The bookshelf

These are capsule reviews of books I’ve found especially useful and think you’ll benefit from.

Thinking about thinking

Brain Rules, by John Medina, Pear Press, ©2008.
This book could be subtitled “A User Guide for the Human Brain”. Very readable and sometimes surprising, this book is structured as a series of’rules’ about how our brains behave. For example. Brain Rule #4 is “Brains Don’t Pay Attention to Boring”. The chapter isn’t, however, about boring-it’s about what it means to pay attention to something (which is anything but boring). It’s also about why multi-tasking is a myth and sometimes a very dangerous one. Extensively annotated with research citations, this is solidly based on science and has both important and surprising things to say about the complex way we take in sensory data and make sense of it. Highly recommended.

Made to Stick, by Heath and Heath, Penguin Books, ©2008.
This is terrific book that attempts to answer an important question: Why do some ideas spread like wildfire despite being wrong or being worthless and some really good ideas go nowhere and die?  The answers they come up with aren’t radical but they are insights that we can all make good use of because we’re all sometimes in the position of trying to communicate an idea from one person to another.  The books is structured as a series of lessons or practices you can put to use so your ideas join the “sticky” ones.  Excellent reading and there’s some equally excellent supplemental and follow-up stuff on their website you’ll gain access to after purchase.

A Whole New Mind, by Daniel H. Pink, Penguin Books, ©2005.
A bestseller but don’t let that discourage you. Daniel’s got something to say and says it well. The fundamental point of the book is that the future requires people able to be Left+Right brain thinkers-a whole, new mind with the emphasis on the whole. In fact, the subtitle: “Why Right-brainers Will Rule the Future” is provocative but not representative of the book. One of the best and most applicable sections in the book is all about “Story” and why it’s so important in conveying information from one human to another. Want to get your presentation listened to? Tell a story! Want to know why that works? Read this book.

The Mind Map™ Book, Tony Buzan, Plume Press, ©1993.
A mind map is Buzan’s technique of creating visual representations of ideas and their relationships. Reading the book you may get the impression that he’s convinced that mind maps are the solution to every problem—and I think he is. Okay, ignore that. The technique is very interesting and may be valuable to you as a way to organizing the information, ideas and concepts relating to a topic. I’ve sometimes found it useful as a way to lay out a ideas for an article or presentation, it helps me see relationships so I can create structure and flow. It’s no panacea, but it’s a useful tool to have available.

The Laws of Simplicity. John Maeda. ©2006 MIT Press.
This is a neat little book I discovered only recently but wish I’d seen years ago. Dr. Maeda is a designer, artist, software engineer and proponent of the “less is more” approach. This is a thin volume (100 pages exactly) that’s dense with ideas. True to its theme, those ideas are presented so they’re simple, but not simplistic. Lots of folks will tell you that ‘simple is important.’ Maeda’s book is based on his academic and business experience with not just why that’s true, but how you get there. It’s organized into ten ‘laws,’ each of which is a way to pull simplicity from complexity, and three key, overarching ideas. The tone of the book is informal and relaxed—it’s more a set of essays where he shares his thoughts than a recipe book. Not everything here is relevant to doing presentations but I found it interesting. It may not fit what you’re looking for but conversely it may be just what you need to stimulate and prod your own thoughts. Achieving simplicity isn’t easy—I was looking for help and found some here. I think you might as well.

The Back of the Napkin, Dan Roam, Penguin Press, ©2008
Good book; portions are outstanding. Full of pragmatic techniques for idea and data visualization, this book fits into my “should have” category. It’s not in the same “must have” group as Garr Reynolds’ books or Nancy Duarte’s book. But it’s well written and fills a gap they don’t attempt to cover. (Also see my full review post.)

Creativity and other important ideas

Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. Chip and Dan Heath, Broadway Books, © 2010
Note: I also did a full review. Buy this book, read this book, use this book. If you are in any way or form leading people, then I have no hesitation in saying you need to read it and that you’ll benefit from it. If you are simply a member of a group that is undergoing change or needs to undergo change, then you are also in the target audience—reread the first sentence please. Simply put, this is a very good book with some powerful insights and pragmatic counsel on how to not just survive change but create it and put it to work for you and everyone around you.

Out of Our Minds, Learning to be creative, Sir Ken Robinson, Capstone, © 2001
Note: I did also did  a full review. Yes, the author is the Ken Robinson of the TED conference talk fame—if you’ve not seen it, I urge you to do so. Robinson is a British educator (now relocated to Los Angeles) whose passion and mission is to revamp global education so that it stops killing creativity in children. This book is a follow-up to one which more directly tackled that issue. In this one he takes on the whole notion of what creativity is and is not. He defines creativity as: “imaginative processes with outcomes that are original and of value”. Using that, he goes on to build an argument that says that all humans are inherently creative, that creativity is something that can be learned, and that creativity is something that can both be encouraged and stifled. Bottom line on this one is a cautious recommendation: there is good stuff here, I glad I read it but it’s not on my ‘most recommended’ list.

5 Responses to The bookshelf

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