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I started thinking about what shaped me and came away with this list of ten books that influenced my view of the world. Even the nature of being able to read was a major mind opening experience. The world opened up from me from our neighbourhood and occasional visits to the family farm in Ireland. Starting off the ten books is a series, which is probably cheating but its my list.
Happy Venture reading system books with Dick and Dora. My first memory of reading was about a boy named Dick and a girl named Dora. They had a pet dog called Nip and a cat called Fluff. Part of the reason why these books appeared is that I related to Dick. Although I didn’t have a sister or a cat, I did share the house with a willful yellow Labrador that would get up to similar devilment to Nip. There was something of the haiku about the sentences in the book:
This is Dick.
Run, Dick, run.
Nip is a dog.
Nip, run to Dick.
What I didn’t know to much later is that the books were carefully crafted by a husband and wife team of Australian educationalists who had done a lot of research during the second world war on primary school learning. Fred and Eleanor Schonell’s books were the standard reading system for English pretty much everywhere outside the US. There are some who think that the US Dick and Jane books by Gray and Sharp plagarised the Happy Venture books. The Schonells also created the next stage you went on to reading the Wide Range Readers. If you want to blame anybody for this blog, Fred and Eleanor Schonell would be as good a people as any.
Ireland: a history by Robert Kee. Growing up at the end of the 1970s was a complicated time. The world was a more chaotic place than it is now (though I realise that maybe hard to believe). My Dad believed that I needed to have a good grasp of my own history and that would allow me to drive my own path. So he got me to read this dense academic history book that was originally written to accompany Ireland: a TV history – a co-production between RTÉ & the BBC. Kee was a British journalist who’d worked on Panorama with the series producer Jeremy Isaacs. Isaacs had produced The World At War in the early 1970s and my Dad had been a fan of the series because of its thoroughness and multifaceted viewpoint. To be honest with you I dreaded reading this book at the time because it was so big and there was so many words, but my Dad’s rationale stuck with me.
How It Works – Marshall Cavendish part works. My Dad used to read a lot whilst working shifts in the shipyard. He used to buy pulp paperbacks by the likes of Hammond Innes and Alistair McLean from a second-hand bookseller in Birkenhead market. One day he came home after being to the bookseller that lunch time. Instead of the usual couple of paperbacks was an open cardboard box under his arm and inside was a 50-volume part-work magazine published by Marshall Cavendish called How It Works. I used to dip in and out of it coming out of it with the answers to questions that I never knew I wanted to ask. The articles were generally better written and illustrated than the comparable Wikipedia article and there was a serendipity in randomly picking an issue and reading. Marshall Cavendish have re-released this at different times in different editions and with different numbers of volumes. I got rid of our box of How It Works magazines and instead managed to buy them as an encyclopedia set with much more robust bindings a few years later.
The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien. I remember being at primary school and hating having to pretend being Bilbo creeping around the dragon’s lair as some sort of half-assed drama class. I can still remember vividly the polished wooden floor feeling slippery beneath my socked feet. It was accompanied by the BBC dramatisation of the book which the school had a recording of. The recording inspired me to read Tolkien’s book despite the acting lesson trauma. The Hobbit acted as an on-ramp to the Lord Of The Rings series, I was fascinated by the intricate structure of it all: the multi-layered story that Tolkien created.
Modern Petroleum Technology – Institute of Petroleum. I had wanted to work in the oil industry for two main reasons: at the time I was living at the top of the Mersey basin which was dominated by oil refineries and chemical plants. Whilst environmentalists may see them as monstrosities in my child eyes they were a silver and fiery cathedral. The second influence was John Wayne’s portrayal of Red Adair in Hellfighters.
My Dad managed to borrow an old edition of Modern Petroleum Technology and I read through both volumes to help me prepare for a career in the oil industry. I eventually left the oil industry to study in marketing at university, but the experience that I gained put me in good stead for my subsequent roles.
The Art Of War – Sun Tzu. Despite having 13 chapters, The Art of War is a slim volume and an easy read. I dip into this book every so often and have done for the past 20 years. Everything else written on strategy is layered in unnecessary window dressing. I first picked up a copy of The Art of War while I was at university. There was a bookshop in the town which sold discounted textbooks way below price. I went in there looking for marketing books to broaden my source of references and came away with my first copy of this book and Accidental Empires.
Principles of Marketing – Philip Kotler. Doing my degree meant spending a lot of time with this book in a blue and grey Prentice Hall cover. Kotler’s work is thought to be the bible for marketers. To be honest with you, by the time I had finished my course I hated Kotler, his book sat on my shelf taunting me. It is the only book that I have burned. Reading Byron Sharp’s How Brands Grow made me realise how much of marketing at the time was based on the opinions of old white academics rather than rigorous research.
Accidental Empires by Robert X. Cringely – I came across Accidental Empires in the library at university and it was a revelation. Mark Stephens aka Robert X. Cringely had lived and breathed Silicon Valley, working at employee number 12 at a very young Apple Computer; so he made the ideal guide to the technology industry. Unlike most books that provide a background in technology, Cringely wrote in an informal style and gave the warts and oil side to the story. The book gave me a really good primer on the technology sector which came in handy when I went to work for The Weber Group in their London office. Despite the fact that the book was last updated in 1997, it is still worthwhile getting a copy from your local book shop.
Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance – Robert M. Pirsig. I’d done and seen a lot by the time I got to college. One of the things I used to do was read a lot, especially whilst working a boring shift. I had an older friend who had was well educated, but bummed out and used to smoke a lot. He switched me on to ZATAOMM. On getting to college, during my final year there I spent a good deal of time sharing a house with a fellow ZATAOMM devotee. I still go back to this work and the follow-up Lila to reset my inner compass when life throws me a curve ball.
Ogilvy on Advertising – David Ogilvy. Everything that we do whether we realise it at the time or not builds on or is a derivative of the work of people who have gone before us. Reading Ogilvy on Advertising early in my agency career brought that home as I continually saw ideas redressed and polished for new audiences. For instance, some of the posts that I have written here to do with the ethics of social media mirror the same level of respect that Ogilvy had for the audience of his advertisement campaigns.
Those were my ten books, I hope to add to this list rather than remaining static. What ten books have influenced you? More book related content here.
Also check out my bookshelf of non-fiction recommendations here.