When I call my summer reading list “eclectic,” I’m not kidding. I’ve bounced from a Mary Renault classic to Lee Child’s latest; childhood memoirs from Trevor Noah and Tara Westover; biographies of Ben Franklin and Richard Holbrooke; Yuval Noah Harari’s look at the future and Georgia Hunter’s reimagining of how her Polish relatives survived the Holocaust. Since I listened to about half of these at 1.25 speed, don’t for a moment admire my consumption rate, but do join me in taking a breather from business books. Indeed, inspiration can be found in the most unlikely places.
Most Humorous: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
Because “The Daily Show” host Trevor Noah narrates his unlikely journey from street urchin in South Africa to successful international comedian, I highly recommend listening to this one. As the son of a black mother and white father, Noah’s extensive description of apartheid and the effect it had on his options is somehow both enlightening and entertaining. While you see glimpses of Noah’s innate intelligence early on (his gift with languages and as a mimic, for example), what you really come to appreciate is the role his “tough-loving” mother played in pushing him beyond his own modest expectations.
Fastest Read: Past Tense by Lee Child
How is it that a lanky guy who travels by foot with nothing but a toothbrush and the clothes on his back could be the relentlessly engaging star of 25 novels? All I can say is, don’t knock it ‘til you’ve picked up any one of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books. I gobbled down Past Tense, #23 in the series, in just four days and I only read at night. For brand storytellers, the lessons here are pretty simple—be consistent, be surprising, embrace tension and make sure your product or service can kick ass.
Most Challenging: Homo Deux by Yuval Noah Harari
This one climbed onto my listening list based on a high-IQ friend’s recommendation. Afraid it was too esoteric for me to comprehend, I let it sit on my iPhone for a year before starting it. And every night after a 25-minute dose, I’d try unsuccessfully to explain Harari’s prognostications to my wife. In truth, I’m still sifting through his ideas and will probably need to buy the hard copy to revisit a few in more detail. If you’ve read this and can dumb it down for me, let’s talk. If you haven’t, brace yourself for a scary, provocative and well-reasoned look at where humanity could be headed.
Best Biography: Young Benjamin Franklin by Nick Bunker
Having read a couple dozen books on my hero Ben Franklin, I came into this one with low expectations. Remarkably, Bunker manages to cover some fresh territory, uncovering signs of ingenuity in Franklin’s ancestors and providing new context for Franklin’s growing political savvy in his days as a printer. With a crisp writing style that will keep even non-Franklin aficionados moving along, you’ll come away with a rich understanding of how Franklin grew into one of history’s great characters.
Most Remarkable: We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter
Reminiscent of classic historical fiction like Leon Uris’ Exodus and Herman Wouk’s Winds of War, We Were the Lucky Ones tracks a Jewish family who is separated in Poland at the beginning of World War II. It definitely reads like fiction though it is based on the author’s relatives, yet it filled in a few aspects of the Holocaust that my other readings had somehow missed, such as the impact of Russia splitting Poland in the early part of the war. I found myself staying up late to tear through what is essentially an epic tribute to the transcendent bonds of family. So yeah, hug your loved ones and count your blessings.
Final notes: In took me years to finish Mary Renault’s 1958 classic “The King Must Die”—not because it wasn’t interesting but more because I knew it could wait. I seem to be doing the same thing with “Our Man,” the bio on Richard Holbrooke, although his life seems no less adventurous than Perseus’. This will not happen to you with Tara Westover’s #1 bestseller Educated which reads like a Lee Child’s novel with some Stephen King crazy thrown in (I can’t recommend that one enough to make you feel good about your relatively benign upbringing!) Do let me know what books you’ve devoured this summer and what you’ve put on the backburner.