Our mattresses were made
of corn shucks
and soft gray Spanish moss
that hung from the trees….
From the swamps
we got soup turtles
and baby alligators
And from the woods
we got raccoon,
rabbit and possum.
• Mahalia Jackson, Movin’ On Up
Richard Wright, the bard of the Great Migration, defected to the receiving station of Chicago, via Memphis, in December, 1927, to feel as he put it, “the warmth of other suns.”
I’ve been thinking about Big books vs. small books.
I’m not talking about the size of the book — although, a big book is usually bigger — i.e., more pages. But not always: consider Big Think Strategy: How to leverage bold ideas and leave small thinking behind by Bernd H. Schmitt. This is a big book with fewer than 200 pages.
I’m talking about the ideas, the sweep of the book. And I am a big fan of big books. Books that tie things together over a long haul. Books that point me to connections that are important, connections that I have not thought of. Recently, at the First Friday Book Synopsis, I presented my synopsis of Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson. This is a big book, with a massive sweep. Other titles come to mind: Collapse by Jared Diamond; The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright.
Well, here’s my new “current favorite big book” — The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson. Wilkerson is a Pultizer Prize winner (in 1994: the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer in journalism) from her reporting days with the New York Times, and in this massive sweep of a book she tells the epic story of the Great Migration, the years from 1915 to 1970, when over six million African Americans left the American South for the North and West. It is a terrific read, overflowing with insight into people, this country, prejudices, hopes, dreams… I would like to suggest that you add it to your “serious non-fiction book” stack. You will not be disappointed.
Wilkerson follows the journey of three Southern blacks, each representing a different decade of the Great Migration as well as a different destination. It’s a shrewd storytelling device, because it allows her to highlight two issues often overlooked: first, that the exodus was a continuous phenomenon spanning six decades of American life; second, that it consisted of not one, but rather three geographical streams, the patterns determined by the train routes available to those bold enough to leave.
People from Arkansas, Alabama and Mississippi boarded the Illinois Central to Midwestern cities like Cleveland, Chicago and Detroit; those from Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia rode the Seaboard Air Line up the East Coast to Washington, Philadelphia and New York; those in Louisiana and Texas took the Union Pacific to Los Angeles, Oakland and other parts of the West Coast. Wilkerson is superb at minding the bends and detours along the way. She notes, for example, that some migrants, unfamiliar with the conductor’s Northern accent, would mistakenly get off at the cry of “Penn Station, Newark,” the stop just before Penn Station, New York. Many decided to stay put, she adds, giving Newark “a good portion of its black population.”
Here is just one paragraph – such a great excerpt:
The actions of the people in this book were both universal and distinctly American. Their migration was a response to an economic and social structure not of their making. They did what humans have done for centuries when life became untenable – what the pilgrims did under the tyranny of British rule, what the Scotch-Irish did in Oklahoma when the land turned to dust, what the Irish did when there was nothing to eat, what the European Jews did during the spread of Nazism, what the landless in Russia, Italy, China and elsewhere did when something better across the ocean called to them. What binds their stories together was the back-against-the-wall, reluctant yet hopeful search for something better, any place but where they were. They did what human beings looking for freedom, throughout history, have often done.
Wilkerson spent fourteen years researching this book (you can tell!), and interviewed over 1000 people. The poignant moments in this book are too numerous to mention. The description of the photograph of her own mother taken in the New World will leave a lump in your throat at the sheer symbolism of this new world ”passport.” This is the kind of reading that I wish I had more time to do.
I hope you have your stack of serious, sweeping, big book books to read. They are rich indeed. Add this one to your stack – you will not be disappointed.
A rigorous and comprehensive analysis of the evolution of a creative idea
Others have their own reasons for praising this book. Here are two of mine. First, David Kord Murray immediately states his core thesis and then develops it with original (rather than borrowed) brilliance throughout the narrative that follows. Here it is, in composite form: “Ideas are constructed out of other ideas, there are no original thoughts, you can’t make something out of nothing, you have to make it out of something else. It’s the law of cerebral physics. Ideas are born of other ideas, built in and out of the ideas that came before. That’s why I say that brilliance is borrowed…An idea is like a house or a building. Your business problem is the foundation of that house. In other words, you build your idea on a foundation of well-defined problems. Once defined, you borrow ideas from places with a comparable problem…Then, you take these borrowed ideas and start combining them to form the overall structure of your house, to form the structure of your new solution.”
I also admire the scope and depth of primary and secondary sources that Murray cites within the framework of the six steps to innovation. For example, Step One involves defining the problem to be solved. Murray advises that the foundation for solving the problem be on “solid ground” and that the problem is viewed in context (e.g. scope) rather than in isolation. His sources include Sergey Brin and Larry Page (“the Google Guys”, Isaac Newton, and James Maxwell. If you have a search problem, as Brin and Page once did, ask “Who else has a search problem?” The answer probably includes librarians, rescue teams, sailors, hunters, archeologists, and explorers.
Step Two involves borrowing ideas from wherever there is or has been a similar problem: “borrowing brilliance is the search for ideas” and what Murray calls “creative combinations” are the result of borrowing from competitors, observations, other people, while traveling away from home, from what Murray calls “the opposite place” (i.e. the opposite of what is popular), a similar place, and/or a distant place (e.g. ancient Rome). His sources include Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, and John Nash. They and others used one or more existing idea as material to construct a new idea, one that would then become a new (for now) “creative combination.” That is what Johannes Gutenberg did in the 1440s when he combined materials that already existed: a wine press, an adjustable undertable, movable typeface of lead-based alloy, a matrix (i.e. hand mould), and oil-based ink.
Murray also provides a convincing reassurance to all who claim they are “not creative” that innovation is a never-ending process that, over extended time, it may involve thousands (millions?) of individuals who “build on the ideas of others,” some of whom – many centuries ago — also built on the ideas of others who preceded them. Almost anyone is capable of making a valuable contribution to this process on continuous improvement. The value of some contributions will be greater than others, obviously, but all are essential.
The best recently published account of this process, at least that I am aware of, is provided by William Rosen in his book about the development of steam-driven power, The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention, published by Random House (2010).