Candide – Voltaire (1759)
Brilliant, darkly satirical take on 18th century European thought. Presented as a rollicking good tale about Candide’s adventures across the world. My copy is the beautiful Penguin Popular Classics edition: plain lime green cover and recycled paper.
Homage to Catalonia – George Orwell (1938)
Account of Orwell’s experience fighting in the Spanish Civil War. Surprised at how little he knew about the politics when he went there. The two most interesting chapters for me were the Appendices – about the splits in the Left. Orwell’s view was that Stalin’s influence on the Communists resulted in the fragmentation of opposition to Franco.
The Systems View of Life: A unifying vision – Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi (2014)
This is a textbook written for undergraduates, but I read through all of it. Readable but required some hard work in parts. Brilliantly pulls together findings ranging from quantum physics to economics to religion by applying systems theory. A theory of everything. Thanks to Nate Babcock (@coachnateb on Twitter) for his systems reading list.
Decline and Fall – Evelyn Waugh (1928)
Entertaining satirical commentary on life between the wars. Many themes are unnervingly contemporary. One reviewer described it as ‘not quite Wodehouse’ – an apt description.
Stoner: A novel – John Williams (1965)
One of the best novels I’ve read. Gripping, moving, and allusive. How distant world events impact catastrophically on individual lives.
Such Tender Years: Leicestershire’s Young Asylum Patients – Diane Lockley (2013)
Drawn from the records of three Leicestershire asylums between 1845 and 1912. The asylums provided a surprisingly humane environment for many children and young people whose families were unable to care for them. Rich source of information for researchers, but still makes harrowing reading. Includes many photographs.
How Will Capitalism End? – Wolfgang Streeck (2016)
Streeck’s argument is essentially that recent economic theory is based on false assumptions and hasn’t been integrated with people’s needs; that there’s an inherent tension between capitalism and democracy, and unchecked capitalism is unsustainable in systems terms. Streeck writes and argues clearly but a bit of effort required from me because I’m not familiar with terminology of economics. Some great quotes.
Structure of Decision: The Cognitive Maps of Political Elites – Robert Axelrod (ed) (1976)
Early artificial intelligence was able to model simple human reasoning pretty accurately, but complex reasoning, such as the processes involved in political decision-making, was a different matter. Axelrod and his colleagues use historical documents to map causal reasoning during important policy decisions: British policy in the Middle East in 1918, the US Constitutional Convention in 1787, the Syrian intervention in Jordan in 1970, commuter transportation during the energy crisis of the early 1970s and an international agreement on control of the oceans in 1974-75. Causal mapping offers an important insight into how to predict the outcomes of complex decisions. The case studies are still relevant today.
The Principles of Scientific Management – Frederick Winslow Taylor (1911)
Much cited management classic. And like many much cited classics, widely misunderstood. Taylor’s aim was to apply a scientific approach to work in order to reduce wasted effort and maximise benefits for employer and employee alike. Taylor was taken aback by the way his ideas were misapplied.
The Little Book of Big Management Theories and How to Use Them – James McGrath & Bob Bates (2013)
Useful if you want a quick reference to a management theory. Organised into ‘how to…’ sections. Erm… that’s it.
The Modularity of Mind – Jerry Fodor (1983)
At the time the book was published, evidence about the nature of cognitive architecture was ambiguous. It indicated that cognitive processing was modular (domain specific), and that it was global (across several domains). Fodor sticks his neck out and proposes that perceptual and linguistic processing is modular and stable and that higher level processes (thought) are global and unstable. Needed to work at this book because Fodor is writing for philosophers.
Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers: The Michaela Way – Katharine Birbalsingh (ed) (2016)
Explains the systems, values, behavioural expectations and pedagogical approach of the Michaela Community School in Wembley Park, London. Left me viewing the systems, values etc rather more positively, but a bit taken aback at the Tiger Teachers’ approach to their own knowledge.
Responsibility and Public Services – Richard Davis (2016)
A clear and practical account of why public sector services aren’t delivering the services people actually need and how to fix it. For a lot less money. Good explanation of the Vanguard approach https://vanguard-method.net/services/ (not to be confused with NHS Vanguards).
The Spirit Level: Why Equality is better for everyone – Wilkinson & Pickett (2009)
Finally got round to reading this. I felt as if I knew most of it already, but it is so useful to have the data. Shame it hasn’t changed the world yet.
The Nurture Assumption – Judith Rich Harris (1998)
Loved this book. It challenges a fundamental assumption that the environmental influences on child development are mainly those from the child’s parents. The author demonstrates, using evidence from psychology and anthropology, that a primary environmental influence is a child’s peers. Harris has a dry sense of humour too.
Education: A Very Short Introduction – Gary Thomas (2013)
Neat, concise and informative summary of major debates in education. Puts Peal’s narrative in context.
The Machine that Changed the World – Womack, Jones & Roos (1990, 2007)
This is the book that told the world about ‘lean’ manufacturing; a term coined by John Krafcik to describe processes that used about half the resources of mass production. ‘Lean’ has since taken on a life of its own. I have next to no interest in the car industry and have misgivings about the widespread misapplications of ‘lean’ but found The Machine compelling, informative and inspiring.
Learning from Baby P – Sharon Shoesmith (2016)
Sharon Shoesmith was the director of children’s services for the London Borough of Haringey when Peter Connelly (Baby P) was killed. She was very publicly sacked by Ed Balls during a press conference, but her dismissal was ruled illegal by the High Court. She’s since done a PhD to try to understand the aftermath of the Baby P trial and draws on her research for this book. An insightful and informative analysis. My only quibble is that she doesn’t question the conceptual frameworks she uses – not that doing so would have made much difference to her conclusions. The ‘Baby P effect’ is profoundly troubling.
Emile – J-J Rousseau (1974/1762)
According to Voltaire “a hodgepodge of a silly wet nurse in four volumes”. Not far wrong, but fascinating to see where Rousseau’s ideas came from. The section called the Creed of a Savoyard Priest sets out some remarkably modern questions about perception, cognition, reasoning, consciousness, truth, free will and the existence of religions.
Militant – Michael Crick (1984, 2016)
Fascinating account of the Labour Party’s struggle with extreme left-wing influences. Provides insights into the current leadership contest.
In Search of the Perfect Health System – Mark Britnell (2015)
The author has worked with health systems worldwide. He briefly summarises the strengths and weaknesses of health systems in 25 different countries, identifies the lessons to be learned, and outlines the global challenges faced by all of them. An excellent, concise overview.
Roumeli: Travels in Northern Greece – Patrick Leigh Fermor (1966)
Patrick Leigh Fermor describes, vividly, a Europe anchored in its past that is now gone forever. I’ve loved travelling with him.
Why Nations Fail: The origins of power, prosperity and poverty – Daron Acemoglu and James A Robinson (2012)
The authors propose a simple theory. Although it’s a simple theory, it’s not simplistic. They use it to explain economic failure and prosperity since the beginning of the Neolithic period until the present, across the world. The theory is that inclusive political institutions set up a virtuous circle that results in inclusive economic institutions, innovation and prosperity. Extractive political and economic institutions, in contrast, set up a vicious circle that discourages innovation and leads to poverty and civil unrest. My only quibble was their critique of Jared Diamond’s analysis in ‘Collapse’. Diamond highlights the constraints and affordances of natural resources and culture. I felt Acemoglu and Robinson marginalised them. Otherwise an easy to read, informative, convincing and important book.
Linnaeus: Nature and Nation – Lisbet Koerner (1999)
The first academic biography of Linnaeus for a century – and an eye-opener. Koerner sets out to present Linnaeus’ life from his perspective and succeeds in explaining the worldviews common at the time. Linnaeus comes across as a bit of a dabbler and as not realising the full import of his taxonomic system. For him, it was a by-product of his failed attempt to make Sweden self-sufficient. Well researched, informative and readable.
Neurotribes: The legacy of autism and how to think smarter about people who think differently – Steve Silberman (2015)
Bought this book because Oliver Sacks says it “belongs on the bookshelf of anyone interested in autism and the workings of the human brain”. I was disappointed. Some fascinating background sketches of autism researchers including Asperger and Kanner, and Silberman points out that Asperger’s assistant Georg Frankl might provide the missing link between Asperger & Kanner’s accounts of autism. But on the downside, there are lengthy, detailed accounts of people who might qualify for a diagnosis of Asperger syndrome, like Henry Cavendish and Hugo Gernsback, likely to be interesting only if you’re into Cavendish or Gernsback. Silberman also takes every opportunity to criticise autism researchers he doesn’t seem to like, such as Kanner and Bernard Rimland. Over 500 pages of poorly edited, poorly evaluated material. Little about the brain. Adam Feinstein’s A history of autism is much better.
Illegality Inc.: Clandestine migration and the business of bordering Europe – Ruben Andersson (2015)
I loved this book – if you can love a book about human misery and chaotic systems. Andersson is an anthropologist who has applied carefully thought-through theory to the subject of borders and has also succeeded in writing a lyrical, moving, empathetic account of migrants’ experiences.
Sustainable Medicine: Whistle-blowing on 21st century medical practice – Dr Sarah Myhill (2015)
I know several people whose lives have been transformed for the better after taking Sarah Myhill’s advice, and I was hoping this book would explain the biochemistry and physiology behind her ideas. I was disappointed. It reads more like her personal notes presented for public consumption. Perhaps I should read it again.
Jesus, Politics and Society: A Study of St Luke’s Gospel – Richard J Cassidy (1978)
Read this soon after publication. It completely transformed my perception of Jesus and of the political implications of Christian belief. On re-reading what stood out was the Appendices describing the key political players in 1st century Palestine.
Pedagogy of the Oppressed – Paulo Freiere (1970)
Frequently cited (favourably and otherwise) by teachers. Familiar with Freire’s ideas via teacher training and liberation theology but had never read him. Found the Marxist terminology tedious and needlessly obscure, but got the drift. Important point for sceptics: Freire is discussing adult education and education in the broadest sense.
The Republic – Plato (c.380 BCE)
Tried to read this in my youth and failed because I hadn’t grasped that in the book Socrates is actually Plato. Second time round it made sense. Sort of. It’s written in the form of a discussion between Socrates-Plato and various Athenians. Reads remarkably like a debate on Twitter in places. Plato had some bizarre ideas.
The Open Society and Its Enemies Volume Two: Hegel and Marx – Karl Popper (1945)
I’m not a philosopher, so I expected this book to be hard going. It wasn’t, despite being closely reasoned. Popper follows the thread of Plato’s essentialism through the thinking of Hegel and Marx and its emergence in the nationalism that precipitated WW2. Criticisms of Hegel by Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard are hilarious – unless you’re a fan of Hegel, of course.
The Open Society and Its Enemies Volume One: The Spell of Plato – Karl Popper (1945)
Popper’s thesis is that Plato’s ideas underpin Western philosophical thought. And that Plato was profoundly wrong in some respects, notably about essentialism, and that has had catastrophic consequences for subsequent generations. Popper tackles some fundamentally important and often difficult ideas. He works through them step-by-step and following his reasoning requires close attention. But Popper isn’t difficult to read. His writing is lucid, his reasoning transparent and he has a dry sense of humour. His insights are wide-ranging and profound.
Diffusion of Innovations – Everett M Rogers (2003)
Rogers’ book was first published in 1962 and has been the go-to resource for anyone interested in the take-up of innovation of any sort. It’s clear, concise, comprehensive and packed with fascinating and insightful case studies. Most memorable for me: the San Francisco bartenders used to contact opinion leaders for an HIV reduction programme and the devastating impact of snowmobiles on Lapp reindeer-herders.
The Meme Machine – Susan Blackmore (1999)
I’m currently fascinated by the transmission of ideas and Susan Blackmore’s book is a classic on the topic. Her writing is lucid but very informative. Gets to grips with the hows, whys and implications of memes.
The Psycholinguistic Nature of the Reading Process – Kenneth S Goodman (ed.) (1968)
OK, I must confess to not actually having read this book all the way through. It’s a collection of papers from a symposium on reading held in Wayne State University, Detroit, in 1965. Much of what Goodman has written is for a wide audience. I was interested in Goodman’s eponymous opening chapter in this book because I wanted to get a flavour of his academic writing. It’s essentially an overview of reading and of the cueing process that was the focus of Goodman’s work, very similar in tone to “Reading: The Psycholinguistic Guessing Game“.
What’s Whole in Whole Language – Ken Goodman (1986)
This book summarises Goodman’s approach to learning to read. Like Smith, he’s a leading light in the whole language approach. This book is short and accessible, but I found it frustratingly lacking in theoretical explanation. Some ideas for literacy development that teachers might find useful, but I can understand why synthetic phonics advocates are so critical of Goodman.
Understanding Reading – Frank Smith (4th edition, 1988)
Frank Smith is a controversial figure due to his outspoken views on using whole language to teach children to read. Some of the hypotheses that emerged from the theory set out when this book was first published in 1971 have since been tested and found wanting. So I was surprised to discover it contained a solid, concise overview of what cognition research has to say about reading and learning to read that’s still relevant today – despite the demise of some hypotheses.
Progress in Understanding Reading – Keith E Stanovich (2000)
Stanovich is a leading reading researcher. This book consists of a selection of his key papers and thus constitutes a very useful review of reading research in the last quarter of the 20th century, with especial reference to reading acquisition. What I liked particularly was his overview of the direction of research, how it converges and why some ideas have spread and others haven’t.
Growing a Reader from Birth – Diane McGuinness (2004)
McGuinness’s work is frequently cited favourably by systematic synthetic phonics proponents. I’ve found her books simultaneously informative and frustrating because despite being very knowledgeable she tends to generalise and gloss over debatable points. This book is no exception. Having said that, like all her work, it’s very readable.
Moral Panics: The social construction of deviance – Erich Goode & Nachman Ben-Yehuda (1994)
Readable, accessible account of well-documented moral panics over the centuries plus a discussion of how concepts and research have changed since Stanley Cohen’s landmark study of Mods and Rockers.
The Whitehall Effect – John Seddon (2014)
I’m a big Seddon fan because he’s one of the few organisational consultants who really seems to understand how systems work. He’s a bit prone to jargon, but the ideas are clear enough. He’s done some great work and is highly critical of the model for public sector services adopted by successive governments.
The Establishment and how they get away with it – Owen Jones (2014)
Exploration of how The Establishment has emerged since the 1950s and the impact it has on all our lives. Not sure an endorsement by Russell Brand will enhance Jones’ reputation, but it’s a useful analysis.
Eyeless in Gaza – Aldous Huxley (1936)
Love Huxley’s writing but still trying to understand the confusion so many writers between the wars seemed to experience over what life was all about.
Old Wives’ Tale – Arnold Bennett (1908)
First introduced to Bennett via Radio 4 dramatisation of ‘The Card’ in the 1970s. Read ‘Old Wives’ Tale’ after review on R4’s ‘A Good Read’. Dry Dickensian observations, fascinating insights into 19th century life on both sides of the Channel, great awareness of how personal beliefs, preoccupations and actions impact on and interact with ‘great’ historical events.
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists – Robert Tressell (1955/1914)
Not a great work of literature, and a bit on the optimistic side regarding socialism. But a devastating insight into the quality of life endured by many people at the turn of the 20th century and the economic ideas that were responsible. Particularly engaging if you’re interested in painting and decorating.
Progressively Worse: the burden of bad ideas in British schools – Robert Peal (2014)
Useful overview of education policy in England in the last half-century. Main thesis is that progressive educational philosophies led to shortcomings. Other possible causes not given serious consideration. Not what I’d call research.
Seven Myths about Education – Daisy Christodoulou (2014)
An informative overview of recent pedagogical trends, but overlooks some important factors involved in cognition and knowledge. Not so much mythbusting as replacing one set of myths with another. Have blogged about this book at length.
Why Don’t Students Like School? – Daniel Willingham (2010)
Very helpful explanation of findings from cognitive psychology applicable to teaching and learning. Only reservations are that author appears to see education in terms of current US school system, and that teachers reading this book might not realise how complex a field cognitive psychology is – despite Willingham pointing this out.
A Straight Talking Introduction To: Psychiatric Diagnosis – Lucy Johnstone (2014) Concise, accessible introduction. Sets out the key issues clearly. My only, and major, reservation is that the possibility of adverse experiences causing unpleasant unwanted thoughts and feelings does not mean that all unpleasant unwanted thoughts and feelings must be caused by adverse experiences. Or that the only function of medication is to take the edge of the unpleasant unwanted thoughts and feelings.
Intuition Pumps – Daniel Dennett (2013)
Inspired to read Dennett because he was a student of Ryle’s, like some other readers I got as far as page 80 then gave up. Found Dennett’s style trivial and disjointed. Maybe it was just this book.
The Concept of Mind – Gilbert Ryle (1949)
Painstaking, systematic explanation of why ‘mind’ is a flawed concept and why Descartes was wrong. Relatively jargon-free and not difficult to understand if you take it slowly.
Bad Education: Debunking Myths in Education – Philip Adey & Justin Dillon (eds) (2012)
Collection of solid but accessible essays on school organisation, teaching methods and learners. Some excellent, evidence-based insights into the current English education system.
Education, Education, Education – Andrew Adonis (2012)
Not so much about education as about Adonis’ academies manifesto. Worth reading if you’re interested in how academies got onto the political agenda. Don’t expect an impartial analysis of data.
Attachment – John Bowlby (1969, 1982)
The first of the trilogy. I’ve read so many extracts from and commentaries on Bowlby over the years I thought I knew what he’s actually said. I didn’t. Nor do a lot of other people. The more I read, the more my respect for Bowlby grew. Disagree with some of his conclusions, but his scholarship is great.
Freaks of Nature – Mark Blumberg (2009)
Not for the squeamish. Fascinating insight into how genes influence development.
The Creation of Dr B – Richard Pollack (1997)
Bettelheim from another perspective. Pollack’s brother, who tragically died in an accident, was a resident at Bettelheim’s school. Great biography. Very critical of Bettelheim.
The Empty Fortress – Bruno Bettelheim (1967)
One of the classic books on autism. Bettelheim writes well although is hard going at times. Great illustration of how bizarre Freudian psychology can get, and what happens to constructivist theories unconstrained by data. Worth reading if you are interested in child development theory and how the ‘refrigerator mothers’ idea got off the ground.