Writers & their bookcase
He is no stranger in the entrepreneurial world of the Netherlands. He is known from radio and TV but is particularly famous for his bon mots in lectures. His book on leadership is durable, a long seller. Many a manager has been to his training center De Baak in Noordwijk, Driebergen or Amsterdam. And, above all, he is an avid reader. This time at the bookcase on reading and management books: Harry Starren, CEO of De Baak.
It is drizzling. The city is hung over from the weekend as I walk through a deserted alleyway full of restaurants to the home of Harry Starren. Many people know him as the boss of De Baak or as that eloquent speaker at celebrations and parties in the management world. Others have seen him on TV. “Why him?” someone asked, “He has hardly written any management books.” He is too old, someone else twittered me. But I do not want to cross-examine him about that. This time I am interested in ourselves. I would particularly like to “hear him out” on bookcases, management books, bookcases and what we do: read. If there is anyone who knows what is going on in the business community, what managers and professionals are working on and what kinds of things have been published, he is the one. There was good reason why he was jury chairman of Management Book of the Year. I look forward to hearing some different views on a dull Monday morning.
New traditional methods
“Come along upstairs.” He walks ahead of me while he is on the phone. In the meantime, he nods with a grin. He will be finished shortly. I take the opportunity to look around. His interior does not disappoint me. I see books everywhere; stacks of books and still other books behind them. The small desk near the window and the leather lounge chair complement the picture. A reader lives here. “Let´s go to the coffee bar across the street,” he proposes. “I like to sit there.” On the way he starts talking about the founders of the coffee bar and it does not take long before I am in the middle of the philosophy of Greek antiquity. I like that. “The two owners are typical of the turn toward workmanship we are now experiencing. They were high up in the management and consultancy world. They were both knowledge workers and made the step to the concrete. For lots of people it has become important to make something in a traditional way. Perhaps this is the new step after the coffee company: brew your own coffee and create your own concoction. What used to be far away is coming closer. You see that with the new tablets. Information that can come from everywhere can, in this way, take on something familiar. These local developments are an answer to feelings of alienation. There is a lot at a distance. We try to understand our times by considering the problems of the traditional, of craftsmanship. This is similar to how the Greek philosophy once existed. The craft was the basis for the philosophy. That also came from reflecting on making things.”
At his home I quickly try to guess how many books he has. I ask him. “I have a third of my books here in Amsterdam, and I have the rest in Hilversum. My collection is the size of an independent bookstore. I am not interested in the book shelves but in what they contain. A bookcase has to be cheaper than its contents, just like a wallet.” Why does someone have so many books and what does he do with them? Starren looks at me while he sips his coffee. “I have all these books because I always want to pass on something. Of course I do that that in discussions and lectures. It is as if you are passing on something beloved.” Starren leans toward me: “You have to listen to what happened.” I am sitting at the edge of my chair and am immediately convinced. It is not easy to escape Starren’s charm. “I am a flying crow that skims over books. I read a little bit of everything and very little completely. If I read something, I think what does it resemble? Can I link it to something else? I speak a lot in public and am often looking for a new angle. For example, if I have to say something about a management author, I like to compare it with other writers, place it in movements and link it to current themes. I have broad interests. My bookcase is disorderly because I can think of sixteen ways to organize it. If I want to know something, I grab several books together. Then I go through them and it takes me all afternoon. It is thoroughly enjoyable, a type of luxury, just like it used to be in a library. I become the visitor of my own library.”
Anthologies of jokes
One of Starren´s favorites is the management author Charles Handy. “I think he is a promising author. He writes as if he is talking to you, you recognize the author behind the words. I believe that is important. Usefulness is not the big issue for him. He is more concerned about the thoughts behind it. These kinds of books are much more durable than all those practical books with their seven steps to success. There are also too many of the latter. They are slow and whiney. Economics editors from the NRC receive a lot of them. At the end of the year they give each other a book from that big stack. That says something about their assessment of these books, which are still low on the pecking order of non-fiction and fiction.
“Often a management book is nothing more than an upgraded brochure from a consultancy firm.”
Incidentally, lots of management books are too serious. They are written in a dull technocratic language and are only about bureaucracies. Often these books are no more than an upgraded brochure from a consultancy firm. The books are therefore not very authentic. Nevertheless it is strange, since there is a lot of laughing going on in the business, such as in real estate or industry. Money is earned there while laughing. But I do not want anything to do with the management books that are full of jokes and pranks. They are too flat: anthologies of jokes. There is hardly any subtle humor. That is why I really enjoy Mathieu Weggeman with his subtle jokes. He writes sincerely in a not all too serious tone so that everything is easy to digest. His observations are wonderful, just like his ideas. He also writes tongue in cheek and does not spare himself. Weggeman brings in double layers.”
You can read a good management book on several levels, he continues. “Take, for example, the renowned book by Stephen Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which is a profane version of the Mormon bible. That man made the Mormon faith secular. He is a prophet but of the management world. If you know that and read his book, you suddenly see that other layer. The same is true of Charles Handy. In his books, the man is having a discussion with his father who was an Anglican priest and whom he greatly admired. He is a priest in the world of management books. A good business book has stratification. It tolerates being reread. Unfortunately, it is often difficult to find stratification in management books. Therefore, I would encourage authors not to make a book too clear. Why is the gypsy with the teardrop kitsch?” Starren is quiet for a moment. The store bell rings. New guests come in. “Because it leaves nothing to the imagination. And so are lots of management books. They often have the classical approach of the sermon. First say what you are going to say, then say it and then repeat what you said. Everything is ready-made, as if the reader is backward. I am more a fan of the symphony, in which a colorful collision takes place. You have the first theme, then the variations, the second theme and then a cadence. That is how management books should be.’’ After this, I can only offer him a second cup of coffee.
Major questions for management authors
It gives me the opportunity to ask which issues management authors should deal with. “The major dilemmas are now in the relationship between personal and social development,” he states. “We have decades behind us on the theme of personal growth. I would say: we have enjoyed them. The universe has become beautiful and it is a nice place to be. The task now is to make it social again. The question is how the new “I” has to relate to the new “we”. That “we” is not tradition, the church or the state. We can no longer fall back on it. The old dividing lines and connections between individual and tradition, citizen and government, work and private, man and woman, “I” and “we” have fallen away. Nevertheless, new connections between the individual and the communal will have to be introduced. That is the challenge… for management thinkers and writers as well.” Starren is working on this as well, and has a couple of books pending in the long term. “One will be about entrepreneurship: how does that work in our times? In another book I bring up the head-heart connection: how do you combine that rational and the instinctive in work? Another topic that I would like to address is, how you create disorder from order and which values play a role in it.” Aside from the content, Starren believes that the style is very important and devotes a lot of attention to it. “I write aphoristically, in one-liners. That can be breathtaking, but it can also be too beautiful or too artificial. An aphorist is an essayist on the short course. With my book De 21 geboden van modern leiderschap I needed Twan van de Kerkhofs; I provided the short pieces and he made pages from them. Thanks to him, the text breathed. I once said to him: I can make something from nothing and you can make something more from something. The division of roles was clear and worked! The book became a long seller. Evidently it is durable.” It seems to me that Starren is the man of disorder and order. He is a collector just like his father was. You never know if something can be used later. “I am also collecting books now for my retirement. Lots and lots of books. Fortunately I also receive a lot of them. And on Saturdays I frequently buy a whole stack and take them along to a pizzeria where I never run into people I know. There, I have my regular pizza, my glass of wine and then I take my stack along. Sometimes my 7-year-old son comes with me. I can lose myself there for two, three hours. Reading is a creative activity of the second order just like violin playing. The violinist interprets the composition, in turn, in a creative way. The reader does the same thing. We should also do that much more consciously. With books you find yourself with the great minds, Montaigne once said. “That is absolutely true. But a book is also an umbrella that you take along. I never go out the door without a book. It provides a kind of safety. I never have waiting times because they immediately become learning periods. I also understand Sartre, who often read and wrote in cafés. Reading and writing go extremely well together with noise, pizzas and coffee bars.” I look around me. All the tables are now occupied. Some people are talking, others are working on their computers and still others are reading. The windows are steamed up. Outside it is still drizzling. Fortunately I have an umbrella.
“I never leave the house without a book.”
Harry Starren (1955)
Hollandse meesters in management (audio CDs, edited with Buitenhuis, Van Zanten, Mainpress 2006), Lijden leren en leiden (co-author: Van Stolk, De Baak, 2004), De 21 geboden van modern leiderschap (co-author: Van de Kerkhofs, Business Contact 2001). Managementwijzer kennismanagement (co-author: Stam, Muller, De Baak 1999). Managementwijzer Bezinning & Bezieling (co-author: Bakker, De Baak 1998)
7,500 to 10,000 books
METERS OF BOOKSHELVES
A little bit of everything, very little completely
TYPE OF READER
TYPE OF WRITER
De olifant en de vlo, The New Alchemists, The Empty Raincoat (all three by Charles Handy)
A.L. Snijders, particularly his ZKV, very short stories, Mathieu Weggeman (Leiding geven aan professionals? Niet doen!)
History book from the 18th century
READING FOR ME IS
The pleasure of learning something in-depth: to be happy
WRITING FOR ME IS
The joy of creating: polishing until it shines
– BY JOEP SCHRIJVERS –
Joep Schrijvers is an advisor, manager and scholar on organizational change and learning processes in profit and non-profit organizations. He is working on ill-natured, irrational and coincidental processes in organizations. www.joepschrijvers.nl