Great Reads in 2013 (Part 1)

Ten Books I Recommend for 2013 – Part 1 (1-5).

According to UNESCO, over 2,000,000 books are published around the world every year. The United States leads the way and surprisingly for me, China is the second most prolific producer of books.  Canada falls within the first couple of dozen world producers, and is currently listed as #20.

Publishing is not simply a commercial activity. UNESCO suggests the number of books published could be a proxy for a nation’s standard of living and perhaps even an indicator of their level of education (literacy et al).  Furthermore, the more books published in a country could also be considered an indication of the nation’s self-awareness; what is happening domestically and abroad.

On a personal level, what has become more clear to me over the years is the more I read, the broader my interests and the more desire I have to learn. Over the past year I have been introduced to many interesting authors, ideas, history, facts, culture and people. The purpose of this blog is to share some of the ones that have had a personal impact on me in 2013.  

In all cases I have provided the titles, authors’ name and short descriptions that in many instances have been adapted from the publishers website. I have tried to personalize my commentary and have also provided a link should you like to purchase or read more about the respective book. These links are provided simply for convenience and context.

Please note that all books were not published in 2013, in fact within my top 10 (see Part 2) is a book that is over 40 years old. In 2013, in no particular order, these were my most enjoyable books to read.

1.   Why Growth Matters: How Economic Growth in India Reduced Poverty and the Lessons for Other Developing Countries

Authors: Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya

Why Growth Matters - How Economic Growth in India Reduced Poverty and the Lessons for Other Developing Countries

Jagdish Bhagwati & Arvind Panagariva:  Why Growth Matters – How Economic Growth in India Reduced Poverty and the Lessons for Other Developing Countries

In has been just over 50 years since India gained Independence. Over this time, the country has experimented with many different economic models. These ranged from India’s first Prime Minister’s (Jawharlal Nehru’s) pragmatism to the rigid and devastating economic impact of state socialism during the years of Indira Gandhi years.

More recently, the Country has adopted economic liberalization as the basis of its economic policies. The primary message these Columbia University authors forcefully argue is that an economic growth agenda is the only strategy will help the poor to any significant degree. Of course, this message has consequences for educators and economists in addition to development NGOs and anti-poverty campaigners worldwide.

The authors bring a tremendous amount of academic and industry experience to this book and their research is very insightful. I very much enjoyed this book because it aligns to my research of organizational prosperity and I am often trying to understand what government principles are transferable to a higher education institution (if at all). That is, in this case I do believe high performing organizations embrace growth as part of its strategic agenda and those universities and colleges that do so are more likely to accrue material economic and social benefits.  

2.   Checklist for Change – Making American Higher Education a Sustainable Enterprise

Author: Robert Zemsky 

Robert Zemsky - Checklist for Change

Robert Zemsky:  Checklist for Change

I believe that Bob Zemsky is one of North America’s foremost authorities on higher education. He is a professor and provocateur. Zemsky is also a Yale educated historian and most importantly, he has spent nearly 50 years in the higher education sector where he has both led and observed change in the Academy.

Zemsky has been preaching about the need to change higher education for longer than most have been in the industry. He does not suggest one single solution in his newest book but rather he sees the need to implement several strategies in combination if we are to sustain the higher education enterprise.  

An active professor, Zemsky presents unique and honest perspectives as a faculty member. Although one may not agree with all of his views (and he would encourage you to not simply agree), they are deep and thought-provoking. Anyone committed to realizing the long-term sustainability of higher education should read this book. I have enjoyed reading Zemsky’s work for over a decade and believe he is simply one of the most insightful people in all of higher education. This book adds to this reputation.  

This is Zemsky’s seventh book. What I have found most interesting in this publication is his belief that well-intentioned policy-makers and educators have tended to offer overly simplistic solutions to the complex issues facing higher-education.  I would agree and I am afraid that I see that reality in Ontario today.

Note: I would consider knowing Bob relatively well. He was a favourite professor of mine while I was studying at the University of Pennsylvania, we have shared the stage at a higher education conference in Astana, Kazakhstan and we are currently collaborating on an International higher education project overseas.

3.   The Information – A Theory

Author: James Gleick 

The Information - James Gleick

James Gleick:  The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood –

Gleick is a great writer and was previously shortlisted three times for the Pulitzer including for his work related to Isaac Newton and also for Richard Feynman (quantum computing and more). This is a terrific book that chronicles information over a period of 1000s of years. Perhaps Gleick’s publishers state it best when they describe the book as, “A fascinating intellectual journey through the history of communication and information, from the language of Africa’s talking drums to the invention of written alphabets; from the electronic transmission of code to the origins of information theory, into the new information age and the current deluge of news, tweets, images, and blogs.”

I particularly enjoyed learning about the history of everyday items such as the first dictionary and was reminded that just a few centuries ago, we only had 5 million people on earth who could speak English. Even more interesting is that there were perhaps less than a million people who could actually write what has become the world’s (and higher education’s) common language.

Gleick suggests that information has become our “defining quality.” He shares a time when Babbage invented the first mechanical computer and provides interesting insights into iconic information leaders such as Samuel Morse, Alan TuringClaude Shannon (Bell Labs), Bertrand Russell (who’s 1912 book The Problems with Philosophy I am currently reading), MIT’s Noam Chomsky and many others.

The book takes us to the modern day when we sometimes feel over-whelmed by data and information. I enjoyed this book so much I have purchased it as a gift for a couple of people over the past year and recommend it highly.

4.   The World Through Arab Eyes

Author: Shibley Telhami 

As I continue to seek more insight and understanding of the Arab world and the Middle East, the World Through Arab Eyes was something new and different for me. It was also a wonderfully enjoyable and enlightening read.

Shibley Telhami:  The World Through Arab Eyes

Shibley Telhami: The World Through Arab Eyes

This book comes highly recommended by many readers including President Jimmy Carter. Perhaps Egyptian civil society sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim provided the best recommendation when he stated, “The book is a must read for students, scholars, policy makers, and anyone interested in the Middle East.” In a Canadian higher education context, and in particular the important work we are doing in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region, this book was tremendously insightful and helpful for me.

Telhami is the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute and is a renowned political scientist. This book is unique because Telhami uses decades of polling data to provide tremendous analysis about the forces and emotions of the recent Arab uprisings that began in 2010 as well as insight to what he believes will be the next wave of Arab politics.

Dr. Telhami’s book “identifies the key prisms through which Arabs view issues central to their everyday lives, from democracy to religion to foreign policy… and reveals the hearts and minds of a people often misunderstood but ever more central to our globalized world.”  The author also provided a very interesting interview to The University of California’s  UCTV in the fall of 2013.

What I realized in reading this book is that there is so much more to understand. I also learned to not rely on traditional news media if one truly wants to understand other parts of the world at a deeper level and in particular the dynamic, historic and proud Arab world. This book provides a great history to readers from the West and I have recommended it to several colleagues who are doing work for Algonquin in the GCC including at our Jazan, Saudi Arabia Campus.

5.   The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

Author: Stephen Greenblatt

This is simply one of the best books I have read in years. Although I read it in 2012 and I mentioned this book in a previous blog related to social media and opening knowledge, I felt it had to be captured in this list (in fairness, I have gone back to it several times in 2013!).

My recommendation to read this book seems trivial compared to the critical acclaim garnered by it and the author. A former professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Stephen Greenblatt is currently the John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University and this book won him the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction. He is also credited as a founder of New Historicism.

The Swerve

Stephen Greenblatt:  The Swerve – How the World Became Modern

The book itself is best described by the publisher as, “…an innovative work of history and a thrilling story of discovery, in which one manuscript, plucked from a thousand years of neglect, changed the course of human thought and made possible the world as we know it”. 

The Swerve is a story of how a papal emissary by the name of Poggio Bracciolini found the last copy of Lucretius’s poem, De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) in a German monastery. Lucretius’ goal in writing the epic, six book poem was to introduce Epicurean Philosophy to the Romans. However, it was Bracciolini’s discovery of the hidden manuscript that proved critical in reintroducing important ideas that sparked the modern age.

This is simply an outstanding book that is worthy of the Pulitzer it received.

Next up – Great Reads in 2013 (Part 2)



About kentmacdonald

President and Vice Chancellor Professor, Faculty of Education St. Francis Xavier University
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1 Response to Great Reads in 2013 (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Great Reads in 2013 (Part 2) | Kent MacDonald

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