Brand building through storytelling

A few of my favourite books

In the beginning, I pretended to read. My mother held up I Can Fly for the 257th time, and I chimed in from memory: “Birds fly, so can I.”

Since then I must have loved thousands of books, for all kinds of reasons. I’m always finding new favourites. They fall into two groups: books that changed my life and books so irresistibly compelling that I find myself telling every I reader I know, “You’ve got to read this.” Here are a few from my personal hit parade.

Sailor DogFirst fictional role model: Scuppers, hero of The Sailor Dog, by Margaret Wise Brown (who also wrote I Can Fly, among dozens of other kids’ books). A floppy-eared mutt brought to life by the peerless illustrator Garth Williams, Scuppers just knows he’ll find his destiny at sea, even though the rest of the world has other plans for him. Off he sails, all alone. When he gets shipwrecked, he builds a new boat out of driftwood. How’s that for a lesson in resilience?

This lovely, surprisingly tough-minded picture book deserves to be better known. I’ve never forgotten its poetic first line, which carried me away without talking down to me: “Born at sea in the teeth of a gale, the sailor was a dog.”

A lesser talent would have put it this way: “A dog was born at sea during a storm. He was going to be a sailor.” Thank God the ham-fisted editors were busy slaughtering other fish.

Most inspiring book: Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust by Yaffa Eliach. Anthropologist Eliach gathered the stories of Holocaust survivors who somehow found a reason to live—and hold fast to the best of themselves and their culture—amid unimaginable horror. How could starving Jews find the will to celebrate Hanukkah in Bergen Belsen, when there were no candles to be found and bodies lay everywhere? Read this stark, vivid book and you’ll understand. But don’t ask to borrow my copy; I need it within arm’s reach.

LuckyjimFunniest book I’ve ever read:Lucky Jim, the gleefully biting academic satire by Kingsley Amis. If you’ve ever noticed that citadels of learning draw spiteful, self-important wannabes the way Cannes draws paparazzi, then Jim Dixon, a comically inept history don at a bottom-tier British university, is your kind of anti-hero.

Jim hopes to publish a thumb sucker of an article called “The Economic Influence of the Developments in Shipbuilding Technqiues, 1450 to 1485,” and he’s particularly proud of the title, which has “crystallized the article’s niggling mindlessness, its funeral parade of yawn-enforcing facts, the pseudo-light it threw upon nonproblems.”

Just thinking about this mordant little treasure makes me laugh. It also reminds me of something: if not for an unplanned pregnancy, I would have gone to graduate school to become a medievalist. Lucky me!

Best insights on leadership: Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer. I was looking for a white-knuckle armchair adventure when I picked up this riveting first-person account of two Everest expeditions gone disastrously wrong. The unexpected bonus: a parable about leadership of the win-at-all-costs variety.

Competing leaders Rob Hall and Scott Fischer believed that they could get ordinary schleppers to the summit for the right price ($65,000). On noncommercial teams, decisions are made consensually by a strong team, but—-and collect their fees—that they refused to turn back in a brutal storm. Eight people died, including Hall and Fischer.

Krakauer captures the Shakespearean complexity of the two rivals: you see their tragic hubris, but also their humanity. I’ll never forget an achingly powerful scene in which the dying, disoriented Hall is patched through from the mountain to tell his pregnant wife that he loves her.

I read Into Thin Air while leading an ambitious redesign of a major magazine. The book reminded me that there’s more honour in admitting your limitations than in trying to deny them—and more wisdom to be drawn from a cohesive group than from one leader’s brain.

Most stirring read: A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry. A crisis in the life of a country (India in the 1970s) rocks the intertwined lives of four ordinary people who then wage a harrowing struggle to maintain their dignity in the face of one injustice after another. Just when you think it can’t get any worse for the endearing quartet of friends, the hob-nailed boot of corrupt bureaucracy has another go at them.

“It’s not fair, it’s not right!” you may exclaim (I did, more than once). Yet the book is neither preachy nor depressing, thanks to the grit and humanity Mistry brings to his characters. The most cruelly abused have a battered majesty. In spite of everything, they maintain their sense of self and their ties to each other. I’ve been urging this book on everyone I know for the past 11 years. If you haven’t discovered it yet, what are you waiting for?

Favourite literary tour de force: The Girls, by Lori Lansens. On the surface, it’s a novel about conjoined twin sisters with starkly different personalities and a fierce love for each other. Deep down, it’s a brave but tender meditation on the perils and rewards of family ties.

Lansens tells her unconventional story in the first person, alternating between the two distinctive, beautifully realized voices of intellectual Rose, an aspiring writer, and Ruby, an amateur archeologist who believes in ghosts. Neither can exist without the other. And the marvelous thing is, they wouldn’t have it any other way. Which is exactly how I feel about my own family.

Most haunting book: I’ve read J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, so many times, it has grown and changed along with me. I’m saving that story for another post on September 28. And that’s a promise.

Posted by Rona

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