A room without books is like a body without a soul.
- February 3: Leaders Eat Last in Leadership & Culture
- January 14: Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence in Philosophy & Psychology
- January 12: The Art of Solitude in Philosophy & Psychology
- January 7: Die Qualen des Narzissmus in Philosophy & Psychology
- January 4: Im Grunde gut: Eine neue Geschichte der Menschheit in History & Politics
Remote Team Interactions Workbook: Using Team Topologies Patterns for Remote Working
The shelter-in-place mandates that governments all over the world found themselves obliged to impose in 2020 undoubtedly caused much headache. While many employees were put on furlough-schemes at best or entirely out of their jobs at worst, those who were suddenly expected to do their jobs from home also had a lot of challenges to face: Literally over night, teams that had collaborated face-to-face for years had to switch to interaction models that they had little prior exposure to: Chat tools, audio and video conferencing, and various forms of asynchronous communication almost entirely replaced face-to-face interaction for months on end.
Since then, many of these changes have been integrated in a “new normal” that covers various remote and hybrid working models. In many organizations however, this transition proved to be painful and uncovered underlying, structural issues in how people and teams interact. Unclear responsibilities, badly distributed workloads, and unexpected bottlenecks were often exacerbated by the inherent lack of depth in digital and asynchronous communication.
Enter Team Topologies: The idea that by consciously designing interactions between teams, almost like you would design how the components in a software system work together, you could reduce cognitive load, increase focus, and eliminate waste. The basic concepts, introduced by Matthew Skelton and Manuel Pais in their 2019 book, of course remain the same, regardless whether the collaborators are physically co-located in an office building or working from anywhere around the globe. The intricacies of a distributed environment however merit their own exploration. Therefore, the authors published the Remote Team Interactions Workbook as a practical encore which focusses on how to bring the theoretical ideas to life in remote-first settings.
The workbook is surprisingly short, but covers both an overview of the basic concepts of Team Topologies as well as answers to many many burning questions. How, for example, do you effectively structure interactions via chat and video conferencing tools? How do you identify team dependencies, and how do you most effectively work with them? Which interaction patterns between teams should you look out for, and how can you foster more productive ones? How do you move from chaotic and unstructured forms inter-team collaboration to a workflow that’s clear, transparent, and creates value for the organization? Answers to these, and many more issues can be found in the workbook, together with plenty of real-world examples and useful checklists.
Interested readers are however advised to check out Team Topologies before they dive into the Remote Team Interactions Workbook. But even if you only get an executive summary of the former, most of the practical aspects of the latter will already be beneficial.
Full disclosure: I was provided with an advance copy of the book by the publisher free of charge.
Roadmapping done right is a product management superpower. A great product roadmap will excite people about our vision, build trust in the strategy that will make it a reality, and create shared understanding about priorities. But oftentimes, roadmaps just suck. They’re misused as project plans, backlogs of things-to-get-done, or wishlists of features and functions.
The authors of Product Roadmaps Relaunched provide a new, refreshingly pragmatic take on roadmapping. They focus on a handful of key elements, including a vision, business objectives, timeframes, and themes, to construct a lean roadmapping approach that can work for startups just as well as for enterprises.
How do you build great product teams? Certainly not through micromanagement or taskmastering, but neither by hiring a bunch of smart people and telling them to “figure it out”. There’s a fine line that leaders need to walk in order to create environments in which outstanding results can be achieved. In Empowered, Cagan and Jones build on the strong foundation laid in Inspired (2008) and expand it into a practical handbook for product leaders at all levels.
Regardless of our industry or discipline, what matters most in is that we build things that people actually want. That may sound obvious, but a surprisingly large number of ideas fail not due to flaws in execution but because they never found a suitable market.
To avoid that mistake, Alberto Savoia argues, we need a new approach to product discovery and design, one which focuses a lot more on learning than on building. The data-driven techniques he presents include pretotyping, hypozooming, and many others. They’re designed to be useful in startups, in-house projects, as well as large enterprises and aim to help us discover what our right it is before we invest endless resources in building something that nobody will want to use.
Most strategies fail because they are not actual strategies. Whilst a grandiose vision, a thorough business plan, or a list of ambitious sales targets each have their merits, calling such things “strategies” is hardly helpful. Rumelt illustrates that point with countless examples of organizations which failed to achieve the outcomes they sought particularly because they pursued too many disconnected activities at once, rather than following a coherent plan. To help us avoid that pitfall, he walks us through what makes “good” strategies good and how to build them.
Rumelt’s classic is a fantastic read, not only for product leaders but for anyone interested in thinking more strategically about politics, business, or life in general.
An inspiring product vision is seldomly enough to make things happen. Unless your business is a one person show, you will need to convince others to commit resources to your cause. Regardless if you’re asking venture capitalists to fund your next startup or negotiate the coming quarter’s budget with your finance department, a well-structured business case can be extremely persuasive.
The book doesn’t specifically cater to product managers in the software industry but is a general toolkit for anyone who wants to persuade others to invest in their ideas. Nevertheless, the approach that Sheen and Gallo lay out is highly useful for people in product leadership roles. The only downside is, that the HBR Guide really attempts to cover all it’s bases, and thereby can be a bit tedious for readers who already come equipped with real-world experience.
Outstanding leaders manage to connect everything their teams do with a purpose, a why. Organizations which achieve that tend to be more trusted by customers, inspire greater enthusiasm in their employees, and are ultimately much more successful than others.
In this book, Simon Sinek dives deep into the topics he outlined in his famous TED Talk. He also tries to help the reader uncover and shape their why, provides techniques to muster the discipline and consistency required to execute on it, and showcases helpful tools to communicate it effectively. Furthermore, the book is sprinkled with real-world examples, both good and bad, that make it easy to relate to Sinek’s ideas.
Without a doubt, Inspired is my number one reading recommendation for anyone in a product-related role. Marty Cagan, who worked for and with countless tech companies in Silicon Valley, presents a battle-hardened, comprehensive approach to product management that can scale from startups to enterprises. The core elements of his philosophy include people, product, process, and culture, and for each of these he shares some theoretical background, a lot of practical advice, as well as tools and techniques one can immediately take into action.
Furthermore, the book is perfused with case studies to highlight how product managers in the messy real world addressed particular challenges at organizations such as Google, Adobe, the BBC, Microsoft, and Netflix.
The Halo Effect: And the Eight Other Business Delusions That Deceive Managers
Cognitive biases are a fascinating topic. In The Halo Effect, Rosenzweig explores their effect on decision-making in business, as well as how our perception of such decisions gets warped once their consequences become obvious. Turns out, the exact same management choice, say “increasing customer centricity”, can either be seen as the salvation of a company (“Doubling down on customer service protected their core market!") or as a hallmark of it’s demise (“Their narrow focus on existing customers stifled growth and innovation!"), solely depending on what effect the decision ultimately had.
Rosenzweig clearly takes great pleasure in dissecting how much of the advice given in the revered business literature of his day (including “In Search of Excellence” and “Built to Last”) has been victim of such fallacies. While the examples showcased in the book, including the rise and fall of Cisco and ABB, are a bit dated, there’s still a lot to be learned from them. Even if it’s only to take lessons learned from other companies’ successes or failures always with a grain of salt.
If you’re new to product management, or unsure if such a role is even of interest for you, then this book is definitely a great place to start. You’ll learn what the heck product management actually is, why it’s need at an increasing number of organizations, and how it’s different from product ownership, product marketing, and project– or program management.
The main aspects of the job are explained alongside the end-to-end product lifecycle, from conceptualization and discovery via development, launch, maintenance to end-of-life. Some areas, like how to develop the skills required for the job, its business and commercial concerns, or how to communicate vision and strategy effectively, are covered in much more depth elsewhere. But nevertheless, Product Management For Dummies is a comprehensive introduction to the mess and complicated reality of modern product management.
Radical Focus: Achieving Your Most Important Goals with Objectives and Key Results
I’ve never been the greatest fan of OKRs (“Objectives and Key Results”). But while reading Radical Focus, it became clear that everything I intuitively disliked was more related to how the approach had been implemented at certain companies rather than the basic ideas themselves.
In her pleasantly short book, Wodtke boils OKRs down to what they’re really all about and gives practical guidance on how to implement them in lean and agile way. Certainly a worthwhile read for everyone in a product-related role, regardless of one’s industry.
PS: In this interview for the Product Podcast, Wodkte goes into more detail about common OKR pitfalls and how to avoid them.
The Innovator's Dilemma: The Revolutionary Book that Will Change the Way You Do Business
In the long term, almost every successful venture fails at some point. Very few companies consistently outperform their competitors for decades or more, and The Innovator’s Dilemma explores why that is the case.
In this 1997 classic of business literature, Clayton Christensen coined the term disruptive innovation and systematically explored why organizations that seemingly did exactly what they were supposed to be doing were upended by it. As it turns out, as companies become more and more successful by catering to their core markets, they run an increasing risk of neglecting particular small, hardly profitable segments of niche customers. In these corners of the market, upcoming competitors can thrive because they’re pressured to innovate—often out of the pure necessity to survive. But once those battle-hardened contestants come out into the daylight, they can swiftly and aggressively move upmarket and completely disrupt what was once the incumbents sole realm.
Examples including IBM, Kodak, HP, and Honda illustrate how these dynamics have played out time and time again, and how one can safeguard against their destructive potential. Today, more than 20 years after Christensen’s book was first published, the innovation/disruption cycle is spinning faster than ever, making The Innovator’s Dilemma highly relevant for anyone who wants to understand—and to influence—why some companies succeed while others fail.
When I first read The Lean Startup in 2017, I was working for a corporation that was as far away from being a startup as one can imagine. Nevertheless, the basic idea that Eric Ries presents—a relentless focus on validated learning coupled with a willingness to pivot when needed—made perfect sense in that environment as well. Since then I got to employ many more of his techniques in various other contexts and was rarely disappointed.
Be warned though: Ries’ approach demands a lot of honest humility about ones’ own ideas. But once we’ve got comfortable with the fact that we “just don’t know” how good they are until we thoroughly tested them in the market, the pathway to building significantly better products is wide open.
Leadership & Culture
It’s a common conception that leadership equates to power and privilege: Those at the top rake in all the perks while the ground troops rarely receive the appreciation their hard work deserves. Good leadership though, Simon Sinek suggests, should be the exact opposite. As leaders, it’s our foremost duty to support those under our command and not the other way round. The title of Sinek’s book thus refers to a common practice observed in the US Marine Corps: The higher up one ranks in the food chain, the later they get served in the mess hall.
As this anecdote suggests, Sinek often draws on examples from the armed forces: Fighter pilots in Afghanistan and commanders of huge Navy ships help to illustrate what would otherwise make a quite mundane point: Organizations in which people trust each other, and where leaders tend to serve, rather than dictate, consistently outperform others. They achieve better results at lower costs. Their employees are happier, healthier, and less likely to make bad decisions.
The author furthermore underpins his argument with two intertwined strains of reasoning: How brain chemicals, particularly endorphin, dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin, largely drive individual behavior on the one side. And how, on the other, macroeconomic developments, including the rise of neoliberalism, the coming-of-age of the Baby Boomer generation in managerial positions, and the breathless pursuit of empty “shareholder value” in recent decades, have cultivated a toxic environment which rewards selfish actions more than altruistic ones.
This might sound a bit gloomy and pessimistic, but Sinek does not leave the reader entirely without hope. He brings many examples, also non-militaristic ones, to the table that show that as individual leaders, we have the choice to change things for the better within our own spheres of influence. Even if we can’t swap out the operating system of our economy—or that of our brains for that matter.
Despite my wholehearted support for Sinek’s argument and my general admiration for his writing and his talks, I’m not completely enthusiastic about “Leaders Eat Last”. For example, some of his anecdotes (such as the one that lent the book its title) somehow seem like they’re lacking a punch line: Yes, we now understand that leaders in the Marines do eat last. And that’s pretty much all we learn about that. But it feels like there should be a lot more to say about the practice, shouldn’t there? At other times, particularly when he embarks on his crusade against corporate layoffs, Sinek unfortunately tends towards oversimplifications: Neither are all companies which at some point lay off a fraction of their employees driven solely by short-sighted profit goals nowadays. Nor was such a behavior never the case before the reign of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. And equating those who have to make such tough decisions with parents who “put the car before the kids” does, in my view, not help to foster a healthy debate. Instead, the book would have benefitted from a more nuanced discussion of workforce reductions that serve the greater goal of keeping an organization afloat, as well as how to manage their inevitable consequences in a humane way.
All in all though, I do recommend “Leaders Eat Last” for anyone who has the honor of formally or informally leading others. I would, however, caution against taking all of Sinek’s points at face value. And I would ask you to turn a blind eye at some of his more awkward metaphors—human beings, for instance, hardly ever equate to “a snowmobile in the desert.”
Despite its odd title, Julie Zhuo’s “The Making of a Manager” is not just a step-by-step guide for how to grow in a management position. It’s more of a survival guide for those who are new to leading others, a map for the uncanny territory of building, developing, and leading teams of people towards a common goal.
The author herself was one of the first product designers at Facebook and, as the company rapidly outgrew its startup structures, also one of the first to lead a team of designers there. In her own words, the book aims to cover everything she wished someone had told her back when she first took on that challenge: Advice ranging from how to handle the awkwardness of suddenly being your former peers’ supervisor, the difficulties in giving (and receiving!) feedback in a useful way, how to deal with the raw stress induced by everyone now demanding their share of your time, how to run effective meetings, and the thorny topics of hiring and firing.
One certainly doesn’t have to be a fan of Facebook’s culture or products in order to benefit from Zhuo’s writing. While she does occasionally refer to some of the companies’ high profile managers, including Sheryl Sandberg and of course Mark Zuckerberg, she elegantly sidesteps most of the controversies that enshroud the social media industry. Instead, she focusses purely on the practicalities of managing in high growth environments, including the added challenges that arise from leading teams of managers instead of individual contributors.
Honestly, I hesitated for a long time whether or not to pick up “The Making of a Manager”. The term management itself after all has become slightly tainted in recent years, with much more emphasis now being put on leadership—the difference between the two often being blurry of course. Also, the author’s Facebook background had me cringe quite a bit. Nevertheless, I’m happy that I gave the book a chance: It is indeed a treasure trove for anyone who’s put in charge of leading groups of people to achieving results. And while there’s a bit more meat to the bone for formal managers for sure, including how to hire, fire, promote, and develop, informal leaders such as product managers, scrum masters, or lead developers can also take away a lot from Zhuo’s writing.
One could easily dismiss an almost 40 year old book about “modern” media as completely outdated by now. How could one man’s rant on 1980s television be relevant in a world of TikTok, Snapchat, and Instagram? However, when the late Neil Postman set out to examine how strongly culture and society are shaped by their media landscape, he looked far beyond the immediate implications of “The A-Team” or “Dallas”.
With impressive lucidity, Postman foresaw the danger that liberal democracies, the American first and foremost, were at the brink of drifting off into a subdued state of suppression. Serfdom would would not, however, come in the form an omnipotent Orwellian surveillance state. Quite the contrary, he argued, America was on its way towards a Huxleyan dystopia, one in which the populace was free in principle, but so preoccupied with shallow entertainment that it had lost all interest in civil discourse and meaningful political discussion. Society, he said, was literally about to amuse itself to death.
Over the course of 200 pages, Postman builds a coherent argument about the way in which mass media had demolished societies’ ability to have profound collective conversations on important topics. A prime reason he states for this unfortunate development is McLuhan’s observation that a medium, in this case his in the peculiar form of the entertainment-focused television news broadcast, constrains what type of content it allows to transmit. It is hardly possible for example, in the span of a 30 second segment on the Vietnam War, to examine even the most superficial details about the Vietcong, the grounds for the conflict, or wether or not Americans had any business fighting in it. But back in the heyday of long-form journalism and feature-length debates, say in the 18th and 19th century, ample room had to be alloted to background, logic, and coherence. Postman underscores this with snippets of debates and articles by rhetorical titans such as Abraham Lincoln or Daniel Webster.
The fact that society, by and large, has survived Postman’s “Age of Show Business”, could of course be used as grounds to dismiss his argument. Television had not, in fact, numbed us so completely that we sleepwalked into dictatorships on a large scale. But many of his objections against TV hold true today and are only exemplified by its offspring, including social media. Their impact on our attention span, on our ability to concentrate, and on our liberal democracies at large is possibly even more profound than what he foresaw about television. On the contrary, modern media have even fostered a small renaissance of the profound intellectual discourse that Postman was longing for. Without a doubt, he would be awed by some of the great debate formats that thrive on various podcasts, for example.
Is Postman relevant today? Yes, and I would argue more than ever. But, reader beware, many of his references are not so easily deciphered for someone who is not immersed in 1980s television trivia. However, the overarching themes he’s pointing to have to be part of any criticism of our modern-day media environment as well.
Lead Yourself First: Inspiring Leadership Through Solitude
The privilege to lead comes with great burdens: An effective leader has to make tough decisions which directly affect the lives or livelihoods of countless others. It’s essential, therefore, to bring utmost clarity of thought, deep creativity, emotional balance, and moral courage to the table. But how can one genuinely do that when surrounded by flying bullets, detonations, and wounded or dying friends and companions? Or, as is more common these days, by constantly buzzing and chirping smartphones and a non-stop onslaught of e-mail, instant messages, and breaking news?
Kethledge and Erwin set out to answer that question and to understand how particularly outstanding leaders dealt with their most challenging situations. Thereby, they uncovered a surprising common thread: Time spent alone, without “input from other minds”.
Regardless if it’s the courageous strategies with which Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant prevailed throughout the U.S. Civil War, the boldness with with T.E. Lawrence fought in Arabia in 1915-18, or General Eisenhower’s all-or-nothing decision about the launch of the Normandy invasion that would liberate France in 1944—none of these endeavors would have succeeded hadn’t the protagonists engaged in productive solitude.
While it feels like that at times, the authors don’t solely focus on the military though. They also portrait Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King Jr, Marie Curie, and Jane Goodall, among other historical examples, as well as lesser known contemporary practitioners of solitude. But their argument holds true in the civil world as well as on the battlefield, and in the 1800s as well as today: In order to effectively lead others, one has to learn to lead oneself first which is impossible without time for reflection and deep thought.
Admittedly, this insight may sound a bit superficial, partly even self-evident. But the way in which the authors chose to present their case, with detailed example after detailed example, definitely reinforces an already interested readers’ determination to spend more time in solitude. However, the book would have benefitted from more specific practices that one can try. While I personally can relate to the example set by co-author Michael Erwin who uses long runs for thinking and strategizing, or by Churchill’s practice of understanding through writing, these may not resonate so well with a more skeptical audience.
Working in today’s video game industry, according to Jason Schreier, combines the worst of two worlds: It comes with the insecurity of being an artist as well as the stress and pressure associated with big-business. In his new book, the author of the much acclaimed Blood, Sweat, And Pixels once again shines a light on how poorly the creators of some of the world’s most beloved pastimes are treated.
Schreier portraits the rise and fall of well known game studios, such as 2K Marin and Big Huge Games, and details the experiences of some of their employees. Designers and developers themselves report how they were in high demand one day, laid off without warning the next, only to be re-hired by another studio within the same corporate behemoth (but located at the other end of the country) a few months later. For many, this boom-and-bust cycle of appealing creative work followed by burn-out inducing “crunch” was the main reason why they quit the jobs they once thought would be life’s calling.
Schreier also tries to outline potential solutions to the most pressing problems of the industry. Unionization, more remote work options, and a move towards smaller, independent studios taking on outsourced projects do sound like they could address some of them. But it’s hard to believe that these changes will fundamentally move the needle. As long as games are made the way they are, corporate incentives don’t change dramatically, and so little awareness exists for the perils of creators, it’s unlikely that circumstances will materially improve any time soon.
Kim Scott led outstanding teams at both Google and Apple. Whilst the culture at these companies couldn’t be more different, they have a lot in common when it comes to great leadership. According to Scott, one’s ability to have radically candid relationships is the key to that, not only in Silicon Valley.
In her 2017 book, she explains how balance “caring personally” about each and every person on the team with “challenging directly” in order to help them grow. While it’s clear that the intended audience are upper and middle management of tech companies, the insights and techniques she presents can be applied in many other contexts. You don’t have to have direct authority in order to lead others, for example. An being radically candid—rather than “obnoxiously aggressive” or “ruinously empathetic”, as she would say—will improve any relationship, not only those at work.
In his short book, German-born Stanford literature professor Adrian Daub takes a critical look at the predominant ideology in his adopted Californian home turf. Despite the risk of overgeneralizing, his perception of the visions and motives that drive Silicon Valley’s most prominent figures certainly ring true to anyone familiar with the thinking of Peter Thiel and others.
Daub’s Book grants us unexpected insight into the people behind the handful of companies which shape so much of all of our lives. Their leaders, as well as the rank and file, seem torn at times between visions of an Ayn Rand-ish dystopia and all-out egalitarianism. Which of these views, if any, ultimately will prevail is impossible to predict. Nevertheless, deepening our understanding of the cultural tides that sweep the Valley is indispensible if we want to partake in civil discourse about innovation, tech regulation, and individual and collective liberties.
How is it that some organizations consistently achieve the things they set out to do, while others struggle so much? In Execution, former CEO Bossidy and business consultant Charan explore this question by analyzing leadership behavior. They argue that leaders who get the “three core processes of execution”—the people process, the strategy process, and the operation process–right have a much higher chance of success than others.
The examples used in the book are mostly taken from large enterprises like General Electric or Honeywell (both of which Larry Bossidy was CEO or Chairman at times) and might not always immediately resonate with the reader. However, if one is willing to cut through a bit of blunder and tries to relate billion dollar issues with those that are equal in structure at smaller teams or organizations, a lot can be learned.
The Dichotomy of Leadership: Balancing the Challenges of Extreme Ownership to Lead and Win
Team Topologies: Organizing Business and Technology Teams for Fast Flow
What if growth wasn’t the goal? What if you would build your company in such a way that it would ultimately sustain you, and your family, but would never scale into an unmanageable behemoth of an enterprise?
What sounds counterintuitive at first might actually be the solution to more of our problems than we think. Economies consisting of many small companies—companies of one in the extreme—are much more resilient than those with just a few which are deemed “too big to fail” out of sheer necessity.
You don’t have to become an entrepreneur to enjoy Jarvis’ book, though. Much of his thinking (asking “How can I make this better rather than bigger?” for example, or reducing distraction and focussing on what’s truly important) can be applied successfully in a corporate context just as well—and ultimately also in life.
Philosophy & Psychology
Although it might seem like a vast oversimplification, the fact that the human mind has evolved to seek pleasure and avoid pain undeniably plays an important role in how each of us conduct our daily life. Actions which cause the brain to release the neurotransmitter dopamine simply make us feel good, hence we—consciously as well as unconsciously—want to have more of them. On a fundamental level, that’s what drives us to eat, drink, and have sex.
In Dopamine Nation, Anna Lembke argues that the disparity between the evolutionary necessities of neither starving or dying of dehydration, and the immediate availability of countless dopamine-inducing activities in the modern world is the root cause for many of our societal problems: The ravaging opioid crisis, the staggering number of people hooked on alcohol or nicotine, as well as the increase in other compulsive behaviors, such as addiction to social media, gambling, internet porn, or sugary foods; All that and much more, according to Lembke, can be traced back to how the brain processes dopamine.
Technically, her argument is sound: Much like the human pancreas has not evolved to handle anywhere near the amounts of sugar that the average person in the 21st century consumes on a daily basis, our brain chemistry is unable to cope with the multitude of pleasant stimuli offered by the modern world. Hence, what was once a mechanism of utmost necessity to the survival of the species has been perverted into a tool that causes addiction and is responsible for a lot of harm. Lembke goes on to explain, sometimes in a slightly comical manner, how pleasure and pain interrelate, and how that dynamic drives behavior. The author furthermore introduces us to the stories of some of the patients she’s treating as a clinical psychiatrist in Standford, and who suffer from a variety of addictions—ranging from masturbation to Marijuana, from alcohol to ice baths, and from binge eating to heroin.
Those anecdotes, as well as the author’s own first-hand account of episodes during which she compulsively consumed vampire romance novels, make the complex subject of neurobiology much more tangible and relatable. Unfortunately they sometimes overshadow the larger, societal questions: How can lawmakers counteract the detrimental effects of compulsive consumption? Are there forms of regulation or prohibition that have proven successful? Is there a sensible balance between punishment, treatment, and re-socialization of addicts? What needs to change in our education system to inoculate the next generation against the allure of binging? Lembke doesn’t entirely shy away from those thorny issues, but the ratio between individual, personal, relatable accounts and the abstract level of societal impact feels a bit at odds for a book titled “Dopamine Nation”.
Not quite a self-help book, Lembke’s work nevertheless details the tools and techniques she employs in her practice to treat patients with compulsive consumption issues, which may be useful and actionable for some readers. Of course, even the best book can never replace formal treatment by an experienced counselor. But the insights into how our brain works, how we can become more cognizant of the desires that push and pull us, and how to avoid getting trapped by some of its evolutionary shortcomings, are highly valuable.
Being alone, being lonely, and being in a state of solitude are three very different things. A person can be lonely despite the company of others, or alone without experiencing loneliness, or, as Stephen Batchelor argues, can dwell comfortably in solitude regardless of whether or not anyone is around.
This distinction is crucial to understanding Bachelor’s The Art of Solitude, a collection of 32 loosely connected essays. Colored by the author’s background as a trained Zen monk, his experience with psychedelics, and his expansive knowledge of eastern as well as western contemplative practices, the book connects a variety of interrelated topics. What underpins all of them is the theme of solitude as a healthy state of mind which fosters reflection, introspection, and creative thinking—and one which we are working had to depriving ourselves of entirely in this day and age.
But the book however is neither a mere self-help guide to coping with being alone, nor a history of contemplation, a tale of the merits and woes of consuming ayahuasca, a translation of the Buddhist poem The Four Eights, or a comprehensive study of Michel de Montaigne’s writings. To some degree, it’s all of these things, and also none of them. It’s a patchwork of big ideas, personal recollections, and timeless insight.
Bachelor skillfully avoids spoon feeding the audience conventional wisdom though. Instead of simply presenting the insights he or other experienced meditators collected throughout their practice, his careful writing manages to spark an interest in one’s own inner life in the reader. The book thus induces a deep curiosity to explore the inner workings of one’s mind, be that with or without the help of formal meditation practice, alone on a retreat in the Korean mountains or on a crowded subway train, or by seeking out psychotropic substances.
In Die Qualen des Narzissmus, philosopher and publicist Isolde Charim approaches a fundamental question of human psychology from a somewhat unexpected angle: Why do we—that is, most of us, most of the time—voluntarily comply with rules, regulations, and norms? The popular “carrots and sticks” theory with its roots in the behaviorism of the 1970s and its culmination in the homo oeconomicus model clearly falls short of sufficiently explaining the vastness of human complexity. Mechanisms such as a fear of violent punishment, incarceration, or social stigmatization do play a role, undoubtedly. But Charim sets out to provide a deeper, multi-faceted answer. Namely one that’s based on the idea of a “sophisticated” narcissism and its interplay with society.
Understanding narcissism only as a short-sighted indulgence in a “love of oneself” is of course not sufficient for Charim’s argument. Instead, a more advanced view of narcissism, not as an attraction to the current self, but to an idealized version of that self, is what’s required. But this striving to become one’s “ideal” and to remain in unison with it is—by definition—in vain. However, it sets in motion an internal force, a motivation, a drive that makes us do all kinds of things: Lose weight, climb mountains, have children, carve out a career. The image of the “hedonic treadmill” comes to mind at this point, but it’s not explicitly mentioned in the book.
Charim however goes on to lay out how this internal, psychological view of narcissism as a driving force of behavior interplays with our modern economic and societal environment. She explores the archetypical relationships within in an increasingly narcissistic society—a society in which individuals, each striving for an ideal that they consider their very own, but which itself is shaped by the views of others, are both dependent on and ignorant to each other at the same time. They are dependent because they actively seek validation from others—likes, clicks, thumbs-ups—but also ignorant because they don’t mean to engage with each other in reciprocal relationships. They only need each other to reinforce their image of the self or of their self-ideal. They need each other as an audience, but one that’s only allowed to gape in awe.
Apart from sketching some of the obvious negative implications that this dynamic has on societies, which Charim doesn’t linger on for so long as to create the impression of culture pessimism, the book rarely judges the effects that it describes in a moralistic, “good or bad” manner. In fact, there is surprisingly little of a subjective viewpoint. Charim does, however, go full circle in an attempt to answer the original question of voluntary subjugation: She convincingly shows how the psychological mechanism of narcissism can interplay with societal forces in such a way that individuals comply with both formal and informal rules and norms of that society, but also with rules and norms that they craft for themselves in order to satisfy their narcissistic drive inside such a society.
Writing that sits on the edge between popular and academic philosophy often ends up frustrating its audiences on both ends of that spectrum. With Die Qualen des Narzissmus, Isolde Charim makes an admirable attempt to lower the bar for non-philosophers to grapple with the complexities of the science of the field. And while the book in general achieves that ambition, it also, at times, falls a bit short: At various points for instance, she tries to contrast what are in fact very subtle differences between the sophisticated ideas of thinkers such as Lacan, Foucault, and Žižek, which are not always easy to grasp for the non-initiated. Hence, the book is definitely more geared towards the “ambitious amateur” in philosophy who has a basic understanding of the field, rather than for the general public. For this type of audience though, among which I count myself, Charim’s book definitely provides an interesting and worthwhile reading experience.
In his latest book, German philosopher Richard David Precht undertakes nothing less than a comprehensive review of the history, presence, and future of work. His primary concern is the pressing question whether the Second Machine Age, as once proclaimed by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, will have as profound an impact on the nature of work as often predicted. In the thoughtful style typical for his writing, Precht dedicates entire chapters arguing for and against many of the prevalent opinions: That countless high-skill professions will become obsolete due to the rise of AI and automation. That these jobs will be replaced by equal, if not better, occupations, as had happened during the first and second industrial revolution. That “this time is different,” and thus mass unemployment an inevitable consequence, and so on.
This interesting journey of pros and cons, of objections raised and refuted, of arguments built and destroyed, takes the reader through many centuries of human history. From laborare and facere in ancient Rome via the feudal system of medieval times up to the backbreaking conditions of England’s factories in the 1800s we learn about the varying role that work and labour had played in people’s lives, and what contemporary thinkers had to say about that at each stage.
As the book progresses, Precht’s reasoning crystallizes into a distinctive conclusion: That, all things considered, the band between employment and income which come to define our understanding of work for the last 150 years, would have to be severed once and for all. In an economy capable of generating material abundance for everyone, it’s neither necessary nor desirable to keep up the futile policy aim of “full employment”. Quite the contrary, forcing people to take on meaningless jobs that are often increasingly pointless, as once emphasized by David Graeber, would be both cruel and unjust.
Precht’s argument therefore culminates in a call for the installment of a universal basic income (UBI) scheme. Again, he goes to great lengths to sketch the different proposal that are out there, ranging from merely beefing up existing social security systems to a full-fledged guaranteed existence for everyone. He also gives ample room to possible counterarguments and, typical for the philosopher, immediately has intelligent replies to them at the ready: No, the majority of people will most likely not stop working altogether. Yes, concepts for the sustainable financing of a UBI do exist. No, the small-scale experiments that have been conducted so far cannot be viewed as representative. Yes, a strategy can be mapped out for how such a fundamental societal transformation can be achieved, and so forth.
Finally, Precht tries to connect the dots between his envisioned “society of meaning” (“Sinngesellschaft”) and the changes to the educational system that would have to go along with its establishment. Here he builds on a slightly adapted and amended version of the principles he laid out in his 2013 book “Anna, die Schule und der liebe Gott”.
Regardless of whether or not one is willing to follow his conclusions all the way, reading Precht is always an enlightening experience. Undoubtedly, great societal transformations await us. And, who knows, maybe all of us will have significantly more time for philosophizing in the future!
Buckle up, reader! Mark Manson once again will take us on a wild rollercoaster ride through history, psychology, and philosophy. Of course, the trolley is going at least 400mph. And of course it’s on fire. And it’s headed towards a cliff. And deep down in the abyss awaits… the Singularity.
Much like in “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck”, Manson eloquently weaves a tapestry of philosophical threads ranging from Plato and Buddha to Nietzsche and Kant, from Schopenhauer and Durkheim to Bostrom and Musk. And while coherence is sometimes sacrificed in favour of pace, the resulting DIY-approach to life, happiness, meaning, and the future, feels surprisingly harmonious for the most part.
“Why are we unhappy?” Mason asks. Because we hope. For something better that somehow never arrives. And even if it does, we’re quickly bored with it and begin longing for the next shiny thing. The bigger house, the faster car, the sexier girlfriend. Thus, the cycle starts anew. Repeat ad nauseam.
This unsatisfiable hunger is so deeply ingrained in our nature that it’s essentially what defines the human condition. And that we need to break this cycle of hope, achievement, and disappointment in order to reach anything resembling happiness—or at least, equanimity—has been codified and taught for at least a couple of thousand of years. But Mason, equipped with his familiar toolbox of four-letter swearwords and cultural references, for sure has a better shot at making this insight accessible to a generation of frustrated Millennials and Gen-Zs that a bunch of bald guys in orange robes.
What about the Singularity though? Well, Mason, like so many these days, holds strong views on AI, on where that technology is headed, and to what heights it’ll lift humanity in its wake. The book thus closes with a somewhat hopeful—albeit that’s debatable—outlook on our collective future which, maybe, just maybe, would have been better left out. Not that I want to downplay the importance of this topic, quite the contrary. But for a book like “Everything is F*cked”, which is practically a guide to personal ethics based on Buddhist philosophy and Kantian values, visions of a collective hive-mind in which the individual dissolves in a puddle of sweet-smelling happiness just feels a touch misguided.
Mindfulness is a miraculously broad field, and the aspects of our lives that can be improved by it are virtually endless. I was therefore curious to learn what Lynn Rossy, psychologist, researcher, and yoga- and meditation teacher, had to say on the topic of mindful eating.
Undoubtedly, the book is intended for people who struggle with their food intake and regularly (and unwillingly) overeat. For this audience, Rossy offers techniques and practices to help cultivate a healthier relationship with the body and its physiological needs. Simply put, by savoring instead of wolfing down one’s meals, we almost automatically eat less and enjoy more. This principle is true for everything though, and what Rossy prescribes is useful far beyond the dinner table.
In her short book, she doesn’t stop to surprise the reader by broadening the discussion to encompass a variety of topics: How do feelings and emotions arise in the mind? What are they, in the first place, and how can we deal with them in helpful, intentional ways rather than falling back on intuitive and often harmful behaviors? What about happiness and self-acceptance when the media and everyone around us tells us how we should look, talk, and behave? How can we find a healthy balance between changing for the better without striving for unrealistic and unachievable ideals?
This breadth of issues makes Rossy’s book useful and actionable also for those of us who don’t necessarily struggle with their eating. I was a bit disappointed though, that the author spends relatively little time on each individual topic she tries to cover. Whilst that makes most chapters concise and easy to digest (no pun intended!), I believe that some of them would have benefitted from a bit more depth. The “practice” sections attached to each of them however do make up for some of these shortcomings. They guide the curious reader in how to explore their own minds and its quirks and idiosyncrasies first-handedly—provided one is willing to give them a try.
How can one stay focused when our mind is under constant attack from the supremely well engineered attention-grabbing machines that Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and many others have become? The insight that the primary purpose of these services is not to improve the lives of us, their users, but rather to maximize the time we spend interacting with them is not new. The premise of Newport’s book therefore is almost self-evident: We need a novel approach to dealing with these highly addictive tools if we want to extract the (marginal) value that can be gained from them whilst avoiding most of their detrimental consequences.
Digital Minimalism offers such a “philosophy of technology use” beyond the simple, but oftentimes unhelpful, advice that we should just stop engaging with social media altogether. Newport rather suggests that we deal with them more intentionally, starting with a rigorous “digital declutter” process to help us better understand in which circumstances we get which benefits out of them and consciously evaluate if that’s really the best way to attain those benefits. Using Facebook to stay in touch with relatives living overseas for example may seem like quite a reasonable idea, but under close scrutiny one could easily find out that a regular phone call instead would provide space for much deeper interactions while avoiding all the negative consequences of extensive use of the platform.
Newport provides countless examples along those lines, combined with “practices” that the reader is asked to try out on their own. He’s cautious against prescribing a simplistic ten-step-program though, and instead tries to showcase many different techniques that have proven helpful to some.
Interestingly, the book oscillates between the concrete problems provided by 21st century social media use, and age-old philosophical questions. The former may or may not be a huge obstacle to a fulfilled life for the individual reader, but the latter is doubtlessly insightful for anyone. Increasing one’s time for reflection in solitude (i.e., without “input from other minds”, as Newport defines the term) for example, or actively engaging in value-creating leisure activities such as learning a craft or seeking out social interactions through “joining things”, are worthwhile pursuits that will almost automatically reduce the time one spends on-screen but at the same time are surefire ways to increase life satisfaction in general.
It is this general-purpose usefulness that I enjoyed most about Digital Minimalism. The surprising shortness of the book and its sudden ending at a point where I felt much more was to be said on the topic was a bit of a downer though. Let’s hope, that Newport will follow-up with another publication along the same lines soon.
Volker Kitz’ exploration of the minds’ capacity for concentration covers many interesting aspects of our current best understanding of the enigma which is human consciousness. He manages to balance psychological research with relatable personal experiences, historical facts and notable anecdotes (did you know that Franz Kafka was among the first bodybuilders, for example?).
The events during a ten day silent mediation retreat in India, which the author attended primarily in order to strengthen his own capacity for concentration, provide the general backbone of his story. Whilst mindfulness meditation is seldomly mentioned explicitly, it becomes clear that his is the primary technique he and his fellow attendants trained in. Kitz touches briefly on the Buddhist concepts they were introduced to (emptiness, and no-self most prominent among them), but neither the organizers of the retreat, nor he himself in writing the book, sound proselytizing at any point. Much more, he uses them in the spirit of many other authors of secular mindfulness literate, merely as tools and concepts that should help the reader to better understand the human condition.
I highly recommend the book for everyone looking for a compact and entertaining introduction into the current state of the science of concentration in particular and consciousness in general. While experienced readers who are already familiar with other books on the topic (see below) may not find much novelty in Kitz’ work, they will nevertheless be able to take some things away from it—a handful of funny cocktail party anecdotes at the very least.
How can we make the most of the little time we have? Not by using time management tools to squeeze more productivity out of every second, argues Oliver Burkeman. Instead, he confronts us with the fundamental flaw of human existence: There’s always more to do than we have time for. Helping the reader accept that fact and circumventing the traditional productivity traps that come with it makes up the bulk of Four Thousand Weeks.
Definitely a recommendation for anyone who feels drowning in ToDo-lists, e-mails, and tasks!
I’ve never followed professional basketball closely, so I wasn’t really familiar with Chris Bosh’s backstory when I picked up his book. The hype-and-bust-cycles that characterized his high-profile career though can serve as inspiring parables for life in general: To achieve outstanding results, you’ll need a vision that goes beyond money or fame, for example. And the strength required to follow through with it often has to come from places within that you didn’t even know existed. Oversized egos on the one side, or a reluctance to take care of oneself on the other, can quickly destroy what’s taken years and years to construct. And, despite hard work and no fault of one’s own, things don’t always play out the way we might want them to. Sometimes, like in the case of the medical issues that prematurely ended his career, all we can do is accept the facts and move on.
Bosh’s clear and concise writing, as well as the refreshingly unconventional structure of the book (slightly reminiscent of Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet”) makes it easy to digest and comprehend. But what surprised me most was the depth of philosophical reasoning that went into at, ranging from Stoic thinking to ancient eastern wisdom.
This book is a collection of the best interviews Sam Harris did for his Making Sense podcast. They cover a wide range of topics, from neuroscience and psychology to philosophy of mind, morality, artificial intelligence, and existential threats to life on earth.
I’ve been following Sam Harris for a long time now, and this book perfectly summarizes what makes him so unique: The deep thinking and personal experience he brings into conversations with some the greatest thinkers of our time—including David Chalmers, Thomas Metzinger, Timothy Snyder, Daniel Kahneman, Nick Bostrom, and Max Tegmark—is truly outstanding. If you’re even slightly interested in any of the areas mentioned above and prefer reading to listening, I highly recommend this book.
The English language is a powerful tool if one knows how to use it well. Steven Pinker, professor, public intellectual, and author of countless books and articles, certainly possess that skill. But in The Sense of Style he doesn’t only apply it beautifully, he also relishes in dissecting what exactly makes for a well-structured argument and a text than anyone would want to read.
Pinkers’ primary target group are academics, but his advice is useful for anyone who wants to write more clearly—and beautifully.
History & Politics
Human beings are inherently selfish, bad, and cruel. Constantly, we’re on the lookout for personal gains and will instantly sacrifice the wellbeing of others whenever it suits us. That, broadly speaking, has been a very prominent view of human nature for a long time. Psychological experiments which apparently demonstrated just how bad we really are have been all over the place, particularly in the 1960s and 70s. The infamous Stanford Prison Experiment and the Milgram Experiment are just to widely publicized examples which get cited over and over again to this day. Needless to say, this view of human nature also helped to underpin the neoliberal consensus that individuals in an economic system can be reduced to “gain-maximizing machines”.
But how, asks Rutger Bregman, can this theory account for the endless amounts of kindness, compassion, and unconditional help that is evident wherever we look—if we only dare to look, that is? The answer is quite simple: It can’t, because it’s fundamentally flawed. Humans beings, according to Bregman, are inherently good. Left to our own devices, we’re eager to cooperate with each other, to help out those in need, and to sacrifice our own pleasure for the benefit of others.
In “Im Grunde gut”, Bregman follows an extremely thorough approach: One by one he picks apart the most prominent historical examples used to demonstrate our innate selfishness, and counteracts them with facts. The Standford Prison Experiment for instance? As it turns out, the guards were actively incentivized by the scientists who ran the experiment to act as cruel as possible. Attempts to replicate its findings in unbiased environments have not only failed, but they yielded the exact opposite results: After a couple of days, guards and prisoners turned into friends rather than mortal enemies.
Bregman tracked down countless academic studies as well as “real-world experiments”, such as the case of a group of boys stranded on a remote, desert island. Rather than a “Lord of the Flies”-ish nightmare, it turned out that without parental supervision they quickly developed a cooperative society which helped them survive on their own for years—as opposed to tearing out each others throats.
He finishes the book with a rather drawn-out chapter on the implications of his findings: If we were to fully adopt the view that humans are good by default, how would that change the design of our education and healthcare systems? Our prisons? The economy? Bregman showcases inspiring examples in each category that demonstrate that a shift in our basic assumption about human nature will drastically alter how we should construct our societies. Let’s hope that his book, as well as the semi-related but more historically focused “The Dawn of Everything” by David Graeber and David Wengrow, will be read not only by social scientists and historians, but also by policymakers and industry leaders.
While centenarians do occasionally pop up as protagonists in literature, it’s a rare occasion to see one actually writing a book themselves. Henry Kissinger however, at age 99, begs to differ: In Leadership, he’s not only looking back on a centrury of world politics (which he himself shaped to no small degree). But more importantly, he examines what made some of the epoch’s most influential leaders so effective.
Starting at the end of World War II, Kissinger first shines the spotlight on the personality of Konrad Adenauer and his “Strategy of Humility”. Germany had lost the war and public morale was at an all-time low. But thanks to Adenauer’s characteristic combination of a stoic acceptance of reality and a positive vision for his country’s future, he managed to set Germany on a path towards prosperity. Furthermore, Adenauer slowly and steadily built trust throughout the world in the fact that an economically thriving Germany would no longer pose a threat to global security.
The approach of Charles de Gaulle, the second leader Kissinger selected for his book, is as far from humility as one could imagine. What Kissinger termed the “Strategy of Will” rather resembles either ignorance or a complete negation of reality. When the little known French military general in exile proclaimed himself “Leader of Free France” at the height of his country’s occupation by Nazi Germany, he walked a tightrope between audacity and madness. But either or both of these qualities made such an impression Winston Churchill that he chose to put Britains’s full support behind de Gaulle, which ultimately culminated in the allied victory in 1945.
The book’s most controversial chapter covers the one leader that Kissinger himself was most intimately familiar with: Richard Nixon, who today is most famously remembered for his resignation over the Watergate Scandal. Kissinger served first as his National Security Advisor and then as Secretary of State. During Nixon’s one and a half terms in office, Kissinger and Nixon together significantly changed the world order in ways that are not as often highlighted. Most prominently, Nixon ended the war in Vietnam. But he also established diplomatic relations between the U.S. and communist China and successfully negotiated nuclear arms control measure with the Soviet Union. Reading the chapter on Nixon, one can almost feel Kissingers’ regret that these important positive contributions of the Nixon administration are largely overshadowed by domestic controversy in recent memory.
Kissinger then turns his attention to a lesser known, but no less influential personality: Anwar Sadat, president of Egypt from 1970 to 1991. His time in office was colored by the repercussions of the Six-Day War in 1967 and the ensuing Yom Kippur War (1973) between Israel and ist Arab neighbor states. Sadat’s contributions to world peace in that challenging environment can hardly be overstated: He brought the era of armed Israeli-Arab conflict to a halt, an effort for which he received the Nobel Peace Price but which also cost him much credibility in the Arab world and ultimately his own life. Sadat was murdered in 1981.
Next, Kissinger draws the reader’s attention as far away from Europe as possible—namely to South East Asia: In the chapter on Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s defining leader, he draws a picture of a man who imprinted his own impressive personality deeply and unmistakably on his country. The “Strategy of Excellence”, underpinned by discipline and willpower, is deeply present in the city state’s culture to this day. Following the era of British decolonialization and a failed attempt of merging the small island nation with ist larger neighbor Malaysia, Lee willed a country into existence in the most harsh of circumstances: A population that consists of three ethnicities without a common culture or language, a landmass so small that agriculture was hardly an option, and an absence of minable natural resources. Nevertheless, over the course of one generation Lee transformed a swampy island at the southern tip of Asia into an economic powerhouse like the world had seen few others. But while Kissinger doesn’t entirely sidestep the thorny question of democratic vs. autocratic rule in Singapore, his take on the topic feels more apologetic than critical.
Finally, the book returns to Europe and to another controversial, yet striking, personality: Margaret Thatcher. Her “Strategy of Conviction” can be almost be interpreted as a historic parallel to Charles de Gaulle’s relentless perseverance. But with Thatcher, that very same quality that led to her greatest successes (such as Britain’s victory in the Falkland conflict or her ending of the miners’ strikes) also paved the way to her demise. The project of increasing European integration (and thus ceding national power to Brussels) was favored at the time by many even among her own party, yet was always met with her infamous “No, no, no!”.
Summing up, Kissinger’s latest book is a impressive on many levels. The fact that the man was personally familiar with each of the protagonists adds a layer of intimacy that few other historic accounts which cover such a long timespan can provide. That impact is most prevalent in the chapter on Richard Nixon, but reverberates throughout the others as well. The important role Kissinger played in Anwar Sadat’s negotiations with Israel for example is neither exaggerated nor is it downplayed.
Kissinger’s account of the six different personalities and leadership styles is a very worthwhile read, both for the historically curious as well as for the student of political strategy.
When Gavrilo Princip pulled the trigger of his gun on June 28, 1914 in Sarajevo, the world changed forever. The war that broke out thereafter was one of unprecedented destructiveness, claimed millions of lives, and would shape the history of the entire 21st century. But how, exactly, was it possible that a singular event like this one would result in something as catastrophic as the First World War?
Christopher Clark’s 700 page epos makes one thing clear: Any monocausal explanation, such as “German Expansionism”, “Austrian Revanchism”, or “Russian Ambitions on the Balkan”, will fall tremendously short of depicting what actually happened. The historian rather begins by tracing the the European power structure back to the early 19th century, details how former multipolar relations slowly crystallized into opposing blocs, and how legal treaties, moral obligations, and strategic interests confounded into an explosive device which was practically waiting for its fuse to be light in 1914.
But Clark also cautions against the simplistic assumptions that each country involved acted as a single, unified entity. Instead, he goes to great lengths to explain how the different levels of political, military, and monarchic leadership in Austria-Hungary, Germany, France, and Russia interacted in—often in ways that contradicted or reinforced each other. He furthermore outlines the roles of mass media, public opinion, and the need for popular approval that helped to raise the tide of particular individuals and policies, even if they were at odds with their countries’ best interests.
On some level, Clark concludes, the problem with the origins of WWI is not the lack of information available to the historian. It’s the abundance. Making sense of all the different streams of data, ranging from newspaper reports to diary entries to the official records of the nations involved is a sisyphean task. The author does his best though to draw a nuanced, yet clear picture of the events that lead up to the declaration of war of July 28, 1914, and how each country participating in the ensuing struggle came—almost rightfully—to view itself as being involuntarily dragged into it.
However, the author does not exculpate any of the individuals in question. Quite to the contrary, he shows how time and time again, ambassadors, ministers, and even monarchs would have had the possibility to avert the looming crisis with the stroke of a pen, but then chose no to do so for various reasons.
In this regard, Clark’s book is enlightening above and beyond mere historic interest. It shows how complex political and economic systems can interact in ways that end up being detrimental to all parties involved. In the final chapter, Clark himself draws up a comparison between the events of 1914 and those at the brink of the European financial crisis almost a century later. More recent examples, such as the Coronavirus pandemic or the Russian war against Ukraine, will undoubtedly come to the readers’ minds as well. Interpreting these episodes as the results of complex, interconnected systems interacting with each other, rather than through a lense of simplistic black-and-white thinking, is surely a helpful exercise for which Clark and his analysis of the events that led Europe to war in 1914, provides an excellent blueprint.
In August 1980, Reinhold Messner achieved a feat as outstanding as controversial: As the first human ever, he climbed the worlds tallest mountain in solitude, not even connected with the rest of humanity through a radio link, and neither aided by artificial oxygen. Armed only with a backpack containing the barest essentials, the final ascent to Mount Everest’s summit at 8,848 meters took him three days of superhuman struggles which he describes in painstaking detail in his 1989 book. During that time, his sole accomplice, then-girlfriend Nena Holguin, awaited his return at their makeshift basecamp about 2,000 meters below, unsure if she would ever see him again.
Messner’s story is intriguing, fascinating, mesmerizing, and repulsive, all at the same time. He covers not only the infamous last few days of the expedition, but describes in great detail the events that lead up to it, including his journey through a post-Cultural Revolution China and a Tibet caught between tradition, occupation, and modernity. In that regards, the book can also be read as a travelogue in the tradition of Heinrich Harrer, Sven Hedin, or Alexandra David-Néel.
What struck me the most about his tale was the great level of private detail Messner shares with his readers. He goes so far as to (publicly!) question his own motives for this somewhat arbitrary challenge, as well as his approach to life in general. The sense of intimacy thus created is further enhanced by excerpts from Nena Holguin’s personal diary, which are sprinkled throughout the book. The impression we get of the person Reinhold Messner in this way is a multi-faceted one: Driven, relentless, harsh, but also loving, funny, and, more often than not, struggling with himself as much as with the mountain ahead.
Calling Ai Weiwei’s monumental story merely a “memoir” is a borderline misnomer. This epic tale covers more than a century of Chinese contemporary history, starting at the birth of his father, poet Ai Qing, in 1910. Ai Weiwei thoroughly traces his family’s mixed story full of fame, resistance, suppression, banishment, and internment, which culminates in his own forced emigration to Europe in 2015.
Roughly the first half of the book is dedicated to the life of his father and its intertwinement with historical events such as the Sino-Japanese war of 1937-45, the Chinese civil war, the rise to power of the CCP under Mao Zedong, the devastation caused by the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution. Slowly, the story segues towards how Ai Weiwei himself developed into the artist and activist he is today. His formative years in New York, his return to China, and the time he spent there interned for alleged political crimes are covered in much detail, but never told in a long-winded or boring manner. Finally, he talks about why and how he decided to go into exile and what motives him to continue his fight for liberty and justice, both in China and elsewhere in the world.
To be honest, I didn’t expect too much of this book, but was immediately capture by it. Ai Weiwei gives us a rare glance inside the Chinese soul, always grounded in reality but told in a personal, at times even shockingly intimate, manner. Regardless if you’re a follower of his artistic work or just interested in China and its turbulent 21st century history, 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows won’t disappoint.