Association Executive Book Shelf

Books reviewed by Raphael Badagliacca

A Short History of Nearly EverythingA Short History of Nearly Everything
by Bill Bryson (Copyright 2003, Published by Broadway Books)

What an audacious title. If a book is a seduction, then the flirting most certainly begins with the title which offers a promise of great adventure. For someone driven by the impossible desire to understand everything, there may be no title I have come across as irresistible as this one, and yet the word that makes it most appealing is the unobtrusive “nearly” because it makes it so clear that the more you know the more you know there is to know and that you can never encompass it all, and yet here is the book with this title, all 545 pages of it, a large canvas indeed, on which the painter doggedly and mirthfully moves his brush.

In accessible language, with abundant humor, and a great sense of irony, Bill Bryson begins at the very beginning and takes us right up to the day this book was published. It’s about so many things, but paramount among them is time itself. How much of it came before us, how late in the story life first appears and how much later human life – and how random and propitious were the conditions under which life came about and continues to exist, despite all odds, despite even the history of human behavior.

From geology to botany to biology, Bill Bryson puts us in our place as the latest arrivals on the scene, creatures who have turned their most salient distinguishing feature into vast significance for better or worse on the planet where we live – and that mysterious, distinguishing feature is our knowledge that we exist.

This is an uplifting story about being human but also one meant to keep us humble. The author reminds us, for example, that while we think and act as if other species live on a planet we own and rule, yet something as simple as bacteria existed billions of years before us and will outlast us for sure, and that while they can live without us, we cannot live without them.

The subtext is the drama of science, mostly in the 19th and 20th centuries – a tale of doubt and discovery, fraught with brilliance and human failings, like any epic.

I’m counting on the power of the title to make you want to immerse yourself in the immensity of detail and connection this book offers because there is no way I can even allude to it all in the space allotted to me here, yet I did hear every word on all of its pages.

Notice I said “hear.” There is no way you can process this author’s astonishing moving picture of life on earth without reflecting on your own life. It so happened that during the week I set aside for experiencing this book I was moving from my office of sixteen years to a new location. Like most moves, that meant looking through years of papers and other things, deciding what matters, what no longer matters, and rediscovering what I forgot existed. To free my hands, I popped the first of five audiobook CDs into the drive of one of the older laptops that could still play it and listened to the voice telling me about the fossil history of the earth while I sifted through the artifacts of my life.

What has any of this to do with leading an association? Truth makes us humble. It gives us perspective and teaches us empathy — all hallmarks of leadership. It guides us to take our next meaningful actions.

Heartful Intelligence: Embracing Our Humanity to Maximize MachinesHeartificial Intelligence: Embracing Our Humanity to Maximize Machines
John C. Havens (Copyright 2016, Published by Penguin Random House LLC)

I don’t think I’ve encountered a work of non-fiction on a subject as cerebral as artificial intelligence written with as much passion and urgency. It helps the clarity of the author’s presentation that he enlists the techniques of fiction at the beginning of each chapter to dramatize possible future scenarios as AI (Artificial Intelligence) relentlessly becomes an ever more pervasive part of our lives. His experience as an actor, writer and consultant – in other words, someone whose personal choices have forced him to live by his wits to satisfy economic demands – gives him the unique insight of an outsider, ready to challenge GDP concerns as the overwhelming determinant of what values get programmed into the algorithms with which we live and that increasingly direct our lives.

This is not to say that he does not see the positive aspects of artificial intelligence and big data. Far from it. He is a technologist at heart, but one with a heart as his title articulates, and he urges us as we all become more willing collaborators in developing technologies not to forget human values, which, in the end, are what separate us from machines. Certainly, we are more than the profile created out of our purchases and possible purchases.

The more of these short reviews I write, the more I become aware of how difficult it is to capture an entire book in such a small space. I think of them more like trailers designed to intrigue you enough to see the entire movie.

To association leaders which this column tries to address, I would draw the parallel between the choice to become an actor or writer – to be driven by something other than the size of your paycheck, but still needing a paycheck, in the choices you make – and that of an association which is also driven by something other – called a mission. Having a mission outside of yourself gives perspective, which is exactly what’s needed to make the right long-term decisions for all of society for which it seems associations and their leaders may be best suited, especially the decision to tell machines who we are by insisting on our human values.