I’ve read a good number of books, but only a subset remain on my bookshelf. For instance, I love graphic novels, but I pass them on to friends. They entertain, but in general they don’t stay on the bookshelf. When I say bookshelf that’s probably inaccurate for a few reasons.
Some of the older books remain in crates at my parents house from my move to Hong Kong, but are still valued. I’ve managed to repurchase some of these again by accident. Others that I tend to use for work are in the bookcase in my living room, so bookshelves rather than a bookshelf. I tried using ebooks. That was fine or entertainment, but for some reason I didn’t retain any of the content.
I’ll be updating this bookshelf page over time, so think of it as a living document. Here’s some to kick things off and I’ll keep adding to it (Updated October 12, 2020).
Behaviour change is important to so many things now: design, new product development, advertising and service provision. This is why it has become a major part of my bookshelf.
Deep Simplicity: Chaos Complexity and the Emergence of Life by John Gribbin I first came across Deep Simplicity from the interest in chaos theory and fractals. This book is one of a number of popular science books which have sold 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. This complex behaviour then provides an analogue to understand the `unforeseen consequences’ that drive a lot of things that currently interest me like behavioural economics. I am careful not to take the conclusions too far as I still believe in free will. Models only work at scale.
Persuasive Technology: Using Computers to Change What We Think and Do by B.J. Fogg. Fogg’s book and foundational work on captology is the foundation for a lot of modern products from apps you can’t put down to health tech. I recently re-read it and wrote my take on it here.
Tiny Habits by B.J. Fogg – Fogg wrote this consumer-friendly book on personal behaviour change.
East and Southeast Asia went from being the poorest region of the world in the immediate aftermath of world war 2, to the most dynamic region today. China and the overseas Chinese community is a key piece in this puzzle. China makes up a good chunk of my bookshelf.
Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos. Osnos does a good job of catching the ambition of the Chinese people. If the book has a flaw, it is in its lack of real understanding of Premier Xi Jingping and his administration.
Hidden Hand by Clive Hamilton and Mareike Ohlberg. Both of them are academics. Their book highlights how China is influencing and reshaping the world outside China. Through engagement with elites, multilateral bodies and its own diaspora with focus and scale. I reviewed it in more depth here.
What Chinese Want by Tom Doctoroff. From 1994 to 2016 Doctoroff worked for J Walter Thompson as a client services lead covering Greater China markets. Initially he was based in Hong Kong and then he moved to Shanghai. What Chinese Want is a distillation of everything Doctoroff learned delivering work in China for the likes of Kraft and Kimberley Clark. Firstly, few people get that opportunity immerse themselves in a market, with one agency in the way that Doctoroff managed to do. Secondly, Doctoroff manages to articulate his thoughts in knowledge in a manner that I would expect from a senior strategist; rather than someone from the client services side of the business. I got this book soon after I started working in Hong Kong and it served me really during my time in China and afterwards when I worked on Huawei’s then fast-growing smartphone business.
Design isn’t just making a thing. But an expression of an idea, a philosophy and an embodiment of quality. Poor design indicates poor thinking, a flawed or lack of philosophy behind the product and goes hand in hand with poor quality. With that in mind, I have always thought that the thinking behind design is similar to the thinking behind strategy. And sometimes we just need nice things around us. That’s why design gets a place on my bookshelf.
8vo On the Outside by Mark Holt and Hamish Muir – 8vo was one of the trendsetting graphic design outfits of the 80s and 1990s. They did a lot of pioneering work on information design pre-internet. If you were an early Orange mobile phone customer – they designed your bill. 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. Both the work the minutiae of running an agency are fascinating.
Creating a brand identity by Catherine Slade-Brooking – although its orientated towards graphic designers this is an excellent guide to process, methodology and avoiding pitfalls in crafting a brand identity.
Less and More: The Design Ethos of Dieter Rams edited by Klaus Klemp and Keiko Ueki-Polet. One of the best works cataloguing the work of Dieter Rams. Rams philosophy of good design does a lot to inform us of what good strategy should exhibit
My Rugged 211 by Minoru Onozato. I consider curation to be a type of design. Onozato-san was the founder and long-time editor of Japanese style magazine Free & Easy. Free & Easy also extended itself into retail. Its impact on the menswear fashion world was as big as Vogue was for womenswear. All of it came from his very particular vision on ‘rugged’ items. A mix of new and vintage things that reflected quality and items imbued with stories. The 211 came from Onozato’s constant pruning and refining of his collection. When he got above 211 items, the excess would be sold or given away. More on the book here. Free & Easy has closed down, but its spirit lives on in HailMary – a magazine set up by many of the editorial staff.
teamLab Continuity edited by Kari G Oen and Clare Jacobson – teamLab is a a Japanese collective that have been going since 2001, they’re work crosses boundaries between art and design. The digital world and the real world. Art often informs the future that we create, which is why I think teamLab’s work is so important.
The Pentagram Papers. Pentagram is a UK-based design agency. They periodically published brochures covering esoteric subjects as a form of inspirational materials. The brochures were collated in this handy volume.
My Dad is an engineer. He never went to university but instead served a four-year apprenticeship working for what was the Irish Sugar Company. He was servicing and making machinery out of parts that they had to hand, and manufactured in their own machine shop. This weird mix of devices were used in an experimental farm in peat land exhausted from harvesting by Bord na Móna. He went on to help build nuclear submarines, maintain a car manufacturing plant and paper mill during scheduled shutdown and work in plant hire.
He fabricated fixes to various machines, the original manufacturers then paid my Dad’s boss and patented those innovations. He gave me an appreciation (if not the talent) for engineering whether its Swiss watches or power stations. My time working in the petrochemical industry was partly down to his influence.
Modern Petroleum Technology by the Institute of Petroleum takes you through all the stages of the oil industry. From understanding the geology, right the way through to refining oil for chemical feedstocks. The engineering solutions outlined in of themselves highlight solutions to future problems that we’ll have with geothermal energy to hydrogen fuel cells. It also brings home the ubiquity of oil in our lives. Oil isn’t just about home heating oil, fuel for the car or the airplane, but the polymer covered batteries and circuit boards in the computer I type this on.
Getting stuff out of meetings
The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures: Simple Rules to Unleash A Culture of Innovation by Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless – think of this as a tool box for moving forward workshops, product development meetings etc.
Bomb, Book and Compass: Joseph Needham and The Great Secret of China by Simon Winchester. English academic Needham looked to preserve the history of China’s scientific and inventive accomplishments during world war 2. From his work we get a different narrative about inventions, compared to the one that you and I probably learned at school. It adds evidence to the hypothesis that innovations have their time and the inevitable progression of technology (Kevin Kelly’s technium) almost has a life of its own. More here.
Civilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark – I’ve got a lightly worn soft back edition of the book that mirrored and complemented Clark’s tale of western Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. It is a beautiful and coherent portrayal of European history. I can also recommend the series which is available on DVD. The BBC revisited this with a portfolio of presenters in the TV series Civilisations – which felt dumbed down for a modern audience.
Fear and Loathing: On The Campaign Trail’72 by Hunter S Thompson. Less well known than Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or Hells Angels. Thompson embedded with the political media for Rolling Stone magazine. He talks extensively about the Democratic party primaries used to find a candidate to run against Richard Nixon. What results is a classic example of the new journalism pioneered by Tom Wolfe and Thompson. Thompson opening up the inner workings of the body politic for our own amazement and curiosity. Politics doesn’t come off well from the experience.
Ireland by Robert Kee. My Dad bought this book for me. It was designed to give me a sense of my own history. This book was an accompaniment to Ireland – A Television History. A thirteen-part series narrated by Robert Kee. Kee’s TV series isn’t available on Blu-Ray or DVD; but if yu poke around on YouTube, you may be in luck. Having the book and the show authored by Kee meant that both worked really well with each other. Despite Kee’s sterling efforts, there is a still a lack of understanding of Irish history in Britain.
Michael Collins by Tim Pat Coogan. Collins is was founding father of modern Ireland. He died at the age of 32 and was a complex person, a polymath and military figure. His actions were subsequently studied by other countries leaders including Yatzik Shamir and Mao Zedong during their fight for independence. Coogan provides a comprehensive, authoritative and independent biography of Collins.
Six Days – How the 1967 war shaped the Middle East by Jeremy Bowen. BBC journalist Bowen, provides a well-researched complex recounting of the six-day war that shaped the geography of the modern Middle East. More here.
The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis. The author of Liar’s Poker on Donald Trump and the role of government. Lewis’ book is much more than a history, but a repudiation of neo-liberalism and the Chicago school. More here.
The World At War by Mark Arnold-Foster – the book accompanied at TV series of the same name that featured real world accounts from people at the time still alive to remember and recall the events. The book tells the story in a balanced way, but with a definite British view point. I read this as a child and recently when I was back at my parents one Christmas.
I’d put some marketing-specific recommendations for reading materials here. It pulled in books from different disciplines that would work to inspire a marketer and provide them with effective tools. There is some overlap with this page.
Consumerology by Philip Graves. Marketing psychology consultant Graves looks at the different marketer and consumer biases that can adversely affect research projects. His AFECT research criteria is a useful way to assess the relative effectiveness of a given research project for marketers. More here.
Eat Your Greens edited by Wiemer Snijders is a series of short essays from well known names in advertising creative, account planning, branding, behavioural science and marketing. Its a good light read for marketers at all experience levels. I reviewed in more depth here.
eMarketing eXcellence by Dave Chaffey and PR Smith. Like Internet Marketing by Chaffey, this is a good primer on digital marketing for marketers. PR Smith brings his expertise in terms of environment and analysis to this work.
How Brands Grow part 1 and part 2 by Byron Sharp is the modern marketers bible for B2C brands of various stripes. Sharp and his colleagues distill down decades of evidence-based research that has been carried out by Ehrensberg-Bass Institute of Marketing Science attached to the University of South Australia. (Reading the books gives you a sense of how marketing technology is often at odds with the task of achieving efficient and effective marketing campaigns. These tools are built and designed by engineers rather than being guided by marketing science.)
The research institute has got a who’s who of corporate sponsors supporting their work and using their data:
- General Mills
- Grupo Bimbo
- Procter & Gamble
- Red Bull
How To Win Friends And Influence People by Dale Carnegie. This book is a guide to customer relationship management, community management and marketing decades before those terms came into existence.
Internet Marketing: Strategy, Implementation and Practice by Dave Chaffey, Richard Mayer, Mr Kevin Johnston and Fiona Ellis-Chadwick. Dave Chaffey is a bit of a legend when it comes to internet marketing. This book is a good primer for marketers on digital marketing.
The Dentsu Way by Kotaro Sugiyama and Tim Andree highlighted Dentsu’s Cross Switch approach. Much of marketing is very much about silos, if someone talks about multichannel it usually means online with a fig leaf of offline brand advertising. Sugiyama-san and Andree outline a long running more integrated approach to marketing communications. It is remarkably different to most agencies who go with ‘digital is the answer, now what’s the question’. Many similar books are self-serving pieces of agency marketing, but this isn’t, which is why it earned a place on my bookshelf.
The Handbook of Online and Social Media Research: Tools and Techniques for Market Researchers by Ray Poynter. I first reviewed Poynter’s book on this blog back in 2010 and it has weathered that time exceptionally well. One of the things that sets it up so well is that Poynter thought about online in a very wide way, rather than falling into the trap of obsessing about insights derived from social media. I still dip back into it on a regular basis. So it goes on and off my bookshelf on a regular basis.
Letters from a Stoic: Epistulae Morales AD Lucilium by Lucius Annaeus Seneca. 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.
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius – Aurelius was the only Roman emperor who was also a philosopher. Meditations is a set of reflections and exercises that he developed as he sought to understand himself and the universe around him. They were designed to increase his resilience, providing personal consolation and encouragement. Which is the reason why they have been revisited through the ages.
The Three Pillars of Zen by Philip Kapleau. Despite being over 50 years old as a book, Kapleau still provides the western reader with the best comprehensive yet accessible guide to zen buddhism.
Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M Pirsig. I’ve reread this book several times and some of the best times I had in college was discussing it with my house mates during the final year of my degree. ‘Zen’ was our shorthand for the book and the way we used it to reflect on the things going on around us. It’s a great read on many levels. My original copy, was held together by sellotape for many years until it could no longer retain the pages. I am now on my third copy. In the book, Pirsig provides a narrative account of his own pursuit to discover the nature of quality. He paid a high price, which is outlined in the book. In a world of iterative builds on products and ‘move fast and break things’; an understanding of quality has never been more important. Pirsig wrote his book when the most complicated objects in people’s homes where the car in the garage, the TV in the lounge. A sowing machine periodically removed from the cupboard and watch on their wrist. But that doesn’t mean the need for quality has diminished, on the contrary it has increased as fewer objects seem to now possess it.
Blue Ocean Strategy by W Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne. Back when I read the book I summarised as: The book’s premise is that most business strategy books are about conflict and competition and this is wasteful. Instead it provides a framework for strategists to Think Different and differentiate their businesses instead. What’s interesting, but not discussed by the authors is how their work is received by the kind of type-A personalities typically found at the top of businesses. It is well worth having on your bookshelf though.
Cultural Strategy by Douglas Holt and Douglas Cameron. Holt and Cameron worked at the time of writing for the Cultural Strategy Group. The book posits that a distinctive position can result in a successful company. They look to back this into the company culture itself rather than as a wrapper around a product. More on it here.
Science, Strategy and War – The strategic theory of John Boyd by Frans P.B. Osinga. Osinga provides context of Boyd’s thinking including how it sprang out of his combat experience. He then talks about the meta analysis of other strategists that Boyd undertook and where he learned from other disciplines including social science, philosophy and scientific theory. John Boyd is a largely mis-understood military strategist whose ideas are increasingly being used out of context in the realms of business and marketing. More on Science, Strategy and War here.
The Art of War by Sun Tzu – Yes I know that applying military thinking to business strategy is a dangerous rabbit hole to go down. But I think that this book is powerful because it acts as a framework to think about problems rather than suggesting answers. I go back and re-read this every so often for inspiration, which it has such a prominent place on my bookshelf.
The Manager’s Guide to Systems Practice: Making Sense of Complex Problems by Frank Stowell and Christine Welch – the book outlines a framework for looking at the world that helps in problem solving. It has a good base given that the authors provide a balanced view of different systems thinking approaches. I liked the book as it eases you into systems thinking and then ramps up your learning. That learning curve alone makes this essential for my bookshelf.
Technology and economics
Handbook Of The Economics Of Innovation And Technological Change edited by Paul Stoneman. Stoneman curated a selection of essays that are still as relevant today as they were when I bought this book at a discount book store when I was in college. it seems to be very underrated, not even meriting a single Amazon review.
New Rules for the New Economy by Kevin Kelly – this was pretty much a bible-like publication during the dot com boom. It fed of the utopian post-counterculture vision that the hippies brought to Silicon Valley. But of course, there aren’t perfect markets and consumers don’t have perfect knowledge.
Wall Street Meat by Andy Kessler. Kessler was a peer of Henry Blodget, Mary Meaker and Jack Grubman. He still invests and writes the occasional op-ed for the Wall Street Journal. In Wall Street Meat Kessler tells the insanity of the original internet bubble from the finance side.
Technology and history
Technology and history is what started me on my career journey during my time at college to today. I loved the Apple PowerBook that I used in college and immediately after. I was inspired by reading Byte, Dr Dobbs Journal (DDJ) and Wired magazines in the college library. I was also inspired by books about Silicon Valley. Specifically one book: Accidental Empires by Robert X Cringely was something so different to what I’d been used to. I’d worked in industry, but hadn’t experienced anything like this. Over time, technology and history built up its own section on my bookshelf.
Architects Of The Web by Robert H. Reid. He wrote up the profiles of many of the pioneer web companies including Netscape, Real Networks, Marimba, Yahoo! and Silicon Graphics. It’s helpful to revisit the future the way it was envisaged during the late 1990s and see how the future has changed. Reid wasn’t a technology writer by trade, but seems to have caught the bug. Since writing this, he went on to write three Silicon Valley based novels. I have no idea if they are any good.
Being Digital by Nicholas Negroponte. At the time of writing this book Negroponte was at the top of the digital world. He headed up MIT Media Lab, wrote for Wired and was widely quoted in media around the world. Negroponte did work that foreshadowed in-car sat navigation devices, Google Street View and the modern stylus-less touch screen. Some of the ideas in his book around online media and cord cutting was on the money. More on Being Digital here.
Burn Rate by Michael Wolff. Wolff was a successful publisher who decided to move into new media in the 1990s in ‘Silicon Alley’ era New York. He shares in the who went through the trials and tribulations of getting funding and the eventual demise of Wolff New Media. He has continued to write books and provide commentary in the US media
Crypto by Steven Levy. 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
From Satori to Silicon Valley: San Francisco and the American Counterculture by Theodore Roszak – back in 2008, I wrote a post about a little known 64-page essay pamphlet that outlined the personal memories of a Stanford academic who saw how the counterculture influenced, and gave way to yuppie culture in Silicon Valley. It now costs over £300 on the Amazon UK site.
Google Hacks by by Rael Dornfest, Paul Bausch and Tara Calishain. So five years ago this book would have been in a section called tools. The problem is that a lot of the ‘hacks’ in this book have been shut down by Google as it grew larger and become less Googly. Instead the book has become an artefact of what power netizens have lost. A number of the ideas in there sound like they might make good start-up concepts in themselves; often an idea needs a few attempts before it becomes a business. Skype built on a long line of voice over IP clients, WhatsApp owes a huge debt to countless IRC and instant messaging clients. Google Talk died in 2013 when they decided to no longer support the XMPP standard. Google Blog Search was shut down in 2011., Google Base was a way of getting documents, images and spreadsheets directly into Google. Google Reader shut down in 2013, after it had devastated the market for RSS readers – RSS newsreaders survive as a cottage industry thanks to the likes of Newsblur. Google Reader had a bookmarking service in it as well, where users lost stored articles when it closed down. Google Desktop provided Google smarts to searching a journaled version of your computer’s hard drive was discontinued by 2011.
The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation by Joe Gertner – Before there was Silicon Valley there was Thomas Edison and the Bell Telephone Company. A monopoly on telecommunications allowed Bell Telephone to invest in deep research. Gertner pulls together a history that starts to fall down when covering the break up of AT&T in 1984. More on my initial reading of the book here.
The New, New Thing by Michael Lewis. Pretty much every book that Lewis writes will compare unfavourably to his first book Liar’s Poker, but that book doesn’t mean that The New, New Thing shouldn’t be read. The book profiles Jim Clark, who founded Netscape and Silicon Graphics and aimed at the time to turn the healthcare industry with a new project. Lewis is capturing Clark when he is past his prime from a creative point of view. What Lewis does capture is the optimism and hubris in Silicon Valley that it can change anything.
The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind. I used to work on the Enron account at my first agency that I worked at. We were promoting Enron’s broadband exchange offering. They explained it to me. It made no sense. In this book Enron’s forays into the telecoms sector was part of a wider story of technology, financial wizardry and magical thinking. Eventually it all came crashing down. It seems to be ancient history and then you read the FT coverage on Wirecard.
Books that I have found which aided in personal productivity, getting stuff done or thinking myself out of problems. I don’t necessarily read these books from end-to-end but dip into them which is why they’ve earned a place on my bookshelf.
Mac Hacks – Chris Seibold’s book is a handy primer for newbie Mac users. I’ve given out several copies of this over the years and keep one at home. Unfortunately Seibold no longer seems to be writing books for O’Reilly any more.
Whilst I am skeptical about a lot of trend forecasters, they are important for the framing that they provide marketers and business thinkers. Here are some of the trend books that were worthwhile reading from my bookshelf.
Megatrends by John Naisbitt. Megatrends was based on ten years of academic research and ended up being the New York Times best-seller list for two years following its publication in 1982. Along with Alvin Toffler, Naisbitt was a centrist voice who looked to remould institutions to allow them to better serve use in the future. It is interesting reading now, given the pervasive nature of technology. More here.
Paradigm Shift by Don Tapscott. Paradigm Shift was required reading when I was in college and was one of the most read books on my bookshelf back then. Many of the important concepts such as enterprise collaboration and the co-opting of consumers in the production process have been amplified by technology.
Writing is a key part of my job, and of this blog. I won’t say that I am a great writer, or a good writer for that matter. But I have tried to focus on being an effective writer in my professional career. On my bookshelf are some items that have helped me with this process.
How To Write A Thesis by Umberto Eco. Eco’s book is a really good guide to collecting one’s thoughts and presenting facts gained through a comprehensive research process.
The Yahoo! Style Guide: The Ultimate Sourcebook for Writing, Editing, and Creating Content for the Digital World – when I started off in agency life, there were three main style guides on your bookshelf. The AP Stylebook, which was adhered for copy going into American newspapers. Either of the Economist or FT style guides were used for UK and Irish business writing. When I got to Yahoo! in the spring of 2005 – I was given a ring bound version of what would be later published as The Yahoo! Style Guide. The Yahoo! Style Guide distills the knowledge of editors who had been writing for the web since the mid-1990s and was pitched at a mainstream audience. If you want to talk and pitch the average member of the English speaking public, there is no better guide to writing than this. Given the reference nature of this book, if you have the opportunity; buy a style guide that is spiral bound. It will be more hardwearing than its softbound brethren and sits flat on a desk when open without having to leave it page down. (I also miss old school spiral bound technical manuals for the same reason). At the time of writing only AP provide this option to the general public and it is worth the extra $12 dollar or so, premium you pay. Especially if you are using the guide day-in, day-out.