WHAT BOOKS OUR LEADERS SHOULD BE READING... AND WHY
The Sydney Morning Herald, 8 January 2022
Forced into teenage work to support his family, John Curtin made up for his lack of formal education with a lifetime of reading. As a young man, he would stay late at the Melbourne Public Library. As Curtin's great-grandson Toby Davidson notes, an hour each Sunday was reserved for reading poetry. When he became Prime Minister, Curtin’s deep inner life engendered respect across the political spectrum. He had read enough in foreign policy to know that Australia needed to reach out to the United States ‘free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom’. His reading of Keynes and Pigou shaped Curtin’s decision to introduce unemployment benefits and plan for a full-employment economy after World War II. Books shaped Curtin, and Curtin shaped Australia.
2021 has been a bumper year for books about big ideas. In fact, you might say there’s been a cabinet-full of books, in the sense that there’s something for every member of cabinet to devour.
For the industry minister, Kazuo Ishiguro’s science fiction novel Klara and the Sun explores a world of artificial intelligence and genetic engineering. Walter Isaacson’s The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race delves into what current CRISPR gene editing technologies can achieve. Like Isaacson’s previous biographies of Leonardo Da Vinci, Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs, the focus isn’t just on the outcomes, but on how extraordinary minds think differently. Reading their stories is a reminder that breakthroughs are more likely to happen when every child has the teachers, mentors and funding that empowered the world’s best innovators.
For the arts minister, autobiographies by theatre doyens John Bell and David Williamson break the fourth wall between the play and the audience. Bell’s Some Achieve Greatness draws leadership lessons from Shakespeare, while Williamson’s Home Truths is an unnervingly candid account of a half century at the apex of Australian theatre.
Migrant stories draw their power from travel, loss, identity and dissonance. An immigration minister who reads Alice Pung’s One Hundred Days will be wiser, and perhaps kinder too. Abul Rizvi’s Population Shock would make a good chaser – a critique of the unchecked rise of temporary migration, penned by a former senior official in the department.
On the climate front, Alan Finkel’s Getting to Zero and Bill Gates’s How to Avoid a Climate Catastrophe both take the approach of a dispassionate engineer – looking at how we might decarbonise at the lowest cost. I found them both persuasive, but the clinical dissection of the solutions didn’t always reflect the anxiety I feel about the problem. For that, Richard Flanagan’s novel The Living Sea of Waking Dreams seemed to encapsulate the required sense of urgency. And yes, I know it came out at the end of 2020, but I ‘read’ my books via audiobook, so I’m counting it in this year’s pile.
An agile Attorney-General should be anticipating online challenges. Van Badham’s QAnon and On dives down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories, and finds more than a few mad hatters. An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination, by US journalists Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang, investigates the misbehaviour of the world’s largest social network – eerily anticipating the recent revelations of whistle-blower Frances Haugen.
For an outlook on the Australian economy, John Edwards’s Reconstruction and Ross Garnaut’s Reset paint starkly different pictures. Edwards is sanguine about the strength of the economy in the 2010s, and optimistic about the future, provided we can repair relations with China. Garnaut is pessimistic, noting that from 2013 to 2019, Australia’s output per person grew more slowly than Japan. Edwards would have the Treasurer make some tweaks; Garnaut believes a transformation is required.
Far be it for me to tell the minister for women what to read, but in a year when thousands marched to protest sexual harassment, I found a plethora of insights in new books by women who have served in the House of Representatives. In Power Play, Julia Banks details the culture of the modern Liberal Party, drawing insights from her experiences in corporate Australia. In Enough is Enough, Jenny Macklin and Kate Thwaites reflect on the Labor Party, and how it has evolved. In Sex, Lies and Question Time, Kate Ellis interviews women from across the political spectrum, and offers a suite of reforms that would improve the culture of parliament.
As Curtin knew, a great education isn’t just about imparting facts, but building understanding and a deep love of learning. My English teacher Judith Anderson might not have approved, but John McWhorter’s Nine Nasty Words brings the talent of a great linguist to the topic of profanity. Did you know that our taboo swear words have evolved from religion to bodily functions to identity groups? It’s f**ing fascinating. And what maths student couldn’t be captivated by Jordan Ellenberg’s Shape: The Hidden Geometry of Information, Biology, Strategy, Democracy, and Everything Else? In our family, it led to a lively dinner table debate over one of Ellenberg’s quirky questions: how many holes are there in a pair of pants – one, two or three? Finally, if the education minister wants a sophisticated analysis of academic freedom in universities, Carolyn Evans and Adrienne Stone’s Open Minds is it.
This year, the author who has most shaped how I think about the world is Cal Newport. Over the past two decades, Newport has evolved from writing advice books for students (How to Be a High School Superstar, How to Succeed at College) to writing advice books for professionals seeking to make an impact on the world (So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Deep Work) to critiquing the way that social media and email are undermining our ability to truly connect with our friends and produce high quality work. His latest books, Digital Minimalism and A World Without Email, go beyond advice to critique the systems themselves. The next productivity revolution, Newport argues, will come from companies that free their employees from ‘multitasking madness’, and create space for people to do great uninterrupted work.
I’m yet to fully implement Cal Newport’s philosophy, but I’m excited by its implications. Social media has its place, but a full life also involves bushwalks and picnics, craft projects and ocean swims. Living well also means books – glorious books – which enrich our souls, challenge our beliefs, and help us empathise with people in different times and places. What Curtin missed out in formal education, he made up by immersing himself in books for the rest of his life. Leaders should be readers, and a life of books is a life well lived.
Andrew Leigh is the Federal Member for Fenner, and his latest book is What's the Worst That Could Happen? Existential Risk and Extreme Politics.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra