells the story from the point-of-view of J C R Linklder, a polymath who was instrumental in putting in place a lot of the projects and infrastructure that was needed to make the necessary developments. Linklider was a psychologist by training who realised the power and potential of technology way before it was possible. Waldrop tells the story well, painting Licklider as a human being: a wonderful polymath, parent, researcher and a useless manager. He also paints the broader historical picture taking in ARPA, DEC, Xerox PARC, Al Gore and the Information Superhighway.
- Graham McCann – The Essential Dave Allen. Irish comedian Dave Allen was a divisive figure in my house growing up. On one hand you had an Irish man on British television who was very urbane and had a dry sophisticated sense of humour. He was always immaculately turned out in his classic three-piece suits, at a time when Irish people in the UK cleaned up in hospitals and mended the roads for a living. On the other hand his image as a drinker (he did his act with a glass of whiskey in his hand and a cigarette on stage, during the early part of his career) and his strident rejection of Catholicism blinded my parents to the power of his wit. McCann’s book collates the best material from Allen’s act. Since Allen primarily discussed life’s absurdities, much of the material is still relevant now.
- TimeOut Travel Guides. I have relied on TimeOut travel guides whenever I have spent a decent amount of time in-country for business or holiday purposes. There are few cities that are worthwhile and aren’t covered by TimeOut – Munich being the noticable exception that I have come across so far.
- Steven Levy – Crypto. Steven Levy has written a number of books, Insanely Great was an interesting history of the original Macintosh, but I prefer Crypto which charted the development of civilian cryptography. If you’ve ever bought anything online you’ve benefited from cryptography. And the reason why you could do this is due to the determination of hackers, geeks and hippies that fought the government and the intelligence services (who felt that they should have a monopoly on it).
- Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward – All The President’s Men. Because of the events documented in this book, the authors names became by-words for investigative journalism. The book documents the mundane back-breaking work that broke the Watergate story. A second-volume to this book the much overlooked The Final Days which documents the agonising death of the Nixon administration makes an ideal reading companion as well.
- Lucius Annaeus Seneca – Letters from a Stoic: Epistulae Morales AD Lucilium. A kind of Zen guide book for Romans, his letters contain all the wisdom and the poise to enable any inquisitive soul to acquire self control, to endure with dignity the burdens of misfortune, to take success and fame with humbleness and cynicism.
- David Pogue – Mac OS X: The Missing Manual. This isn’t a book that I read religiously, but since I don’t have a tech support person camped out in my kitchen its comforting to know that I have this book for reference. Apple support pages aren’t much use if you can’t boot up Safari.
- Bryan Burrough and John Heylar – Barbarians At The Gate. This book is emblematic of the greed that fuelled leverage buyout deals in the 1980s. Heylar and Burroughs do a good job taking you inside of the financial mechanisms, explaining them clearly and keeping it simple enough for me to understand. Why is a 20-year-old deal important to someone like me? Well Carl Icahn and Motorola or Yahoo! springs to mind.
- Wired magazine issues 6.03 – 6.05. These issues contained a series of articles called the Encyclopedia of The New Economy. These articles were written by Wired contributing editor John Browning and Wired senior editor Spencer Reiss. When you look at Chris Anderson’s books The Long Tail and Free, the lessons and knowledge he talks about can be found these articles over a decade before. Combine this with the Digital Citizen supplement that appeared in issue 5.12 and you can see that nothing is new.
- Dale Carnegie – How To Win Friends And Influence People. This book is a guide to customer relationship management, community management and marketing decades before those terms came into existence. Its a well-written book but without the home-spun folksiness that you get with some modern business books.
- Daniel Yergin – The Prize. Yergin’s book is the de-facto history of the oil industry. In order to understand the future, it helps to understand how we got there. I picked up this book when I was still working in the oil industry. Given the current economic and political position of oil, I would recommend this book as essential reading.
- Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind – The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron. I used to work on the Enron account at my first agency that I worked at. They also used another agency in the UK called Gentle Persuasion and their head of PR (VP of marketing and communications) was a lady called Jackie Gentle. We were promoting Enron’s broadband exchange offering which made no sense; from the EIN (Enron Intelligent Network) technology underpinning which was reinventing the wheel of other technologies already out there like MPLS (multi-packet labelling system) and a market that didn’t exist yet. We got paid and did our job, but after reading this book it all started to make sense.
- Mark Holt and Hamish Muir – 8vo On the Outside. 8vo was one of the trendsetting graphic design outfits of the 80s and 1990s. If you were an early Orange customer – they designed your bill. If you bought many of the releases on Factory Records, or the re-releases under London Records you probably have some of their work in your record or CD collection. If you read magazines like iD or other publications that took iD as their role model, then the typography usually owes a debt to 8vo. What is interesting about this book is the body of work catalogued in an unassuming manner together with the minutiae of running an agency and dealing with challenges before the technology was there to make them trivial (such as Adobe Photoshop, Quark Xpress or Adobe InDesign).
- Andy Kessler – Wall Street Meat. I prefer Kessler’s book to Frank Partnoy’s F.I.A.S.C.O. and Michael Lewis’ Liar’s Poker. All are very good books, I found Kessler’s personally the most useful in my career. Kessler was a peer of Henry Blodget, Mary Meaker and Jack Grubman. Kessler tells the insanity of the original internet bubble from the finance side. As a young PR person I remember following a NASDAQ-listed telecoms clients business via the Stock Watchlist on My Excite page and noticing how the more business they got, the more expensive it came to service such that revenue and profitabilty were never going to meet and yet hearing analysts bang on about what a great buy the client was.
- James Gleick – Faster. I was unsure which James Gleick to put in here. Both Faster and Chaos are good books, however in the end I went with Faster. Faster is about the concept of time, or more specifically the modern concept of time poverty. Our efforts to cram more into each day. What has this to do with PR and marketing? A lot, James Gleick’s book gives food for thought on the attention economy and the value of multi-tasked attention.
- Simon Singh – Fermat’s Last Theorem. It’s not very often that a book can capture the drama and pain involved in scientific discovery. It’s hard to make mathematics sexy but Singh manages it.
- Paul Stoneman (editor) – Handbook Of The Economics Of Innovation And Technological Change. Most of my text books that I used in college stay on the book shelf, but I like to dip into this one now and again. Nothing is ever really new and situations that come up usually have a precedent that you can derive some lessons from.
- Cynthia Robbins-Roth – From Alchemy to IPO: The Business Of Biotechnology. I got given this book by an ex-colleague. Having no real understanding of the biotechnology sector, this book provided a good primer. Its style leads something to be desired, but the content is high quality.
- Robert H. Reid – Architects Of The Web. Reid wrote up the profiles of many of the pioneer web companies including Netscape, Real Networks, Marimba, Yahoo! and Silicon Graphics (whose work on VRML was prescient when you think about metaverse services like Second Life.) It’s helpful to revisit the future the way it was envisaged a decade ago and see how close and yet how far we are from reaching those goals.
- The Pentagram Papers. Design agency periodically published brochures covering esoteric subjects as a form of inspirational materials. It comes in handy when I am doing a one-man brainstorm: providing visually stimulating fodder when I am working from home.
- Eric S. Raymond – The New Hackers Dictionary. This is pretty much essential for anybody involved in the technology space.
- Alistair Cooke – America. I love this book not because Cooke’s history of the US is the best history of the country or that the book is particularly relevant given that it finishes around about 1973. I just like the way the book is written. If Cooke was alive now he would have made the most engaging blogger. This book is a relatively early example of multimedia as it was designed to go with a documentary television series of the same name (I can recommend the DVD set of the TV series which is beautifully shot – the series had its own helicopter pilot!).
- Cory Doctorow – Down and out in the magic kingdom. Two of the key things that people struggle with in understanding the social web is the currency of kudos and the trusted nature of the social web. Doctorow’s science fiction story is an allegory that explains it in an elegant manner through the concept of Whuffie.
- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – The Complete Sherlock Holmes. I picked this book up when I used to work shifts. It looked like good value a door stop of a book available for the then tiny sum of 3.99 in the ASDA supermarket. This was before the Net Book Agreement was killed off by an Office of Fair Trading investigation. Conan Doyle had created immaculately constructed stories like the literary equivalent of a Swiss watch movement, that were both compelling and easy to read.
- Robert Pirsig – Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Zen was a central point of discussion during my last year at college with my friend and landlord Ian. Its a story about how a brilliant man was broken by the system as he wrestled with understanding the fundamental truths of our world. It is an exploration of the metaphysics of quality and and it is a book that I return to for inspiration when things get out of kilter. I have put this book in fiction as its written as a novel. However it does need to be acknowledged that this autobiographical by Pirsig and reflects on his own life and a difficult time in the childhood of his son Christopher. I would also recommend that you read the follow-up book Lila where Pirsig expands on this subject further.
- Neal Stephenson – Cryptonomicon. I don’t like some of Stephenson’s first works like The Big U and much of the baroque cycles left me cold. I think it would be overkill to put several books from the same author into this list, but if I did you would have Snow Crash, The Diamond Age and Cryptonomicon all in this list. If I have to chose one its Cryptonomicon. Its a mix of action adventure, modern asian history and primer on cryptography that makes this book my choice for the list.
- Frank Delaney – Ireland. Film director Frederico Fellini said that ‘All art is autobiographical; the pearl is the oyster’s autobiography’. Delaney’s book is the biography of a nation, he captures the Irish condition really well and brings to life the history, the culture and the tradition of storytelling against a background of progress.
- Douglas Coupland – Generation X. Coupland is more than a novelist he is a zeitgeist meter, his books happen to capture the moment. I have a range of his books in my collection including jPod, Girlfriend In A Coma, Hey Nostradamus!, Shampoo Planet and Microserfs. But if I had to recommend a definitive Coupland book to a reader it would be Generation X which captured the dark humour used by X-ers to escape the suckfest that was their early adulthood.
- Matt Beaumont – e. e is a book that portrayed the inner workings of an advertising agency. I read it whilst working during the internet boom times in a PR agency which shared much of the craziness of the advertising world. Large budgets, prima-donna clients and pharmaceutically assisted creative thinkers. An ex-copywriter, Beaumont had a good eye for characters and the book was sometimes not very funny precisely because the satire was so close to the truth I was living in at the time. e. was also groundbreaking for its device of storytelling, through email trails rather than a straight narrative.
- Brett Easton Ellis – American Psycho. Being able to read through the gory bits of this book without putting it down was something of a right of passage amongst my friends and I. Ellis accurately captured how shallow the early and mid-1980s really were, I am sure historians and sociologists will understand that acid house culture was needed by society just to remove us from the banality of 80’s materialism. The books portrayal of Bateman’s psychotic hallucinations make the banal analysis of Huey Lewis and The News and the early works of Whitney Houston even more horrific than they really are. After this book the bland 80s soundtrack of Sade and Whitney will sound strangely sinister.
- Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill – League of Extraordinary Gentlemen volume one. Moore and O’Neill have created a strong interpretation of a ficitonal world based on fictional characters co-existing in the same era, a Wold Newton-type technique. Despite the shocking film adaptation, the three volumes of the graphic novel are amazing.
- Thomas Kinsella – The Tain. The book is is a translation of the Irish epic Tain Bo Cuailnge (in English known as the Cattle Raid of Cooley) which is a centre part of the Ulster Cycle. Kinsella’s translation is widely considered to be an accessible version of the tale. In addition to Kinsella’s translation there are ink prints throughout the book by Louis Le Brocquy add perfectly complement the text.
- JJ Connolly – The Layer Cake. I read this book and was impressed how the plot unfolded. Many of the characters reminded me of the of the town personalities, door staff and management that I knew back in Liverpool. It was uncanny. If you want an intelligent novel to read on the plane, pick this one up at the airport.
- Geoff Ryman – 253. Most books tell a story in a broadly linear style, 253 covers a story that is about five minutes in long but tells it through the eyes of the passengers on a tube train. Its a massively parallel story instead of a linear one. 253 is about a Bakerloo tube train with no-one standing and no empty seats can carry 252 passengers. The driver makes 253. Each one has a page devoted to them, divided into three sections – what they look like, what they are thinking and inside information. This structure makes the book very to easy to read during a commute. For its structure and ease of reading alone makes it worthwhile to put on your bookshelf. The fact that its well written is a bonus.
- Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore – The Watchmen. I originally discovered The Watchmen through a roundabout way. The comedian’s smiley logo was co-opted by Bomb The Bass for the cover of Beat Dis and then by the wider acid house movement. When I first read The Watchmen I was stunned by the complexity and depth of the story. I was also stunned at the kind of issues that the story addressed. This book played a major role in making comics be taken more seriously as a literary art from.
- Jostein Gaarder – Sophie’s World. I read this during the summer holidays from my first year in university. I was working in an undemanding PR role for an oil exploration company where I was prized by my PR colleagues for having an oil industry background. It was an engaging story that provided a great introduction to philosophy.
- Christopher Brookmyre – Quite Ugly One Morning. Brookmyre’s tales of investigative journalist Jack Parlabane investigating wrong-doers in the establishment from corrupt mandarins to murderous spooks are great light reading. Quite Ugly One Morning is the first book in the series, which makes it a good entry point into the works of Brookmyre.
- William Gibson – Neuromancer. clichéd though the cyberpunk thing is now, Gibson’s book is an excellent read in its own right. Reading it is now a rite-of-passage.
- John Buchan – The Thirty-Nine Steps. I loved this book as a child, it was the archetypal thriller and Buchan manages to keep the tempo up throughout the book.
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