“One of my students (who was majoring in, of all subjects, economics) asked me for a rule on what to read. “As little as feasible from the last twenty years, except history books that are not about the last fifty years,” I blurted out, with irritation…” – Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Most of the books published this year will be useless or forgotten soon (if they’re not already). With this in mind, I decided to take Taleb’s rule wholeheartedly. In 2015, every second book I read has to be at least 1000 years old.
As I mentioned in this post, “The thinking goes, if something was good to last for a thousand years (or, in modern times, 20 years!), then it must be really good.”
So this is what I’ve been reading in the past month or so:
Ab Urbe Condita Libri, Books XXXI-XLV, by Titus Livius (The History of Rome From Its Foundation)
This is my second dive into Livius’ monumental work. I read and LOVED Books XXI-XXX, which were bundled up in a compilation called The War With Hannibal by Penguin, and these ones, turned into a compilation called Rome and the Mediterranean, are great as well.
Books XXXI-XLV tackle Rome’s Second and Third Macedonian Wars, the war with Antiochus of Syria and the Roman Republic’s swift transition from its near destruction in the hands of Hannibal to the conquest of the known world. It’s an exciting tale of Roman toughness, ambition and political savvy.
Livius is a fantastic storyteller and keeps you engaged through the (very) long book. I love his recounts of the omens (the Romans were very superstitious!), the speeches (how cool is that we can, in 2015, read a transcript of a speech that’s more than 2000 years old?!), and the general depth and background he presents.
As I progressed in the book there were more and more lacunae (part of the text’s missing). After all, only 25% of Livius’ work survived to our time. I curse about that, but at the same time need to be grateful that we at least have that 25%.
On the Good Life, by Marcus Tullius Cicero
I’m ashamed that only now I’m reading Cicero directly. Cicero was Ancient Rome’s greatest orator – and, for a period of a few years, a prolific writer. He was lucky enough that a ton of his material has come down to us. On the Good Life is a compendium including Discussions at Tusculum, The Dream of Scipio, and part of his treatises On Duties, On Friendship, and On the Orator.
In these works, Cicero presents his thoughts on what makes a good citizen, friend, orator and statesman. He’s material is though-provoking, practical and stays true more than 2000 years later.
If you want some practical philosophy and ethics, you don’t need to look further. Start with Cicero.
Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, by Richard Feynman
Richard Feynman was a theoretical physicist, a leader in quantum electrodynamics, a Nobel-prize winner and a participant in the Manhattan Project that built the atomic bomb. With this intro, I expected Feynman to be a real-life counter part to Sheldon Cooper and his biography dense. I was dead wrong.
Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman is not your usual biography, as Feynman was not your usual physicist. Here’s a guy who, Nobel-prize aside, among other things:
– Went to Brazil to lecture on physics, and ended up playing frigideira and winning, with his fellow musicians, a major competition in Rio
– Started painting, without formal training or experience, and soon became a hot up-and-coming artist selling multiple of his paintings
– Played bongos for a ballet, getting a second place at a very prestigious competition in France
– Cracked the safes containing all US nuclear secrets just because he wanted to prank his colleagues
Feynman is the prime example of a life well lived. He’s funny, warm, and with his deeds and words will inspire you to live life to the fullest. I loved this book and would recommend it to everyone.
Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, by Ron Chernow
More sombre than Feynman’s, Rockefeller’s biography is not less interesting. After all, here’s who, according to many, is the richest man in history.
Chernow reviews Rockefeller’s rise from humble origins to a gigantic fortune through his major decisions – setting up his first partnership, getting into oil, ditching his senior partner, consolidating the oil industry, etc. He paints Rockefeller as a stoic, driven, calculating and ruthless businessman set out to fulfil his destiny, driven by faith and religion in a quest for industry domination.
The Minto Pyramid Principle: Logic in Writing and Thinking, by Barbara Minto
Minto’s Pyramid Principle is a popular book with the McKinsey-types. It’s a guide on how to write and think in a more clear and structured way.
Minto’s idea is that you should solve problems and prepare management presentations from the top-down: start with your recommendation or summarizing idea, and then present the 3-5 or so key supporting ideas, and then the support for these ones as well – making your reasoning take a ‘pyramid’ form. The book gives a lot of substance of what makes a strong pyramid: the famous MECE concept, deductive vs. inductive reasoning, how to dig into problems, and more.
It’s a good book, a must-read for anyone that has exposure to management or wants to make his or her thinking and communication more clear.
Have you been reading something interesting in the past few months? If so, let me know – I’ll be happy to take recommendations!