I joined a book club this year and rediscovered my love for fiction. Probably because of that, I’ve been giving serious thought about the book I want to read over the Christmas break, and it’s a toss-up between,
Horse by Geraldine Brooks
Wolves of Winter by Dan Jones
But you might also be selecting a good book to read over the holiday season, so here are the ones I enjoyed in 2023 that might inspire you. Some are work-related, and others are just for fun. When working in storytelling, however, these two categories are never discrete.
Wifedom: Mrs Orwell’s Invisible Life by Anna Funda
Like Anna Funda, I have enjoyed Orwell’s writing for years. I’ve also read plenty of biographies about him, so when I discovered Wifedom, I was excited to see what I might learn. Wifedom is about Eileen O’Shaughnessy, Orwell’s brilliant wife and collaborator who has been mostly written out of history, much like Zelda Fitzgerald. Funda did a great job mixing biographical research with imagined scenes inspired by newly discovered letters between Eileen and her girlfriend. I couldn’t put this one down.
Machiavelli: Philosopher of Power by Ross King
I chose this one primarily because I love Ross King’s books. I remember going to Florence once for a conference to discover I had misbooked my flights and found I was there three days early (poor me). I purchased a copy of King’s book Brunelleschi’s Dome at a nearby bookstore and spent my free time studying Santa Maria del Fiore in detail. His book on Machiavelli helps you understand the ups and downs of his life and helped me understand the context of The Prince. It is an enjoyable read.
Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Vonnegut is an important name in storytelling because he famously identified a set of plot structures in his master’s thesis, which has since entered popular culture. Check out this video of him describing them. His style reminds me of Hemingway: short, simple sentences. Yet his topics are lightyears (literally) apart. It’s a cross between sci-fi, war drama and auto-biography. I’m unsure I understood it all, but he uses interesting narrative devices, such as finishing anecdotes with the phrase, ‘so it goes’. I read this as this story might be true, but I’m sure it goes deeper than that. It’s beautifully written.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Chilling. They say Capote created a new genre with this book: true crime. It starts with a family being massacred in their rural home and then follows how the killers are found and brought to justice. Capote gets close to the killers while they are on death row. It’s a masterclass in conjuring visuals that are hard to forget. You can pair this with the movie Capote, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman.
The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams
Years ago, I read The Surgeon of Crowthorne by Simon Winchester. It was about how one of the main contributors to the Oxford English Dictionary was committed to a 19th-century insane asylum. It is Winchester’s best book (IMHO). This is also about EOD and how it was created but from the perspective of a child, then a young woman, who works in the scriptorium. It’s about fathers and daughters, dear friendships, love and tragedy—an absolute page-turner.
Dear Data by Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec
This is a picture book. A data picture book. Two friends who are talented data visualisation artists move to opposite sides of the country and start a correspondence where they illustrate their lives on the back of postcards based on data they collect about themselves. Opening three random pages, I get a week of desires, complaints, and positive thoughts. It’s a beautiful book. And so inventive.
Making Numbers Count by Chip Heath and Karla Starr
I listened to this book while driving from Jervis Bay on the south coast of New South Wales to Melbourne—a nine-hour trip. But my drive time was extended because I kept pulling over so I could take notes. The basic idea is this. Humans are not designed for numbers. We’ve only had numbers greater than 5 in our language before the Mesopotamians started tabulating crop yields on clay tablets 5,000 years ago. So, when we share a large and complicated number, it will only really make sense if we translate it into human terms. Here’s a nice one from Ridley Scott; in an interview on the ABC about his latest film Napoleon, he says, “There are two and half thousand books written about him. That’s one book every week since his death.” It’s a terrific number translation. By the way, we cover number translations in our Story-Powered Data program.
Outlive: The Science and Art of Longevity by Peter Attia
Each year, my buddy Darren Woolley and I embark on a road trip. We usually cover a thousand kilometres in a few days. This year we explored Barrington Tops. On each trip, we selected an audiobook; this year, it was Outlive. Attia shows compelling evidence and produces reputable scientific papers to back his recommendations. The idea that stuck with me was his Centenarian Decathlon. Think of the ten things you want to do when you are 90 or 100. For example, lift your great-grandchild off the floor, stow your luggage in an overhead compartment, carry a bag of shopping to the car, get up out of a chair without grunting, or hike 4 km on a hilly trail. Then start training for that. Gives your exercise purpose. Highly recommended.
I wish you all the best for the holiday season, and I look forward to seeing you in 2024.
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About Shawn Callahan
Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on: