“A nearly impenetrable thicket of geekitude…”

Non-fiction Reading, 2019

At the end of 2018, I wrote about at least some of the books I read during the year. I’m sure I was the only person who found that interesting, but I thought it was an exercise worth repeating for 2019 even if only for my own benefit.

So here, again, are comments on books I read this year. This year I’m reproducing almost the complete list, even when I don’t have a lot to say about something. I’m therefore breaking it up over several entries:

Productivity

Some people are naturally organised. I am not one of those people. Instead, I work hard to stay as organised as I am, or at least to fake it enough that I can muddle through. My two main tools in this area are OmniFocus software and Getting Things Done (both the methodology in general and the book in which it’s described).

An important part of the GTD approach is the periodic review; over the years I’ve found that I need to apply that not only to my day-to-day work but also to the systems I use to organise that work. When I started working with GTD back in the early 2000s, I re-read the book every couple of years so that I could refresh myself on principles as well as incorporate what I’d learned to improve my working system. I’d frequently find that it made sense to adjust what I was doing.

This year was my first time spent with the 2015 second edition. The original dates from 2001, so it was definitely feeling a bit dated. The principles haven’t changed, of course, but some of the examples and specific advice definitely has and the book is better for it.

Most obviously, the assumption that most readers would be restricted in what they could do at any given time by the context in which they found themselves has been reversed. Instead of having a “phone” context for when it’s possible to make a phone call, or an “Internet” context for when an Internet connection is available, it’s now more useful to categorise actions by the exceptional situation of not having the ability to take particular kinds of action, for example while in transit. There’s also more emphasis in the new edition on making good choices of what to do when you have all your tools available and are faced with too much choice.

I still find GTD a useful way to organise myself after well over a decade, and the new edition of Getting Things Done brings the book right up to date.

The basic observation of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World is that being able to focus without distraction leads to great gains in productivity. Anyone who does any kind of knowledge work knows this already. Or, at least, they do if they have been able to take some undistracted time to think about the issue.

Beyond that commonplace, unfortunately, Deep Work reads to me more like a humblebrag about the author’s undoubtedly exceptional abilities (“I wrote two books and got tenure while you were having breakfast” – I exaggerate, but only a little) than it gives actionable advice. This is not uncommon for books with “Best Business Book”-style awards, in my experience.

Several people I respect have found Deep Work more insightful than I did. It’s probably worth reading if you find the style appealing or are having the “don’t put me in an open-plan office” argument with someone.

History

I watched The Post this year. It’s a really well-made movie about the publication of the “Pentagon Papers” in 1971 by the New York Times and the Washington Post. The last scene is, as I understand it, a visual link to the start of the movie of All the President’s Men and for some reason that led me to buy a copy of the book (I still haven’t seen the movie, but it’s on my list now).

All the President’s Men is an account by two of the journalists involved in breaking the story of the Watergate scandal. It’s an account of their work as investigative journalists, though, more than it is a history of Watergate itself. That means that the chronology tends to be that of their discoveries rather than the underlying events; I found this a little confusing. It’s still fascinating, but I now find myself in need of some kind of history book as well.

Autobiography

Most people will know James Comey from his dismissal in 2017 from his post as FBI Director, or perhaps from his public statements during the 2016 US Presidential campaign. This memoir — subtitled “Truth, Lies and Leadership” — of course covers those events and the background to them but (to me, at least) those are probably the least interesting sections (plus, they’re way too politically charged for me to want to discuss them here).

My interest in A Higher Loyalty came from a genuine interest in how the people who run organisations like the FBI think about their roles, but also about a couple of less well known incidents earlier in Comey’s career. One of those was his refusal (as US Acting Attorney General while his boss was hospitalised) to reauthorise the Stellarwind warrantless surveillance programme in 2004. The story of the hospital confrontation with the administration representatives trying to strong-arm Attorney General John Ashcroft is now fairly well known but it’s interesting to hear these things from the horse’s mouth.

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