What books should our leaders read … and why

An agile attorney general should anticipate online challenges. Van Badham QAnon and enabled dive into the den of conspiracy theories and find more than a few Mad Haters. An Ugly Truth: In the Battle for Facebook Dominance, by American journalists Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang, investigates the bad behavior of the largest social network in the world – strangely anticipating the recent revelations of whistleblower Frances Haugen.

For an overview of the Australian economy, John Edwards Reconstruction and Ross Garnaut Reset paint radically different pictures. Edwards is optimistic about the strength of the economy in the 2010s, and optimistic about the future, provided we can restore relations with China. Garnaut is pessimistic, noting that from 2013 to 2019, Australian production per capita grew more slowly than that of Japan. Edwards would ask the treasurer to make some adjustments; Garnaut believes that a transformation is necessary.

I am far from telling the Minister for Women what to read, but in a year when thousands of people marched in protest against sexual harassment, I found a plethora of ideas in new books written by women who have served in the House of Representatives.

Julia Banks detailed the culture of the Liberal Party in her book.Credit:Simon schluter

In Power play, Julia Banks details the culture of the modern Liberal Party, drawing on her experiences in Australian business. In enough is enough, Jenny Macklin and Kate Thwaites reflect on the Labor Party and its evolution. In Sex, lies and question time, Kate Ellis interviews women from all political backgrounds and proposes a series of reforms that would improve the culture of parliament.

As Curtin knew, a good education is not just about imparting facts, but developing a deep understanding and love of learning. My English teacher, Judith Anderson, may not have approved, but John McWhorter’s Nine wicked words brings the talent of a great linguist to the subject of blasphemy. Did you know that our taboo swear words have evolved from religion to bodily functions to identity groups? It’s fucking fascinating.

And what math student couldn’t be captivated by Jordan Ellenberg Shape: the hidden geometry of absolutely everything? In our family, this led to a heated debate at the table over one of Elenberg’s bizarre questions: How many holes are there in pants – one, two, or three?

Finally, if the Minister of Education wants a sophisticated analysis of academic freedom in universities, Carolyn Evans and Adrienne Stone Open minds is this.

This year, the author who has shaped my perception of the world the most is Cal Newport. Over the past two decades, Newport has evolved by writing advice books for students (How to become a high school superstar, How to earn in college) writing advice books for professionals looking to make an impact on the world (So good that they can’t ignore you, In-depth work) to criticize how social media and email undermine 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 says, will come from companies that free their employees from the “multitasking madness” and create a space for people to do great work without interruption.

I haven’t fully implemented the Newport philosophy yet, but I’m excited about its implications. Social media has its place, but a busy life also involves bush walks and picnics, craft projects, and swimming in the ocean. Living well also means books – glorious books – that enrich our soul, challenge our beliefs, and help us empathize with people at different times and places. What Curtin lacked in formal education he made up for 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 a Member of the Australian Parliament. His most recent book, What’s the worst that can happen? Extreme existential and political risk, is published by MIT Press.

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