Posts tagged History
The Consolations of Philosophy

By Alain de Botton

This book provides a great overview of the tradition of Western philosophy. Besides providing useful summaries of some of the major thinkers and what their philosophy can do for you in your life, it shows the the connecting threads between thinkers that might seem totally unrelated at first glance. Each chapter gives a brief thumbnail of the biography and thinking of a major philosopher, which is great, but what's really useful about this book is that every chapter addresses a specific concern that everyone faces - such as unpopularity, money, and frustration. Alain's style is warm and gentle, with a hint of detached humor that makes for enjoyable reading. If you've ever thought "I wish I knew more about philosophy", this is the place to start.

Get it here.

Strategy: A History

By Lawrence Freedman

Man oh man am I loving this book. It puts out a comprehensive record of thinking about the concept of strategy in western thought from the Bible and Homer all the way to modern theorists. Along the way, Freedman provides analysis of the strengths and shortcomings of the various formulations and their applications. Despite what might turn into a dry, intellectual subject, the book is quite clear and readable, moving briskly through trends and eras of thought. For me, it's greatest value is highlighting the connections and influences between figures as disparate as Thucydides, Machiavelli, and John Boyd. I suspect that I will be coming back to my notes on this and its bibliography for years to come. 

Get it here.

Leonardo da Vinci

By Walter Isaacson

I have long irrationally avoided biographies, despite encountering a few excellent ones like Team of Rivals, so I decided I needed to remedy that to read one about a personal hero of mine. Leonardo stands as the archetypal "Renaissance Man", with achievements in art, architecture, science and more all under his belt. His brilliant and beautiful notebooks make any journaler feel inadequate. And yet, one of the most reassuring parts of this book is that it seems unlikely that Leonardo was as set apart intellectually as an Einstein or a Newton, nor as naturally artistically gifted as a Michaelangelo. Instead, Leonardo learned everything through a combination of insatiable curiosity and determined attention and focus. He was also able to turn his varied interests and propensity for abandoning projects into a firm set of multidisciplinary knowledge that spurred creative insight across fields. So he's something of a role model for those of us who worry we didn't win the genetic lottery or feel a lack of focus. This book is fantastic and humanizing while still highlighting the key takeaways from his life that we can enjoy in our own.

Get it here

How We Got to Now

By Steven Johnson

I worry a bit that this is becoming the Steven Johnson fan club, but I am really enjoying his books recently. This one takes a look at history through the lens of what was made possible through the development of some key technologies, like glass and sanitation. Besides providing a plethora of fun trivia, like the fact that in the mid nineteenth century it was more practical to raise the entire city 10 feet than to tunnel under it to install a sewer system, or that chlorinating water reduced infant mortality by ~40%, the book provides a fascinating reframe of how we normally process history. Instead of looking at decisions made by individuals or trends embodied in governments and cultures, it asks "what couldn't have happened without this technology that did happen after it was invented?" Maybe not as immediately useful as Where Good Ideas Come From, but it's possibly a more approachable and enjoyable introduction to Johnson's style. Definitely check it out.