February 2020 Book Reviews

February was a big, thick books month. I’m often hesitant to read thick books because it feels like a speed bump in my reading highway. But, they’re also good challenges and why be afraid of a challenge?

Sapiens was a book club choice this month. In order to make sure we don’t get in a reading rut, oru book club decided to ask our newest members to pick books. As a result, we have a remarkably diverse reading list for this spring and it started with one of the few non-fiction books we’ve read.

I’ll admit, the thought of reading 466 pages of non-fiction was intimidating. I’m so glad I did. It was a fascinating read. Author Yuval Noah Harari retells the history of humans on earth in terms of the systems that have held us together and broken us apart since we Homos first roamed the earth. Along the way, he has some sharp observations that gave me a different way to look at the world.

One of these is the idea that the agricultural revolution wasn’t about humans domesticating plants and achieving a better quality of life. Harari calls that a fraud. He writes,

We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us. The word ‘domesticate’ comes from the Latin ‘domus’, which means ‘house’. Whos’ the one living in a house? Not the wheat. It’s the Sapiens.

The argument is that life as a hunter-gatherer was actually pretty good. You worked a few hours to get your food and then had a bunch of free time. Your diet was varied. You lived with a small group of family and together, you moved from place to place. With the agricultural revolution, we moved into houses, had to find ways to live in larger groups, and had to work a whole lot harder for your food in part because you decided to become so wholly dependent on one type of food.

Imagine getting a promotion to the corner office and realizing that being stuck in there all by yourself but none of the company. Add to that the fact that when Barney brings in surprise donuts, now you never hear about it! So much for the views.

This is the kind of paradigm-shifting claim that Harari makes throughout the book. Even if you don’t agree with all of them, they’re provocative and worth thinking about.

I had some issues with myself adding Made to Stick to the pile. I haven’t added it to my personal list of books read yet either because I didn’t read it cover-to-cover. Instead, it got the grad school skim: read the introduction, read the conclusion, mark interesting sources, and pick a chapter or two to read in-depth later. I wanted to read up on stickiness for my audacious goal blog post and ran through it in an evening.

In truth, I feel like I got a lot out of my skim! Stickiness is a useful concept that anyone who’s trying to make a point or get a message across should spend some time with. Essentially, it comes down to the idea that we need to shape our ideas for our audience, which is more or less storytelling 101.

Brothers Chip and Dan Heath define sticky ideas as ideas that are “understood and remembered, and have a lasting impact – they change your audience’s opinions or behavior.” They go on to describe in detail the six principles of sticky ideas: simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility, emotions, and stories.

They correctly point out that the Curse of Knowledge is usually the thing that gets between a person and the ability to share their ideas effectively. In essence, we think that our audience shares knowledge with us when they don’t. They put it this way,

Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like to not know it. Our knowledge has “cursed” us. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can’t readily re-create our listener’s state of mind.

This is exactly the thing so many presenters struggle with. We assume people know what we know, we assume they start from the same place as we do and lose our audiences because our beginning is their middle. This is one of the reasons it’s good to start stories from a shared common experience. It’s a way to start at a shared beginning and move together into more complex story territory.

I will be reading the middle sections of Made to Stick and maybe then I’ll add it to my official list – but for now, it does make the monthly review. It’s also worth mentioning that this book has the most useful structure I’ve ever seen in a book. The table of contents includes a listing of all the examples used in each chapter and there’s an easy reference guide in the back that you can use as a reminder after you’ve read the book.

Finally, last week my kids were home from school and my son asked me to read Rick Riordan’s The Lost Hero. It’s the first book in the Heroes of Olympus series that follows the Percy Jackson series, which is a great read for kids and adults who like Greek mythology plus Harry Potter.

The Lost Hero was one of those books you don’t want to put down because so much is happening. It is a very plot-driven story of demi-god teenagers who learn that their missing parents are gods and that they have been chosen to embark on a quest to save the earth from destruction. That covers the first 24 hours or so and the rest happens in three days or so. It’s a fun read.

If you’re a parent or an aunt or uncle or grandparent – I hope you read along with your reading kids once in a while. New kids’ fiction is good stuff and it gives me and the kids something to talk about. It’s also part of introducing them to the culture of book lovers. I recommend books to them, they recommend books to me. They see me recommend books to friends and that I take recommendations from others. Reading is so much more fun when we do it in a community. Although our time with the page may be solitary, talking about what we’ve read is a great joy to be shared with people!

So, that was my February in books. What did you read? Have you got a recommendation for me or anyone else reading? Please share it in the comments!

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