My new service as a reading coach
And the subscribers' book club
The first half of this post is about a new reading coach service I am offering. The second half has details of the Common Reader Book Club I am setting up for paying subscribers.
Also, I went on the Charles Cooke podcast to talk about the supposed decline of the humanities and whether the people who wrote My Fair Lady ought to have been shot. My part starts about 24 minutes in.
Reading the humanities in business
Has there ever been a more necessary time for business leaders to read the humanities? GPT4 scores exceptionally well on most exams, but not English Literature. In the wake of the SVB failure, Adrian Woolridge said in the Washington Post, “CEOs themselves should take what time they can to study the humanities.” The same was said of Sam Bankman-Fried, who professed not to read books. Reading deeply in the humanities is something AI cannot do for you—a summary of Plato is worth very little compared to actually reading Plato. And the role of judgement in leadership will continue to grow. As Woolridge pointed out, modern business values highly the skills of presentation, concision, making a pitch.
That’s why I’m offering a new service as a reading coach. I want to bring literary learnings into modern business. This is the sort of deep reading and reflection AI cannot make quicker or easier. GPT4 cannot help you imbibe the lessons of Jane Austen and Marcus Aurelius. But I can.
Here are the two services I think would be useful.
The reading circle
A corporate book club that meets to discuss the Norton anthology Leadership. This book has timeless writings, from antiquity to modern day, that covers all aspects of leadership. Personal leaders have never been more important. This allows your people to get the most value from their reading through guided discussion and debate.
A personalised service, where we look at your aims and produce a reading list that works for you. I then provide a coaching and tutoring service to make sure you don’t just read and forget, but instead absorb the deep lessons great books have to offer.
In Leadership Elizabeth D. Samet talks about several different aspects of leadership—studying the system, emulating heroes, risking revision, knowing the way, cultivating trust, negotiating the world, learning from failure, resisting the system—and provides anthology readings for each of those topics. In my decade as a consultant, I saw plenty of people reading contemporary non-fiction for the latest insights and ideas, and plenty of concern for topics like learning from failure. But there was no role for the humanities on those business reading lists.
This is a missed opportunity. Mansfield Park is about How To Behave In Meetings. If you want to encourage better dialogue in your team, turn to Jane Austen. The constant struggle to balance the individual and the system is never considered in terms of William Whyte or Frederick Douglass. Decision making would be well informed by Marcus Aurelius. The corporate art of persuasion could do with a dose of David Selznick, Virginia Woolf or Ida B. Wells. People make career decisions every day without having read The Death of Ivan Illyich. It is much shorter and more useful than any amount of corporate content or “smart thinking” non-fiction.
If your company wants to learn the lessons the humanities have to offer hit reply or get in touch.
The Common Reader Book Club
This blog exists to help the common reader, a person of non-professional literary interests, explore and understand literature, primarily the fiction, poetry, and biography of English literature. But what a common reader really needs is someone to talk to about their reading. What I saw when I ran the salon series How to Read a Novel is just how useful that talking can be.
As there are a few subscribers now, and more joining, we will start a Common Reader Book Club. Subscribers will be able to join a monthly zoom where we discuss the book of the month. I will also post notes and references to the blog in a “subscribers only” post. And we’ll have comment threads where we can discuss things online too.
To start, I propose two approaches:
A biography book club. We’ll read classic biographies, learn the history of the genre, and probe the way great writers like Froude, Johnson, and Walton worked. There are so many wonderful biographies to read and they are so underrated. We’ll also read inventive modern biographies like My Autobiography of Carson McCullers to think about the ways biographers have to deal with gaps in the sexual record. And we’ll look at popular autobiographies like The Pursuit of Happyness.
Classic fiction club. This would be like my How to Read a Novel series where we study classic novels and learn how to read closely. What words get repeated, what patterns the author uses, what ideas are encoded in the story, what makes a narrator unreliable, why do some novels begin in media res, and so on—all the techniques that help you understand great literature. Instead of Dickens and Austen, though, I suggest this group reads (short) twentieth century novels, mainly by women.
Sessions will be evening UK time weekend or mid-week. For both clubs, I will recommend what we read but am happy to create the final list with you all, depending on what you want to get out of it. My initial suggestions are below. If you want to be part of one or both of these book clubs, subscribe now.
Subscribers, let me know what books you want to read together!
Join the Common Reader Book Club today.
Biography book club suggested reading list
Johnson’s Life of Savage
Walton’s Life of Donne
Aubrey’s Brief Lives, a selection
Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Bronte
Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
Virginia Woolf, Orlando and selected essays
The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Chris Gardner, The Pursuit of Happyness
Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking
Jenn Shapland, My Autobiography of Carson McCullers
Classic fiction suggested reading list
Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway
Elizabeth Bowen, The Last September
Graham Greene, The End of the Affair
Elizabeth Jenkins, The Tortoise and the Hare
Rebecca West, The Fountain Overflows
Iris Murdoch, The Bell
Beryl Bainbridge, According to Queenie
Muriel Spark, Loitering With Intent
Penelope Fitzgerald, The Beginning of Spring
Jamaica Kincaid, Annie John
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Just switched to paid for access to the book club - amazing idea! I'm in Minnesota, so 5 hours behind you in the UK.
Yes, that could work. Looking forward, etc.