31 Dec 2016
My records show that in 2016 I spent €1,698.64 buying books - a pretty high investment one might say-. And since It's that time again when random people on the web list the books they read in 2016 and make "read more" resolutions for 2017, I thought I'd share my own "year 2016 in books" list as well. The typical structure for these posts is a enumeration of a few books along with some comments. For me though, such an enumeration doesn't work; I don't read "randomly", "for fun" or "to pass some time" or even to learn "interesting facts". (if that was the case I'd write my own "fun with flags" book) I read with, and for, a reason, having some specific objectives in mind and putting every book I read in proper context.
Personally, I regard reading as a systematic process that helps me answer two fundamental questions:
How has the world been shaped along the centuries? What were the important milestones? What were the key decisions (both the good, and the bad ones) that altered the course of history? Who were the people who had they not been born we would live in a different place?
This question I try to answer by reading books on History, Politics and Strategy:
One however, cannot fully understand the why, the how, or the what, unless one understands the who as well. Who are the people that made the crucial decisions? Who are the people that executed them? What events in their life possibly led them there? These are the questions one can answer through biographies; and since I do believe too that we live in the era of great biographies I try to invest as much time as I can reading them.
"To be or not to be?", asked Prince Hamlet. Well, I think we answer that question the moment we decide to get out of our mother's womb and there is no turning back, is there? So the real question is how to be. That is the question that Philosophy answers.
Unfortunately, to the average person today, Philosophy is regarded as a theoretic subject practiced by old people with long beards who only think about obscure, abstract, and utterly useless "stuff". To me though, Philosophy is a guide. It helps us define and live what Aristotle used to say "good life" or "Eudaimonia" (Greek: εὐδαιμονία). It guides us toward what Stoics named "tranquility" (Greek: ἀταραξία)
Having these in mind, I tried to categorize some of the best the books I read in 2016, according the general question that each one tries to answer. At the same time I refer to other relevant books I've read in the past, or ones that I intend to in the future. When possible, I will also try to indicate how concepts, questions and issues presented in them where prevalent in the public debate in 2016.
In 2014 and 2015 I read most of the classic texts on strategy, so my goal for 2016 was to read some of the less "mainstream" ones, focusing on more theoretical analyses of Strategy and most importantly how it evolved. Here are the highlights:
I will start with John Keegan. Keegan has a sentimental value for my as it was his A History of Warfare Paperback, by John Keegan (1993) that sparkled my interest in strategy.
The first one, The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme, by John Keegan (1976) is supposed to be one of the most influential Strategy books of the 20th century. I could not agree more. First of all, the book was first published 40 years ago, which means that since then, many authors have borrowed from Keegans style, ans so one may not fully appreciate how innovative and original the book originally was. Keegan analyzes three battles representative of three different time periods: Agincourt (October 25, 1415), Waterloo (June 18, 1815), and the Somme (July 1, 1916). Instead of focusing, though, on high-level strategy or even tactics, Keegan focuses on the the pawn of the chessboard: the individual soldier and how he himself experienced the "face the battle". Using the structures employed in these battles he breaks down his analysis in groups of soldiers: infantry, cavalry, archers and artillery and then goes on to describe how each one fought against the other. He goes as far as to detail the different wounds caused by the weapons used in each battle. As with each one of his books, Keegan spends many of his first pages writing -in an almost apologetic tone- about the fact that he has never been in the battlefield himself. In The Face of Battle however his superior prose make us all feel to some extent the horror, the fear, and the pain a soldier experiences in the field.
L. Freedman, the mastermind behind the "Blair Doctrine on foreign policy" and member of the Iraq Inquiry in his book Strategy: A History, by Lawrence Freedman (2013) makes an effort to write what I would call "A Biography of Strategy". Drawing on a span starting from (pre)history and our chimpanzee ancestors up to Obama's winning strategy in 2008, Freedman illustrates the main ideas of great strategic thinkers of the past (and the present), while also offers "case studies" of how strategy applies not only in war but also in business, politics and the social sciences. The text focuses on breadth instead of depth of the concepts presented, that is to say, if you are looking for a detailed analysis of Sun Tzu or Machiavelli, this is not the book. That is only interesting though, as you can rarely see The Bible, McKinsey, Milton's "Paradise Lost", Foucault, Marx and Playboy all cited in the same mere 600 pages. It is this focus on breadth that makes this book an ideal introductory one for newcomers in the field.
While I was writing about Freedman's book, I was reminded of the most accessible book on Strategy I read in 2016: Masters of War: Classical Strategic Thought, by Michael I. Handel (2000). Here, Handel, under the umbrella distinction between "Eastern" and "Western" strategic thought, engages in a comparative analysis between some "superstars" of the art: Sun Tzu, Clausewitz, Jomini, Machiavelli and Mao Tse-Tung. Although he clearly focuses on the first two as the most representative of each one's school of thought, I was positively surprised by the fact that he puts Jomini - one of the most under-celebrated of strategists of all times - in the same spectrum with the other behemoths. Handel's writing is simple, concise and to-the-point. In particular, the quotes he chooses to illustrates the differences between Sun Tzu and Clausewitz are extremely effective (Not an easy thing to do especially with the former). If I was to suggest a single book to someone remotely interested in Strategy, it would be this one.
Having lived in Greece and received a Greek education I know firsthand what a great figure Alexander the Great was. Having said that though, I had never read a book on Alexander before. That is when I came across The Generalship Of Alexander The Great, by J.F.C. Fuller (1958). From the first page I could see why a lot of people I respect refer to it as "the best book on Alexander" ever written. The reason is simple: While people today do idolize Alexander as the epitome of leadership, only a few delve into the nuts and bolts of what made Alexander "Great": That is his superior strategic mind and skillset. After all, he was a practitioner of strategy, not a "thinker". This book is technical enough for the avid strategist inside you. Fuller, writes as a pure military strategist, far from theory and meta-analysis. He does not really focus on "Alexander, the man", instead he is interested in Alexander "The General" and "The Statesman". He start his analysis by underlining one of the key factors to Alexander's success: his father's legacy: "Alexander inherited from his father the most perfectly organized, trained, and equipped army of classical times." Alexander's strategic genius begins to unfold the moment the League of Corinth named him "Supreme Commander". He managed to unite the "Hellenes" under his command by taping into the footprint the Greco-Persian wars had inscribed into the Hellenic national pride. Fuller, then, analyzes in full-detail Alexander's major battles by using maps, illustrations and careful categorization of all the attacks he had available at his disposal. Apart from the military aspect, he accurately enough continuously underlines Alexander's underlying policy to always present himself as the liberator of subjected peoples. In the system of satrapies he separated the civil government and gave it back to the formerly-"subjected" people, while at the same time military and financial control remained in Macedonian hands. It is this key point in management that helped his success the most, as he was able to steadily move forward will keeping his home bases secure.
You want an easy text on military history - strategy? OK, please skip this paragraph. If however you want a challenging read, full of deep strategic insights (as I wanted for this year), you have to get this book and invest a few (or many) days on it. This doorstopper is a collection of high-quality academic papers written by premier scholars in the field. The writers take us on a journey starting from the 15th century up the advent of nuclear strategy. Through this journey the reader can understand that war is not just "the continuation of politics by other means.". Instead, it lies in the intersection between politics, social structures, technology and even people's emotions. That is why one can evaluate the impact Jomini and Napoleon had, in the same context as Marx and Adam Smith did. A particularly interesting article whas "The Making of Soviet Strategy", by Condoleezza Rice: It describes how to the Soviet Union's strategy was shaped from its foundation to the second World War. From this I think it would be interesting to see how she would handle (?) the SU had she been US Secretary of State during the Cold War. Obviously not many of the other contributors need introduction: Paret, Freedman, Carver and many more do a great job in their papers. Having said that though, I think the collection definitely needs an update. After all, there are a lot to be said for strategy at a global scale since the 19080s.
Of course Gérard Chaliand needs no introduction but I think this book is his magnus opus. It is a collection of writings on strategists and battles in a timespan of over three thousand years, from almost every location on earth. It is not an easy book but it does not intend to. As a matter of fact I actually read no more than four hundred pages of it, but that is what you do get when you need a reference book. Interested in military thinkin in Ancient Greece or Rome? Go to that chapter, browse through the pages and the names along with the references will get you down the proper rabithole. This monumental anthology of unprecedented breadth in the conduct of war is now what I refer to as my "Encyclopedia of War".
The last book on this section is The Book of Stratagems: Tactics for Triumph and Survival, by Harro Von Senger, Myron B. Gubitz (1991). This is a collection of short, simple and easy-to-read stories that illustrate basic principles of ancient Chinese strategic thought. Although, interesting and helpful for anyone interested in Strategy (especially for newcomers) this text suffers from the two things that every similar book suffers: One, it focuses on the "Eastern" approach on strategy, and two, translating ancient asian texts to modern English it is not easy. But, what can you do; in any case it did deserve the effort I put into finding it.
US Politics and the election of Trump as POTUS, Brexit, financial crisis within the EU, international trade aggrements, the civil war in Syria, Islam and its relationship with the west, ISIS and terrorism, police violence and fear. These were some of the issues that that kept our interest in 2016. I do believe that we can make sense of the present and try to predict the future only if we understand the past.
At this point, the writer would kindly ask the reader to allow for a well-intentioned an aphorism:
The world history was written by global cooperation, great people, and bad decisions.
I will start with three general books, first.
I do not consider my self a religious person, but I do believe that religions - especially Christianity - can teach us a lot about our world; that is when I came across Girard's book. I have to say, this is probably the most difficult book I have ever read; compared maybe to Creative Evolution, by Henri Bergson (1907). It is one of those texts that can potentially change your life. Here, Girard engages in a dialogue with two psychiatrists, J.M. Oughourlian and G. Defort and discusses his philosophical ideas and especially "mimetic theory". Through this theory he explains his thesis on violence, victimization mechanisms, murder and sacrifice, and how these form the basis of civilization as we know it. During the (long and difficult) process of reading it, the reader can understand a lot about human nature from multiple standpoints; philosophical, psychoanalytic, anthropologic. I chose this book as the first one in this section, as I think that is important to always keep in mind the "humane" side of history; after all, it is "human" and his nature that writes it.
If you want a bird-eye's view of history or you are into "Learn Yourself Some History in 24 hours" kind of book, this is the one. The authors are ambitious enough to try and pack all the lessons of history in a mere hundred pages. As a result, we have a collection of twelve essays with all the main points about the impact of biology, race, earth, religion, economics and other topics, have on History. Although short and simply written, this collection is full with interesting points and most importantly providers the reader with the necessary tools he needs to properly study history within a formal context. If however, reader's appetite is not whetted by a hundred pages and would like a hundred times more instead, then he will definitely have the proper mental tools at his disposal
A hundred pages seem still too much and you would like something even better? We have you covered with an entertaining and an ideal coffee-table book.
This book accompanies a joined 100-part radio series between BBC Radio 4 and the British Museum. British Museum director Neil MacGregor, takes us on a fascinating journey in History, but instead of focusing on the people he does so on soulless objects. Other than that there is not much to say; the book does what its title says. The reader can read the history of objects such as: The hand axe, the spear point used by Clovis people, the The Rosetta Stone and many more. Interpretations on the history of some objects though may seem too far-fetched, but nevertheless it does get you to think in the process.
Politics either in the United States or in the European Union, was the epicenter of the public attention during the year in 2016, thus I thought I would read a couple of classics on political philosophy and ethics.
Rawls, whose work has been the basis of modern American Liberalism, tries to abstract at higher level the theory of social contract. The book is really hard to follow as Rawls employs many thought experiments to illustrate key-elements of his "justice fairness theory", concepts such as the The Veil of Ignorance The beauty of his ideas however is found exactly in his thinking process, and at fact that one can appreciate the simple basis they rely on, even if one disagrees with the final conclusion. This is a definitive classic in the field but it is not one you can read while commuting, if you want something easier or more approachable to read first, you should get Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?, by Michael J. Sandel (2008)
Of course, one cannot simply read Rawls, without reading Nozick. This is a masterpiece on libertarian political philosophy An alternative title could possibly be "Nozick vs Socialists and Liberals". Nozick argues that the (libertarian) "minimal state" is the ideal state for individuals. Anything less than that, is in clear violation of individual rights, and that a night-watchman state is the appropriate starting point for a political system that respect the individuals.
Truth be told, I am too young to make such conclusions but I am confident to say that Goodwin, with this biography paves the way for political biographies of the future. Instead of focusing solely on Lincoln, she initially traces the early lives of all the four "rivals" at the 1860 2nd Republican National Convention: Lincoln, Seward, Bates and Chase. It was at that RNC that Lincoln firstly demonstrated his extraordinary strategic skills. After that he made a series of then-unprecedented moves with the most surprising being that of appointing his former "opponents" as primary members of his cabinet. Goodwin then continues to articulate Lincoln's superior political acumen during his later life and especially during the civil war at all levels possible; both at the macro-one (slavery, strategy on the Civil War etc.) and at the micro-one: i.e. resolving conflicts between members of his cabinet while always puting himself on top. It is the last point that makes the book not only an ideal biography and piece of political leadership, but also an engrossing character study. As a last note, while reading the book I could not help but think of how "unlucky" Seward was to have been contemporary of Lincoln's. Had the fouth rival been someone else instead of the later, Seward would have left his mark on the world. Obviously, after reading "Team of Rivals" I immediately bought Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1832-1858 and Lincoln : Speeches and Writings : 1859-1865
It is difficult not to write a biography that only praises the first Supreme Commander of NATO, commander of SHAEF and commander of the invasion that won the World War II, and who also was POTUS. Here we see an Eisenhower liekeable, unpretentious, pragmatic and yet cold and heroic. As a fact, Eisenhower led the US in a time of peace and prosperity, which makes it difficult to appreciate the man. Despite this however, Smith also points out negative aspects of his life and policy; an attempt that many previous biographers hesitated to make. An interesting enough aspect is Eisenhower's foreign policy. Many, parallelize it with Obama's one but I do not have a clear opinion yet for the later. I guess I will have to wait a few years before biographies of Obama start being published.
After Eisenhower I thought of reading about another republican president, Ronald Reagan. While looking for biographies however, I came across this interesting book.
Quoting from USA Today:
When speechwriter Ken Khachigan sat down with Ronald Reagan after the 1980 election to draft his first inaugural address, the president-elect pulled out a sheaf of note cards written in his cramped hand of quotes and concepts he wanted to include. "He had all this stuff he had stored up all these years — all these stories, all these anecdotes," Khachigan recalls. "He had the Reagan library in his own little file system." Hoary jokes. Lines from poems. Stray historical facts. Quotes from the Founding Fathers, famous authors and communist apparatchiks.
This book is simply a collection of these notes. It is a novel view on the mind of a US President. After a couple of Republican presidents I thought I would switch to Democrats.
I firstly listened to an abridged version of the autobiography a couple of years back; although B. Clinton has a great voice for narration, the audio was so full in pure politics (that is to say, if you look for juicy stuff on M. Lewinsky, look elsewhere) that I had to get my pen on the paper. Writing in a chronological order, Clinton, writes about everything: about his childhood and his student years, about his early campaigns in Arkansas and of course about his presidency. Everything is full of details. It is this wealth of information that make the book not only a biography but also a political statement. Although, the book is simple and easy-to-read (only if you like pure politics) I could see why some people refer to B. Clinton as a "tragic" figure. One does not have try too hard to see him on the defensive, trying to make his legacy and presidency shine above the Lewinsky scandal. Others say, and I partially agree, that the book was written to early; I am confident that, Trump's presidency people will change the way Americans and the world see Clinton's eight years in the White House.
After reading Clinton's "My Life" I came across an audiobook of Obama's memoir, which earned the Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album in 2006:
Damn, does Obama know how to write! Granted, Obama had an inspiring life story, even before becoming Senator or President, but his writing skills are superb. With his book, drawing on his own life's canvas, the author eloquently raises issues about race, community, family and empowering people to think of the possibilities that life may provide. Keep in mind that the book was written when Obama was 34, before he even became Illinois Senator. That is to say that we do not read about Obama the politician, rather than Obama, the character and the man.
Different from his previous book, this one is Obama's political biography that focuses on the then-Senator's core values, just before announcing his candidacy for the Democratic nomination. Based on the same issues as his "Dreams" book, he tries to develop a political platform wrapped around primitive elements of what people need and think about: family, community, success, safety, helthcare, economic growth, education and eventually the pursuit of happiness. As with Clinton's biography, I think that both of Obama's books, should be re-read a few years after his presidency, many things will have changed as to how we approach politicians of the past.
While I was finishing reading Obama, boom! Trump happened! "Let's make America great again!", Trump boasted endlessly during 2016. Whenever I heard this phrase, Tyler Cowen's The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All the Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will( Eventually) Feel Better was always popping in my head. So, I set to read another books.
First of all, if you are not subscribed to Cowen's Marginal Revolution blog, please do. Regardless if one agrees with his opinions or predictions, Cowen is a great economist and a fine writer. The author pretty much asserts that the "middle class" as we know it, is over. In the economy that he foresees, people who know how to use computers and technology in novel ways, will take all the credit (and all the money). They will get richer and richer, while "average" yet hard-working people will see their income and spending capacity deminishing. He puts great emphasis on the concept of self-learning; with the advent of MOOC and online-education in general, he claims that the role of educators will be more of a motivator rather than a "teacher" that teaches you specific skills. In general, the book is easy to follow and I recommended especially for young people early in their careers and for readers not very familiar neither with technology, economics or politics.
When people here "great America" they probably think either of big international companies, or famous rich individuals like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates However, the ground for America's today economic superiority, was laid early in the 20th century; the era of great capitalists like Adrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan and of course John D. Rockefeller.
Ron Chernow became my favorite biographer after I read his biography on Alexander Hamilton and I expected nothing less from Titan. However I was again astonished by his deep research and superior prose skills. Chernow, tries to sketch Rockfeller's life from every aspect. As a character, as a ruthless businessman, as a philanthropist and as a human; all within the historical context of his times. I was initially suspicious of the fact that the author devoted so many pages on the young John's father, but in the end I could see why. During all of his life, JDR tried to be the exact opposite of his father. Chernow's ability also shines in the way he describes the Oil Industry in the early 1900s, for which one can draw many parallels with the modern software industry. As a footnote, although Chernow does know how to tell a story, the book requires great command of the English language and thus non-native Enlgish speakers like myself will find it challenging at times, but the process is deeply rewarding.
Trump's campaigning was full of Propaganda, so I thought I would devote a few days reading about the art. In my opinion people focused too much on fake news as spread on social media, silently ignoring the fact that SM are a tool. The main underlying philosophies and ideas are not new at all, and have been studied in the past. I will just list some of the books I found interesting.
As you may notice, these are all old books, which confirms the fact that propaganda it has already been there and will continue to be. If however want something more modern to make sense of the whole "fake news" hype, you may find this one interesting
An other key point of Trump's campaign was his fixation over trade agreements like NAFTA. Hm, sounds important, but what exactly is "trade"? How it was born? After all, is that important? Is globalization finally a good thing, or not? Difficult questions. "Trade" is such a ubiquitous "ritual" in human history, but is also a very general, abstract and complex concept making it difficult to analyze. And yet, somehow, Bernstein did manage to pack everything you need to know about trade in four hundred pages. The end-result is the most enjoyable book I read in 2016.
In The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century, Friedman claimed that the world became really flat in the 21st century. Well, Bernstein, asserts that it has always been that way. Drawing arguments and facts from history, georgraphy, economics and more, he manages to tell a really "splendid story". Starting from the pre-historic ages up to modern times he describes how trade really did shape human history. He takes us on a journey during which we learn about trade at the Indian Ocean trade before 1600AD, ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Roman empire, how the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople changed the game, even how Spanish - Portugese explorations, and competition between VOC and EIC raised issues still prevalent in the european continent especially within the context of Brexit. I particularly liked the analysis Bernstein does on the commerce of Mesopotamia and how Islam helped the proliferation of trade between different countries.
Talking of Islam, another issue Trump often raised), another book worth mentioning is
Lewis does a really interesting analysis on the subject with some valid points.
2016 can also be characterized as the year of false predictions: Not many predicted Trump or Brexit. Why predictions fail? Is Trump or Brexit a risk? Is risk so ubiquitous in human history? These two books may help you answer these questions.
Government is all about decisions. Some are good, some other are catastrophic
In this book on comparative government, Fukuyama continues where his previous one The Origins of Political Order left. Building on what he states as the cornerstones of the modern state (central state, rule of law and democratic accountability) he illustrates his points by using contemporary nations as case studies: Denmark is considered to be the ideal state, Greece and Italy are the highly-corrupted ones, Nigeria is also a highly-corrupted state but with abundance of national resources, while China is an example of how a sleeping giant who woke up again after thousands of years. It is not an easy text, so laymen should approach with caution. An easier alternative could be Why Nations Fail
"Collapse" is usually recommended along with "Why Nations Fail", and I will do that as well. I loved Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond (1997) and I also liked this one. It is not a book on government or politics and it focuses on the past instead of the present, but Diamond's shows how certain societies collectively made a seemingly "simple" decision in their civilization's cycle, which in the end had disastrous consequences. Those decisions had impact mainly on the surrounding environment; for example deforestation, overhunting, overfishing, planting the wrong plants or breeding the wrong animals. Collapse, definitely lacks the concistency of Diamond's Pulitzer-winning classic, however analyses of certain societies are excellent. Some others however, as many have noted, although interesting as may seem tend to be over-simplistic and maybe underestimate certain factors. Nevertheless, I think Donald Trump should read it so he can see the good way what Medieval Greenland and the Maya learned the bad on: that global warming is real.
Granted, politicians make make bad decisions all the time. But, why ? Tuchman asserts that "woodenheadedness" of individuals is the main reason. In her book she examines four "conflicts": The Trojan Horse (the first written example of governmental failure), The Protestant Secession, The American Revolution, and The American War in Vietnam. These seemingly unrelated examples share three common elements: One, there was a warning before the disaster, two, there were alternatives available, and three, groups, not individuals, who are to blame. I really enjoyed this one. Tuchman had tremendous and deep knowledge on a wide range of historical contexts. It is too bad she is no longer with us, because, too many "follies" have happened the world, after the American invasion in Vietnam.
Speaking of bad decisions and failed invasions, 2016 was also stigmatized by the failed efforts to stop the civil war in Syria. For some, it was the epitome of failed diplomacy. And who better to speak about diplomacy, than the master of the art. Regardless, of whether one aggrees with his dogma on foreign policy and "realpolitik" one has to admire Henry Kissinger. At 93, legendary and yet controversial, his opinion still maters, and his wisdom on foreign policy can be a treasure for every western politician. You can get a sneak peek view on his mind from an interview published in The Atlantic The Lessons of Henry Kissinger.
If however you want something deeper, his treatise on diplomacy is superb and although fascinating and packed with lessons on how the world was shaped through negotiations, it is difficult for me to sum up in a few sentences. I will save that for a separate article, once I read it a few more times.
If you would like something at a higher abstraction level on the art, for example how historical figures like Talleyrand and Richelieu acted, or what is the role of psychology in foreign policy, his "World Order" book is very interesting.
By the way, if you end up loving (or hating) the man and want to learn more about his life, Walter Isaacson - who knows how to write beautiful biographies of versatile personalities, wrote one on Kissinger. Although to be honest, I would like it if Chernow wrote another one as well. I would love to read his prose on a statesman of that caliber.
That is the most important question in life.
The best book I know to answer this question is Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius. Here, we have the most powerful man in the world, writing to himself about the lessons he learned throughout his life. To me this is the single best book ever written. I try to read it many times every year. I have it in multiple editions in Greek and English translations. Also, If you have kids, this would be the ideal gift for them.
If you enjoy it and would like a further analysis on Marcus Aurelius' Stoic philosophy, Hadot does a remarkable one on
If you also like it and want something more general, should read his
which I could also label "Practical Philosophy 101".
After Meditations I can only put Seneca's "Letters from a Stoic", but it would be a shame if someone does not read some essays from Montaigne or La Rochefoucauld. These to collections are also great.