I’ve always included a steady mix of biography (and autobiography) in my reading diet. Recently, I’ve added in memoirs, which I’ve always felt was easily distinguishable from autobiography.
“an autobiography is a chronological telling of one’s experience, which should include phases such as childhood, adolescence, adulthood, etc., while a memoir provides a much more specific timeline and a much more intimate relationship to the writer’s own memories, feelings and emotions.”
Over the past few weeks, I’ve read Omarosa Manigault Newman’s Unhinged: An Insider’s Account of the Trump White House, Lisa Brennan-Jobs Small Fry, Mark Epstein’s Advice Not Given: A Guide to Getting Over Yourself, and Gail Honeyman’s fictional Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine.
While it can be argued that each of these (other than Small Fry) belong in a category other than the memoir, reading each of them resulted in a lot of self-reflection on my part. Front and center was the notion of “an intimate relationship to the writer’s own memories, feelings, and emotions.”
Each had something special in it for me. While I was struggling with my bacterial infection, I had a heightened sense of my own mortality. While I only had one 24 hour period of existential dread, Amy was there beside me and let me talk openly about how I was feeling. I was reading Mark Epstein’s book at the time that I had this feeling, and many of the messages in it became more precise – and poignant for me.
As I sit at home, on a sunny day in Boulder, I realize how incredibly fortunate I am on many dimensions. It’s a cliche, but the human condition is extremely complex. Reflecting on other people’s struggles, especially in comparison to my own, generates enormous perspective for me. It is in this way that I find memoirs different (and more enriching) than autobiography.
For me, it’s not about the meaning someone else ascribes to their life, or the history a third person tells about someone, but how one’s self-reflection helps inform, enhance, and evolve the meaning I give to my life.
Ben Franklin is one of my heroes, along with Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, and a few others. As I start my march through reading books about American presidents, I figured I’d start with a famous American who was never a president but was deeply involved in creating the situation where there could be American presidents.
I’m a big fan of Walter Isaacson and his biographies (I’ve read many of them.) Benjamin Franklin: An American Life didn’t disappoint. Isaacson is great at making a biography flow easily so it reads like a cross between a novel and a non-fiction book. The stories aren’t embellished, but they are well written, generally efficient, and extensive. If you are worried about biography as “facts and figures over time”, that’s not the mark of a good biography and definitely not Isaacson’s approach.
Being a fan of Ben Franklin, I’ve read plenty, especially as a teenager, about him. I had a healthy list of “Ben Franklin firsts” and things that Franklin was involved in. But as Amy and I watched the HBO Series John Adams recently, I became curious about how much, or how little, about Ben Franklin I really knew.
It turned out to be “how little”, not because I didn’t know much, but because the list of things Ben Franklin created, did first as a human, or enabled in America, is just remarkable. While everyone knows about his role in the American Revolution, American postmaster, printer, experiments with lightening, and invention of bifocals and the Franklin stove, here are a few that are not commonly known.
and the list goes on and on and on.
The early Franklin was well-known for the virtues he stated and then worked on personally, not all at once, but systematically over time. When I reflect on them, I find them remarkably contemporary.
His personal life was fascinating, complex, and non-traditional. It evolved over his life time and while it doesn’t parallel mine in any way, Isaacson’s portrayal of it is robust, although there are points in time in the book where I felt Isaacson let Franklin off the hook for things that weren’t “awesome” and could have been dug into further. But, after all, we are all bags of chemicals and have lots of flaws.
His skills as a politician and negotiator were just awesome. His ability to stay calm in intense situations was awe inspiring. I knew plenty of the specific situations, but seeing Franklin’s role in them from the perspective of a biographer of Franklin was mindblowingly interesting and educational.
I’ll leave you with a few famous Franklin quotes that we repeat or hear regularly.
I was sitting at a Return Path board dinner around a year ago. We were at Frasca having a wonderful dinner when the discussion turned to American history. I sat and mostly listened as Matt Blumberg, Jeff Epstein, and Greg Sands had a vigorous discussion about several US presidents. Within about fifteen minutes, I realized that I knew almost nothing about American history. Sure, I took a class in junior high school (in Texas public schools, you do Texas history in 7th grade, American history in 8th grade, and World History in 9th grade), but I really didn’t remember much.
I got into Lincoln some in 2014 and Amy and I watched the HBO John Adams series while we were in Bora Bora. Each reminded me how little I actually knew about American history, especially the story of American presidents.
During the Return Path dinner, Matt mentioned that he’d been reading at least presidential biography each year. He’d made it through Woodrow Wilson (I couldn’t even tell you the number president Wilson was without the help of the Google.) I asked him to send me the book list, which he did, and then I promptly forgot about. Recently, I asked him to send it again as I’m now starting to march through biographies of Jefferson and Franklin (yes, I know Franklin wasn’t a president but he’s on my biography to read list anyway.)
Matt’s list is below. I’m looking for more great bios – given how I read I expect I’ll do more than one on each president. So if you read something particularly interesting or from a different perspective, toss it in the comments. And, if you have good ones from Harding forward (yes – I used Wikipedia to figure out who was after Wilson), put them in the comments also.
|– Imperfect Presidents (Jim Cullen)|
|– Presidential Ancedotes (Paul Boller)|
|– A Pocket History of the United States (Allan Nevins)|
|– Selling the World Ablaze Washington, Adams, Jefferson and the American Revolution (John Ferling)|
|– Alexander Hamilton (Forest McDonald)|
|– The First American – The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin (H.W Brands)|
|– Benjamin Franklin – The Autobiography (Benjamin Franklin)|
|– Patriarch (Richard Norton Smith)|
|– George Washington (Robert F. Jones)|
|– John Adams (David McCullough)|
|– The Portable Thomas Jefferson (Thomas Jefferson)|
|– Amercian Sphinx – The Character of Thomas Jefferson (Joseph Ellis)|
|– Rot, Riot and Rebellion: Mr. Jefferson’s Struggle to Save the University That Changed America (Rex Bowman)|
|– Jefferson’s Great Gamble (Charles Cerami)|
|– Burr: A Novel (Gore Vidal)|
|– Undaunted Courage (Stephen E Ambrosse)|
|– James Madison – The American President Series (Gary Willis)|
|– James Monroe – The Quest for National Idenitity (Harry Ammon)|
|– John Quincy Adams (Robert Remini)|
|– John Marshall – Definer of a Nation (Jean Edward Smith)|
|– The Great Triumvirate (Merrill Peterson)|
|– The Missouri Compromise and the Afermath (Robert Pierce Forbes)|
|– American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House (Jon Meacham)|
|– Martin Van Buren (Joel H. Sibley)|
|– Old Tippecanoe William Henry Harrison and his Time (Freeman Cleaves)|
|– John Tyler (Gary May)|
|– Polk – The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America (Walter K. Borneman)|
|– Zachary Taylor – The American Presidents Series (John S. Eisenhower)|
|– Millard Fillmore: Biography of a Presidnet (Robert J. Rayback)|
|– Frankin Pierce: A Biography (Roy Nichils)|
|– James Buchanan (Philip S. Klein)|
|– Lincoln: A Novel (Gore Vidal)|
|– Mr Lincoln’s T-Mails (Tom Wheeler)|
|– Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (Dorris Goodwin)|
|– Lincoln (David Herbert Donald)|
|– Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (James M. McPherson)|
|– Manhunt: The 12 Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer (James Swanson)|
|– Jefferson Davis, Confederate President (Herman Hattaway)|
|– Bloody Crimes (James Swanson)|
|– Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (Seth Grahme Smith)|
|– The Avenger Takes His Place: Andrew Johnson and the 45 Days That Changed the Nation (Howard Means)|
|– Andrew Johnson: The American President Series (Annette Gordon Reed)|
|– A Short History of Reconstruction (Eric Foner)|
|– Assasination! The Brick Chronicle of Attempts on the Lives of Twelve US Presidents (Brendan Powell Smith)|
|– Grant (William S. McFeely)|
|– Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant Volume 1 (Ulysses S. Grant)|
|– Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant Volume 2 (Ulysses S. Grant)|
|– When General Grant Expelled the Jews (Jonathan S. Sarna)|
|– 1876 (Gore Vidal)|
|– Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior and President (Ari Hoogenboom)|
|– Garfield: A Biography (Allan Peskin)|
|– Chester A. Arthur: A Quarter-Century of Machine Politics (George Frederick Howe)|
|– An Honest President: The Life and Presidencies of Grover Cleveland (H.P. Jeffers)|
|– The Presidency of Benjamin Harrison (Homer Socolofsky)|
|– The Biography of Benjamin Harrison: The American President Series (Charles W. Calhoun)|
|– Grover Clevland (Henry F. Crapp)|
|– Continental Liar from the State of Maine (James G. Blaine)|
|– The Unknown Architects of Civil Rights: Thaddeus Stevens, Ulysses S. Grant, and Charles Sumner (Barry Goldenberg)|
|– Age of Betrayal: The Triumph of Money In America (Jack Beatty)|
|– William McKinley and His America (H. Wayne Morgan)|
|– The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (Edmund Morris)|
|– Theodore Rex (Edmund Morris)|
|– Colonel Roosevelt (Edmund Morris)|
|– The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey (Candice Millard)|
|– The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism (Dorris Kearns Goodwin)|
|– The William Howard Taft Presidencty (Lewis Gould)|
|– The Three Roosevelts: Patrician Leaders Who Transformed American (James MacGregor Burns)|
|– That Man: An Insiders Portrait of Frankin D. Roosevelt (Robert H. Jackson)|
|– Woodrow Wilson (John A Thompson)|
I hate doing “reflections on the last year” type of stuff so I was delighted to read Fred Wilson’s post this morning titled What Just Happened? It’s his reflection on what happened in our tech world in 2014 and it’s a great summary. Go read it – this post will still be here when you return.
Since I don’t really celebrate Christmas, I end up playing around with software a lot over the holidays. This year my friends at FullContact and Mattermark got the brunt of me using their software, finding bugs, making suggestions, and playing around with competitive stuff. I hope they know that I wasn’t trying to ruin their holidays – I just couldn’t help myself.
I’ve been shifting to almost exclusively reading (a) science fiction and (b) biographies. It’s an interesting mix that, when combined with some of the investments I’m deep in, have started me thinking about the next 30 years of the innovation curve. Every day, when doing something on the computer, I think “this is way too fucking hard” or “why isn’t the data immediately available”, or “why am I having to tell the software to do this”, or “man this is ridiculous how hard it is to make this work.”
But then I read William Hertling’s upcoming book The Turing Exception, remember that The Singularity (first coined in 1958 by John von Neumann, not more recently by Ray Kurzweil, who has made it a very popular idea) is going to happen in 30 years. The AIs that I’m friends with don’t even have names or identities yet, but I expect some of them will within the next few years.
We have a long list of fundamental software problems that haven’t been solved. Identity is completely fucked, as is reputation. Data doesn’t move nicely between things and what we refer to as “big data” is actually going to be viewed as “microscopic data”, or better yet “sub-atomic data” by the time we get to the singularity. My machines all have different interfaces and don’t know how to talk to each other very well. We still haven’t solved the “store all your digital photos and share them without replicating them” problem. Voice recognition and language translation? Privacy and security – don’t even get me started.
Two of our Foundry Group themes – Glue and Protocol – have companies that are working on a wide range of what I’d call fundamental software problems. When I toss in a few of our HCI-themes investments, I realize that there’s a theme that might be missing, which is companies that are solving the next wave of fundamental software problems. These aren’t the ones readily identified today, but the ones that we anticipate will appear alongside the real emergence of the AIs.
It’s pretty easy to get stuck in the now. I don’t make predictions and try not to have a one year view, so it’s useful to read what Fred thinks since I can use him as my proxy AI for the -1/+1 year window. I recognize that I’ve got to pay attention to the now, but my curiosity right now is all about a longer arc. I don’t know whether it’s five, ten, 20, 30, or more years, but I’m spending intellectual energy using these time apertures.
History is really helpful in understanding this time frame. Ben Franklin, John Adams, and George Washington in the late 1700s. Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage in the mid 1800s. John Rockefeller in the early 1900s. The word software didn’t even exist.
We’ve got some doozies coming in the next 50 years. It’s going to be fun.
I read over 40 books in my month off the grid in Bora Bora recently. I’ve had many requests to blog about my reading list but rather than do one big long post I thought I’d break it up into several “longish” different posts over time. If all you are interested in is my reading list, my Goodreads Brad Feld account has everything I’ve read in reverse chronological order.
This post is about biographies. I’ve always loved to read biography and expect that my 2015 reading diet will include a lot more biography and history than normal as it has caught my interest lately. I’m including company biographies in this post. I didn’t read many, but had a little Google obsession on this trip which you’ll see in a moment.
The order is in the order I read them (even though the Goodreads list is in reverse-chron order).
Boy on Ice: The Life and Death of Derek Boogaard: I finished this just before we took off. I’m not much of a hockey fan – my childhood team was the Dallas Blackhawks – but I was entranced by this book. I learned a lot about how hockey works, much of it distressing to me. The enforcer role was one I didn’t really understand and Boogaard’s story is a powerfully tragic one. The book is well-written and moves quickly, while painting a powerful picture of how hockey can really damage people.
How Google Works: Eric Schmidt (Google chairman, prior CEO), Jonathan Rosenberg (long time Google exec) wrote the trendy book of the year about Google. I knew many of the approaches and anecdotes of the book – and how Google works – from the many other things I’ve read about Google over the years. But having it in one place, organized conceptually, was worth taking another pass through it all.
Memos from the Chairman: I had high hopes for Ace Greenberg’s compendium of memos from his time as chairman of Bear Stearns, which coincided with massive growth and success for the company. While there was some cuteness in here along with a few things to reflect on, I was disappointed in how dull the majority of the book was. Maybe it was awesome in 1996 when it came out, but it felt slow and dated in 2015.
Einstein: His Life and Universe: Einstein is one of my heroic figures and Walter Isaacson just nails it. If you are an Einstein fan or just want to really learn the full story, this is the book for you.
The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution: If I hadn’t read the Einstein book, I probably wouldn’t have read The Innovators, but Isaacson had pleased me so much that I devoured this one also. This is Isaacson’s 2014 tome an a follow-up to his Steve Jobs book. It was good, but not epic.
Two Miserable Presidents: Everything Your Schoolbooks Didn’t Tell You About the Civil War: I originally saw this at my partner Ryan McIntyre’s house a few months ago when we were over for dinner. I Kindled it and dove in. I loved it – super easy to consume and a very playful way to learn, or relearn, some history. I’m planning at least one serious Lincoln biography in 2015 so this was a good way to get a taste of it.
The Virgin Way: Everything I Know About Leadership: Everyone knows that Richard Branson is cool, and iconoclast, a massive risk taker, and amazing successful. But he’s also extremely introspective and articulate. I’ve never met him or been to Necker Island, but plenty of my colleagues have. When I started reading this one, I felt like I was doing something obligatory to read the autobiography of one of our contemporary business legends, but I really enjoyed it and by the end was glad Branson had put the energy into writing this.
In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives: As with Walter Isaacson, I eventually get around to reading all of Steven Levy’s books (I read his epic Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution in 1984 as a freshman at MIT and it has stayed with me ever since.) His Google book was awesome – much better than How Google Works. I learned a ton I didn’t know, especially about history that had either been ignored, glossed over, or repurposed. If you have any interest, relationship with, or curiosity about Google, this is the book for you.
Ada’s Algorithm: How Lord Byron’s Daughter Ada Lovelace Launched the Digital Age: I’ve read lots of articles on Ada Lovelace, but I’ve never read a comprehensive biography. The story was fascinating, especially when pondering what life much have been like in Victorian-era England and how much of any uphill cultural battle Ada Lovelace had. While we’ve got lots of challenges around gender still in our society, we’ve definitely made read progress in the last 150 years. This linkages to Lord Byron, Lady Byron, and Charles Babbage were fascinating and, in many ways, disheartening. Ada Lovelace was clearly a genius – I can’t even begin to imagine the amazing stuff she could have done if she was born in 1990 instead of 1815.
As a bonus, Amy and I have been watching the HBO Series John Adams and I’ve decided to start tackling biographies of American presidents and other American heroes of mine, like Ben Franklin. Look for some of this in 2015.