Always a Bridesmaid (for Hire): Stories on Growing Up, Looking for Love, and Walking Down the Aisle for Complete Strangers start with the humorous description of the author’s realization that she is a very good bridesmaid and she might be able to sell her services. And she does! After a lark of a Craigslist message and a whirlwind of media interviews, she has herself a business. If the book stopped there, it would be hilarious. As the chapters drone on and we hear about the adventures of inebriated groomsmen, missing bridesmaid dresses, and, saddest of all, the brides who pretend that their for-hire bridesmaid is not for hire, it’s decidedly less entertaining.
The Notorious Mrs. Clem: Murder and Money in the Gilded Age takes us to Indianapolis in the late 19th century and the nascent Indianapolis to observe a famous set of trials that tried (and failed) to establish whether a shady woman entrepreneur had conspired to kill her partner and his wife. The focus is on the accused, a woman with undeniable business skills and also an undeniable penchant for Ponzi schemes and shady dealings. The author wants us to focus on the prejudices against women who did not hew to traditional female roles, although it’s not clear that the trial hinged on them (the coverage of the trials certainly did!) Her insistence on the woman-victim theme and the detailed descriptions of each trial wore me out.
The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads tells the story of advertising, from 19th century newspaper ads to today. What I found fascinating about the book is how technology and persuasion techniques grew together, with developments in either field spurring changes in the other. So when the post office established fast and cheap distribution, pamphlets soon followed. TV programs were organized around advertising needs. Zip codes soon allowed advertising to target specific geographies. And of course Facebook and its ilk now allow personalized ads.
The book is peppered with fun facts. For example, the remote control was invented to “block” ads (in fact, to be able to turn down the sound during commercials), and the first spam message was send (IN ALL CAPS) in 1978, way before the average consumer was even aware of email. I highly recommend this well-written and lively story.
The History of Money: From Bartering to Banking is a charming illustrated book that explains basic money concepts of replacing bartering with money, why lending money is like time travel, and why banks matter. It’s pitched to children but one would wish that all adults be that well informed, including (ahem) our beloved politicians.
Dan Lyons, age 53, took a job in a technology startup and dishes out about his experience in Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble. The descriptions of the frenzied atmosphere of startups, the hungry investors, the overwhelmed, alternatively naive and greedy founders, the lightweight managers are right on. What’s just a little disturbing is the author’s attitude: he hates it, he hates everything about his job, and especially the whippersnappers who dare want to manage him. Since his past, cushy job (at Newsweek) is gone, perhaps he could condescend to speak to his colleagues as equals and not some lower life form, smile about the push-up club rather than denounce it as a millennial folly, and realize that going over his boss’s head may not be the best way to make friends or even influence people. Above all, he seems shocked, really shocked that the startup has to make money (how uncivilized) by selling what he considers to be a spam-creating horror (it’s a marketing platform, hello!)
To top it off, he leaves the company for what he considers to be much more respectable employment at… Gawker! How wonderful is that?
The whole thing would have worked much better as a fictionalized satire. The Orwellian underpinnings of would-be unicorns do make for rich pickings!
Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World is a messy book that seems not to be able to decide whether it is a self-help book or simply a trove of entertaining stories. As the former, it is prone to drawing lessons from isolated anecdotes but the entertaining and profoundly optimistic voice of the author carries the narrative through. And there are many good ideas, in particular on how to communicate new ideas: from highlighting the reasons not to support the idea (to disarm the audience and preempt objections) to repeating exposure to unfamiliar ideas, to systematically seeking out the opposition.
Full of entertaining examples, Simple Rules: How To Thrive In A Complex World is an enjoyable book that proclaims that complex enterprises all benefit from simple rules, and certainly the examples show that the approach can work in many different arenas. That said, the all-important issue of what the rules should be, or how to tell whether they are indeed insightful or true is set to the side.
Still, I found it very useful to be reminded that simplicity does not necessarily hobble progress in complex fields.