Showing posts with label Non-fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Non-fiction. Show all posts

25 January 2014

Napoleon by Paul Johnson [2006]

I picked this up because I wanted an accessible introduction to Napoleon.  

It's a short book (about 200 pages) which I read in a couple of sittings.  The brevity allows the reader to get a sweeping view of Napoleon's life and impact on Europe.  

The book is full of interesting things but the following stuck in my mind:

1   The importance of his Corsican-ness.  Napoleon was not really French, and his status as an outsider may have helped him make some of the bold moves that he did.  I had also not appreciated how closely linked to Italy Corsica was, which casts an interesting light on Napoleon's Italian campaigns.

2   His incredible grasp of logistics.  The book makes it clear that Napoleon could price a battle or a campaign in advance practically down to the last tack.  This operational excellence was a revelation to me as it seems to lie on the other end of the spectrum from that of the dashing Romantic hero, which is how I had always vaguely imagined Napoleon.

I really enjoyed this book and it made me want to learn much more.

Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks by August Turak [2013]

I did not like this book and I did not finish it.  This is a shame because I really liked the concept - the author is a technology entrepreneur and angel investor who has made regular retreats to a Benedictine monastery in California.  The contrast between his experiences in these two worlds and the individuals he encounters has the potential to be really interesting.  Furthermore, the underlying message of the book, which is that corporate, secular life would be greatly improved if we adopted some of the characteristics of the monks, is resonant. 

The execution is confused and at times some of the analogies seem trite and bizarre.  For example, the author refers to the importance of mythology (via Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces) in understanding modern life. However, the vehicle he chooses as representative of the hero's journey is the very average 2006 movie 'The Devil Wears Prada', the incongruity of which had me gasping out loud.

I'm glad I started this book because it did make me curious to learn more about monastic life.  But I was relieved to put it aside.

The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry and Invention by William Rosen [2012]

A great book which looks to uncover the reasons why the UK was the crucible of the Industrial Revolution and why it took place when it did.  I picked it up because I saw it recommended by Bill Gates in a blog as one of his books of the year.  I'm really glad I did because this book made me feel really smart. 

One fascinating reason offered by the author is that England had a robust system of intellectual property law protections together with a sufficiently large population to make commercial exploitation of these rights worthwhile (intellectual property being – to all intents and purposes – unenforceable across boundaries at the time).  By contrast, the Netherlands had a similarly well-developed intellectual property framework but a much smaller population and as a result, the incentive to develop innovative products was not as great.

Another driver appears to be the seven year trade apprenticeship system.  This allowed numerous otherwise uneducated inventors (Abraham Darby and John Wilkinson, amongst others) to develop working numeracy and practical engineering skills which provided them with the platform for working on much more complex problems.  

The first book I read this year - a brilliant start.