Saturday, November 22, 2014

Surprisingly Undervalued Books

I saw ‘Moneyball’ recently. It’s about a baseball coach who takes on a failing team and turns them into a huge success. His method? Acquire players who seem terrible, but are actually good. In other words, find undervalued baseball players.
This got me thinking about books. I’ve read some great books recently which I wouldn’t have heard of by reading ‘best of’ lists or going through an A-Z of the classics. In almost all cases, I heard of them through bloggers or forums. Yet I consider these to be some of the most important books I’ve read so far.
These books don’t look like they’ll be worth much on the surface, and turn out to be really great. They’re undervalued.
I’m not necessarily talking about obscure books/authors here. I’m talking about the ratio of how good the book is to how good you expect it to be. These are the outliers, the ones that most people don’t talk about very much or haven’t heard of, and yet turn out to be profoundly brilliant.
One interesting pattern these books display – with the caveat that this is a very small sample size – is that they’re generally in a particular niche. ‘Impro’, for example, is disguised as a drama book but turns out to be a book about education philosophy, creativity, the theory of narrative and the role of status in human interaction; ‘The Inner Game of Tennis’ looks like a tennis instruction manual and turns out to be a book about Zen, the ‘two selves’, and other things.
I’d love to find more of these. So if you know of any, please email me, Facebook me, tweet me, whatever.
The list so far:
1. ‘Impro’ by Keith Johnstone. Learning certain sets of concepts – like Newtonian mechanics, calculus, comparative advantage – changes the way you see the world. ‘Impro’ gave me at least a piece of the set of concepts for understanding human interaction at a conscious, theoretical level. Yet it’s a totally unpretentious book about improvisational drama.
This is probably the book I’d recommend the most from this list to the average person.
2. ‘The Inner Game of Tennis’ by Timothy Gallwey. This is supposed to be a book about getting better at tennis, but only one chapter is devoted to the actual mechanics of tennis. Instead, it’s a great instruction manual on emotion, stress, Zen Buddhism, and achievement. Frankly, it blew my mind.
You can get a taste it it in this brilliant video with Alan Kay, but it’s only a fraction of the kind of thing you’ll find in this book.
3. ‘The Philosophical Investigations’ by Ludwig Wittgenstein. This is probably the book with the most ‘classic’ status of the bunch. I find that it’s thoroughly undervalued by philosophers, though, who see it as an arcane and eccentric work of little value. And ordinary people don’t bother reading it, probably for good reason: it’s a difficult thing to read. However, spending the time to understand it is hugely rewarding.
Ironically for a book ignored by most philosophers, it contains the answers to a lot of their questions, and the method for answering all of them.
4. ‘Raise High The Roofbeams, Carpenter / Seymour: An Introduction’ by J.D. Salinger. I was tempted to put ‘Franny and Zooey’ here too, but I think it has enough devotion that it’s disqualified. This collection of two stories by Salinger, however, is much less well known. Yet I’d put this in my fiction top 5. I must have read Seymour: An Introduction about 20 times.
I’ve recommended this to a few people and only one other person has liked it as much as I do. Most people didn’t get it. I’m not sure what conclusion to draw from that.
5. ‘Shakespeare’s Sonnets’ by Stephen Booth. If you don’t get poetry, read Stephen Booth. Maybe you’ve read some poems and really like them, but you can’t articulate exactly why beyond just gesturing. Booth gives a definition of why poems are good that is, I think, objective enough that you could develop a computer-generated index of the goodness of a poem out of it. Not everyone will agree with it, but I’ve found it works really well. Wikipedia has a good list of some of his stuff online here.
6. ‘Principles‘ (pdf) by Ray Dalio. Dalio’s a hedge fund manager – the most successful one in the world. His firm, Bridgewater, is known for being radically transparent: every meeting is recorded and recordings are available to anyone (so I could access the recordings of a meeting between two managers discussing my feedback, for example).
This is good reading if you’re in business and want to understand what makes a good company culture, and how to solve problems. It’s also good reading in general, because Dalio has a relentlessly rational, critical take on things and it’s good for people to see that kind of mind at work. He talks a lot about how to achieve things as well, which is always useful. His advice here is better than any self-help book.
7. ‘Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain’ by Betty Edwards. Again, this blew my mind. I sucked at drawing as a teenager, and this book taught me how to do it. She specializes in teaching people to draw competently over short periods of time using what I can only describe as extremely clever hacks.
In the process, the book also taught me that (a) with hard work and the right methods, you can learn most things, and your barriers are probably mental; (b) ‘bad’ drawers don’t look at the thing itself and draw its shape, they translate reality into abstract concepts first and then draw what that concept visually looks like, and a great way to prove this (and hack the process) is to copy a drawing upside down; (c) seeing things as they really are is harder than you think.
8. Ray Carney: not naming a particular book here. Like the other books here, his writings seem to be just about films, but if you read them deeply enough they turn out to be a recipe for more than that – in this case, how to be a good, empathetic human being. He got me into John Cassavetes, which alone makes him worth the read. His writings on film are amazing. You can find a bunch of them via Wikipedia.
I actually don’t expect most people to like the books on this list – that’s just a sober prediction. To me, though, that’s a good sign. If everything I liked was what everybody would like, then I’d have something to worry about.

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