In the FIVE ON series, we’re sharing book recommendations on focused topics from those in the know. This week: Boones Mill Town Manager Matt Lawless on good government.
LAWLESS: I’m a rookie town manager, and I’m working hard to learn about my new home and empower residents in this community. At 29, I know how little I know! Often, good government is more about bringing people together and helping a team set goals and make progress. Here are some books that help me do that.
1. Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard H. Thaler, and Cass R. Sunstein (Penguin, 2009).
Thaler just won this year’s Nobel Prize for economics. He did great work to apply economics to more areas of human behavior. More importantly, he brought psychology and sociology into economics. Traditional econ treats people as calculating machines. We rarely operate that way! This book is accessible, well written economics. Whether you’re in government or trying to work with government more effectively, there are some good ideas for better decision making.
2. All the King’s Men by Robert Warren Penn (Harcourt Brace and Co., 1946).
In both poetry and prose, Warren was a giant of modern American literature. He looms especially large a writer of the South in all its charm, horror, and ambiguous memory. This big novel echoes the history of Huey Long, a Louisiana demagogue of the Depression era. Just like Game of Thrones and House of Cards today, the fictional account helps illustrate meaningful ideas of politics, ethics, and history. It’s plenty relevant.
3. Franklin County, Virginia 1786-1986 by John S. and Emily J. Salmon (Franklin County, 1994).
The county formed a bicentennial commission for the occasion. Their signature work is not easy reading, as it relies heavily on court documents and personal correspondence. It is still the authoritative history of the county. A new resident, especially one interested in government, does well to learn the historical trends, many of which are still at play, down to the same family present names in business and politics. This book helps explain why things are the way they are, so think of it as like The Silmarillion. The County Treasurer’s office still has a few new copies for sale.
4. The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli (1532).
Machiavelli’s classic goes in and out of fashion –I think it’s currently in. Get an annotated copy to help explain the constant references to Roman and Renaissance history. It’s the shortest book on this list and a good first step in political theory. Please remember that we don’t have many princes running around! Checks and balances negate much of the advice in here. Machiavelli has a longer and less well known book for republics. But if the power struggle in your community or your office feels bewildering, the old fox of Florence might have some tips.
5. A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander et al. (Center for Environmental Structure, 1977).
My favorite book of design, published 30 years before “design thinking” got trendy. A diverse interdisciplinary team made the bold effort of compiling general design principles for happier living. They zoom in from governance and economics at #1 “Independent Regions,” to interior decorating at #252 “Different Chairs.” You can read these 1100 pages in 5-minute bits, whether your project is a treehouse, community garden, or zoning revision. I love the basic premise that whatever your abilities, you can take a small action to make the world more beautiful.
6. On Writing Well by William Zinsser (Harper and Row, 1980)
Bonus book! Zinsser’s classic is for anyone who writes. These days, we’re all writing a lot more. I frequently go back to the chapters on professional writing. Government writers tend to obfuscate, dodging responsibility with passive voice and big words. Better writing is a small way to bolster public trust. I hope this post is good example.
A Frederick County native, Matt has a B.A. in Government from William & Mary and had done graduate work at American University and Virginia Tech. He’s worked in local government in Albemarle County and the cities of Charlottesville and Winchester. He lives in Franklin County with his wife, Jennifer