Reflecting Recent Readings
The festive season allowed me to reflect on some of the books that I have been reading in 2012.
I have been trying to put my finger on the relationship between our day-to-day experiences and the more fundamental transformations our lifeworlds and societies are going through.
I was particularily fascinated by Stephan Greenblatt’s “The Swerve” (2011), a book on Poggio Bracciolini’s re-discovery of Lucretius’ (Epicurean) poem ‘On the Nature of Things’ in 1417. Greenblatt describes how this poems return to circulation changed the course of history, by influencing the founders of modern thinking. A fantastic perspective on the early days of humanism, even if it is a bit individual-centric (as rightfully pointed out by my mom).
Closer to our reality today is Florian Illies’ “1913” (2012), a book that defies traditional forms of writing fiction. Illies takes the perspective of an omniscient observer, describing from a neutral stance, chronologically the small and big events that happened to the protagonists of modernity in the months January to December 1913. By choosing his cast carefully, e.g. Oswald Spengler, Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka, Gottfried Benn, Pablo Picasso, Louis Armstrong, Oskar Kokoshka, and Adolf Hitler play bigger and smaller parts, he paints a continent that struggles with very fundamental questions of meaning, without realizing that the Damocles sword of 1914 is hanging over it.
This argument resonates with Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s epistemological manifesto “Antifragile – Things that Gain from Disorder” (2012). This erudite diatribe against main stream social science thinking argues that we are missing most of the important picture, when we ignore that what we do not dare to name: things that get stronger, when under stress. By introducing the term “antifragility” into the debate, he enables us to think about systems that become stronger, when introduced to stress and a certain amounts of randomness. This helps us, both to understand the past and gives us toolsets to think our futures. An important read, especially, for those of us interested in systems integration: His ideas about designing loosely coupled systems that allow a certain amount of randomness offers important advice for anybody building the ‘secure-open’ cloud/big data ecosystems of today/tomorrow. Could the argument be made in less than 850 pages? Probably.
This is what Krallmann/Zapp (eds.) focus on in “Bausteine einer vernetzten Verwaltung” (2012) where the bring together a group of academics, consultants, and policy maker to outline the fundamentals of a networked (Weberian) bureaucracy at the nexus between information sciences, juridical thinking, and administrative process. I was delighted to contribute a chapter on “open statecraft” to the volume, where I argue that we should think of openess as a means and not an end, in order to benefit from the potential of digitally networked systems. Just last week, I finally dared to re-read my own book “Machiavelli.net” (2012) and somehow actually enjoyed.
A book that really changed my thinking about the reality of political processes was Martin Plaut’s and Paul Holden’s “Who rules South Africa” (2012), a contemporary historical perspective on the complex political economy of this beautiful country. It’s very careful analytical approach allows the reader to understand the tension between historically grown centers of power and their cultural/institutional counterparts.
I have the hope that Don Winslow’s “Kings of Cool” (2012) and “Savages” (2010) will play a role in changing our thinking of Mexican-US relations in the long run. Its Californian’ North of the border perspective on the Marihuana trade is a foil to Roberto Bolano’s “2666” (2004) reflection on the unsolved and ongoing serial murders of Ciudad Juárez (and on post-modern literature in general). An interesting tidbit of an argument in the Kings of Cool was that with the return of Special Forces units from Afghanistan, the Mexican question will take a more prominent role in US policy – something Stratfor only picked up much later in the year.
Mark Owens’ memoir “No Easy Day” (2012) recounting the raid that killed Osama bin Laden was no easy read. My personal take on it was that it does give interesting insights into the bureaucracy/administration of targeted killings and it forces us to address several very hard ethical and legal dilemmas.
Ending on a lighter note, I very much enjoyed Clayton Christensen’s slightly cheesy “How will you measure your life?” (2012), a book based on his 2010 HBS graduation speech. No matter if you fully agree with his moral stance, using such frameworks to evaluate your life, is a meaningful exercise we should all come back to from time to time. It resonated nicely with the gerontologist Karl Pillemer’s “30 Lessons for Living” (2011), advice from more than 100o Americans over the age of 65, which was given to me for my 40th Birthday.
I’d be delighted to hear from you in the comments, what books touched your hearts and made you think this year.