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My Top Five Books That Made Me Think This Year

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAccording to goodreads.com (join me there—it’s great for keeping track of what you’ve read) I finished 117 books in 2013. I read just about anything, for if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that ideas, and new knowledge, and “aha’s”, and creativity, and laughter, and profound insights, can come from the strangest places. Here are five books that kept me thinking long after I closed the covers.

The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal. The author, a pottery artist, traces the history of Chinese figurines he inherited from an uncle, and thus learns of his Jewish ancestors’ rise to the very top of Parisian and Viennese society, their fates during World War II, and how they rebuilt their lives. I constantly found myself thinking, “How would I have handled both the triumphs and the tragedies? How would my family talk about it all?” If you decide to read it, I’d suggest

  • Read the illustrated version as, while the author’s descriptions are excellent, the pictures give access to times and places so foreign to most of us today
  • Read slowly. This is a complex, yet very readable story of one of our contemporaries trying to discover his family, a family whose wealth and position rivaled the Rothschild’s, whose inherited treasures included works of art from friends such as Monet and Renoir, whose ancestors were friends with Proust.
  • Read without searching for an agenda. What can you learn through what remains of a family that grew and succeeded and lost and moved on?

The End Of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe. This is a beautiful story of a mother and son using literature to connect, reminisce, remember, process grief, and so much more as she undergoes chemo for terminal pancreatic cancer. Instead of sadness and grief, the intertwining of events and their literary discussions gives the reader a picture of how end-of-life journeys can be enriched through common experiences. All too many of us are facing similar journeys and are looking for guides.

Shogun by James Clavell. Fascinating characters, intriguing insights into cultural clashes, a history lesson, love, honor, politics–what more do you need? Oh, the great narrator for an audio book. On a deeper level, though, this journey of almost 1200 pages is food for thought as to how well (and not so well) we are open to learning from other ways of life.

Mastery by Robert Greene. If you thought you had the potential to be a genius, would you work harder? Greene doesn’t deny the genius of Mozart, Curie, Einstein, da Vinci and several contemporary wonders, but instead looks for common elements that explain their over-the-top achievements. And what he found should make many of us think hard about whether we could be doing more with what we have. The six factors he identified (paraphrased) include

  • Dream. What captivated you as a child? In it may lie the roots of what you’d excel at. The stories he tells are of people who loved their fields so much that they can’t think of better things to do
  • Find a mentor. The right person is a master who is willing to share
  • Be an apprentice. Work alongside greatness, not worrying (for awhile at least) about what you gain beyond knowledge, connections, and ideas
  • Expand beyond your discipline. Make sure you’re exploring related fields and using other areas to enrich your own
  • Dedicate yourself to mastery. Yep, that 10,000 hours of intentional practice bit comes up. But make use of your strengths when you practice, get into the details, and synthesize what you’re learning from many areas
  • Develop social intelligence. He tells interesting tales of Benjamin Franklin, Temple Grandin, and others, who studied those around them to understand how to get their ideas accepted

Read and challenge yourself to master more of what you are capable of doing.

City of Thieves by David Benioff. Can I give it six stars? This is an exemplar of how to show, not tell–a skill we all need, whether we’re writers, consultants, teachers, leaders or parents. Through an almost Homer-esque odyssey of an 17-year-old orphan/chess champion and a 20-year-old army deserter/would-be literary novelist, as they track down a dozen eggs during the siege of Leningrad, the author exposes the horrors of war through action and stay-alive ingenuity rather than telling. One meets complicated characters–there are no easy moral answers here–that get at the brutality, heroism, craziness, desperation, loyalty and more that people discover within themselves when everything is at stake. Hearing that people boiled the bindings of books to make “candy” out of the proteins in the glue, for just a small example, isn’t the same as walking with our heroes through the black market, hearing them barter, tasting with them their first bite, and so on.

No more or I might spoil the many, many plot twists and turns. The audio version was totally gripping.

Five Already? But I didn’t have room for S. (Abrams and Dorst), a book written to write a book about a mystery about a … Or Decisive by the Heath Brothers—another great set of key ideas for better leading, managing, and influencing from the two of them. Or Reamde by Stephenson, where the plot is ever so slightly plausible if all those characters actually ended up in one family. Or Shifu, You’ll Do Anything for A Laugh by Nobel Laureate Mo Yan, one of the few short story collections I’ve ever embraced. Or for polishing off the incredible Captain Aubrey/Dr. Maturin series from Patrick O’Brian—amazing even if you don’t give one whit about the Royal Navy, the Napoleonic Wars, or cricket. But now I’m at 10 and readers might say I’m cheating.

What books made you think in 2013?

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Jane Kise

Jane Kise is a consultant and executive coach. The founder of Differentiated Coaching Associates and author of over 20 books, she works with schools and businesses worldwide to help create environments where everyone can flourish.

This Post Has 4 Comments
  1. Give and Take by Adam Grant. I know he’s a Myers-Briggs detractor (boo!), but Give and Take presented plenty of food for thought. He explains how givers can be the most or the least successful individuals.

    1. Thanks.Brenda, for the recommendation–I’ve put in a hold at the library. I believe in learning from just about everyone!

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