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Good, better and best books for the New Year

Ben Yale Published on 07 December 2010


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As we leave yet another difficult year, it is easy to lay our failings on outside forces and other people. While failures can certainly come from outside, triumph always comes from within ourselves. Seventeen centuries ago, St. Jerome, the translator of the Latin Vulgate Bible, wrote, “Be at peace with your own soul, then heaven and earth will be at peace with you.”

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If our peace and our triumph come from within, then it only makes sense that we should take steps to improve ourselves. Physical training, while important, will not alone bring success. We need to think. St. Jerome said it this way, “What good is speed if the brain has oozed out on the way?” By pushing ourselves in what we know, we cannot only have a greater peace within ourselves, but an understanding of how we can respond to the forces outside our control. Even recent history helps.

Bond traders were boring people and their conventions were boring. A good bond trader convention brought in 500. But it was early 2007, in Las Vegas, and over 7,000 people showed up because bonds, particularly bonds backing mortgages, were booming. Not everyone intended to ride the wave of exuberant bond trading. The bond frenzy was brought about by exotic financial instruments based on or tied to a housing market with the very trades inflated. In other words, a bubble. Not everyone agreed these markets were sustainable. Doing the kind of due diligence all traders should have done, a few determined the bubble was ripe for bursting. For their financial interest, they shorted the market. In the end, they were right, but it came later than they thought. Concerned they were missing something, they attended the conference to see what others knew. What they found was a stripper who had financed five houses through loans backed by these bonds – proof that it truly was an artificial market.

This is one of many stories in The Big Short , an accounting of the rising and bursting of the housing bubble – the primary cause of the financial meltdown in 2008 and economic pain today. Michael Lewis, author of The Blind Side and Liar’s Poker , follows a number of key players who saw huge financial opportunity in shorting the market, and shorted them big, thus the title.

This book tells us more than how and why the most significant economic event in our lifetime occurred, but teaches us as well. The rush to keep up with the crowd and to have the same deals as everyone else had rich and powerful people moving so fast that their brains oozed out. Does chasing the latest fad or explanation or solution put us in the same position?

As a teenager, a lawyer in my small town encouraged me to be a lawyer. One day I stopped by his office to ask advice on what I should study in preparation for law school and eventual practice. His answer: Read a lot. At that time he was engaged in a project to read the 100 greatest classics of literature. He had them made part of the county law library. His rationale was that the human animal gets into such complex relationships of such great variety, it required more than a lifetime to experience. What experience could not teach, you could gain from books.

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Reading, and reading a lot, came naturally to me. One of the many blessings I got from my father was the love of reading. Some of my strongest memories are of him reading newspapers, magazines and books. We would bring home textbooks from school, and he would read them. In middle school through college I consumed books at a rapid pace. I took a speed-reading course to help. At one point, I was finishing books sometimes as fast as one a day. A younger brother and I would compete as to who read the most. Saturdays meant trips to the bookstore or the library. Among the books read in that time was the two-volume work by Page Smith, John Adams (not in a day or even two.) John Adams’ trust in the law and process in a time of distrust and disorder inspired me. He lived this when he defended the British soldiers charged in the Boston Massacre. That book was the real inspiration for me to be a lawyer.

Over the years, professional and family demands, and aging eyesight have slowed the pace to about one a week. It is a pace shared with columnist George Will, who “reads” primarily through listening to audio books as he walks his dog. Former President George W. Bush and his adviser, Karl Rove, both read at a similar pace and would challenge each other to do so.

One thing that books tell us is that in the end there is nothing new. During the Civil War, that incredibly dark period in our nation’s history, the most famous person of his time said, “Troubles are often the tools by which God fashions us for better things.” He never held public office, but his sermons filled his churches and he brought standing-room-only crowds on national and international speaking tours. Most of us remember his sister and her book that led to the Civil War, Uncle Tom’s Cabin , Harriet Beecher Stowe, but it was her brother, Henry Beecher Ward, who was the more famous in their time. In her book by that title, The Most Famous Man In America, The Biography Of Henry Beecher Ward , Debby Applegate tells the story of a dynamic abolitionist preacher who truly was the rock star of that era. But even he had his scandals, and in his final years he fought to defend himself in the public press and the courts against claims of adultery. Sound familiar?

Every year, I pick a topic to learn or relearn. For example, I wanted to better understand the theory of relativity. I came across a wonderful book by Brian Greene, The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory . He details in understandable language how mathematicians and physicists have come to believe we do not live in a three-dimensional world, but a world with more, hidden dimensions. This year I renewed the study (I still do not have my hands completely around it, but it is simpler than milk marketing) in The Search for Superstrings, Symmetry and the Theory for Everything by John Gribbin. The challenge to physicists is that the theories that explain the movement of planets and stars do not explain what happens in quantum mechanics. The goal is to find a symmetry that explains all of it. The simple and elegant answers to these perplexing issues of physics has only strengthened my belief in a Creator God.

Books give us a new perspective on business. Tony Hsieh, the founder of Zappos, in his book, Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion and Purpose describes how he and his team developed a “Wow” factor in customer satisfaction. Though selling raw milk may not permit the one-year return at company expense on product, the other ideas in developing a culture among employees that seeks excellence is worth understanding. Drive , by Daniel H. Pink, is another excellent book challenging employers to get the best out of their employees. In my opinion, you can skip the first part and go to II and III, but in any event, there are great ways presented to motivate your staff. In the Checklist Manifesto , Atul Gawande explains how he borrowed from pilots and led a group of physicians and hospitals worldwide to institute checklists for routine surgeries, tests and treatments. This simple thing has revolutionized modern medicine and dramatically reduced the avoidable hospital accidents causing injury and death. In the process, he effectively teaches the importance, and how-to, of checklists for all complex operations including dairy farming (for example, treatment of cows with antibiotics).

Reading can expand your life. As the new year begins, it is a time to spend less time watching TV or playing games, and more reading or listening to audio books while we exercise, drive or work.

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Be selective in learning things and be random. One desperate effort to have enough reading material from an airport bookstore for a long plane ride yielded a book by Umberto Eco. I have now read several of his. My favorite is Foucault’s Pendulum . It talks about Masons, druids, the true name of God, Jewish mysticism, witchcraft and the search for truth. Two publishers take note that there is a real market in books of these topics but they are almost predictable and indistinguishable. Rather than paying authors, they combine all of their thoughts into what they thought would be a nonsensical book. But all of the eccentric authors read the book and think these two really have found the secrets of the universe. Mystery, murder and lunacy follow. In another of his books, Serendipities: Language and Lunacy , he details how false beliefs and incredible beliefs could lead to the discovery of something good or true. For example, Columbus travels west to reach the Indies but actually discovers America instead.

Or did he discover America? In 1434: The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance by Gavin Menzies, the cover truly tells you the contents. It follows his earlier work, 1421: The Year China Discovered the World , where he shows how the Chinese created the maps European sailors like Columbus used later that century to “find” America. You will never read history the same way again after reading this fascinating argument.

The challenge we should have is that in all we do, we do our best and no matter where we stand in life, we strive so the next moment, the next month and the next year we are better and better prepared than we were before. It does not mean that when the next challenge comes such preparation will guarantee a favorable result, but it certainly guarantees a more favorable result than if we had relied upon the lesser self that we had in the past.

By reading, we exist in the lives of others, explore places we have never seen, expand our ideas, think in directions and ways we never considered, and, as a consequence, gain the experience of many lifetimes. St. Jerome gave us another clue to how we proceed in this new year:

Good, Better, Best
Never let it Rest
‘Til your good is better
And your better is best.

Training the mind helps do that. May this be the most prosperous of new years. PD

PHOTO : By reading, we exist in the lives of others, explore places we have never seen, expand our ideas, think in directions and ways we never considered, and, as a consequence, gain the experience of many lifetimes. Photo illustration by Kevin Brown.

Ben Yale

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