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Summer reading: the best things we read this year

Henry Oliver, Idealog

‘Unfollow’, Adrian Chen

One of the best writers on the cultural consequences and idiosyncrasy of technology is Adrian Chen. And one of his best is his profile of Megan Phelps-Ropera, member of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, who grew up picketing soldiers’ funerals with her family, holding signs like GOD HATES FAGS and THANK GOD FOR DEAD SOLDIERS, and ended up defecting from the church after she began empathising with her targets and communicating with adversaries on Twitter. It’s a story of questioning one’s deepest assumptions and of social media’s potential to connect even the most disparate people. Plus, there’s a love story in there somewhere too.

A taste:

On December 20, 2009, Phelps-Roper was in the basement of her house, for a church function, when she checked Twitter on her phone and saw that Brittany Murphy, the thirty-two-year-old actress, had died. When she read the tweet aloud, other church members reacted with glee, celebrating another righteous judgment from God… But Phelps-Roper had loved Murphy in “Clueless,” and she felt an unexpected pang—not quite sadness, but something close—over her death. As she continued scrolling through Twitter, she saw that it was full of people mourning Murphy. The contrast between the grief on Twitter and the buoyant mood in the basement unsettled her. She couldn’t bring herself to post a tweet thanking God for Murphy’s death.

Extra credit: Chen’s story ‘The Agency’  in the New York Times about Russian professional internet trolls is amazing too.

Everything written about Theranos

Probably the business story of the year. Theranos – the blood testing start-up with a valuation of US$9 billion, and a mythological CEO/founder who quit university at 19 to work every day from waking up till going to sleep – came under fire in this Wall Street Journal expose. The paper alleged the company wasn’t even using its own technology for the vast majority of tests it was administering; it was actually using the very technology the company was meant to be disrupting.

Soon after, everyone else went looking for holes in the company, with reports from the Washington Post and Bloomberg. The company remained evasive about its claims and its results.

Now, Forbes, which published a glowing profile of the company last year, has published a detailed and honest account of how the magazine uncritically bought the Theranos story – hook, line and sinker.

It’s all riveting reading about Silicon Valley hubris, the uncomfortable relationship between disruption and health regulation, and contemporary business.

Sarah Dunn, The Register

The Woman I Wanted to Be, Diane von Furstenberg.

No, really. This hot-pink memoir languished in the stack of books on my nightstand for nearly a year before I gingerly cracked it open, but honestly, it’s great. It starts with the fashion mogul’s early life in Brussels, telling her mother’s story of surviving the Holocaust, and swiftly moves on to cover von Furstenberg’s outrageous life as a high flyer in 1970’s New York. There’s gossip and name-dropping galore.

The business side of von Furstenberg’s fashion empire is introduced in the latter half of the book, and it’s nearly as spectacular as her personal life. The Diane von Furstenberg label has seen enormous highs and lows. At one point, von Furstenberg abandons her multi-million-dollar diversified collection of businesses to go and live in Bali with an itinerant beachcomber, then flits off to found a publishing house in Paris. Impulsiveness is both her greatest strength and weakness, von Furstenberg admits.

Ultimately, of course, we see both the label and its charismatic founder triumph. In 1992, von Furstenberg bounds back into fashion via the televised shopping network QVC, selling $1.2 million-worth of her Silk Assets collection within two hours, and relaunches her label to great success within a few years. While von Furstenberg’s life sounds exhausting, her energy and creativity is inspiring, and the unpredictability of it all makes for a very entertaining read.

In the Arena, Diane Foreman

While we’re on the subject of retail leaders named Diane, In the Arena by recently-retired Emerald Group boss Diane Foreman is also a good read, unlike many other bland business memoirs. Foreman’s voice is bold, completely original and likeably salty.

Billed as a “candid portrait”, her memoir is really more of a business manual for entrepreneurs, but this is no bad thing. To invoke a cliché, Foreman is all business, and her memoir gets straight to the good stuff. It’s packed with behind-the-scenes detail and specific advice for those aspiring to start their own empire.

William Gibson on life inside and outside the internet’, David Kushner

I’m choosing to assert that William Gibson is relevant to business, even if it’s only in the loosest sense. Gibson is an icon of speculative fiction – perhaps his biggest claim to fame is having invented the concept of “cyberspace” before the internet existed. But in recent years, he’s turned his analytical eye and powerful imagination towards trend-hunting, marketing, domestic surveillance culture and corporate espionage.

His latest novel, The Peripheral, came out this time last year. It’s the third in a series set in the near future – Gibson’s been quoted in earlier interviews as saying he no longer writes in the distant future as the events and themes he was interested in exploring have now become current.

Those who enjoy this particular flavour of speculative fiction (SpecFic) should also seek out Paolo Bacigalupi’s 2009 The Windup Girl. It’s set in a futuristic Thailand, where patents on bio-engineered food sources have created new business opportunities in a post-Peak Oil world.

In Bangladesh, the sham of Shams Factory’, Al Jazeera

The 2013 collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh had far-reaching consequences for fashion retail. The disaster killed more than 1,100 workers, who were engaged in making clothing for brands selling to European and American consumers. Their deaths had the effect of focusing Western attention on the conditions which support the consumer appetite for cheap clothing – but as this article confirms, it will take more than a moment in the spotlight to dismantle the structural issues which underlay fast fashion.

Nikki Mandow, Idealog

Rolling Stone long form journalism

In case I’m not the only person who has taken a decade to realise that Rolling Stone magazine has shifted away from the general entertainment/music focus of the 1980s and 1990s to produce some of the most readable long-form journalism in the US – on a whole range of political and current affairs topics. Enjoyed this one on the Dark Web.

Planet Money podcasts from NPR

OK, it’s not reading, but twice a week you can get the lowdown on all manner of fascinating, loosely-business-related topics, in words even a journalist can understand. And you can be tidying the kitchen at the same time. Not sure how to read the Chinese economy? What would happen if salaries stopped being secret? Where does my t-shirt go when I put it in a recycling bin? What’s with the Federal Reserve? The latest one answers the question: What happens when ISIS takes over your town?

The Big Impact of Small Changes, Margaret Heffernan

A genuinely interesting book about corporate culture. In an age of radical shifts and disruption, Heffernan reckons something as small as leaving your desk at lunchtime can actually make a difference to productivity.

Vincent Heeringa, Idealog

Six Capitals: The revolution capitalism has to have – or can accountants save the planet? Jane Gleeson White

If you ever wondered how accountants might redeem themselves from inflicting double entry booking upon the world, then you might turn to Jane Gleeson White. No one makes a better case for the future of capitalism than this Aussie journalist. You’ll feel good about economics and look smart, all in one readable book.

Elly Strang, The Register

In true millennial fashion, I didn’t actually consume books in the traditional format very much this year. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing I love more than the smell, feel and experience of a physical book, but often I was time poor, so I read a lot of articles, listened to a lot of podcasts and audiobooks and followed interesting social media accounts. My picks are a bit all over the place – unless you think you can find a connection between articles about teenage pedophiles and adult colouring books.

You’re 16. You’re a Pedophile. You Don’t Want to Hurt Anyone. What Do You Do Now?‘, Luke Malone

Before you think of me as a monster for including a story with such a disturbing theme, pause for a moment and note that feeling you felt once you read the word pedophile – the revulsion, the disdain; wanting to quickly move onto another topic. This article bravely delves into a topic that is surrounded by intense stigma and asks a simple question: where do these urges actually come from? And how they be prevented before they actually take place?

Pedophilia is an untouched area of research due to this stigma, to the point where one researcher described it as a series of “pretty big black holes”. The article isn’t devoid of shocking details – some of the things mentioned will repulse you – but it’s a fascinating insight into a topic nobody knows much about, and the writer has crafted the story so powerfully you might even end up feeling sympathetic towards them.

In 10,000 Snaps Of The Shutter, A ‘Photographic Census’ Of A City‘, NPR

I  wanted to share an article of Humans Of New York’s Brandon Stanton that I read in the Renegade Collective’s December magazine, but it hasn’t been put online yet. However, any article on Stanton is interesting, so this one will suffice. If you haven’t heard of it yet, Humans Of New York is a blog that shares the intimate details of strangers’ lives, coupled with a photograph of them.

What’s of even greater interest to me, though, is the storyteller behind these thousands of stories – Stanton. He began by bowling up to strangers on the streets of New York, and has since gone on to tell the incredibly important stories of Syrian refugees looking to resettle in the US (Check out his Ted Talk here). He’s basically the anti-trump of America right now, telling refugees’ stories and struggles and humanising them to an American audience. His raw storytelling is so important on social media, which is typically jam-packed with superficial and self promotional posts.

And on a lighter note: adult colouring books!

Adult colouring books are one of the most hyped items of 2015, but it’s for a very good reason. For anyone working a hectic, 40-hour week staring a screen day after day, they have the same effect as a luxurious massage at a day spa. The act of colouring can be both mindless, clearing your head of all the thoughts and stresses, and focusing, as you concentrate on accurately getting down into the nitty gritty of colouring inside the lines – believe me, it’s more challenging than you think it is, as there’s a lot of admin involved to keep pencil tips razor sharp.

It also earns you mad respect with anyone under the age of 10 if you show them an intricate drawing you’ve completed (“Woah! You’re so good at colouring!” my nine and seven-year-old nephews exclaimed when I showed them) giving you a sense of profound achievement when you’re failing in other areas of life.

Overall, I think adults should be embracing more activities usually reserved for children, as they’re good bloody fun. So far, I’ve tried and loved Johanna Basford’s Enchanted Forest and Lost Ocean books, but there’s basically one to suit everyone. There’s even Harry Potter, Game Of Thrones and Lord Of The Rings ones for the fandoms.

Ben Fahey, Stoppress

The Everything Store, by Brad Stone

At times it feels like biographies of remarkable humans (and, to a lesser extent, autobiographies) exist solely to make readers feel completely inadequate. That was partly how I felt after reading The Everything Store, a book that detailed the remarkable story of Amazon’s founder and chief evangelist Jeff Bezos, early this year. But in addition to creating the dull thud of ineptitude, it also cemented a few things for me: the established order of things can always be changed with enough tenacity; no matter how powerful you are there is probably someone, somewhere developing something that will cut your lunch, sticking to a long-term plan and ignoring the distracting short-term cacophony and doubting Thomases requires great resolve but is often the pathway to sustainability; and businesses—and their employees—that aim to protect legacies at the the expense of their customers deserve to be disrupted, something the internet is particularly good at doing.

A gripping tale of an overachiever and a man with a long term plan. As he wrote in a shareholder letter: “I think long-term thinking squares the circle. Proactively delighting customers earns trust, which earns more business from those customers, even in new business arenas. Take a long-term view, and the interests of customers and shareholders aligns.”

How Tom Wolfe Became … Tom Wolfe, Michael Lewis

I spend more time reading magazines than books, and Wired and Vanity Fair are the faves. But this article from Michael Lewis stuck out and shows how important it is for writers to be true to themselves and try to find a unique voice.


For some light poolside reading, I tend to gravitate to my own nude calendar Tasteful Nudes 2008 (available on request for $1,000).

One of the talented Idealog Team Content Producers made this post happen.

Review overview