Sunday, November 6, 2011

Mini-Reviews of Books Read, October 2011

Mini-reviews of books I read last month.  This time, all three books are
non-fiction: one on business, one ostensibly on running, and another on
poetry.  All are recommended.

1. "Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning"
   by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

This book describes how the concept of "Flow" can be applied to running
businesses.  I reviewed the seminal book on the subject, "Flow: The
Psychology of Optimal Experience", in August.  In general, the concepts
that apply to the individual can be applied to business leaders and the
people who work in the organisations they manage to create meaningful,
satisfying and enriching work environments.

Part 1 contains a review of the author's previous research into "flow".
Since work makes up a large part of our lives, it's important that
leaders and employees feel their work has meaning.  More engaged and
fulfilled workers should help produce better products and services.
Part 2 looks at why "flow" is missing at work and how to build it into
the organisation.  Part 3 considers bigger picture concepts: the "soul"
of business, creating flow in life, and the future of business.  The
author argues that "flow" helps create good businesses.  Last month I
read "Drive", which also discussed the importance of "flow" among
employees as a way to promote engagement and help them achieve mastery.

In addition to research findings, this book includes quotes from
interviews with prominent business leaders who have successfully
applied "flow" to their organisations.  It's a self-contained book, so
there's no need to read the author's earlier work to fully understand
the concepts.  A worthwhile read, not only for current or aspiring
business leaders, but anyone interested in work with meaning.

2. "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running" by Haruki Murakami

This is a memoir of sorts by Haruki Murakami, whose novels I've enjoyed
reading in the past couple of years.  Murakami is also an amateur
marathon runner, and his career as a novelist parallels his distance
running: the two activities go hand in hand in framing his life from
his thirties onward.  He briefly describes his life before running,
culminating in being owner/manager of a successful jazz night club.
When he decided to become a professional writer, he overhauled his
lifestyle completely.  This included selling his business, giving up
smoking, and living healthier.

He doesn't think much about writing when he's running, but rather on
more immediate concerns like preparing for marathons and getting
through the exhaustion and pain.  This does have relevance to writing,
because that too requires perseverance.  Murakami's goal is to run one
marathon per year, which he has been able to achieve until recently.
With advancing age he finds it a struggle to beat his previous times,
and so motivation drops.  To mix things up, he started doing triathlons,
which required learning new skills and mastering new tactics.

I enjoyed reading this book, presented as a series of diary entries and
reflections between 2005 and 2007.  It provides insights into what makes
Murakami tick.  Sprinkled throughout are bits of advice for budding
writers too, not just runners.  Some parts are even inspirational.

3. "This Craft of Verse" by Jorge Luis Borges

This book comprises the text of series of lectures presented by a
renowned Argentinian author of short stories.  When Borges was in his
late sixties he was invited to give a series of lectures at Harvard.
In six lectures he discusses the "riddle of poetry", the use of
metaphors and story telling.

His style is humble, almost self-deprecatory.  He draws on examples from
many works in various languages, not just his native Spanish, but also
English (his maternal grandparents were originally from England),
Ancient Greek and Old English.  I found the lecture on metaphors
particularly interesting.  Words evolve in meaning over time, so that in
many cases words originated as metaphors.  For example: "threat" is Old
English for an "angry mob".  Another lecture I found particularly
interesting was on the often controversial topic of translation.  For
example, should translations be strictly literal, or should the
translator be allowed more freedom when choosing words to convey the
underlying poetry or meaning of the text?

This book also acts as a general introduction to literature, albeit
with an emphasis on poetry.  It also provides glimpses into Borges,
particularly the last lecture where he discusses his "poet's creed".
For example, he reveals why he wrote only short stories and not novels:
firstly, he was lazy, and secondly (more likely) he felt it best to be
economical with words.  Writing long novels would require padding out
with content that could clutter the story.  He also used to attribute
his own attempts at verse to made-up authors, and included these in
his short stories.

Overall, I found this book provided great insight into both the "craft
of verse" and Borges the writer.  You can listen to audio recording of
the lectures online, at: