A Sweet Summer Reading List

Summer vacation will be over before we know it but there is still time to get in some informative, thought-provoking, and/or entertaining reading. In the interest of sharing a few things that I thought were worthwhile, here are six books that I am confident (mostly) that you will enjoy. Carl Sagan stated in Cosmos that most people can read perhaps a couple thousand books in their lifetime. No sense wasting time on ones that aren’t worth reading. These definitely made my “worth it” list.

Non-Fiction

Imagine by Jonah Lehrer

Cover of Imagine

This one is still on the New York Times hardcover non-fiction best seller list (#18 as of this week) and has been for quite awhile now. It’s popular in my town too.  I had to wait a couple of months for it to become available on my holds list at the local public library. We read books we like rather quickly don’t we? I cranked through this one in a little less than three days. It takes both individuals and teams to make unexpected breakthroughs and leaps of insight and creativity. Lehrer discusses both kinds of creativity and imagination using lessons from business, art, economics and neuroscience.

Do you still hold classic brain storming sessions with your team? You might want to rethink that. Criticism shuts people down and prevents them from expressing and developing their ideas right? Not so fast. Do you have a relatively small circle of friends and acquaintances? You’re probably at a disadvantage in the creativity game. How big is the town you live in? How could that possibly have anything to do with your chances of doing something unique and amazing? Have you recently been overcome with an almost uncontrollable urge to paint, draw, sculpt or write poetry? Well then, you just might have an incurable and fatal brain disease! If these things intrigue you, you should start on this book as soon as possible.

Creating Innovators by Tony Wagner

Cover of Creating Innovators

Some of you may know that my teaching partner and I instituted something along the lines of what is generally referred to as “Google 20% Time” in our 7th grade classes.  I recently learned, or perhaps was reminded, that it should really be called “3M 15% Time”—but I digress. We call ours Personal Learning and Creation Time. A few teachers are trying this and after reading Dr. Wagner’s book, I think you might be more open to the idea as well. Most teachers have some difficulty thinking it is “okay” to cut out a block of time from the school week, no matter how short, to let kids study, explore, and learn anything that interests them. We’ve got all these standards to “cover.” You go ahead and “cover” the standards, I’ll try to get my kids more engaged in actually learning something. Although, we had implemented Personal Learning and Creation Time before I had read this book, Creating Innovators has given me further confidence that we are on the right track.

Using a series of detailed personal narratives, Wagner takes us into the lives of some young adults who just weren’t well served by the type of education they were being offered. In most cases, their education seems to have provided little value in their ultimate success and in other cases it down right got in the way. There is hope though. But not if we aren’t willing to do things differently. This book will help you wrap your head around what is really of value to a person expected to make it on this planet in the future. Oh and it has these cool QR codes that link to a bunch of of supplementary video material that supports the text. I purchased a dozen copies and handed them out to my colleagues at school at the end of last school year. That’s gotta’ tell you something.

The Idea Factory by Jon Gertner

Cover of The Idea Factory

Subtitled Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation, The idea Factory is a history of —you guessed it—Bell Labs! I admit to having a particular fascination with and interest in the history of science and technology (and there’s that innovation thing again) so I was an absolute sucker for this one as soon as I saw the title. It didn’t hurt that Bell Labs is where Claude Shannon did much of his work on information theory, which so happens to be a field I have taken a particular interest in of late. Is there an entire chapter on Shannon the Informationist? Of course there is my friend, of course there is. Oh, and there is that newfangled transistor thing too.

From the introduction:

This book is about the origins of modern communications as seen through the adventures of several men who spent their years working at Bell Telephone Laboratories. Even more, this book is about innovation—about how it happens, why it happens, and who makes it happens. It is likewise about why innovation matters, not just to engineers, scientists and corporate executives but to all of us.

I wasn’t disappointed.

Fiction

Blueprints of the Afterlife by Ryan Boudinot

Cover of Blueprints of the Afterlife

Blueprints of the Afterlife reads like Boudinot was channeling Bob Dylan, Ernest Hemingway, and that weird bearded guy who never bathed, wore tie-died robes, didn’t seem to be able to speak English, and was always accompanied by two hot chicks at the same concerts I went to at Dayton Hara Arena back in the 70’s. Yes it’s that good.

Blueprints of the Afterlife is a rollicking ride through an odd post-apocalyptic future told from the viewpoints of several different people, each with a slightly different agenda. I laughed out loud many times, sometimes just because the set-up was so amazingly cool, and sometime because the dialog was just that hilarious. Note: My wife didn’t like it at all.

I sent this to a guy I know who found himself in jail for a while and he told me it was the best book he ever read. I think that qualifies as a resoundingly positive endorsement if ever there was one. I liked it too. A lot. That’s why I sent it to him. It’s not for kids. So, if you are not a kid (say under the age of 17) then you will be amazed and entertained by this somewhat zany and highly imaginative science fiction novel.

Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi

Cover of Fuzzy Nation

This was the first book that I read by Scalzi and it has launched me on a quest to read all of his stuff. Since this one, I have read Old Man’s War, Red Shirts and am now starting Android Dreams. I like this guy! Fuzzy Nation is a take-off on a story (Little Fuzzy) by H. Beam Piper originally published in 1962. Other authors have riffed on the fuzzies and Scalzi has done so with the permission of Piper’s estate.

It is the story of Jack Holloway who is a prospector on a distant planet who has among other things, trained his dog to set off explosives. He’s not exactly a toe-the-line kind of a guy. He is a likable and fairly honest fellow though. Things get interesting when he makes both an incredibly important geological find as well as a biological one. Enter the fuzzies.

This is by far the lightest read of any on my list and I include it because it is easy to pass some pleasant time with it while lounging next to a pool. If you have a taste for off-world exploration, a bit of xenobiology with an ample dose of crime and courtroom drama, I think you will get a real pleasant kick out of Fuzzy Nation.

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Cover of 1Q84

I was tempted to include another science fiction novel I enjoyed called Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey (there, I included it) but in the interest of a bit more diversity I’ll go with this masterwork from Japan instead. It’s hard to know how much credit goes to the author and how much goes to the translators for works originating in another language, but in this case, credit needs to be given to both I am sure. Okay, it is a bit of a sci-fi/fantasy sort of thing, but it is most definitely a literary novel. Huge too—900+ pages. A friend of mine, who recommended this author to me, rattled off some Japanese in an effort to inform me that the title is a kind of play on words. “Uh, okay,” I believe was my response.

I have no qualms about giving Murakami the rank of literary genius. The prose in this book is so perfect and the characters are so fascinating, that I found it impossible to read this book fast. I hovered over every nuanced metaphor, and every thought that the author distills out of his characters brains. At first, it does not seem likely that anyone would necessarily find these protagonists (a female assassin of sorts and a semihack wanna-be author and part time math tutor) but yowie. They are so real, so imbued with humanity that it is impossible not to end up feeling like you were an invisible sprite that somehow tagged along with them as they lived in this book. I got to know them. I wanted to meet them and share a meal and conversation with them. There are many other characters who are fully fleshed out to play important roles as well.

I cannot, nor do I want to, give away too much about what happens in this book (it’s too expansive), but Murakami manages to weave together the stories of the assassin (of sorts) and the writer from an initial complete separation to what ultimately becomes one magnificently unified tale. There is a fair bit of violence and sex. If you can handle that, you will be richly rewarded for the time and effort it takes to fully digest this truly epic masterpiece.