(If you want to make the most of your talents to build a better world)
Lists are great ways to give a sense of the values that matter to you as an individual or an organization. They explain how you approach problems. They explain what your purpose is. And they explain what perspectives you believe it’s important to consider before making decisions. This list is designed to convey all of those things about Rogue Interrobang. And of course you can buy the book that distils my approach, Our Dreams Make Different Shapes.
I love how-to books. And like Alice’s 6 impossible things, I can get through a pile of them them before breakfast. But what I tend to take from them are techniques. And while techniques are great, they are what you learn once you have decided what you want to do. They don’t shift your world on its axis. Those are the books I want to focus on here – the ones that made me rethink my “why”. If you already know your “why”, then for the “how” and “what” I recommend books like Peak by Pool and Ericsson, The Talent Code by Dan Coyle, Messy by Tim Harford, Deep Thinking by Gary Kasparov, Creative Confidence by Tim and David Kelley, Factfulness by Hans Rosling.
Strangers Drowning by Larissa MacFarquhar. This is one of the ur-texts of the effective altruism movement. A series of short biographies of people who seek to do the most good they possibly can in the world, sacrificing (MacFarquhar is a writer, so yes, there’s also some “but nonetheless in the process enriching their own lives” element) their own happiness, even their own families in the process. At its centre is a very simple question: if we want to do the most good we can, shouldn’t we focus our energies on the places and people we can most benefit, even if they are strangers? This is such an important book because I don’t think I could consider any decision about my life a good or complete one without confronting the deep deep abyss that question confronts us with. Because we should think about things which rock us to the core, and while it’s important to do things that make us happy, it’s also important from time to time to remind ourselves that our own happiness comes at a cost
Scarcity by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir. I could have included Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists because of its importance in introducing people to the concept of unconditional basic income, the most important foundation of a better future. But this book is the giants’ shoulders on which his work stands, as he freely admits. At its heart is something very simple – people who are poor make what seem like bad decisions not because they are bad, or feckless, but because they lack cash. And the way to solve this problem and help them to make better decisions is not to educate them, but to give them money. It’s an idea that’s truly revolutionary in how it can transform the way people see the world. And for anyone who wants to make the world better by helping everyone be the best version of themselves they can be it poses another simple question of existential importance: why are you not starting by trying to give everyone money?
To Reach the Clouds by Philippe Petit. This is the account of tightrope walker Philippe Petit’s wire walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Centre. It’s an achievement that you wouldn’t believe if you didn’t know it was a true story. I love books about extremes of human endeavour, but this puts everything else in the field in the shade (including the film based on it, the brilliant Man on Wire). It asks us to reframe what’s possible, what we call a life. It is also the most powerful book I’ve ever read about the crime of enclosure and the imperative of the commons – of reclaiming all spaces for all people and not resting till we’ve done that.
The Art of Memory by Frances Yates. Yates, along with Mary Carruthers, has opened up the world of ancient, mediaeval, and early modern thinking for all of us. This book is a history of the memory palace, the most powerful tool in the mental toolkit. It not only changes the way we think about what the mind can do, but roots us in thousands of years of practice. It’s the exquisite infinitely rich architecture on which writers like Tony Buzan built a very blunt set of tools, and really does show the importance of going back to the original sources.
The Internet’s Own Boy. Not a book. My one permitted cheat. The documentary of the life of Aaron Swartz is the most powerful case for the open access movement I have seen. Like unconditional basic income, a radical approach to open access is essential for enabling the most people to contribute the best they can to making the world better. It is one of the few non-negotiables in a better world. Yet as a writer, most of my peers hold me to be a heretic for saying so. This film is so important because it’s the moment that, for me, it clicked why open access matters so much. It’s also a wonderful tribute to a remarkable human being. As Taren Stinebrickner-Kaufmann said at Aaron’s memorial, “Aaron’s death should radicalise us. And his life should radicalise us too.” And there’s no better introduction to both his life and his death than this film.
Adults in the Room by Yannis Varoufakis. I could have chosen a number of books about economics – Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics, Marianna Mazzucato’s The Value of Everything, Thomas Piketty’s Capital. But the reason I came to those books is because of Varoufakis. On the face of it, this is the account of the negotiations behind the Greek debt crisis. That doesn’t sound thrilling, but Varoufakis makes it zing like the most satisfying thriller.
Explore Everything by Bradley Garrett. Urban exploration, or Urbex, has had a bad press. People think of it as breaking into places and doing risky things there. And that’s exactly what it is. But just because some of the people who do it are in it for the glory not any deeper principle, that doesn’t take away from the principle that spaces that could be public should not be enclosed. But most of all, urban exploration, for me, is about how we occupy space – as individuals and as societies. What Garrett’s book, which follows his encounters with groups of explorers, does so effectively is reshape our ideas of beauty and legitimacy. It makes us look at the world around us differently and, most important of all, see potential, see beauty, where we would otherwise see nothing at all.
Runner by Lizzy Hawker. Books about running have a habit of being extraordinarily well written, and Lizzy Hawker’s is the best of the lot. More than that, it’s one of the few books that captures the meditative nature of extreme sport – and that’s what makes it transformative. Hawker is one of those people you encounter on the page and instantly want to be. A brilliant scientist (oceanographer), she is also quite possibly the greatest athlete the UK has ever produced – five times the winner of the Ultra Tour de Mont Blanc, the world’s most prestigious ultramarathon – but almost certainly someone that if you are not part of the ultrarunning world you have never heard of.
Privacy is Power by Carissa Veliz. Data and privacy are two of the most important subjects of the coming decade. They are part of the same discussion as open access, and it is essential that we understand that having control over our own data, and privacy in how we access information are both indispensable parts of what open access actually means. One of the main things that stops people using information is fear – too often fear of reprisal from authority, or fear of an employer, or a credit agency, or simply fear of being a hostage to any one of a number of possible futures. Privacy is freedom from that fear. Without it access is never truly open.
How to Be Everything by Emilie Wapnick. Emilie Wapnick is the person who made the term “multipotentialite” famous. She is the person who gives you permission not to have a single life goal, but to have many goals. If, like me, you jump from passion to passion, and cannot keep afloat in life without a variety that society tells us is destructive and should be sacrificed for specialism, the freedom that this book offers is utterly intoxicating.