Fool contributors have a pretty sweet gig. Our job is to read and write. That's about it.
You get enough of the writing. Today I want to share a little more of the reading. Here are five highly recommended books everybody can gain from.
1. The Science of Fear, Daniel Gardner
The way we process fear is something to be terrified about.
In this absorbing book, Gardner contends that our sense of reason is controlled by two systems: Gut and Head. Gut reacts to threats instantaneously: someone yells fire, and you run. Head is more calculated. It calmly measures the odds of danger, consults a few experts, and decides how to proceed.
Gut was formed in a primitive world where being mauled by lions was a top concern. It's reaction mechanism -- don't think, just run -- was vital to survival thousands of years ago. Head is a more recent development designed to process a world where we have the luxury of thinking things through.
Being the older and more developed of the two, Gut still reigns supreme. That's a problem in our modern world. It causes us to instinctively panic over things like terrorism and swine flu, usually to our own detriment. If Gut would shut up and give it a chance to speak, Head would tell you not to worry about these relatively low risks. It'd tell you to focus more on the risks of poor diet and lack of exercise -- abstract risks Gut would never think about, but exactly the kind of threats that put us in the most danger.
Itself a victim of this flaw, the media does a fantastic job blowing risks out of proportion. If you hadn't noticed.
2. Rework, Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hansson
Nine-to-five. Policies and procedures. Five-year forecasts. Stupid buzzwords. PowerPoint presentations. Meetings. Meetings. Meetings.
These are standard in today's workplace. As successful small business owners Fried and Hansson explain, they're also lethal drains on efficiency and innovation. Wildly successful companies like Google
Don't require a committee's approval for new products. Just let employees make them as they wish. Don't hire an expensive accountant if you can use Quicken. Don't make five-year financial projections when you can't predict what you'll have for lunch. If you're done working at 2:00 p.m., for Pete's sake, go home. My favorite: "Don't hire for pleasure; hire to kill pain."
"Critics don't understand how a company can reject growth, meetings, budgets, boards of directors, advertising, salespeople, and 'the real world,' yet thrive. That's their problem, not ours. They say you need to sell to the Fortune 500. Screw that. We sell to the Fortune 5,000,000."
A wonderful story of how businesses can jettison their shortcomings.
3. The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley
"Life is getting better -- and at an accelerating rate. Food availability, income, and life span are up; disease, child mortality, and violence are down -- all across the globe" begins Ridley's inspiring book. "The pessimists who dominate public discourse insist that we will soon reach a turning point and things will start to get worse. But they have been saying this for two hundred years."
Everyone's life would improve if they turned off cable news and read this book. The basic idea, which Ridley backs up irrefutably, is that as long as ideas are allowed to procreate, life will improve. There will be recessions and wars and plagues and everything else. But over time, the quality of life improves for almost everyone almost everywhere.
The irony shown in this book is how easy it is to become oblivious to these improvements. A good example: Nostalgia over the America of the '50s and '60s is common. But should it be? Back then, some water fountains were segregated by race. Life expectancy and real incomes were lower. Death rates from stroke and heart attack were 70% higher. You had to be a zillionaire to get on an airplane. With apologies to Jon Stewart, the only reason the world felt better during our childhoods is because we were children.
4. The Forgotten Man, Amity Shlaes
Easily the best and most readable history of the Great Depression I've come across. Shales doesn't just depict the numerous mistakes that made the Great Depression so great. She dives into the thought processes of the people who made those mistakes -- everyone from Calvin Coolidge to FDR to a handful of business owners.
The book doesn't make you feel like you're studying the 1930s. It makes you feel like you're in the 1930s.
5. Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, Daniel Okrent
Prohibition is now universally seen as a joke. Yet before it began in 1920, many saw it as salvation. As one newspaper wrote on the eve of its beginning: "The reign of tears is over. The slums will soon be only a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses and corncribs. Men will walk upright now, women will smile, and the children will laugh. Hell will forever be for rent."
Reality was slightly different. A consistent theme in this book is how ineffective Prohibition was at prohibiting anything other than sanity. Instead of eradicating alcohol, it simply moved production into the shadows of organized crime and moonshiners. Studies at the time show alcohol consumption declined only marginally.
Part of what finally ended the 13-year ban was the incredible need for tax revenue during the slaughter of the Great Depression. This point seems relevant today. Companies like Altria
Check back every Tuesday and Friday for Morgan Housel's columns on finance and economics.
Fool contributor Morgan Housel owns shares of Altria, Berkshire Hathaway, several hundred books, a few t-shirts, and a cat. Berkshire Hathaway, Costco Wholesale, and Google are Motley Fool Inside Value choices. Google is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendation. Berkshire Hathaway and Costco Wholesale are Motley Fool Stock Advisor picks. The Fool owns shares of Altria Group, Berkshire Hathaway, Costco Wholesale, and Google. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.