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At some point you’re going to step away from the computer, jump on a plane, in a car, or on your bike, and take a break this summer (right? promise us!). Here are some of the GigaOM team’s favorite recent reads — a diverse list that reflects the breadth of topics that interest writers across our network. We’re sure you have recommendations, too, and we’d be much obliged if you’d leave them in the comments.
THE ANTIDOTE TO CHICK LIT:
“Comeback America” by David Walker (Random House, 2010)
If you’re a saver — you know, the type of person who grabs a knife to capture the last dredges of ketchup in a squeeze bottle — then you probably don’t need to read David Walker’s “Comeback America” to know that the U.S. is heading for a fiscal meltdown that will ruin the lives of your children and grandchildren. But for the rest of us out there, it’s a story that needs to be told, and Walker, who was the former Comptroller General of the U.S. and head of the GAO, tells it clearly with a minimum of hand wringing and a maximum of scary fiscal stats. He’s not panicked so much as glumly resigned by the profligate spending in our nation’s capital. Sure, he says he’s peddling hope, but I couldn’t see a lot of hope in his message that business leaders and Congress need to cut back on spending. Walker doesn’t sugarcoat things, and I suppose it’s better to be informed ahead of time about our grim future. It gives me time to perfect my kitchen garden so my family will still be able to eat.
Where to read: While waiting to see your Congressman about that tax break your special interest group is pursuing.
HISTORY IN THE MAKING:
“The Facebook Effect” by David Kirkpatrick (Simon & Schuster, 2010)
Mark Zuckerberg chose David Kirkpatrick to write an authoritative history of Facebook’s first six years. That’s the most important thing you need to know about “The Facebook Effect.” Though he’s an independent reporter, Kirkpatrick shares Zuckerberg’s vision of a world improved by technology making people more connected and accountable. You should read the book this summer for its thorough accounts of the young and incredibly successful company’s key product and hiring decisions while the specifics are still relatively recent. Skip the intro and conclusion where Kirkpatrick tries to coin the term “Facebook Effect” (pretty sure it’s already called “network effects”) and forecast Facebook’s long-term cultural significance. But read the middle of the book to connect the dots of Facebook’s unprecedented arc of growth and be in awe of Zuckerberg’s otherworldly clarity of vision.
Where to read: Make your way to downtown Palo Alto and make sure to flash the blue and silver hardcover at University Cafe and other key venues from Facebook history.
HOW DIGITAL MEDIA COULD BE USED FOR GOOD:
“Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity In a Connected Age” by Clay Shirky (Penguin Press, 2010)
If our hyper-connected and digital age has an official media guru, it
is surely Clay Shirky. A professor of new media studies at New York
University, Shirky is widely quoted by everyone from the New York
Times to the Economist on the future of digital media and the ways in
which it is changing society. His previous book, “Here Comes
Everybody” (Penguin Press, 2008) helped cement that reputation, with
its look at the crowdsourcing philosophy behind such web centerpieces
as Wikipedia, and his new book is an extension of those
thought-provoking ideas. Shirky makes a good case for the idea that
modern middle-class society wastes a lot of time doing non-creative
things such as watching television, and that the effort expended on
such pursuits represents a “cognitive surplus” that people could put
to better use online by creating things such as Ushahidi (a website
that aggregates Twitter and other social media reports to track
survivors and aid attempts following disasters such as the Haiti
earthquake) and even LOLcats.
Where to read: In a Starbucks, of course, where the person typing
madly on the laptop next to you is probably developing the next
Facebook or Twitter in between gulps of his chai latte.
THE BILL GATES BOOK CLUB:
“Energy Myth and Realities: Bringing Science to the Energy Policy Debate” by Vaclav Smil (AEI American Enterprise Institute, due to be released on July 16)
Until recently, few people, even within environmental circles, had heard of Vaclav Smil, a professor at the University of Manitoba, despite the fact that he’s written some 25 or so books on energy, green technology and world resource consumption. That was until newly-turned greentech investor Bill Gates dedicated a full page of his Gates Notes blog to plug not 1 but 3 books of Smil’s, including Enriching the Earth, Global Catastrophes & Trends, and Energy at the Cross Roads. Gates even said that Smil has “opened my eyes to new ways to think about solving our energy and environmental issues” Um, that’s enough or an endorsement for me — sold. Energy Myth and Realities is Smil’s latest eco reality check that comes out on July 16, and will make you more educated about the world’s power resources, and likely quite a bit more depressed about the future.
Where to read: For maximum guilt turn your AC up to max, flip on all the lights, crack open the fridge and dig into a book that’s sure to make you feel more than a little bad about your lifestyle.
“The Mistborn Trilogy” by Brandon Sanderson (Tor Fantasy, 2006-2008)
As an avid fantasy and sci-fi reader, it’s not often that an author surprises me with ingenious originality. Amazingly, Brandon Sanderson did just that with his three-book Mistborn series. Like most epics in this genre, the Mistborn books offer a classic good vs. evil, whole-world-at-stake theme combined with character races filled with rich background history. But Sanderson keeps the reader off-guard as not even the characters in the story know their true origins or the role they play in either the saving, or the destruction, of their world. Even better is the unique scientific-based approach Sanderson takes to create magic in the Mistborn world. Magic isn’t taught from tomes, nor are spells chanted aloud. Instead, magical abilities are learned throughout the story and based on characters ingesting specific metals — when “burning” metals, the characters gain amazing abilities for a finite time. There’s even experimentation by characters ingesting various alloys for different powers, which leads to completely unexpected plot twists and turns.
Need another reason to read Sanderson’s work? After Robert Jordan, author of the “Eye of the World” series, passed away leaving the story incomplete, Jordan’s widow read Sanderson’s Mistborn books. She was so taken with the story that she asked Sanderson to complete her husband’s work using notes left behind. I can think of no higher recommendation for Sanderson, nor his Mistborn trilogy.
Where to read: Turn off the radio in your Kindle, iPad or smartphone so you can fully experience the fantasy world found within the Mistborn books.
THE LAST TIME THE LITTLE GUYS TOOK OVER THE ENTERTAINMENT INDUSTRY:
“Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood” by Peter Biskind (Simon & Schuster, 1998)
If you’re at all a film fan — especially a fan of movies from the
1970s — Biskind’s interview-soaked tale of how Martin Scorsese,
Steven Spielberg and other filmmakers of the era broke into Hollywood
and completely revolutionized it is delicious gossipy reading. (Ever
wonder how much drug use went on in Hollywood in the 1970s? The answer
is A LOT OF DRUGS.) But it’s also relevant today as an examination of
a period when the entertainment industry was in a position of flux,
when new voices were infiltrating the system but also becoming
corrupted by it. As Biskind tells it, the great creative revolution
that took place in that decade eventually resulted in the creation of
the Hollywood blockbuster and the complete commercialization of
American film. Call it a cautionary tale for the new media creators
Where to read: While waiting in line for tickets to see Christopher
Nolan’s “Inception” (in IMAX, natch).
STOCK UP ON ANECDOTES FOR YOUR NEXT COCKTAIL PARTY:
“The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home” by Dan Ariely (HarperCollins, 2010)
The author of “Predictably Irrational” returns with a new book, “The Upside of Irrationality,” which is as exciting and fun to read as his debut effort. In order to enjoy Ariely’s work one needs to appreciate a great truisms of life — that randomness and numbers essentially dictate the outcome of pretty much everything. Ariely both performs and describes various experiments to explain why big bonuses may not make sense for creative thinkers, but could work for folks who perform more mechanicals tasks — or why revenge is so important for people. He also touches on the topic of happiness as seen through the lens of economic data.
A reader needs to remember that this is not a business manual, but instead it is one man’s attempt to explain the irrationality around us, not to be taken too seriously. When reading the book, you feel you are having a conversation with the author. As a blogger, I like how Ariely has artfully weaved himself into the book without being overbearing.
Where to read: While driving thousands of miles into a desert, baking yourself in the sun, and setting yourself up for an appointment with an oncologist.
QUALITY READING FOR YOUR TECH-SAVVY KIDS:
“Miss Spider’s Tea Party” by David Kirk (Scholastic Press, iPad version 2010)
Miss Spider’s Tea Party is a media extravaganza, with a series of books, a television and an iPad app that will keep younger kids occupied for half an hour at least without triggering your gag reflex or causing your attention to wander. My focus is on the iPad app, which is a fantastic example of the future of books in a way the beautiful, but less engaging and juvenile-friendly Alice in Wonderland iPad app isn’t. The animation isn’t overpowering, and the interactivity is about the level that a preschooler can understand. The entire app integrates music, some animation and activity in a way that feels like part of the book as opposed to an add-on experience. Plus, (if you’re going to actually read the story) Miss Spider is shorter than Alice. My daughter especially loves the memory-style matching game, which I will totally cop to playing when I get bored as well. Which is good, because at $10, this app isn’t cheap.
Where to read: In the pediatrician’s office while trying to keep junior away from the germ-laden toys.
“Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America’s Energy,” by Jeff Goodell (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006)
“Coal was supposed to be the engine of the industrial revolution, not the Internet revolution,” writes Jeff Goodell. And if you’re like him, you’ll probably make it through much (or all) of your adult life without ever laying eyes on a lump of coal. But every day an average American consumes some 20 pounds of coal, burning it “by wire,” when we flip on a light switch or recharge an iPad. “Big Coal” is Goodell’s fast-paced, trivia-filled tale of the history, culture, politics, consequences and characters of the coal and electric power industries, and the future of energy. In just over 250 pages he takes us careening from strip mines to wind farms to debates about cap and trade. First published in 2006, “Big Coal” has sections on “the frontier” of technologies and policies meant to address climate change that could use an update. But coal’s reach extends far enough across the national and global economy that this book still offers a fat helping of context for emerging technologies in today’s (and tomorrow’s) greentech market.
Where to read: On mass transit, or in the comfort of your solar-powered house.
A BUSINESS BOOK THAT GETS IT:
“The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion” by John Hagel, John Seely Brown and Lang Davison (Basic Books, 2010)
Thanks to ubiquitous broadband connectivity the web has become more real-time and more interactive. The act of retrieving information is slowly shifting into availability of information through serendipity. And in order to do, the conventional norms and conventions of information gathering are being replaced by new ideas, such as the ones used by Facebook.
Just as Facebook builds and aggregates the news feed to suit an individual’s relationships, corporate entities will have to do the same in the future. That is the thrust of a coherent argument made by consultants/authors/thinkers John Hagel, John Seely Brown and Lang Davison: In order to succeed in the future, companies must assemble people and resources at light-speed to quickly respond to business needs and collaborate.
It is a well-written book, full of anecdotes and stories, though at times it brings on a sense of ennui. Some readers (as they should) will find that the book is predictable, because of the work they do (in social media), but for a mainstream audience, this is a worthy read.
Where to read: On your private jet … or in a commercial airport lounge.
SOMETHING PRACTICAL FOR YOUR PLEASURE READING:
“Social Media 101: Tactics and Tips to Develop Your Business Online,” by Chris Brogan (Wiley, 2010)
Social media is here to stay. No matter what you do, it’s probably impacting your industry — especially if you do most of your work online. Chris Brogan’s book, “Social Media 101: Tactics and Tips to Develop Your Business Online,” offers bite-sized chunks — the book is 337 pages, divided into 87 different sections — that will help you to make the most of social media. The information covered in this book isn’t just the basic “here’s how to sign up for Twitter” stuff, though. Brogan has managed to condense discussions on topics like creating a community with a blog into something that you can act on. There’s a lot of big picture packed into this little book, and it perfect for those looking to get a crash course in social media over the summer.
Where to read: While simultaneously tweeting and updating your Facebook status from the beach.