THE BLOG
05/18/2012 02:03 pm ET Updated Jul 18, 2012

We Are the Company - and Books - We Keep

I was recently asked by an authority figure in fashionable red pumps to tidy up my library. I can only assume this is the first step of a more serious intervention. You see, I have a little problem with books. I'm addicted to them. I cruise the bookstores at least once a week and buy whatever speaks to me at that moment, which essentially can be anything. Yes, I know that tablets save the rainforests and I have one of these devices that I take with me on the road. But when I'm back in town it's a paperback and a cup of caffeine at some local café that brings my world back into balance.

Typically, I accumulate dozens of books to read during the summer months when I may actually be able to slip in a couple of days off. However, this year, as a result of my thinning the published herd, I have rediscovered some of my old friends. I remember the great fun we had at the Big Lake in bygone years and have taken up with them once again.

When I first picked up The Discoverers by Daniel Boorstin, I was just out of graduate school. The ponderous length of almost 800 pages gave me pause until I got into the staccato rhythm of the short ten-page segments. The tome became my lunch buddy. I never knew that dividing the year into 52 weeks of 7 days was a fairly recent phenomenon not shared by all cultures. The role of music in fueling the Protestant Reformation was a complete surprise. I was clueless about the extensive worldwide expeditions of the Chinese navy in the Fourteenth Century.

The dirty little secret about innovation is that to see the future you have to stand on the mountain top and look first in the direction from which you came before you can see where you are going. This will provide you with your trajectory. Working out the math and the course is the easy part. It's traversing the landscape that's hard. This book beautifully frames the arch of innovation across history and its impact on our civilization. Take a higher point of view and you might even see the movements of our own time. The late professor Boorstin taught history at the venerable University of Chicago and went on to be the Librarian of Congress. An elegant and prodigious writer, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Boorstin demonstrates that our world view and scientific laws are neither universal nor eternal. They are just Version 2.0 or some later issue on our march towards better or new or perfection ... or maybe just tomorrow.

When I first came to university, I read Arthur Koestler's The Act of Creation for an introductory psychology class. For many of my generation, this collection of essays stitched together was the spark that set the debate about the origins of ingenuity and imagination ablaze for the next forty years.  While many books can lay claim to popularizing the study of creativity, existential psychologist Rollo May's Courage to Create and advertising executive Alex Osborn's Applied Imagination come to mind, the complex and controversial Hungarian polymath Koestler established the constituents and rules of the debate: Learned or innate, socially constructed or self-authorized, biological imperative or socioeconomically manipulated, etc.

Koestler was an integral thinker with a unique ability to turn a phrase: Socratic demons, bisociation, holons and the like. He was a celebrated writer. Darkness at Noon, his novel about Stalinist Russia written during the ally years, anticipated the cold war. It was even voted by the Modern Library the eighth best novel of the 20th century. What I like about the The Act of Creation is that many of the issues Koestler raises about the role and development of creative acumen are even more relevant today in the age of smartphones and ubiquitous connectivity than they were in 1964 when he published the book. Sure, Koestler is a bit over the top and reckless, but that's what makes it so grand. Think of it as NASCAR for the media elite.

Almost twenty years ago, I bought a fascinating book called The Participatory Mind: A New Theory of Knowledge and of the Universe in a New Age bookstore. I took it to Traverse City for a long weekend with my family expecting it to be a breezy kumbaya read. To my surprise it was a brilliant mélange of emergence philosophy, psycho linguistics, and systems ecology. Who knew? My previous experience with books that assimilate "everything" is that they overplay their hand -- clumsy connections -- shallow grasp of the disparate topics -- complicated graphics with an "implement" conveniently added arrow at the end. As if it was that easy. However, the author Henryk Skolimowski, an Oxford-trained professor of philosophy, pulls this off with effortless elegance reminiscent of Aldous Huxley's approach to the Perennial Philosophy.

What makes this book remarkable is that Skolimowski both creates and challenges the veracity of his effort to assimilate these complex schools of thought. Think of it like a picture that both draws and then erases itself.  I was particularly taken by his understanding that universal models and cosmologies are of little value unless they reveal their own limitations. This is a very simple but subtle dynamic of innovation -- contained within success are the seeds of its undoing. This idea of self-referential models influenced my work operationalizing the Competing Values Framework. Things may be universally true -- but then the universe is constantly changing. Deal with it.

I am told that Skolimowski taught for years at the University of Michigan but I never ran into him in all my years in Ann Arbor. Who knows, maybe I will catch up to him at the Big Lake this summer. After all, we are the company -- and books -- we keep.

Jeff DeGraff is a Professor of Management and Organizations at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. To learn more about his book Innovation You and PBS special by the same name, visit his web site at www.innovationyou.com or follow his blog on innovation at www.jeffdegraff.com.