Book Notes: Leningrad: State of Seige / The Beatles: A Biography / Contagious

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LeningradLENINGRAD: STATE OF SIEGE Michael Jones

The big events of WWII and the most important battles are well-documented in books, magazines, and film reenactments. But there are numerous “side-stories” that tell us of the average citizens in Europe and Russia, people who endured trials and difficulties just as stark as those of the Nazi prison camps.

Leningrad: State of Siege tells the story of the German army’s siege of St. Petersburg, slowly starving the freezing citizens of the city for 872 days, killing more than a million people (a number that exceeds the deaths of UK and US soldiers in WWII combined). The author also shows how Stalin betrayed the city, leaving Leningrad to wither away.

More interesting than the politics is the human interest angle. The Russians banded together in unique ways, cleaned the streets, took care of the dead. And even as we watch the harrowing descent the citizenry into barbarism and cannibalism, we see others take up their paint brushes and create works of art.

BeatlesTHE BEATLES: A BIOGRAPHY Bob Spitz

I’ve been on a Beatles kick lately, ever since I listened to the 1 album straight through late last year and marveled at this band’s progression from simple, rock and roll ditties to the experimental and memorable songs of their later career. Bob Spitz’ biography devotes a third of its pages to the rise of the Beatles, a third to the phenomenon of “Beatlemania,” and then a third to the band’s mastery of their craft.

This is a story of the spectacular and the sad, talent and tragedy. In one band, in one decade, you see the conflation of hedonistic pursuit (through sex and drugs), rebellion against societal norms (marriage and divorce), self-righteous pretentiousness (love-ins, meditation, and pacifism), and consumerism. All the while, the musical backdrop to this sordid affair is perhaps the most brilliant canon of pop, rock, and folk music that Western culture has seen.

Spitz’s biography is exhaustive, almost 1,000 pages, with too much detail given to the band’s rise and not enough to the band’s break-up and subsequent solo efforts. Still, if you’re curious to know more about the band that changed the music scene, this is the book you’ll want to go to.

contagiousCONTAGIOUS Why Things Catch On Jonah Berger

As someone who has been active in social media and blogging the past few years, I’m always a little surprised when certain blog posts take off and get shared and other blog posts languish in obscurity. What is it that makes a message go viral? Is it timing? Is it the writing? Is it the title?

If you’ve ever wondered why this YouTube video has 100 million page views but a similar video only has 30, then you’ll want to read Contagious by Jonah Berger.

In this book, Berger explains why certain stories, videos, articles, etc. are more contagious than others. He asks the question: “What causes certain products, ideas, and behaviors to be talked about more?” He looks not only at social media but also at the products we buy and the things we talk about. It’s not as fascinating as Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point, but in a social media world, it seems more immediately relevant.

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