If you haven't read Herb Meyer's books, you're missing out
The news of Herbert E. Meyer's death hit me like a gut punch. This is such sad, sad news.
Not only was Herb one of the Cold War's great heroes, as Thomas Lifson described with sadness here, but he was also one of the country's best — and I mean really best — writers. Among his many books published at Storm King Press — and all of them are jewels — he even wrote one called How to Write. This, as it turns out, is a bestselling textbook on teaching anyone how to write, with a raving endorsement by none other than William Safire.
But all of Meyer's books are extraordinary, tightly written, extremely economical with words, short as heck, and most important, extremely relevant today. You didn't actually need to know that Meyer was a Cold War hero to enjoy them; I sure didn't. Their content stood alone. Meyer could have done nothing with his life except write these books, and he would have still stood as a hero of letters.
The book that got me hooked on his work was Real World Intelligence, published in 1991, several years before the internet was widely used. This was his book describing not U.S. secrets, but a distilled understanding of how intelligence itself works, as organized information. He wrote the book explaining how anyone in the private sector can utilize this information to beat competitors — and how to spot competitors, actually. So just as the U.S. won the Cold War with this tight understanding of how intelligence is used, a clever private-sector denizen in business could do the same with an understanding the same concepts, the same interplay of the forces of change. It had to do with knowing how trends sneak up on you and how cross-currents of information in many different fields move to create the playing field.
It's extremely good to read if you want to understand how Silicon Valley works and how the social media world works — two things he didn't nominally forecast, and yet he did.
Here's the wonderfully memorable blurb from Storm King Press:
In the real world, intelligence has broadened to become organized information. More precisely, intelligence has come to mean information that not only has been selected and collected, but also analyzed, evaluated, and distributed to meet the unique policymaking needs of one particular enterprise. It is this transformation of what has been collected into finished, polished, forward-looking analytic products designed to meet the unique policymaking needs of one enterprise — and the organizational effort required to do it — that marks the difference between what intelligence used to be and what it has become.
You need only look within the world's best intelligence services to see how much the intelligence game has changed. No longer do these services have the look and feel of cloak-and-dagger operations that collect facts at whatever cost, wipe off the blood when necessary, and then pass on what they have collected to policymakers. Today these intelligence services resemble nothing so much as on-board ship or airplane navigation systems. Once the policymakers orders for where the enterprise itself should head have been given, the service's first responsibility is to make sure that their policymakers know precisely where the enterprise is at any given time, no matter how bad the visibility. Second, the service is responsible for spotting whatever dangers and opportunities lie ahead — and for sounding an alert — long before these dangers and opportunities become apparent, and in plenty of time for the policymakers to take whatever evasive or aggressive action they judge to be appropriate.
It was an extraordinary book. It's the kind of thin, slim volume you put on your favorites shelf and never, ever give away. The only other writer who ever excited me as much as Meyer, with his powerful grasp of ideas, was the great Eric Hoffer, another master of the economy of words.
And all of Herb's books are this way.
Another really good one (I found it in storage a few months ago, and it was one of the few I brought out because you always want to be near a book like this) is How to Analyze Information — another short, tightly written, brimming with arresting new thoughts book that turn how you think about things on its head.
Here's a bit of the blurb:
"We are living now through the early decades of the Information Revolution, and it's a miracle of human energy and ingenuity. Never before has so much information been available, so easily and inexpensively, about so many subjects.
And the most important thing we've learned is that information is like water. It's vital to our lives; we cannot survive without it. But if too much pours over us — we drown. To keep from drowning in information we must learn to use it properly, which means figuring out what the information is telling us. After all, it isn't the information itself we use to make decisions; it's the knowledge within the information that we use. This is why we must learn how to analyze information — how to determine just what information we need to make the decisions we face, how to get that information, and then — this is the most crucial step of all — how to reach inside this information to grasp the knowledge it contains.
You don't forget books like these.
And there are a heckuva lot of good ones — look at these compelling titles: "Why the World is Such a Dangerous Place"; "The Cure for Poverty"; "Hard Thinking: The Fusion of Politics and Science". Meyer owned Storm King Press which also has an intriguing title by Graham Fuller, carefully curated and maybe even edited by Meyer, called "How to Learn a Foreign Language."
What a loss Herb's passing is. And he was such a kind man, I treasured my email exchanges with him, there was no one more welcome to ever hear from. I would have loved to have gotten his reading on Venezuela.
He is in heaven now, leaving an extraordinary legacy of books that don't age behind. R.I.P.