In the process of doing my own thesis – not for a Ph.D., because I never took a graduate degree, but just my undergraduate honors thesis — the single most formative experience in my career took place. It was not a tutor or a teacher or a fellow student or a great book or the shining example of some famous visiting lecturer – like Sir Charles Webster, for instance, brilliant as he was. It was the stacks at Widener.
Barbara Tuchman, Practicing History
The ripple effects of problems, and decisions, are many, and significant.
Take the current fiscal crisis, leading to so many budget cuts for such local services as Public Libraries.
I understand fiscal realities. But I also understand that when you cut one place, it might lead to problems elsewhere. This country has a growing sense of a great “education” crisis. This country has a growing sense of crisis for those who have not been able to find a job. Many have to learn new things, develop new skills. Some of these people need a place to look and learn because of their desperation…
These crises are intimately tied to the health of a good public library.
And… don’t forget that there is just the simple human need for discovery, and books have met that need for generations of curious people.
These are just a few of my thoughts after I read about a remarkable speech by a British writer. The author is Philip Pullman, who wrote Northern Lights (titled The Golden Compass in North America – if you haven’t read the book, you may know of the movie). I read about it in this article from The Guardian: Philip Pullman’s call to defend libraries resounds around web: Impassioned polemic against closures picked up by thousands of readers.
I then read his speech: Leave the libraries alone. You don’t understand their value. Best-selling author Philip Pullman spoke to a packed meeting on 20 January 2011, called to defend Oxfordshire libraries. He gave this inspirational speech, which we are very pleased to co-publish with openDemocracy.
It is a resounding attack on the budget cuts aimed at libraries, and a serious call for keeping the public library alive. Yes, he has a political point of view that might not align with many readers of this blog (e.g. — should market forces alone decide who gets published?), but…but… what would it mean to cut our libraries to shadows of that they were?, or possibly even lose them entirely?
Here are some excerpts from his speech:
Here in Oxfordshire we are threatened with the closure of 20 out of our 43 public libraries…
In the world I know about, the world of books and publishing and bookselling, it used to be the case that a publisher would read a book and like it and publish it. They’d back their judgement on the quality of the book and their feeling about whether the author had more books in him or in her, and sometimes the book would sell lots of copies and sometimes it wouldn’t, but that didn’t much matter because they knew it took three or four books before an author really found his or her voice and got the attention of the public. And there were several successful publishers who knew that some of their authors would never sell a lot of copies, but they kept publishing them because they liked their work. It was a human occupation run by human beings. It was about books, and people were in publishing or bookselling because they believed that books were the expression of the human spirit, vessels of delight or of consolation or enlightenment.
I still remember the first library ticket I ever had. It must have been about 1957. My mother took me to the public library just off Battersea Park Road and enrolled me. I was thrilled. All those books, and I was allowed to borrow whichever I wanted! And I remember some of the first books I borrowed and fell in love with: the Moomin books by Tove Jansson; a French novel for children called A Hundred Million Francs; why did I like that? Why did I read it over and over again, and borrow it many times? I don’t know. But what a gift to give a child, this chance to discover that you can love a book and the characters in it, you can become their friend and share their adventures in your own imagination.
When I came to Oxford as an undergraduate, and all the riches of the Bodleian Library, one of the greatest libraries in the world, were open to me – theoretically. In practice I didn’t dare go in. I was intimidated by all that grandeur. I didn’t learn the ropes of the Bodleian till much later, when I was grown up. The library I used as a student was the old public library, round the back of this very building. If there’s anyone as old as I am here, you might remember it. One day I saw a book by someone I’d never heard of, Frances Yates, called Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. I read it enthralled and amazed.It changed my life, or at least the intellectual direction in which I was going. It certainly changed the novel, my first, that I was tinkering with instead of studying for my final exams. Again, a life-changing discover, only possible because there was a big room with a lot of books and I was allowed to range wherever I liked and borrow any of them.
Somewhere in Blackbird Leys, somewhere in Berinsfield, somewhere in Botley, somewhere in Benson or Bampton, to name only the communities beginning with B whose libraries are going to be abolished, somewhere in each of them there is a child right now, there are children, just like me at that age in Battersea, children who only need to make that discovery to learn that they too are citizens in the republic of learning. Only the public library can give them that gift.
This speech is a wonderful testimony to the value of reading – and especially the value of reading by wandering around in a place filled with a seemingly limitless numbers of books.
This blog would not exist without books. I make my living by reading books, which provide the fuel for all of my presentations (as it did for many/most of my sermons for the first 20 years of my adult/professional life). I love books. I love rooms full of books.
If you have an ounce of appreciation for books, please read this speech. (Be sure to note his powerful defense of librarians). And then ask, what can we do to not only save our public libraries, but to make them even stronger?
I hope it is not a losing battle.
What makes a good writer? It may start with being a good reader.
And what makes a good reader? It may start with a love of books.
And what creates a love of books? That’s tougher to answer… But for those who are lucky enough to love books, we have our champions. Like Barbara Tuchman.
Bob posted this earlier: Summer Reading Picks from Dan Pink, Seth Godin, Eliot Spitzer, and More. It was written by William C. Taylor, co-founder of Fast Company magazine and coauthor of Mavericks at Work. His next book is Practically Radical. Taylor asked Pink, Godin, Spitzer, and others about their favorites. And then he shared a couple of his own favorite books. This is about his second choice:
My second choice is The March of Folly by historian (and two-time Pulitzer winner) Barbara Tuchman. She looks at some of the great failures of leadership in history — the Trojan War, British reactions to the American colonies, Vietnam — and teases out lessons that illuminate more current leadership crises.
So, who is Barbara Tuchman? Tuchman twice won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction, first for The Guns of August in 1963, and again for Stilwell and the American Experience in China in 1972. A renowned historian, she was first and foremost a lover of learning, which flowed from her love of books.
In the process of doing my own thesis – not for a Ph.D., because I never took a graduate degree, but just my undergraduate honors thesis — the single most formative experience in my career took place. It was not a tutor or a teacher or a fellow student or a great book or the shining example of some famous visiting lecturer – like Sir Charles Webster, for instance, brilliant as he was. It was the stacks at Widener. They were my Archimedes bathtub, my burning bush, my dish of mold where I found my personal penicillin. I was allowed to have as my own one of those little cubicles with a table under a window, queerly called, as I have since learned, carrels, a word I never knew when I sat in one. Mine was deep in among the 9425 (British History, that is) and I could roam at liberty through the rich stacks, taking whatever I wanted. The experience was marvelous, a word I use in its exact sense meaning full of marvels. The happiest days of my intellectual life, until I began writing history again some fifteen years later, were spent in the stacks at Widener. My daughter Lucy, class of ’61, once said to me that she could not enter the labyrinth of Widener’s stacks without feeling that she ought to carry a compass, a sandwich, and a whistle. I too was never altogether sure I could find the way out, but I was blissful as a cow put to graze in a field of fresh clover and would not have cared if I had been locked in for the night.
This is primarily a blog about business books, authors of business books, ideas found in business books, and general observations about business and life. But every now and then, we need to reconnect with the starting point – a pure love of books. Barbara Tuchman was captivated — won over — by the stacks at one of the world’s great libraries. It is a feeling I understand.
I just read the article in Time by Douglas Brinkley about Tom Hanks and his upcoming series (Hanks and Spielberg together) on the War in the Pacific for HBO: How Tom Hanks Became America’s Historian in Chief. It is worth reading. But here is an underlying message in the article/profile that grabbed me: Tom Hanks reads books. Lots of books. And when he gets hold of some concept, some idea, he looks for more books to read. Though film is his medium of choice, it is from books that he learns in depth. Here’s just a hint at his reading regimen:
He harbors a pugnacious indignation against history as data gathering, preferring the work of popular historians like McCullough, Ambrose, Barbara Tuchman and Doris Kearns Goodwin.
Tom Hanks reads, and then he does something with what he reads. And how good is he? Here’s what Brinkley wrote:
He’s the visual David McCullough of his generation, framing the heroic tales of explorers, astronauts and soldiers for a wide audience. (McCullough’s John Adams has sold about 3 million copies; Hanks’ John Adams brought in 5.5 million viewers per episode.) And in the history world, his branding on a nonfiction title carries something like the power of Oprah.
Though Tom Hanks dropped out of college, he is a serious, life-long learner. He dropped out of college for the purpose of learning even more about his craft, acting. (For a quick description of this chapter in his life, read the Wikipedia article).
And his hunger for learning has never slowed. The overwhelming impression one gets from reading the Brinkley piece is that Tom Hanks is dead serious about learning, and then equally serious about teaching. And this has become his true life’s work.
For a blog that cares about books, Tom Hanks provides a pretty good example of why good books matter.
Yesterday, I presented my synopsis of the provocative book The Black Swan: The Impact of the HIGHLY IMPROBABLE by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. This was requested by a large, Dallas-based international company to launch their lunch & learn sessions for 2010. The CEO had mentioned the book at a yearly planning meeting, and all of the folks wanted to know just what the book was about.
Well – here’s the book in a phrase: “nobody knows anything!”
And one of the specific points in the book is that we get really good at facing down yesterday’s problems today while remaining amazingly ignorant about what the next problem might be. Here’s a key quote:
What did people learn from the 9/11 episode? Did they learn that some events, owing to their dynamics, stand largely outside the realm of the predictable? No? Did they learn the built-in defect of conventional wisdom? No. What did they figure out? They learned precise rules for avoiding Islamic prototerrorists and tall buildings… The story of the Maginot Line shows how we are conditioned to be specific. The French, after the Great War, built a wall along the previous German invasion route to prevent reinvasion – Hitler just (almost) effortlessly went around it. The French had been excellent students of history; they just learned with too much precision. They were too practical and exceedingly focused for their own safety.
We do not spontaneously learn that we don’t learn that we don’t learn…
So, the book was on my mind when late last night I watched the 2000 movie Thirteen Days, the somewhat fictionalized/dramatized account of the Kennedy Administration in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It is a gripping story, even though we already know the outcome. In the movie, President Kennedy refers back to the great Barbara Tuchman book, The Guns of August. Here is the section from the movie (you can find the script here)
Last summer I read a book. The Guns of August. I wish every man on that blockade line had read that book.
The President moves over to the GLOBE by his desk, spins it, stopping in on Europe.
THE PRESIDENT (CONT’D)
World War One. Thirteen million killed all because the militaries of both alliances were so highly attuned to each other’s movements and dispositions, afraid of letting the other guy have a theoretical advantage. And your man in the field, his family at home, couldn’t even tell you the reasons why their lives were being sacrificed. Why couldn’t they stop it?
The President’s fingers turn the globe. It stops on North America. Kenny and Bobby listen.
THE PRESIDENT (CONT’D)
And here we are, fifty years later. One of their ships resists the inspection. We shoot out its rudder and board. They shoot down our planes in response. We bomb their anti-aircraft sites in response to that. They attack Berlin. We invade Cuba. They fire their missiles. We fire ours.
In the movie, the President basically argues that we don’t really learn the lessons we should learn from the conflicts, the mistakes, the wars of yesterday.
This clearly transfers to the business world. We try to fix today’s problems with yesterday’s solutions, and we assume that tomorrow’s problems will be like yesterday’s problems. Then, when a Black Swan flies into our face, we are surprised, astounded, unprepared. Taleb says this: you won’t know what the next Black Swan will be, but you should know by now that there will be a new Black Swan coming at you soon. When it arrives, don’t be surprised. Simply say, “there’s our next Black Swan.”
When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments.
(Paul to Timothy, 2 Timothy 4:13)
Nothing sickens me more than the closed door of a library.
To a historian libraries are food, shelter, and even muse.
Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill.
Every now and then, I think it is good to remind our readers what this blog is.
This is a blog by and for book readers and book lovers. And I admit that I am one of those book readers/lovers.
We occasionally just reflect on the developments of the day, or offer an opinion or two about different business issus. And we might occasionally refer to a non-business book or two. But primarily, this is a blog about business books.
Our blogging team is immersed in business books.
Karl Krayer and I (Randy Mayeux) have presented a minimum of two synopses of business books, each month, for over 11 years. You name the best seller, and we have probably read it and presented a synopsis of it. The Tipping Point; Good to Great; The Art of Innovation; Blink; Outliers; The World is Flat; Hot, Flat, and Crowded; Womenomics… – the list is long, and always growing.
Bob Morris is a frequent, frequent reviewer of business books (and a few other books) for Amazon.com, other sites, and for this blog.
And Cheryl Jensen and Sara Smith, after a significant career in the corporate world, now consult with companies, and for this blog they primarily share their insights from books related to women in business issues.
(click on the “meet our blogging team” tab at the top of this page to learn more about each member of our blogging team).
So this blog is a blog where you get the reflections of a pretty good group of book readers and book lovers. In addition, you can find many of the synopses of business books that Karl and I have presented over the years at our companion web site, with audio + handout, at 15minutebusinessbooks.com.
But primarily, this is a simple little blog. We talk about ideas – ideas that capture our imagination and make us think — from the best business books we can find. I hope you find it useful.
If you live in or near Dallas, check out our monthly gathering the First Friday Book Synopsis, always on the first Friday of the month (except for those rare holiday conflicts, when it moves to the second Friday of the month). Just click on the home page of this site, and follow the prompts to register.