A Fintech Takes’ (Aspirational) Reading List
By Alex Johnson
The last time I went out on paternity leave, my final newsletter was a Summer Reading List, aggregated from the suggestions of various friends in and around the fintech ecosystem.
It’s a great list, filled with prescient titles like “Reprogramming the American Dream: From Rural America to Silicon Valley–Making AI Serve Us All” and less-relevant-but-still-very-enjoyable titles like “The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup.”
I’m deeply grateful, three years later, for all the wonderful suggestions.
I’m also a bit embarrassed to admit that I have read only a small fraction of the books on the list.
I know! I know!
My wife frequently (and not incorrectly) scolds me for collecting books rather than reading them. My retort – books are art! – doesn’t get me very far with her because, in her words, “Books are art, but your books are ugly art.”
It hasn’t stopped me from collecting them, though, which has, in turn, spurred my wife to clear out most of my books from our main bookshelves (that’s where the pretty books go) and deposit them on my bedside table, in my closet, and on pretty much every other surface that I nominally control.So … I figured it would be fun (and fitting during this subsequent paternity leave) to share with you a snapshot of the books currently stacked on my bedside table. My Aspirational Reading List, as I have taken to calling it.
Here they are, loosely organized by category, with some brief commentary on why I can’t wait to read them.
I’m fairly picky when it comes to reading company biographies, but these four seem both relevant and interesting. Hopefully, they’re also good reads.
The Godfather of Fintech, Dee Hock (RIP), wrote this one. It’s a bit about the founding and early growth of VISA, but it’s more about the emergence of what he called “chaodic” organizations (a blend of order and chaos) and the potential for such organizations to address large-scale societal problems.
The Founders by Jimmy Soni
The definitive book about the PayPal Mafia, a collection of some of my favorite and least favorite founders of some of my favorite and least favorite companies. Sounds fascinating!
Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull
One of the hardest problems that I have personally wrestled with over the last three years is how to operationalize creativity. My job (I like to believe) is a creative endeavor, full of random moments of inspiration and occasional late-night writing sessions. And yet, my livelihood is dependent on operationalizing that creativity into something consistently and predictably valuable (and thus monetizable). Workweek has been amazing at helping me navigate this challenge, but I’m hopeful this book will provide some useful insights as well.
Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age by Michael A. Hiltzik
Was Xerox PARC – Xerox’s famous R&D lab – a failure or a success? Should we remember it for all of the innovations that other companies profited off of? Or for the fewer (but still monumental) innovations that Xerox actually capitalized on? I look forward to having an informed opinion on this question.
I feel the opposite about this category of nonfiction than I do about corporate biographies – basically anything written about human behavior is something that I will make time for. Maybe it’s the social studies teacher in me, but I find this subject endlessly fascinating. Here are five books in this category that I have queued up.
Alchemy by Rory Sutherland
Behavioral science meets branding, written by the legendary advertising executive Rory Sutherland. Say no more.
Wild Problems by Russ Roberts
This one is all about the big decisions in life and recognizing our own limits, as humans, in being able to navigate those decisions with data and cool rationality. Feels like a good one to read during paternity leave.
The Hot Hand by Ben Cohen
Are hot streaks real? Is there such a thing as “being in the zone”? Can human beings bend the laws of probability through sheer force of will? My heart says yes. My mother, who is a statistics teacher, would probably say no. I’m looking forward to reading this book and finding out who is right.
Dedicated by Pete Davis
The subtitle for this one really speaks to me – “The case for commitment in an age of infinite browsing.” Perfect.
How to Be Perfect by Michael Schur
I’ve already started this one, and it’s hilarious. Laugh-out-loud-while-reading funny. Not surprising given that the author is also the brain behind four of my favorite TV comedies of all time, including The Good Place, which was the inspiration for this book.
A few books about different, highly salient topics impacting the U.S. and the world at large. I narrowed it down (for the moment) to four.
Chip War by Chris Miller
My friend and Workweek colleague Trung Phan put this topic on my radar with this awesome thread, and now I’m ready to dive head-first into the technological and geopolitical rabbit hole that is microchip manufacturing.
Economic Dignity by Gene Sperling
This one was on my last reading list, and it retains a prominent spot three years later because of this line in the introduction:
“When someone is on their deathbed and looks back on all their years, what would they say mattered most in their economic life? What would make them feel pride and satisfaction instead of despair or frustration?”
I promise I am going to read this book.
Bowling Alone by Robert D. Putnam
This book is about the slow disintegration of the social structures that used to connect us together and foster a sense of community. Feels like a relevant topic, given the ongoing discussion that we’re having in financial services about the importance of community banks and relationship banking.
Good Enough for Government Work by Amy E. Lerman
Did you know that the phrase “good enough for government work” used to be a compliment? It was a reference to the exacting standards that the government required private manufacturers to meet during World War II.
The changing implication of that phrase and the larger reputation crisis that the government has been struggling with in the decades since WWII is the focus of this book. Can’t wait to read it!
I continue to be fascinated by all things data and analytics, and I’m looking forward to getting smarter about the roots of the algorithmic age that we are currently living in with the help of these three books.
If/Then: How Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future by Jill Lepore
A company that I’ve never heard of, which claimed to have invented the “A-bomb of the social sciences”? Yeah, there was no chance I wasn’t going to buy this book.
Escape From Model Land by Erica Thompson
This one is all about how mathematical models work and the often-flawed assumptions that humans employ when using these models. It also contains this wonderful joke:
A physicist, a chemist, and an economist are shipwrecked on a desert island with nothing to eat except the ship’s store of canned food. The physicist begins looking for a suitable stone to open the cans with; the chemist collects wood to make a fire; the economist thinks for a little while and then says brightly, ‘Assume we have a can opener!’
How Data Happened by Chris Wiggins and Matthew L. Jones
A book about the history of data science from two professors at Columbia University who have been teaching a class on that exact subject since 2015. Sounds marvelous.
Wait, you say. Really? Graphic design?
Heck yes! A subject that I literally know nothing about but that is relevant to a field that I’ve spent most of my career in (marketing), and that would be useful for an exercise that I just can’t stop repeating (fintech logo rankings!) Sign me up.
Just My Type by Simon Garfield
The blurb on the back of the book says, “Reading what Garfield has to say will change the way you perceive the written word forever.”
The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair
If you are familiar with the “what color is this tie?” speech that Janel Moloney gives in Sports Night, congratulations. You have excellent taste in television. If you’re not familiar, go watch Sports Night. Either way, I feel confident that Monica Brazelton would own this book.
Also, a quick note to my wife – this book is pretty! It has polka dots! It should go on the main bookshelves!
The Anatomy of Type by Stephen Coles
The most graphical of all the books on this list, this book features 100 fonts, all broken down in exceptional detail. I look forward to learning what a ‘bracket’ is and what the difference is between an ‘arch’ and an ‘ear.’
When I tell people I write about financial services for a living, they get this look of pity and slight revulsion on their face … just for a second. It’s like the involuntary reaction you get when you hear about an overly punitive prison sentence. Like, wow, what did he do to deserve that?
But it’s not a punishment! This stuff is truly fascinating to me, and likely you, since you subscribe to this newsletter. Here are seven books about money that I can’t wait to read.
Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk by Peter L. Bernstein
This one is going to be a bit of a bear to read; I can just tell. But worth it, I think. The central premise is that one of the distinguishing factors of modern human society is our ability to understand and exercise control over risk. Fascinating!
Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber
Can you tell I’m a history nerd?
The idea that credit predates money is really interesting from an anthropological perspective, and tracing the history of credit (and lending and debt) should be a useful investment of my time.
The Price of Time by Edward Chancellor
And speaking of time, how about a book about the history of interest and society’s evolving perspective on the practice of charging interest on loans?
Sounds pretty good, no?
Lying for Money by Dan Davies
The subtitle is just [chef’s kiss] – How legendary frauds reveal the workings of the world.
The Most Fun I Never Want to Have Again by R.D. Koncerak
An insider’s look at Georgia’s community banking industry before, during, and after the Great Recession.
OK, the people looking at me with pity do have a point.
A Piece of the Action by Joe Nocera
The definitive book on the invention of the general-purpose credit card and its effect on consumers (particularly the middle class). I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve never read this one in its entirety (just excerpts). I plan to remedy that soon.
The Great Depression: A Diary by Benjamin Roth
“When the stock market crashed in 1929, Benjamin Roth was a young lawyer in Youngstown, Ohio. After he began to grasp the magnitude of what had happened to American economic life, he decided to set down his impressions in his diary.”
Cannot wait to read this.
This Time is Different by Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth S. Rogoff
The central idea – financial combustions are universal rights of passage for emerging and established market nations – intrigues.