What is the “Best” Book You’ve Read? – Not an Easy Question to Answer


Recently, I told an audience that Willful Blindness by Margaret Heffernan was the best book I have read in the last few years. I knew I should have used a different word than “best.” Maybe I should have said “the most important book I’ve read in the last few years.” Anyway, a member of the audience (it’s a place I speak regularly) came up a week later, had bought and read the book, and chastised me, saying “you must not read many books.” He then pulled out his “Great Books” list and recommended that I start through that list.

So… a few words.

Of course, Willful Blindness is not the “best” book I have read. My current answer to the question “What is the best book you have ever read?” is usually, when I am forced to answer, The Grapes of Wrath. Yes, that is a great book!

But, I seem to be in full-time learning mode. And, in learning mode, I am slowly learning about the value of problem identification. I am increasingly convinced that the ability to truly identify a problem is a great, needed, valuable, incredibly important skill. The Freakonomics guys wrote in their latest that “the easy problems have all been solved.” It’s the hard problems that really give us trouble. And, we’re not even all that great at fully identifying and defining such hard problems.

There’s a lot of money to be made in the problem solving business. In How Serial Innovators Find The Best Problems To Solve, we read:

Serial innovators know they have an interesting problem when it meets three criteria:

  • Solving the problem has the potential for significant financial impact.
  • A solution likely can be found.
  • The problem and its solution are acceptable to both customers and management (it solves problems and fits strategy).

But, it’s that 2nd bullet point that is the tough one – “a solution likely can be found.” Willful Blindness is a problem identification book; not a problem solution book. It delves, deeply, intriguingly, into why people are so blind. What causes the blindness? What factors — personal, institutional, corporate, organizational — lead to continuing blindness; “willful” blindness? I think Margaret Heffernan provides some real insight, and some clarity, for such questions.

That’s why I called the book the “best” book I’ve read in a while. I think I finally get the depth of the problem now.

And, sadly, there are no easy solutions to this willful blindness problem.

So those are a few reflections on a Sunday morning on the role books play in my own thinking.

What role do books play in your thinking?

2 thoughts on “What is the “Best” Book You’ve Read? – Not an Easy Question to Answer

  1. Great question Randy. In my opinion, the answer really depends on the book at hand. Some books I read are prescriptive in nature, they offer new techniques that one can apply to improve in a specific area. Others provide a framework to structure your thinking about a specific challenge. Another category of books, while more rare but extremely valuable, offer new paradigms of thinking and insight.

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