3 Great Books I Read In Quarantine

Now there’s a title I never thought I’d write

We’re coming up on three weeks in lockdown here in the UK and I’ve finally exhausted everything worth watching on Netflix. As much as I enjoyed the story of the Tiger King, I thought it was about time I made some progress on the stack of books that have been staring at me for the last few months.

One of my New Year’s Resolutions was to read a book a week and, up until March, I was failing miserably. But, I’m catching back up to that goal and reading some amazing books on the way.

The Confidence Game by Maria Konnikova

Why do we fall victim to cons? What traits do people possess that allows them to win us over and then fool us?

Cons in their simplest form are birthed by people with extreme confidence and an inflated sense of self-importance. However, they’re often highly intelligent and very good at reading people.

On the other hand, there’s a misconception that victims of cons are greedy or stupid, which the book explains isn’t true. Rather, state of mind trumps traits. Those that are especially vulnerable and/or lonely leave themselves open to being taken advantage of. Cowboy builders or phone scams to the elderly are common examples — con men present themselves as friendly and helpful to make it seem as though they’re doing you a favour.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of Bernie Madoff — arguably the biggest con man in history. He took investors money and placed many well-respected, incredibly intelligent people on waiting lists to make them feel as though it was an enormous honour to be able to hand this man their money. Then, when they were finally allowed to invest with him, they showed tremendous gratitude to him and recommended friends. Little did they know he had created a $50 billion Ponzi scheme that led to thousands losing everything.

The book is important because it helps you spot the trickery and tactics used by these people, allowing you to safeguard yourself from that. It also explains the narcissistic and often psychopathic tendencies that allow con men to operate without feelings of remorse or guilt. In fact, the author found it very easy to interview and study these people because they’re so proud of their chosen career.

She also warns that the current social media age is primed for the success of con men. From people trying to get you on board with multi-level marketing Ponzi schemes to those telling you it’s possible to get 1000% returns on your small investment within a year, it’s never been easier to fall victim to fake gurus.

Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics by Richard Thaler

If you’re not wild about economics, the title could scare you a little but there’s no need to be put off.

Richard Thaler explains why we make irrational and illogical decisions that aren’t in our own best interests and, importantly, talks about how we can leverage these decisions in our favour anyway.

One example I enjoyed was about how we rationalise purchase decisions. If we go shopping, pick up an item that costs £40 and the cashier tells us we can get that same item for £30 at another branch 10 minutes away, a lot of people will make the effort to save the money. However, if we pick out an item that costs £500 and the cashier tells us that the same item costs £490 in the store down the road, most of us won’t bother with the extra effort. Why is that?

Well, non-economists will justify this decision by stating that a £10 saving on £40 is much greater (in terms of %) than a £10 saving on £500. Moreover, if you’re willing to spend a lot more money on an item anyway, a small saving won’t really matter. Whereas Thaler explains that this scenario is about how much we value time. A 10-minute diversion will save us £10 and, therefore, in both cases, the rational decision would be to travel to the other store.

The book is written in a way that illustrates the timeline of the author’s life, displaying how, when and why he began studying the shortcomings of humans and what we can do to fix them. Importantly, he also presents these decision-making problems is such an anecdotal way that allows him to both make jokes about our irrationality while acknowledging (and encouraging us to laugh at) his own behavioural shortcomings.

For anyone wanting to understand how behaviour influences an individual’s economic decisions, without having to trawl through a sea of highly technical (and quite boring) mathematics papers, this is the book for you.

Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman

This was my favourite book and certainly the most relevant to current events. It should actually be at the top of the list but there’s one caveat — it doesn’t come out until the end of May. Fortunately, my brother works at the same publisher so he got an early copy for himself and loaned it to me.

The narrative we get all too often is one of intense cynicism — that people are bad, society is getting much worse and times of hardship bring out the worst in people. We’re taught that everyone is only interested in themself and that greed rules everything.

Humankind argues the exact opposite. Bregman believes that people are inherently good and that trust and cooperation are more instinctual than distrust and competition. Therefore, he argues, the cynicism of human behaviour is not as well-founded as we’re led to believe.

Of course, this idea isn’t just theorised. As a historian, he explores the span of human history to find numerous examples of collective, collaborative efforts that disprove the narrative we’re given.

For example, during wartime Britain, it was expected that the British would turn on each other aggressively due to strict rations that could see fighting over scarce resources. Yet, this couldn’t have been further from reality.

In the aftermath of the Blitz bombings, where there was little left of most buildings, the Brits made jokes of it. Shops had signs outside saying “more open than usual” while pubs advertised: “our windows are gone, but our spirits are excellent. Come in and try them.” Studies found that there was no breakdown of morale — in fact, it was better.

Another example Bregman uses is that of the Lord of the Flies. In the novel by William Golding, kids are stranded on an island and, as time passes, all civilisation breaks down. The children attack each other and become extremely hostile and competitive.

But, Humankind illustrates a real-life version of this with a very different outcome. A group of Fijian boys were stranded on a remote island in the years before mobiles and GPS tracking existed. By working together to build, forage and hunt, these kids created an efficient and happy mini-society that they lived in until rescued around a year later. They even created rules for solving disputes. Those involved had to walk to separate ends of the island until the end of the day, by which time their anger had subsided and they were back in the mood to be friends.

In light of the current global pandemic, this book becomes especially uplifting and shines a new light on how we view humans. Public response to Covid-19, in my opinion, also legitimizes Bregman’s claims. We’ve seen an outpouring of kindness, especially to the vulnerable, that highlights the good in people. This is the best book I’ve read in a long time.

There were a couple of others that could’ve made the cut but just missed out, so honourable mentions go to:

How to Own the World by Andrew Craig — a no-nonsense, easy to understand introduction to investment for anyone without understanding or prior knowledge of financial instruments and markets. The entire aim of the book is to give everyone a baseline level of knowledge to make sensible investments without the need to pay exorbitant fees to money managers. This was a re-read but, given the current state of the economy, I thought it best to refresh my memory.

Red Notice by Bill Browder — This is, by far, the most fiction-like non-fiction book I’ve read. An American businessman that made his fortune in Russia in the 1990s and early 2000s becomes top of Interpol’s most wanted list and an enemy of Putin within a couple of years — that says it all. Unlike the others I’ve mentioned, this is far more of a story so I’m intentionally keeping the description vague to avoid spoilers. I’m easily distracted and a slow reader but I still finished this in two days.

I’m not the productivity police and I’m definitely not going to lecture anyone on how they use their time. But, if you fancy a read, I highly recommend any of these books.

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Thoughts on the environment, psychology and the future

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