The list below are titles that have been invaluable to my growth as a founder. They are mostly fictional.
They are not books that will teach you sales frameworks, iteration methodology or operational structures.
These are books that have shaped the foundation of my understanding of the world, which becomes the core of how I value my business and my involvement in it.
They are works that evoke the soul of the world and its peoples. They are a revelation of humanity—which is something few non-fiction or business books offer.
As founders, particularly as founders professing to tap into the pulse of cultural change, the only way to get an idea of the vast mechanics at work is to read their stories. Learn about the experiences that are alien to us.
There have been many examples of the startup world’s cultural insensitivities—its craven use of unpaid internships (that favours people of means and excludes those that are poorer), anti-human algorithms (a “hot” photo filter that lightens the skin of People of Colour), anti-labor philosophies (the business model of the ‘sharing’ economy is contingent on removing worker rights and minimum standards of labor), etc.
I believe that many of the examples listed above occur because the lens of the founders are flawed and devoid of a human culture.
This list is about learning from the broad backs of those around and beyond us.
“A Brief History of Seven Killings”, Marlon James.
Marlon James writes with blistering syntax and punctures his prose with rhythm and virtue. Virtue to the point of being a classical writer although his language—a vast mix of Afro-Caribbean dialects and English—and his pacing suggests a writer beyond and ahead of his time.
A well-researched, semi-fictional account of the attempted murder of Bob Marley, “Seven Killings” describes the intersection of political empowerment for the historically disenfranchised and gives a voice—or several voices—to a revolution of speech and thought.
It is impossible to shake this work or his others. He is unique in his humanism and surrealism. A practical guide for founders looking to further understand the urgency that runs through cultural change.
“The Witches”, Stacey Schiff.
The hysteria that swallowed Massachusetts in the late 1600s has been well-played out in popular culture, although rarely has it been this well-researched. Schiff trawled through every diary entry, sermon and legal documents at the time to explore the roots of how witchcraft came to Massachusetts and the hysterical witch hunts that followed.
Shattering the political myth created by Arthur Miller’s revision, Schiff reveals a society plagued by fundamentalism and spiritually handicapped. To the Puritans, it was impossible to deny witchcraft as by doing so they would be denying the reality of their religion as well.
The motivations that drove the wild accusations of witchcraft are varied—children acting out, families settling old scores, men and women covering for their own adultery, and class warfare.
Schiff’s work is a testament to the limits of irrationality and is a powerful meditation on the fundamentalism that is at the heart of the American founding story—a fundamentalism that continues to run through the country.
“Between the World and Me”, Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Coates’ novel—a letter to his son on the black experience—is a brave work of self and social criticism. It’s a work the bears reading and introspection, and then reading and further introspection.
How complicit does white America see themselves in the stain of injustice that hangs over Black Americans?
Coates imprints an untold American reality. As founders, and importantly as humans, this is a reality that cannot be ignored and must not be exploited.
“The Tall Man”, Chloe Hooper.
Chloe Hooper covers the events leading up to custody death of Mulrunji Cameron Doomadgee on Palm Island, and the subsequent Palm Island riots.
Hooper details the lived-in racist experience for Indigenous Australians, and shines a light on Australia’s inherently racist just system. Doomadgee’s death remains unjustified and his murderer continues to work in the Queensland Police Force.
“Beauty Is A Wound”, Eka Kurniawan.
Beauty is so-named because of her abject hideousness—her appearance makes anybody who sees her physically ill. But this isn’t really about Beauty but how her name came to be. It’s about her mother, who was once considered the most beautiful woman in Java. And it’s also about Beauty’s grandmother, who was the most beautiful prostitute in Java. The story weaves between these women and the men that haunt them.
Kurniawan explores post-war Indonesia and the Suharto purges by reconstructing Indonesia’s folklore and in doing so preaches the restorative power of storytelling.
Like Marlon James, Kurniawan gets to the soul of a country by attacking and reimagining its worst impulses as mythology.
“A Lesson Before Dying”, Ernest J. Gaines.
A young black man is told he has been sentenced to death. In an attempt to appeal for a lighter sentence, his defense attorney argues that he is as dumb as a hog and knows no better.
Waiting on death row, his mother’s only wish is for him to enter the chair as a man, not a hog. How do you convince someone that they are a man? They are human?
Gaines’ novel is an exploration of America’s continued genocidal impulses. A profound chronicle of the lived-in black experience.
“Silence”, Shūsaku Endō
Recently made into a film by Martin Scorcese (also excellent), “Silence” is a deeply moving meditation on the nature of belief and spirituality. When Christianity is outlawed in Shogun Japan, two Jesuit missionaries secretly enter the country to find a Father said to have committed apostasy.
Conflict exists all around them—how do they teach the true faith to those that follow their own version? If they are God’s most loyal servants, why does he refuse to speak to them? How can God be silent when so much pain is inflicted against his cause?
Endō reveals a spiritual understanding I was not prepared to admire so much—in that God cannot exist without the Christ figure AND the Judas figure.
As a non-theist, it was the best work I’ve read that goes some way to see a beauty in faith.
“Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West”, Cormac McCarthy
Whenever McCarthy writes he will generally end a genre. He subverts genre prose and structure to create the situation where no other genre book can compare or satisfy. Think apocalyptic (“The Road”) or crime (“No Country for Old Men”). And so it is with “Blood Meridian”, a bold work that subverts the western genre and violently rejects frontier revisionism.
“Blood Meridian” follows the Kid, as he falls into a cowboy gang that rides through New Mexico and Mexico, paid to collect Indian scalps (this is true). It was the colonial approach to conquering the new frontier as American settlement expanded from the east coast to the west coast. Led by the Judge, a nightmarish, philosophical brute that riffs poetically on the nature of man, god, and war, and takes satisfaction in his genocidal conquest. Soon the scalping includes Mexicans, children, and other settlers.
McCarthy explodes the noble cowboy myth, as well as the idea of a peaceful expansion across the continent. His America was birthed in genocide (this is true).
“Good to Great”, Jim Collins
The only business book on this list.
“Good to Great” eschews the philosophical preaching of most business titles to present the findings of a five-year research project into the commonalities between companies that went from good to great, and were able to sustain that greatness.
Collins litters the book with data—quantitative and qualitative—to suggest five common traits of a great company. It’s not so much a framework but a Rorschach test. Recommended for any founders wanting a guide to removing the ego from the business and creating a company culture that involves the entire workforce.