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Finishing books

Having invested in some introspection into my reading habits, I made up my mind to dial down my consumption of bite-sized nuggets of online information, and finish a few books. That’s where my bottleneck has been for the past year or so. Not in selecting books, not in acquiring books, and not in starting books either. I identify promising books, I buy them, I start reading them, and at some point, I put them down and never pick them back up again.

Until now. Over the weekend, I finished two books. I started reading both in 2009, and they each required my sustained attention for a period measured in hours in order to finish them.

Taking a tip from Dustin, I decided to try alternating between fiction and non-fiction.

Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins

This was the first book I had read by Tom Robbins, and I am in no hurry to read any more. It certainly wasn’t without merit: its themes were clever and artfully interwoven, and the prose elicited a silent chuckle now and again. It was mainly the characters which failed to earn my devotion. They spoke and behaved in ways I found awkward at best, and problematic at worst. Race, gender, sexuality and culture each endured some abuse on the wrong end of a pervasive white male heteronormative American gaze.

I really wanted to like Priscilla, who showed early promise as a smart, self-reliant individual, whose haplessness was balanced by a strong will and sense of adventure. Unfortunately, by the later chapters, she was revealed as yet another vacant vessel yearning to be filled by a man. She’s even the steward of a symbolic, nearly empty perfume bottle throughout the book. Yes, really.

Managing Humans by Michael Lopp

Of the books I’ve read on management, this one is perhaps the most outrageously reductionist. Many management books are like this, to a degree. They take the impossibly complex problem domain of getting people to work together, break it down into manageable problems with tidy labels, and prescribe methods for solving them (which are hopefully appropriate for at least some of the reader’s circumstances).

Managing Humans takes this approach to a new level, drawing neat boxes around such gestalts as companies, roles, teams and people, and assigning them Proper Nouns. Many of these bear a similarity to concepts which have been defined, used and tested elsewhere, such as psychological types, but the text makes no effort to link them to his own. Despite being a self-described collection of “tales”, it’s structured like a textbook, ostensibly imparting nuggets of managerial wisdom acquired through lessons learned in the Real World (so pay attention!). However, as far as I can tell, the author’s experience is limited to a string of companies of a very specific type: Silicon Valley software startups in the “dot com” era.

Lopp (also known as Rands) does have substantial insight into this problem domain, though, and does an entertaining job of illustrating the patterns which have worked for him. If you can disregard the oracular tone, grit your teeth through the gender stereotyping, and add an implicit preface that this is (sometimes highly) context-sensitive advice, this book can be appreciated for what it actually is: a coherent, witty and thorough exposition of how one particular manager does their job.

I got some good ideas out of this book, and would recommend it to someone working in certain circumstances, but as with Robbins, I’m not planning to track down further work by the same author.


Written by Matt Zimmerman

June 21, 2010 at 16:00

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5 Responses

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  1. I too have a problem finishing books – especially nonfiction ones. I alternate between a fiction book and a nonfiction and I usually go through 3-4 fiction books for every nonfiction one. I also have 3-4 different nonfiction books started but not finished lying around the house. I don’t see that as necessarily bad – once I get over the stress of feeling like they are action items lying around the house.

    I think most nonfiction books are oversimplified as the authors seem to feel like they have to deliver a “plan” and concrete points with no fuzzy areas.


    June 21, 2010 at 16:14

  2. Agree re Managing Humans.

    Jonathan Lange

    June 21, 2010 at 18:13

  3. “Jitterbug Perfume” :-) It’s been 12 years since I read it, but I remember really enjoying it at the time (noting that I was a teenager at the time). I do remember enjoying Tom Robbin’s “Even Cowgirls get the Blues” more than “Jitterbug Perfume” — I think you might enjoy it too.

    I just finished “Long Way Round” by Ewan Macgreggor and Charley Boorman (non-fiction), just now starting “Gulliver’s Travels” by Jonathan Swift.


    Dustin Kirkland

    June 21, 2010 at 18:14

  4. Tom Robbins’ Still Life with Woodpecker was an entertaining and creative book.


    June 21, 2010 at 23:31

  5. […] written previously about my reading habits, online and offline, and the patterns I extrapolate to content consumption in general. I’ve been talking with other […]

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