I read about two hundred books every year, two thirds of which are nonfiction. And every year at this time I go through all of them and decide which ones stay on my shelf and which ones get boxed up to donate to the local library. All of the novels go, and about ten percent of the nonfiction books make the cut.
This year my task was made easier by the the fact that since August, most of my reading has been on the Kindle. The lightened load made me realize that this might be the last time I conduct this little inventory management exercise. The extra time put me in a more reflective mood, so I broadened my editing to include the last ten years.
While I kept about five times this number, here are the five books I considered to be a breed apart. All being bestsellers, these “big idea” books stand out because not only did they help us better understand the world, they gave us a new lens through which to view it.
The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization, by Thomas Friedman (2000). Thomas Friedman is the popular Foreign Affairs columnist for the New York Times. In this book, he argues that globalization is not a phenomenon nor a passing trend. Rather, it is the international system that replaced the Cold War system—the integration of capital, technology, and information across national borders in a way that is creating a single global market and, to some degree, a global village. The central conflict shaping the world, he says, is the tension between lusting after “the Lexus,” which represents globalization, and the refusal to give up the land and borders that have traditionally mattered to individuals and nations—“the olive tree.”
The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, by Malclom Gladwell (2000). Malcolm Gladwell has been a staff writer at the New Yorker since 1996. One of his earliest and most popular articles was The Tipping Point in which he looked at the “Broken Windows Theory” and articulated how enforcing petty crimes in New York City—subway turnstile jumpers, squeegee men, graffiti—was at the root of the dramatic decrease in larger scale crimes. In this book, which remains on most bestseller lists, Gladwell provides a framework for looking at how social phenomena happen, giving us three guiderails: The Law of the Few, The Stickiness Factor, and The Power of Context—all of which are required for an idea to “tip.”
Free Agent Nation: How America’s New Independent Workers Are Transforming the Way We Live (subtitled now “The Future of Working for Yourself”), byDaniel Pink (2001). It was twelve years ago this month that Fast Company published Dan Pink’s groundbreaking article Free Agent Nation. The magazine was in its infancy, and definitely the one to read if you considered yourself a change agent. The article put Dan, a former White House speechwriter and recently-declared free agent, on the map. The book took a year to research during which Pink canvassed the country interviewing people who were “declaring their independence and drafting a new bill of rights.”
The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations, by James Surowiecki (2004). Like Malcolm Gladwell, James Surowiecki is a staff writer at The New Yorker where he writes the popular business column, “The Financial Page.” It’s a favorite of mine because it’s always counterintuitive. So is this book, in which Surowiecki explores a deceptively simple idea that has profound implications: large groups of people are smarter than an elite few (no matter how brilliant they are) at solving problems, fostering innovation, coming to wise decisions, and even predicting the future.
Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. Dubner’s 2003 New York Times profile of economist Steven Levitt provided the basis for this book, which has a straightforward proposition: complex phenomena can be understood if we find the right perspective. Dubner and Levitt dig into the facts behind patterns and basically deconstruct everything from the organizational structure of drug-dealing gangs to baby-naming patterns. In so doing, they illustrate just how wrong conventional wisdom can be.
In my humble opinion, these books belong on the shelf of anyone looking to change the world.
Matthew E. May is the author of In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing. He blogs here. You can follow him on Twitter here.