Black Box Thinking: Marginal Gains and the Secret of High Performance by Matthew Syed
Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice by Matthew Syed
Grief Works by Julia Samuel
Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant
Caesar’s Footprints: Journeys to Roman Gaul by Bijan Omrani
SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard (not pictured)
I really enjoy books written by enthusiasts, those writers whose obvious love for their subject imbues every corner of their canvas with life and colour.
Mary Beard’s passion and knowledge of Roman civilization shines out from every page of SPQR, which is a celebration of Roman civilization at its apogee. She is one of that rare breed of professional historians who is able to marshal their facts carefully and lead us into the mindsets of the builders of one of the largest and most successful empires the world has known.
Bijan Omrani was working as a history teacher when he wrote Caesar’s Footprints, a highly readable book which sets out to give the detailed historical background to the Gallic Wars. This is a great history book which transcends its subject matter and opens out into a well-rounded study of how the Roman Empire conquered and converted neighbouring territories, also detailing how it operated on a day to day level and tracing the cracks in its structure that was to lead to its downfall.
Defeat and loss are an inevitable part of human life, but we vary tremendously in our capacity to cope with life’s ups and downs and I’m always fascinated to read survival stories of one form or another. Sheryl Sandberg’s husband died out of the blue one day while he was working out at the gym and the first part of Option B recounts how her world fell apart. The grief that fills the book still feels very raw, but it becomes an inspiring read when she details the concrete steps she took to build herself back up, and she demonstrates how life after loss can be reassembled and made stronger piece by piece.
One of my neighbours recently lost someone close and she received as a gift a copy of Grief Works by Julia Samuels, which she found a great comfort. It’s a book about how and why we mourn our loved ones and it’s filled with real life stories about people who have survived terrible losses and it demonstrates how grieving performs an essential function in the human psyche, helping to heal, protect and repair our essential selves.
Bouncing back is Matthew Syed’s theme par excellence: in Bounce he studied some of the greatest sports champions and concludes that dedication and hard work can often beat natural talent. I found this a wise and inspiring read filled with detailed success stories from contemporary life.
His follow up, Black Box Thinking, is an even better read; here he counsels that learning from failure is one of our greatest human gifts and can often make us stronger. The book makes a virtue of reflection and perseverance and offers many lively examples of individuals, companies and societies who have reversed ill fortune and snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. If only these books had been available in the library of Rome in the early centuries AD then we might all be still thriving under the banner of the Roman SPQR.