Summer Reading Recommendations

Six books to surprise, inspire, and entertain you.

Figuring out what books to pack (or upload) before you go on vacation? Here are a few suggestions, collected by Associations Now Senior Editor Mark Athitakis. Videos about the books or from the authors are included, as well as a quick glance at some common characteristics the books share that will help you decide if it's a good read for you.

 

Is this book for me?
  • Contains examples of successful collaborations.
  • Discusses the intersection of social media and business.
  • Takes a close look at business models.
Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age
By Clay Shirky
The Penguin Press, 256 pp., $25.95

Summary: Tech-averse pundits might be puzzled by how much time people spend blogging, Facebooking, and LOLcat-ing, but Clay Shirky isn't. Our post-industrial society has more free time than previous generations, he notes, and we're now more likely to use at least some of it creatively. Shirky's book is largely a study of the ways people have organized online to use their "cognitive surplus," from Wikipedia to to an online carpooling site that was so successful an Ontario bus company briefly convinced legislators to shut it down.

Quote: "The rise of music sharing isn't a social calamity involving general lawlessness; nor is it the dawn of a new age of human kindness. It's just new opportunities linked to old motives via the right incentives."

The Good Stuff: Shirky is among the most clear-headed thinkers around on social media and the new ways people collaborate online, and his case studies emphasize the practical ahead of the merely novel. Better still, there's nary a buzzword to be found.

Caveat Lector: The online revolutions Shirky discusses occasionally seem like imperfect substitutes for the businesses they're displacing. For instance, you can find blog posts and videos online containing much of this book's content, but who'd argue the book isn't better organized and more manageable?

 

Is this book for me?
  • Discusses the intersection of social media and business.
  • Author is trying to push your buttons.
  • Visions of dystopia may leave you feeling that civilization is nearing collapse.
You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto
By Jaron Lanier
Knopf, 224 pp., $24.95

Summary: Lanier was one of the first programmers to work on virtual-reality projects, so nobody can call him a Luddite. But he's deeply skeptical about the ways social media forces us into surface-level connections that make us easy targets for advertisers. If Facebook's recent "social web" efforts give you pause, Lanier doesn't just understand your anxiety, he's written the book on it.

Quote: "Am I accusing all those hundreds of millions of users of social networking sites of reducing themselves in order to be able to use the services? Well, yes, I am."

The Good Stuff: For all his complaints, Lanier is a strong advocate for the internet's ability to connect us. At every turn, he's agitating for online relationships that are fairer, more human, and more complex than what you can cram into a tweet.

Caveat Lector: Lanier occasionally drifts into some philosophical tangents and New Age-y patter about virtual reality and why his idea of a better internet involves (no, really) cephalopods.

 

Is this book for me?
  • Contains examples of successful collaborations.
  • Visions of dystopia may leave you feeling that civilization is nearing collapse.
  • Emphasizes new ideas and innovations.
How to Cool the Planet: Geoengineering and the Audacious Quest to Fix Earth's Climate
By Jeff Goodell
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 272 pp., $26

Summary: International efforts to reduce carbon emissions and embrace renewable energy can help address climate change. But what if those efforts don't help enough? Goodell's book is a study of the increasingly popular efforts by a handful of scientists to promote "geoengineering," quick-hit ways of cooling the planet that involve reflecting more sunlight away from Earth and sucking carbon dioxide out of the air.

Quote: "[B]efore you can intelligently design something, whether it is a house, a bridge, or a climate system of a planet, the first question you have to ask is, what is its purpose?"

The Good Stuff: Goodell is a tremendous storyteller, and this book could easily be subtitled "What It Takes to Promote a Controversial Idea." His personality sketches show how a mix of scientific rigor, persistence, and attitude helped bring these ideas to the table, and Goodell also clearly spells out geoengineering's potential risks.

Caveat Lector: This isn't a success story: No major geoengineering projects are underway, for both political and practical reasons, and Goodell notes that they could backfire badly. Read it as a study of just how much work and research is involved in getting this big, hairy, audacious goal off the ground.

 

Is this book for me?
  • Tired of books full of words? Has illustrations.
  • Emphasizes new ideas and innovations.
  • Contains examples of successful collaborations.
Innovate the Pixar Way: Business Lessons From the World's Most Creative Corporate Playground
By Bill Capodagli and Lynn Jackson
McGraw-Hill, 224 pp., $21.95

Summary: Finding Nemo isn't just an entertaining animated feature about the adventures of a young clownfish—it's the product of a workplace culture that values play, creativity, a bit of chaos, and trust in employees. Capodagli and Jackson are experts on Disney's corporate culture (Capodagli will speak at ASAE & The Center's Annual Meeting & Expo in August), and together they break down the elements of life at Pixar.

Quote: "We will always choose a quality-driven group of average performers who are committed to a team effort over a collection of egotistical, narcissistic prima donnas who are more concerned with their own individual greatness!"

The Good Stuff: Nuggets of wisdom are spread throughout the book, but one chapter, "Forty-One Neat Things to Unleash the Imagination," is stuffed with ideas to consider, from the practical to the provocative to the downright wacky ("Conduct quarterly 'Gong Shows'").

Caveat Lector: If you're looking for the kind of dismantling of Pixar's inner workings that a Harvard Business School case study might undertake, this isn't your book. Capodagli and Jackson are more boosters than hard-nosed investigators.

 

Is this book for me?
  • Practical advice.
  • Takes a close look at business models.
  • Author is trying to push your buttons.
Zilch: The Power of Zero in Business
By Nancy Lublin
Portfolio, 256 pp., $25.95

Summary: Lublin is a nonprofit veteran who founded Dress for Success, which provides business clothing to low-income women. She's also a firm believer that corporations can learn a lot from nonprofits, especially when it comes to getting members (i.e., consumers) excited about your products. Zilch has plenty of examples to back up her assertions, from Lublin's own experiences as well as those of ASPCA, Teach for America, Girl Scouts of America, and others.

Quote: "Good not-for-profits don't gunk up their messages with convoluted rationales and multipart platforms. They focus on a core idea and pound it home."

The Good Stuff: It's a fierce defense of the nonprofit model, which stresses innovation and genuine relationships with everybody the organization touches, from members to staffers to donors—even those who leave the fold.

Caveat Lector: Lublin tends to make a fetish out of austerity, and her advocacy for finding the cheapest way to undertake a project occasionally feels a bit like browbeating.

 

Is this book for me?
  • Practical advice.
  • Tired of books full of words? Has illustrations.
  • Author is trying to push your buttons.
Rework
By Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson
Crown Business, 288 pp., $22

Summary: Fried and Hansson, the founders of the software company 37signals, have a playful-but-focused approach to entrepreneurship. Rework, a summation of their management philosophy, emphasizes trimming the fat, growing at your own pace, and experimenting heavily. Though the book's tone is slacker cool, they emphasize working smart instead of just putting in long hours.

Quote: "If you're just going to be like everybody else, why are you even doing this? If you merely replicate competitors, there's no point to your existence."

The Good Stuff: You can knock this one out in a two-hour plane flight, it's seasoned with great illustrations (by Associations Now contributor Mike Rohde), and it's 10 times funnier than any of the other books in this article.

Caveat Lector: If it were all as simple as Fried and Hansson make it seem, why would we need business books?

Online Extra: More Reading Recommendations

Check out "CEO to CEO: Putting Members First and Required Reading" for recommendations from four association CEOs on books they'd assign as "required reading" for their staffs.

Also, see the Acronym blog's May 2010 "Leadership Inspiration" series, in which several association executives shared their favorite leadership thinkers, many of whom have also written great books on leadership.