Three Good Books, Three Not So Good Books


Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer by Fred Kaplan

An exploration of the effects of being articulate, well-spoken and obsessed with learning is especially relevant after watching Obama use those three traits to take the presidency. It’s the author’s point that Lincoln’s log cabin story has obscured how impressive a writer and speaker he really was. More importantly, we forget that with the exception of Theodore Roosevelt we’ve never really had a president before with equal deftness in reading, writing and speaking. Normally they are good at one and abysmal at the others. There’s a part in the book where he takes one of Lincoln’s speeches and lays it out into a poem. It’s just one example but an incredible way to make the book’s central point: that Lincoln’s understanding of the English language and the power of persuasion were so impressive they we’re not even aware that he was using them.

The Book of Dead Philosophers by Simon Critchley

A wonderful concept for a book. It spends a page and half or so on the deaths of 170 different philosophers. For some, it nicely juxtaposes their beliefs with their practical applications. For others, it illustrates a hypocrisy. Mostly though, I think it does a good job bringing the lot of them back down to earth. The introductions (there are three) are themselves a decent discussion on death and dying. It’s one of those books you wish was a Wikipedia page so you could follow all the strands it begins to tug at.

The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America by Daniel J. Boorstin

This has to be one of the best books I’ve read in quite some time. The central point of the book is so incisive that it not only survived the major technological and cultural shifts of the last 50 years but is made stronger by them. He looks at how much of what we take as important or news is image or artifice – press conferences to announce press conferences, awards, articles about how much money celebrities make, news leaks, news breaks, annual “Best of” list, press releases, “no comment”, et al. A nice example is foreign policy. A president might say he wants to increase our “prestige” abroad. What does that even mean? As far as I can tell it means nothing, except perhaps a naive desire to receive credit for something you’re not taking any action to produce. The rest of the book is on what he calls “unreality”, a place similar to the dream would where our friends at Brazen Careerist live. I got the sense from the title that it was going to be about the media it much deeper and more personal than that. Very, very good.

Not So Good

Snark: It’s Mean, It’s Personal and It’s Ruining Our Conversation by David Denby

Ahh, I had such high hopes for this and I think the author did too. Unfortunately, I don’t think he quite understood the subject on which he was writing. Snark is a very real and very important trend in American culture but nyone that thinks Bill O’Reilly is snarky (he’s not, he’s an asshole. big difference) is completely clueless about where it’s going. It almost boggles the mind that someone could assert the right is leading the snark charge. The fact of the matter is that they aren’t culturally relevant or smart enough to be responsible. But it is something that you should have at least a vague knowledge or sense of because one day it will blindside you or your company. A nice example is to monitor the writing of any Gawker writer – see how often one day’s post will contradict the one that came before it. That’s because they write considering only the immediate post at hand (partly because of the economics of it) and it prevents them from developing a coherent editorial voice. Since everything has to be controversial or critical, what they write ultimately is never about what they have to say but the way in which they have to say it. It’s more sad than anything else.

The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth in Bush’s America by Frank Rich

It’s a shame that a book about story and spectacle would be so poorly structured and without message. The book has a fantastic title but is otherwise a complete waste. Rich is very endemic of the problem that critics of Bush has – they want to paint him both as a Machiavellian genius and completely incompetent at the same time time. The reality is much simpler and more in need of telling – his leadership style created incentives to be dishonest and manipulative and he was incapable of being aware enough to admit their was a problem. It makes for a bad presidency and boring books.

Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age by Steve Knopper

We need a book that looks at why the music industry resists innovation and makes poor decisions. This book is not that. It’s a timeline as told by a series of agents, scouts and label heads. Rarely does the author question what they say and he certainly never analyzes it. I get the feeling that his background as a journalist held him back from making this much more than a long article.

Written by Ryan Holiday
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying, The Obstacle Is The Way, Ego Is The Enemy, and other books about marketing, culture, and the human condition. His work has been translated into thirty languages and has appeared everywhere from the Columbia Journalism Review to Fast Company. His company, Brass Check, has advised companies such as Google, TASER, and Complex, as well as Grammy Award winning musicians and some of the biggest authors in the world. He lives in Austin, Texas.