As I talked about in The Book Stalker, there are books I need on my desk, books I need in the room, and books I just need to know exist. The following seven books are the precious ones I referred to in that article and they each serve a specific purpose.
It strikes me the holiday season is a good time to not only reflect on this purpose, but to honor these books by sharing them with friends.
Universal Principles of Design. Software engineers and designers need to party – together – more. There is no more evidence necessary that when engineers and designers muck around in each other’s business that customers are more likely to be rabid about the final product. Now, most engineers’ knowledge of design is a vast wasteland, but you can take matters into your own hands.
The Purpose: Think of Universal Principles of Design as 125 independent, digestible blog articles that provide convenient access to cross-disciplinary design knowledge. Like many of the books on this list, all you need to find value in this book is to open it… to any page. Why does highlighting matter? How much can a user actually remember? Why should I care about interference effects?
Universal Principles of Design does not give you a playbook for dealing with designers. It constructs small bridges of knowledge into the design world; it gives you convenient places to start thinking about design in your every day so you can start to form a design opinion. And that’s how the party starts.
Writing Down the Bones. Written in 1986, Natalie Goldberg’s book on the craft of writing is one of the few books on the desk. My copy is brand new, but only because the prior two copies have crumbled due to use. Goldberg’s chapters are short and NADD-friendly. Her style blends conversation and content, making her lessons easily approachable.
The Purpose: I open Writing Down the Bones whenever I need a writing tune-up. Whether I’m stuck on a word, sentence or chapter, Goldberg’s advise is not only simple and clear, but enthusiastic: Push yourself beyond when you think you are done with what you have to say. Go a little further. Sometimes when you think you are done, it is just the edge of the beginning.
Goldberg builds writers.
Accidental Empires. Robert X. Cringley used to write a gossip column you could respect. It was never quite clear whether his column in InfoWorld was based on fact or not — the answer was somewhere in between — but for a nascent software and hardware industry, his column was everything Valleywag failed to be.
The Purpose. Like his column, it’s clear Cringley has layered a generous amount of fiction on the stories surrounding the defining moments of the likes of Microsoft, Apple, and Adobe, but it’s a delicious fiction. Who cares whether Bill Gates was arrested for reckless driving? It’s a set of compelling stories about the earliest days of our industry, complete with nerd heroes, egotistical, coke snorting jerks, and the continual expectation an amazing new product was always just about to be released.
Looking for Rachel Wallace. When I signed up for “The American Detective” class in college, it was a throwaway literature class. Read five books, write two papers — no problem. I’ve since forgotten all of the books and authors we read that semester; all of them save for Robert B. Parker.
Parker’s defining character is Spenser, a well-educated, smart mouthed chef who also happens to be a private detective. Parker’s mysteries are uncomplicated and mostly irrelevant. Where Parker shines is a deep focus on characters and the conversations that tie them together. That strength is far more important than the whodunit. You will care about the characters Parker defines; you will laugh with them; and you will wonder how you can know a person, who you will never meet, so well.
The Purpose: Looking for Rachel Wallace just happens to be the first Parker novel I read, but you can read any of them to get a sense of Parker’s style. I read a Spenser novel when I need a constructive reminder about the importance of voice having character. If you want to know where the Rands’ voice formed, you can ask Spenser.
Microserfs. This book first appeared as a short story for then-vibrant Wired magazine. Like when the Challenger exploded, I vividly remember where I was sitting and what I was wearing when I realized: This is me. This is what I do all day. These are the strange people that surround me. People will believe this is fiction because it’s so odd, but it’s real — every day real.
The Purpose: Microserfs’ role on my must-re-read shelf has changed over the years. It’s evolved from a “this is my life” re-read to a “remember how it used to be” retrospective. I re-read it to remember that we work in a strange industry populated with odd characters that build the future with their minds.
Astonishing X-Men Omnibus. There are lots of reasons to appreciate Josh Whedon’s nerd ability as the creator of Buffy, Firefly, and Dollhouse. Oddly, I never fell under the spell of any of these fine pieces of work, but I’ve read Whedon’s Omnibus cover to cover a dozen times.
The Purpose: I grew up with many of the characters that join to form the core of Astonishing X-Men, and then proceeded to spend the following decade ignoring them. The X-Men movies were entertaining but shallow popcorn versions of the characters I knew.
Whedon’s love for the X-Men exists on every single page of this gorgeous, hilarious and heart-wrenching collection. When I re-read this opus, I pleasantly leave the Planet Earth and remind all those around me that you should never underestimate the ability of a nerd to escape to an impossible world.
Phaidon Atlas of 21st Century World Architecture. I know nothing about architecture. Zip. Nada. Never had a class. However, I am excellent at looking at it. Phaidon’s hefty book on architecture is a stunning collection of architecture around the world. The book’s size gives the designers of the book room to land huge glossy photographs of works from every part of the globe.
The Purpose. Phaidon’s book serves a single purpose for me: it provides a mental break from whatever the hell I’m doing. I move to the couch and open the book to a random page. Oh look, the swimming pool built in a Berlin as part of their failed attempt to get the 2000 Olympics.
It’s stunning. Now where was I?
The random inspiration of others’ work is a creative reset and a reminder that to do your best work, sometimes you just need to stop paying attention.