I read a lot, though a little less than I used to. Nowadays I do most of my reading on my Kindle. It’s a marvellous device. I used to take a dozen books on a summer holiday (usually a mix of fiction, biography, travel writing and political memoir – but never a business book), and very little in the way of glamorous evening wear. Thanks to the Kindle I can now save more space for the holiday wardrobe, can present myself without shame at nightclubs and have thereby come to live a more balanced, and less intellectual life.
I also love the way you can operate a Kindle singlehandedly. It’s so light and easy to use that you can read books whilst bicycling at the gym, and survive the appalling tedium more easily. I might try it on a real bicycle this summer. Sometimes the flat landscapes that make bicycling tolerable aren’t worth looking at.
I sometimes get stuck on a book, though. It might be because it’s boring, or annoying, but I can’t ever set a book aside or abandon it. It must be something to do with the feeling that books aren’t supposed to be for pleasure, and that they must be finished if they’ve been started. They are education, medicine, self-improvement, and moral instruction and we owe it to ourselves and to their authors to get through them, come what may. Sandwiches before cake, I was always told, at children’s parties, and ‘I want never gets.’ My grandmother was educated in the workhouse alongside Oliver Twist, and my sense of the worth of things has come down from her.
Sometimes I race through several books in a week, and sometimes I get stuck on one for a month. This latter was my experience with the extremely annoying Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari, a fashionably contrary and very pleased-with-itself account of human development, from the emergence of prehensile humans in Africa many thousands of years ago to the advent of the European Union. He handles the development of language as if he’s never read a single volume of linguistic philosophy, and he keeps banging the drum of the highly contentious theme that the agricultural revolution was the worst thing that ever happened to mankind. Our lost paradise is the world of the lean and free-spirited hunter gatherer.
But there are a few good parts too. Harari writes extensively about what he calls ‘fictions’, the human constructs that have successively developed over the last many thousands of years and which differentiate us from the rest of the natural world. The law, the state, the mind (though his account seems philosophically naïve to me), the limited liability company, money, credit, and so on. In retrospect, thinking about it now, it was Hariri’s smug know-it-all style that was an impediment to progress rather than the content of the book. It took me a month to get through it.
I was struck by the fragility of human ‘fictions’ yesterday, when discussing with my colleagues where we’ve got to with our acquisition of Logic Point, the former competitor in the Microsoft CRM world here in the Czech Republic that we agreed to acquire some months ago. The endgame has now come, following the company’s entry into administration some weeks ago, an unexpected event that scuppered our acquisition plans, and the process is nearly over.
How quickly things fall apart. What is a company? It is no more than the people, customers, suppliers, contracts, money, obligations, information, some furniture, equipment and so on – most of them ‘fictions’ held together temporarily for a particular and limited purpose – and how quickly these can disappear, be transferred and abandoned. A few weeks after the company entered administration there’s really nothing left.
Three months ago we might have bought a going concern. Now there’s almost nothing to buy. We and our competitors are fighting over the crumbs – a few service contracts for this and that – but the rest has simply evaporated.
It is an alarming cautionary tale. There but for the Grace of God (and I say that as an atheist) go we all.