Forager's 2021 book recommendations
Like everyone else, 2021 has been a tough year in our respective households. Kids bouncing off the walls, stuck at home for months on end. Endless noise. Others, living alone, dealing with endless quiet instead. Separation from loved ones overseas that now stretches more than two years. And a months-long separation from loved ones that live a short drive up the motorway.
But there’s a lot to be thankful for too. Especially now that life is returning to normal.
At Forager, we’ve had a year like none before. A few lows, but more highs. One of the things evident in our reading list this year is the proliferation of new faces in the team. We’ve just returned from a two-night offsite on the beautiful south coast of NSW. There was work to be done. More crucially, it was a chance to hang out in person with colleagues old and new, remember what’s important about our business and why we’re all here. We’re all excited for the year ahead and hope you are too. Thanks for your support.
Look at any human skull from prior to the agricultural age and you’ll almost certainly find 32 teeth that erupted straight and strong. For most of the next 10,000 years, human teeth grew relatively straight, if not as perfectly as our hunter-gatherer ancestors. But with industrialisation and industrial foods came malocclusion (crooked teeth), 90% of us have malocclusion to some extent. We’re not supposed to have crooked teeth.
Our teeth aren’t straight because our jaws are malformed and stunted, usually deforming our nasal passages and sinuses in the process. Sustained mechanical work (chewing) and associated muscle development are required in order to force the jaws to grow to full genetic potential. We’re not chewing enough, especially as babies and young children. Relatedly, we’re also often mouth-breathing when nasal breathing is the right course.
This is not (just) a cosmetic issue. Downstream of undersized jaws and deviated septums is sleep apnoea and snoring, afflictions rarely if ever experienced by our ancestors. And following from disturbed sleep are all sorts of health problems – heart disease, dementia, likely cancer. It’s likely also at least partly causal to obesity and diabetes, bringing further complications.
Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor was given to me by a dear friend. It’s the Silicon Valley handbook on the issue, the reason tech bros are all presently taping their mouths shut before bed. This rollicking read is most focused on breathing, discusses ancient breathing practices in the east (chiefly India) and offers some simple hacks that might make life better. I really enjoyed the book (unsurprisingly perhaps, given I recommended Nestor’s book Deep back in 2015), although I humbly submit it may at times confuse cause and effect.
Jaws: The Story of a Hidden Epidemic by Sandra Kahn and Paul Ehrlich reads exactly like the book you would expect when a specialist orthodontist and anthropologist teams up with a renowned biologist/evolutionist. It’s more of a nuts and bolts read into the underlying problem. It leans heavily on the work of eccentric and controversial British former dentist John Mew. The book shows what’s going wrong as children’s faces develop, and how we might hope to improve their path.
The principles in these books are so meaningful and yet thoroughly unknown to most people. Thus I can’t think of a topic more important for aspiring parents and parents of young children to read up on. It could quite literally improve your child’s appearance, health and life trajectory. The plan is pretty simple. Breastfeed babies where possible. Get children eating tough and fibrous foods early in life. And avoiding industrial slop as much as possible. Make sure they’re breathing nasally and keeping their mouth (and teeth) closed other than to talk and eat. Their DNA will take care of the rest.
The books also highlight some promising potential solutions for adults suffering because they didn’t experience optimal childhood development. It’s an interesting area of scientific and commercial research.
Ali: A Life by Jonathan Eig
Ali, A Life was not just my book of the year. It is one of the best biographies I have read – “even of all time”, as Ali might put it.
Author Jonathan Eig interviewed hundreds of family, friends and enemies of Ali to tell the story of how a derided and maligned black athlete became a global hero. In 1967, Ali was sentenced to five years in jail for draft evasion. By 1996, the Parkinsons-riddled hero was lighting the flame at the Atlanta Olympics.
What makes the book much more than a sports biography is the parallels Ali’s life shared with a changing America. He didn’t only live through a period of enormous societal change, he was a pivotal character in it.
Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment by Daniel Kahneman, Cass R. Sunstein, Olivier Sibony
We all make mistakes. And mistakes in professional judgments can be very costly. Sentencing a felon. Starting a patient on a medical treatment. And yes, buying a stock. Different professionals will have different views. Noise makes the compelling case that these views are far more different from each other than we would like to believe.
When measured against a standard, some errors lean one way like darts closely clumped in the top left-hand side of a dartboard. We have heard plenty about bias in decision-making. Noise focuses on the other errors, those that have more to do with how close the darts are to each other. If two people guilty of the same crime should be sentenced to five years in jail, yet one receives three years and the other seven, justice has not been served. Examples abound in the modern world. With this book Kahneman, the father of behavioural finance, has added another mind-opening chapter to his already long list of must-reads.
Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker
Some parents might be surprised to find that teenagers who sleep in until noon are not simply lazy, but that they have different circadian rhythms to adults. And waking them up early might be doing their developing brains a disservice. Perhaps not as impactful, though, as the damage caused by the refusal of medical facilities like hospitals to prioritise the sleep of medical staff. Walker alleges that many medical errors (and resultant injuries and deaths) are caused, at least in part, by the difficult schedules doctors and nurses are expected to adhere to. Maybe most fascinating (albeit useless) is the fact that some birds sleep with only half of their brain when they’re alone. This allows them to keep one eye open and continue scanning the area for potential threats. An impressive survival mechanism.
While some sections of this book might feel slightly alarmist, it’s compelling nonetheless. Walker explores the multitude of negative impacts that a lack of sleep has on your body and your mind. In short, getting less than eight hours of shut-eye per night is hindering every element of your life from your physical health, to your creativity and your relationships. We’ve all heard stories of ultra-wealthy and successful people climbing their way to the top by sacrificing sleep in order to spend more time working. Many might even have you believe that they can function optimally on limited sleep. Dr Thomas Roth of the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit disagrees. In his words: “The number of people who can survive on five hours of sleep or less without impairment, and rounded to a whole number, is zero”.
The Stress Effect: Why Smart Leaders Make Dumb Decisions And What To Do About It by Henry L. Thompson
The Stress Effect is a book about making decisions under pressure. In those moments, seemingly simple decisions become clouded by the proverbial fog of war. It is then that ‘actual performance’ can and will often deviate from ‘expected performance’. This book is about preparing in advance to make sure that when the time comes, actual performance lives up to expectation.
The book explores theory while working through some interesting case studies. One was Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and Jeffrey Skiles’ successful water landing of US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River three minutes after flying through a flock of geese. What choices were made when an optimal solution wasn’t an option? And the book also looks at the inverse. What decisions might have led to golfer Greg Norman blowing up an unlosable lead in the 1996 Masters Tournament?
Thompson dives into how smarts, erudition and emotional intelligence can all become compromised in stressful situations like these. Our physiology and hormones can lead us astray. Smart but highly stressed individuals can underperform less capable individuals who are better adapted to stress. Stress deprives the individual of the ability to tap its full resources intellectually and emotionally. That’s when training, experience and preparedness to deal with stress kick in.
This book is also laced with stories and techniques to improve one’s capability to deal with stress. Nutrition, meditation, adequate rest, maintaining good relationships, finding meaning, focusing on what we can control, it’s all in there.
Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko
Not a recent book but something that sticks in my mind. Too Much Lip is a fictional story about generations of an Aboriginal family that brings together Dreamtime and the raw elements of life. You live this story through the eyes of the main character, Kerry, who re-joins her family in the town she escaped many years ago. She’s there for the impending death of her Pop, a character both admired and feared.
This book won the 2019 Miles Franklin Award.
Neapolitan novels: My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and The Story of the Lost Child, all by Elena Ferrante.
A little cheeky recommending a four-book series. But if you’re like me, you’ll want to read from book to book. Translated from Italian, the series centres around two intelligent women: Elena and her friend Lila. It winds through their lives and underprivileged upbringings in a tight-knit community on the outskirts of Naples. The story makes us think about how education can open up opportunities and what life might look like if you aren’t privileged enough to receive such an education. Elena Ferrante is a pseudonymous name; the author has never officially identified themselves even after this incredibly successful series. Many journalists have investigated (including an expose in the New York Times a few years ago), and some claim to have identified Ferrante. But the intrigue adds to the series.
Never Split The Difference by Chris Voss
Negotiation is a key part of life. Whether it’s your career, relationship or an important purchase, your ability to negotiate will play an important role in achieving your desired outcome. In this book, Voss takes you through nine principles to help improve your negotiating skills.
Voss spent a decent portion of his life dealing in high-stakes negotiations when he worked with the FBI. He dealt with bank robbers, kidnappers and terrorists on a regular basis. In 2007, he retired from the FBI and started his own consultancy company called The Black Swan Group. He now helps businesses and individuals navigate their way through complex deals.
The book really teaches you about human behaviour. The importance of emotional intelligence, tactical empathy, active listening and even (to my surprise) the importance of hearing “No” to begin the negotiation. The author takes you through all different types of techniques to best prepare you for tough dealings with any counterpart.
Under a White Sky by Elizabeth Kolbert
This is a book from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Sixth Extinction and returns to humanity’s transformative impact on the environment, now asking: After doing so much damage, can we change nature – this time to save it? It is a book about people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems. Humans have affected so much of the planet’s land and oceans that we face a future without any precedent.
I read this book when the COP26 UN Climate Summit was taking place in Glasgow recently and found it somewhat concerning that, at the end of those talks, the Climate Action Network handed out its “dunce” award to Australia as the nation its thousand-odd member organisations believe have been least helpful at the COP conference. The award is called the Colossal Fossil, and was awarded to Australia for turning up with low targets, for declining to join international pledges to phase out coal or to reduce gas emissions, for what are seen as slack domestic emission reduction policies and for approving coal mines in the lead-up to the conference. Australia was streets ahead in the vote.
What makes Under A White Sky so valuable and such a compelling read is Kolbert’s capacity to tell the story by showing real life examples of the issues that need to be addressed. Without beating the reader over the head, she makes it clear how far we already are from a world of undisturbed, perfectly balanced nature, and how far we must still go to find a new balance for the planet’s future that still has us humans in it.
Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain
Sometimes funny, sometimes shocking, Bourdain’s obvious love of food – from the gourmet to the very simple – stands out in Kitchen Confidential. His first-hand account of the inner workings of New York restaurants made for fascinating reading. The book demonstrates what a complex and difficult business owning a restaurant is, where only those with a masochistic dedication to cooking survive. Definitely not for the faint-hearted.
A clear message of how important the chef is screams out through the pages, where creativity and good sense collide on a minute-by-minute basis. After all, the chef is the creative who designs the menu, has an encyclopaedia-like knowledge base on ingredients, and must have patient training skills for the ever-churning staff turnover (a function of the industry). At the same time, they’re also burdened by consistent menu “wow” pressures whilst also being reined in by the minutiae of task workflow to achieve the most efficient service. Get all this wrong and there is nowhere to hide.
In good Bourdain style, the book contains lots of salacious kitchen shenanigans that represent the pressure cooker of striving to get it right, coupled by the work-hard play-hard ethic. It’s fascinating and well worth a read.
When The Body Says NO: Exploring The Stress-Disease Connection by Gabor Mate, M.D.
“The flight-or-fight response was indispensable in an era when early human beings had to confront a natural world of predators and other dangers. In civilised society, however, the flight-or-fight reaction is triggered in situations where it is neither necessary nor helpful … The body’s physiological stress mechanisms are often triggered inappropriately, leading to disease.”
This year has been a busy one for me. Surgery, moving house, increasing work commitments and getting married – all within a six-month period. As I tried to juggle everything at once, my body was quietly telling me to relax and slow down. Needless to say, I didn’t. And I later paid for it with a health scare that reminded me of just how short life really is. Chronic stress and difficult emotions are the topic of Gabor Mate’s When The Body Says NO, which delves into their effects on one’s physical health and mental wellbeing. Using real case studies and drawing from his experience as a physician, Mate makes the compelling case for not only understanding the effects of stress and emotions on one’s physiology, but for identifying the ways we can achieve balance and heal our bodies.
Well, that's our list for 2021. If you’ve got any good book, blog or podcast ideas to share, please leave a comment below. You can view last year's recommendations here.
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