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Catching Up on Our Nonfiction
March 2, 2014 - 9:00pm

I’m going to make two plugs why you should share what you have been reading (nonfiction wise) so far in 2014.

First, I have this idea that a community is defined (at least partly) by the books that it reads. Since I look at IHE first as a community, and only second as a content platform, I’m always curious about what you are reading.

Second, if we neglect to write down what we are reading we will forget what we have read. That seems to be at least true for me.  You?

Why nonfiction?  Maybe because I’m constantly looking for signals to help me figure out the future of higher education.   

Nonfiction books seem like the best places to look for these clues, although fans of William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, and Cory Doctorow may disagree.

So what nonfiction have I been reading so far in 2014?

The Bet by Paul Sabin
Published in September, 2013

A must read for any of us engaged in the debate about the future of higher education.  We need to make sure that we don’t fall into the extremist traps of future think that seemed to characterize the debate between the economist Julian Simon and the biologist Paul Ehrlich.   The Bet brilliantly tells the story of how these two extraordinary academics shaped two competing visions of the future, and how the failure to listen to others that don’t share your own ideas can cloud the thinking of even the most extraordinary of minds.

A History of Future Cities by Daniel Brook
Published in February, 2013

St. Petersburg, Mumbai, Shanghai, and Dubai all share the common characteristic that they are as much places of ideas as physical cities on the map.  Throughout their histories, each of these cities has embodied the prevailing ethos of how architecture and design can shape and reflect the culture, values, and politics of the societies in which they are situated.  Not a book about college campuses, but the framework could apply.   What does the design of your campus have to say about the future of higher education?

Collision Low Crossers: A Year Inside the Turbulent World of NFL Football by Nicholas Dawidoff
Published in November, 2013

Dawidoff, a gifted reporter and writer, embeds himself for a full year in the NY Jets organization.  Pro football, our most popular and wealthy sport, offers a disturbing mirror to American culture on any number of levels.  Violent to the point barbarity, Dawidoff chronicles the impact that the game has on the bodies and brains of those few individuals that manage to ascend to the NFL.   This is not an anti pro-NFL book.  Rather, Dawidoff provides a loving insider’s view on the culture and the costs of America’s new pastime.   The descriptions of the injuries that are normative in football did make me wonder more than once about why we play this game as we do at the college level.

The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee
Published in January, 2014

My favorite book so far of 2014.  I’ve been a fan of Andrew McAfee for years, and his new book (with co-author Erik Brynjolfsson) does not disappoint.   The question we are all asking ourselves is will technology lead to a better or worse future, and for whom?  Will technology contribute to greater inequality and a permanent end to a full employment economy, or will technology help to grow the pie to a point where our society is wealth enough that we can provide for those left behind?   These questions are especially relevant on our campuses, as we attempt both to prepare our students for a 21st century globalized and technology infused society and as we struggle to re-organize our own institutions to cope with rapid change.   The Second Machine Age is both hopeful, as McAfee and Brynjolfsson demonstrate that we are entering into an age of rapid productivity improvements, and realistic in that the authors acknowledge the very real risk of technology permanently displacing much of the work currently done by people. 

Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad by Brett Martin
Published in June, 2013

Why did TV replace film as the dominant creative visual medium?  How come the best stuff that we’ve watched in the past few years has originated on cable networks like HBO, Showtime, FX, and AMC?  The answer, as chronicled by Brett Martin in his insiders account of the best TV shows of the past decade, is the ascendency the showrunner.   In the case of shows from The Wire to The Sopranos, the showrunner combined the roles of the creator, writer and the executive producer.  The actors in these shows, while often brilliant, exist primarily to actualize the vision of the showrunner.    The result was the renaissance of long-form, novelistic TV drama that we have been lucky enough to experience.   The lesson for higher ed?  Trust the faculty.  The best courses are those taught by the people writing the material.

The Upside of Down: Why the Rise of the Rest is Good for the West by Charles Kenny
Published in January, 2014 

A terrific counterweight to all the worry about what the rise of China, and other emerging countries, will mean to the US.  Kenny makes the logical and sensible point that a wealthy “rest” will mean only good things to the West, as this newly minted middle class will not only compete with us to make things (the challenge) but will buy the things (goods and services) that we produce.   Using a mix of economic data, historical analysis, and reporting - Kenny is able to make a very strong case that the increasing economic power of the emerging economies offers the best shot that the U.S. has to improve its standard of living.   This has been a conclusion well known on our campuses, as international students account for an ever larger share of our enrollment and tuition mix.

All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood by Jennifer Senior
Published in January, 2014

By this time most of us are familiar with the research that having kids does not lead to greater level of happiness.  Why should this be so?  If kids don’t make us happy then why do some folks even bother?   The answers are complex, and will be of interest to those of us that have chosen to share our homes (and wallets) with offspring and those of us that have not.  Jennifer Senior is such a terrific writer, and she tells the stories of the parents that she spends time with with such empathy and humor, that this is a book I’d recommend to anyone.  One of the best books that I have read about the intersection of work, gender, and family roles that I have read in a very long time.  This book deserves to show up on any number of syllabi.

The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry That Built America's First Subway by Doug Most
Published in February, 2014

I grew up in Brookline MA, one T stop (green line) away from Fenway Park.   How did it happen that Boston became the first city in the country with a subway system?  Why did we beat NYC, and then how did NYC go on to build the biggest and most complicated subway system in the US?   Conceiving of an electrically powered subway system required a fundamental break with the past.  A break with a transportation system that relied on horses.  A new way of thinking about the potential of electricity, and the advantages of electric motors over steam.  A willingness to believe that it was possible to dig miles long tunnels under busy city streets, and that traveling underground would be safe.   These fundamental new ways of thinking may be analogous to the new ways that we need to think about what postsecondary education is all about.  Can we be as brave as the original visionaries behind the Boston and New York subway systems as we try to selectively forget the past to create a better future?  

What nonfiction have you been reading in 2014?

 

 

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