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10 Books to Challenge You in 2014

10 Books to Challenge You in 2014

This past year went by in a blur, and out of all the nonfiction and fiction books that I read, I'd like to offer 10 books that challenged me and that you should consider checking out this new year. Ranging from reportage to essays to fiction, this list blends classics, bestsellers, and quirky works that caught my attention and changed my focus as a human being just as much as a professional designer.


Sugar Fat Salt: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss

This book was a huge bestseller last year, and for good reason. It goes down easy, but will make you sick to your stomach—in a thought-provoking way. Impeccably researched and written, Moss delves deeply into the culture, business, and impact of the processed food industry. Ranging from the early days of General Mills and Kelloggs all the way to the Cola Wars and Lunchables craze, the stories in this book will make you take a second look at the everyday eating decisions that you make, and inspire you to think differently about what it means to design and sell a designed product. For a taste of this book, check out an excerpt that was published in The New York Times Magazine in 2013, "The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food" and his follow-up (not in the book) where he made over the image of broccoli with Victor & Spoils. (Indiebound | Amazon)


The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization by Peter Senge

When businesspeople ask me for a book about the impact design can have on their organization's growth and development independent of the products they create, I recommend this classic book. It's a good starting point for any person who wants to encourage more holistic, systematic thinking within their team or department, written more for the middle manager but bringing the skills designers have to the fore of the solution. I'm continually surprised at how many people haven't read this book, considering it speaks to team learning, systems thinking, mental models, and other tools that are implicit as part of being a good designer. While not the quickest read, this book will help you integrate much of what you already know in a way that you can more easily communicate with anyone interested in creating smarter organizations. (Indiebound | Amazon)


Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Essays by Mary Ruefle

Poet Mary Ruefle has written more than a dozen books of powerful poetry and short prose, but her first formal collection of lectures is an absolute force of nature: honest, bracing arguments that leap off the page in a non-academic manner and yearns to be read aloud. For a taste of this book, check out the essay "On Fear," which is posted free on the Poetry Foundation website. The lecture "On Theme" is one of the best pieces of writing I've read in the past five years, and there are some clever anti-lecture experiments such as "Lectures I Will Never Give" that round out an impressive collection. Oh, and it's also really well typeset, which is a rarity for most publishers, but not for the design-minded Wave Books and Jeff Clark of the studio Quemadura. Please don't tell me you haven't heard of this designer. (Direct from Wave Books | Amazon)


Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism by Chögyam Trungpa 

"Ego is able to convert everything to its own use, even spirituality… Ego translates everything in terms of its own state of health, its own inherent qualities. It feels a sense of great accomplishment and excitement at having been able to create such a pattern… If we become successful at maintaining our self-consciousness through spiritual techniques, then genuine spiritual development is highly unlikely." Like an impossibly sharp knife, the lectures in this volume cut through the infinite number of rationalizations we hold regarding our self-importance, with both compassion and subtle humor. I am glad this book found me, but will be wrestling with its implications for my entire life. (Indiebound | Amazon)


Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age by Kenneth Goldsmith

Poetry has been at war with itself for decades, the voices of the traditionalists creating friction with those influenced by postmodern art, technology, advertising, and Internet culture, to name just a few of our everyday influences. This volume of connected essays and lectures outlines a new rubric for creative writing education, a counterargument for the traditionalist, born from a class Goldsmith taught called "Uncreative Writing." Goldsmith, who once worked as a creative director in the design world, runs through the many historical movements, techniques, and forms that have upended the creative writing world this past century. Sampling, copying/appropriation, cut-ups, concrete poetry, detournment, language poetry, Flarf, hypertext, and on and on and on... For those steeped in the craft of creative writing, this book is the best explanation I've found so far for how the world left to us by the sleepy retiring generation of formalists has forever changed. While certainly not the last word on this subject—I look to Marjorie Perloff for that—this book is contentious as hell and will either be eye-opening or piss you off. Or both. (Indiebound | Amazon)


Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Sugar by Cheryl Strayed 

Please tell me you've heard of Sugar and read her online column at The Rumpus before it went on hiatus. Strayed pushes the boundaries of what you consider the scope of an advice columnist, with exceptional results. This book will make you cry (repeatedly) in a cathartic way. (Her most repeated advice is to "write like a motherfucker." I saw this emblazoned on coffee mugs that the Rumpus was selling at the AWP Conference.) (Indiebound | Amazon)


Drawing Ideas: A Hand-Drawn Approach to Better Design by Mark Baskinger and William Bardel

This is the one design book I had to bring up, and have been waiting for five years to come out. I had the chance to take a Drawing Ideas training workshop at the Interaction 09 conference, and I was stunned at the clarity Baskinger and Bardel brought to the craft of design sketching. They were able to take what they'd taught students at schools like Carnegie Mellon's industrial design program and boil it into this book, which is crammed full of tight visual examples and techniques I hadn't been aware of, due to my educational focus on 2D sketching for graphic design. Want to hone your skills in sketching? Looking for a resource that will inspire you to improve your drawing skills? With a little investment of time and practice, any designer will be challenged by the examples and exercises in this book. I recommend getting the physical book over the eBook edition. One caveat, though. While I believe this book will be a useful resource for designers and non-designers alike, my only critique of the book is that it didn't feel as accessible as the hands-on instruction I'd had during their face-to-face workshop... (Indiebound | Amazon)


S. by Doug Dirka and J.J. Abrams

I like to read trashy crime and sci-fi novels just as much as those experimental types that bend or break the genre, like The People of Paper or Tree of Codes. So when I heard that J.J. Abrams was collaborating with the author Doug Dirka (!!!), I knew I had to pony up and buy the first edition of this book. Now that I've read it straight through, I can tell you that it's one of the most tightly designed books/artifacts you'll ever experience. Like many Abrams projects, this is a love story with a "happy ending" intertwined with an infuriatingly open-ended narrative that will send you in all directions. The sheer ambition of this book, the production values provided by Headcase Design, and the way the narrative pushes beyond the book itself to the Internet, makes it a valuable contribution to literature and design. The "mystery box" here is glued shut, but you'll spend hours walking around it and enjoying the view. (Amazon)


The Laws of Subtraction: 6 Simple Rules for Winning in the Age of Excess Everything by Matthew May

Doing something isn't always better than doing nothing, and less can definitely be more. Since reading this, I've been better at communicating with others the reasons why we should pare back in certain areas rather than just pile it on. This book balances life and work lessons in subtraction, pairing the author's perspectives with 50+ creative minds in business. (Full disclosure: I'm honored to be one of the people included.) I've recommended some of May's books in the past, and I enjoyed this book and learned some new "subtractive" tricks. My only quibble with the book is that it could have been a tad shorter, right? (Indiebound | Amazon)


Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Dr. Brene Brown

Yes, this book has been quite popular, but I'm including it because I'm surprised how many people still haven't heard of Dr. Brown or her research. Drawing from her previous books and new research into the origins of human shame, this book lays bare the different strategies (she calls them "armor") we use to avoid vulnerability—and vulnerability is the key for us living more healthy lives and fostering deeper connections with others. Yes, there are parts of this book that may rub you the wrong way, such as where Brown voices her self-frustration around her newfound celebrity, but over the course of reading and reflecting on the content, it becomes clear that they are part of her attempt to put her research findings into practice. And you'll find it very, very hard to argue with her findings. (Indiebound | Amazon)


Have any books that challenged you in 2013, that we should read in 2014? I'd appreciate if you could leave them in the comments!


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