Summer Reading for Historians

Yes, we are all ecstatic that the semester is over.  For those history grad students pondering the link between history and fiction/literature (shout out to Derrida), here are a few non-history tomes to keep the juices flowing over the summer.

As a blanket statement, all historians should read War and Peace.  In 1869, Tolstoy published his rumination on the nature of history.  Believing that history belonged to the people, not just generals, politicians, and kings, Tolstoy was basically trying to write a social history – comparing the life of the military with the life of the civilian.  His humanizing portrayals of the tsar, Napoleon, and the Russian generals will forever alter your perceptions of those folks.  I know W&P can be scary, so our other 5 books are perfectly manageable.

1.  Babel Tower – AS Byatt.  For the linguists in the crowd, Babel Tower explores themes of language.  The third book in the Frederica Potter quadrilogy has our intrepid heroine forging a life for herself in the intellectual circles of 1960s London.  Gender and women’s historians will enjoy the re-creation of the limited choices intelligent women had during that time and can debate how much has changed since.  You don’t need to read the other books in the quadrilogy to understand this book.  The Frederica Potter quadrilogy is a rarity in literature, with its headstrong, generally unsympathetic heroine who makes some horrible choices but never compromises her intellect.

2.  The Edible Woman – Margaret Atwood.  Any Atwood is worth reading.  Historians may be more familiar with Alias Grace or The Blind Assassin.  Again for the ladies in the crowd, I will merely quote the blurb on the back:  “Ever since her engagement, the strangest thing has been happening to Marian McAlpin:  she can’t eat. … Marian ought to feel consumed with passion, but she really just feels … consumed.”

3.  Cycles-The Science of Prediction – Edward Dewey.  Economists typically study this book.  Humanities folks may be a bit overwhelmed by the formulas and graphs.  You can skip those pieces.  The key point is that human behavior/events occur in predictable cycles.  Yes, history repeats itself.  You may disagree with Dewey, but his arguments and evidence are fascinating.

4.  A Summer of Hummingbirds – Christopher Benfey.  That’s right.  Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, and Harriet Beecher Stowe all moved in the same circles.  Benfey’s book is part biography, part analysis of the creative process, and part social history.  He explores the impact of post-Civil War life on American art and artists.  Learn how artists incorporated their lives into their works.

5.  Speak, Memory – Vladimir Nabokov.   A classic of Russian pseudo-biography, Nabokov actively explores how we remember and recreate memories in this memoir of his childhood and early adult years.  Nabokov explains how he uses his fiction to memorialize people but is concerned that his personal memories slip away after he has fictionalized someone.  Make sure you get the Everyman’s Library edition with the extra Chapter 16.  Nabokov writes a review of Speak, Memory in the voice of a literary critic.



Water + Soil + Sun + Fertilizer = Growth

The search for customers will inform all of your business processes & initiatives, as well as help create effective business strategies.  Growth is only possible when you recognize how and where your market is shifting.  Viewing your customers as strategic partners, not just as revenue streams, is the first step in that process.

For a company to grow, it must constantly assess 1) who are its present and future customers and 2) where are those customers.  Discovering and targeting new customer segments should be done, at the very least, on an annual basis during your annual strategy session.  More nimble companies will be able to uncover segments as the market shifts — daily, weekly, or monthly.

How do you find these new audiences?  You can start with your existing customers:  shadowing them and understanding their purchasing processes.  To find utterly new audiences, you must READ and MEET.

You must read:  1) general business publications (Business Week, Wall Street Journal), 2) your industry publications, 3) publications not directly related to your industry or function, and 4) international publications (The Economist, Trendwatching). 

For over 4 years, I have read a daily e-newsletter about media buying trends and a monthly e-newsletter about grocery store purchasing patterns.  Both have been invaluable for spotting future trends and economic hiccups.  Forcing your mind to compare trends in other industries and your own hones your creative and brainstorming skills.  Fundamentally, purchasing decisions are the same.  Learn from your colleagues in other functions or industries.

Brainstorming and other creative exercises will become more productive and effortless if you have exposed yourself to a wider variety of information and case studies.

Never forget your existing customers and your past customers.  Why did a customer leave you or purchase less from you?  Always begin your research with your existing customer base — possibly using a neutral third party to ask blunt questions and to receive frank responses.  The open yourself to identifying and locating new customers.

Knowing what Lurks in the Hearts of Your Customers

Do you know how your customers use your products/services?  Have you seen them actually employ your products/services in their real world situations?  Usability labs can eliminate the most obvious logistical or technical flaws, but they are still a fake environment.  So companies like Procter and Gamble utilize Customer Shadowing to innovate and to connect with customers.

Observing your customers can help you ascertain:

Design Flaws — Are customers using the product/service according to instructions?  Have they misunderstood the best way to maximize performance?

Alternate Uses — Are customers using the product/service to meet other needs (a la baking soda)?  Can you re-market the product/service to introduce other customers to that use?  Can you create a new product/service? 

You then apply the information captured by the Customer Shadowing process to your R&D  projects — maximizing their revenue potential, minimizing your risk.