everything I read in september

September was a bit of a write-off in terms of productivity (birthday + week in Croatia) which is reflected in my reading. I also half read and gave up on about half a dozen books that proved unreadable so it’s a shorter list than usual. I am also behind on typing up my notes, so we’ll keep this concise.

Out in the countryside near Dubrovnik. 

Still, here’s what I got through. Most are gems that I urge everyone to read.

The Art of Thinking Clearly - Rolf Dobelli. A somewhat accessible, broad introduction to logic and decision-making, covering common logical fallacies and cognitive biases. Having read dozens of books and hundreds of academic papers on the topic, only a few parts were new to me. It’s essentially a distillation of Kahneman, Tversky, and Taleb, so I wouldn’t recommend it unless you are unfamiliar with the topic and want a series of summaries to pique your interest.

The Conquest of Gaul - Julius Caesar. How did I only just learn that Caesar wrote a book? It’s fascinating in terms of the depiction of historical events and lessons in tactical thinking in the kind of clear, uncluttered, well-paced writing that is far too rare. Caesar’s descriptions of battle scenes are so vivid and carefully crafted that even the most complex maneuvers are easy to visualize. Covering the Roman conquest of parts of Europe between 58 and 50 BC, it is part memoir, part propaganda. It has sent me down a rabbit hole of other books on Ancient Rome in a bid to understand parts.

A Nervous Splendour - Frederic Morton. While looking for a book on Vienna, I came across this glorious gem, recounting ten pivotal months in the life of the city - ending with the birth of Hitler in 1889. Although in a sense a historical work, it’s clear that Morton is a novelist at heart. He goes to great lengths to imagine the inner motivations and thoughts of the figures populating the pages - Prince Rudolf, Hugo Wolf, Freud, Klimt and other icons who walked the same streets in the same days. That does make it border on fiction, but I like the way Morton slotted that year into its historical context and tried to consider why the characters acted as they did. Running through it all is the undercurrent of Prince Rudolf’s love affair with Mary, their tragic suicide, and her erasure from history. Morton also manages to drop hints of the growing tensions that would soon contribute to Austria’s role in the first world war.

Diary of a Suicide - Wallace E Baker. A bizarre, mostly forgotten little book from 1913. The author records his life in the months before his suicide, painting a lucid portrait of day to day life with depression. Certain passages could have been pulled from my own diaries from periods of depression. A good rebuttal to anyone who claims mental illness is a recent invention.

Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald. Reread. One of the classics I reread every year or so. What is there left to say about this book? It’s magnificent, agonizing and remains an eloquent masterpiece, full of characters who have been so thoroughly absorbed into popular culture that they feel like old friends, yet retain their mystery.

All The Pretty Horses - Cormac McCarthy. Three kids run off to Mexico to play at being cowboys, bringing with them their horses. Except, being McCarthy, it’s horribly dark and brutal. I have a fondness for books which, in the spirit of Kerouac, lapse into pages and pages of descriptions of landscapes, meals, towns, journeys. The dialogue is electric - evocative and tinger with the slow burn of naivety. McCarthy manages to fit in a classic ill-fated love affair, between descriptions of the violence of a Mexican prison and the art of breaking horses. One of the best novels I have read for a while.

The Roman Way - Edith Hamilton. There are countless books that tell of the technical side of the Romans - their military strategies, their architecture, their conquests, their entertainment. In The Roman Way, Hamilton takes a different approach and attempts to understand who they were as people. Each chapter centers around a figure or two that we have sufficient information on. Hamilton’s lifelong love of Roman history is clear in the tender, empathetic way she describes each historical figure like each is familiar to her. She traces the growth of Rome, up to the point of its demise, pulling from plays, poetry, and letters. Each figure becomes a lens to see the city through, with their quirks, flaws, and talents evoked alongside sensitive translations. Hamilton puts it best herself:

“What the Romans did has always interested me much less than what they were and what the historians have said they were is beyond all comparison less interesting to me than what they themselves said.”

Meditations - Marcus Aurelius. Reread. Having lent my copy of the Gregory Hays translation to someone and never gotten it back, I ordered a new one. For some reason, Amazon sent me two copies of the George Long translation instead so I decided to give it a go. It is not as stodgy or archaic as I expected and although it lacks the melodic rhythm of the Hays translation, it is longer and each point is more thoroughly fleshed out. For the uninitiated, Meditations is the private diary of a Roman emperor and happens to be one of the most significant philosophical texts. If you haven’t read it before, go for the Hays. But if you have and want to see a different side, give this one a go.

The Path: A New Way to Think About Everything - Christine Gross-Loh and Michael J. Puett. I try to never finish a crappy book, but this month was an exception as I traveled a lot and got stuck with the books I had brought with me. I chose this while looking for an introduction ancient Chinese philosophy and thoroughly regret wasting my time on it. Describing mostly common sense advice based on texts from thousands of years ago as ‘a new way to think about everything’ seems a bit rich and any attempts at practical advice dissolved into the kind of cliches clearly aimed at bored office workers wanting to feel like deep thinkers. I should have learned my lesson by now - with philosophy, it is always best to go straight to the source texts and ignore commentaries.

That’s all for this month. As always, feel free to let me know what you have been reading here.

everything i read in august

The downside of not being a student any more is not getting six weeks of summer holiday to devote to reading. The upside is being able to chose to read textbooks for fun, which is what I devoted much of August to. Here's what I read this month.

I've also compiled a collection of essays about getting the most out of what you read into a handy PDF or Kindle format. It's available here or via Amazon.

A book stall in Camden market, London. 

The Big Short - Michael Lewis. One of the greatest skills a writer can have is the ability to explain complex topics in a manner that a lay audience can understand (provided they concentrate), without skipping integral details or dumbing anything down. Michael Lewis does this better than anyone. I'm late to the game with reading this one, yet I'm glad to have got to it now, at a time when I have enough foundational understanding to properly sink my teeth into the narrative. My only complaint is that it seems too short at 300 pages and I would have happily devoured something twice as long.

We Learn Nothing - Tim Kreider. I haven't laughed as much at a book since A Confederacy of Dunces. One evening, I took this book down to the beach and I'm certain every sunbather for miles around heard me laughing. It's a collection of essays on Kreider's life - with far more coherence and less of a blog post-y feel than most essay collections. The wild anecdotes range from getting stabbed in the neck, adventures with a friend who was paranoid about peak oil, attending political rallies, reading to his invalid mother, meeting his biological half sisters for the first time, and a bunch of glorious drinking stories. Between bouts of maniac laughter, I managed to cry at a few of the essays. It's an emotional rollercoaster. Read it on public transport if you want to ensure no one has the audacity to sit next to you. The 'Lazy: A Manifesto' chapter is obligatory reading for anyone who likes moaning about how busy they are.

Moon Walking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything - Joshua Foer. More of a memoir / extended piece of investigative journalism than an instruction manual - which I like. I'll forgive Foer for the subtitle because he probably didn't choose it. After covering the US Memory Championships, Foer decided to dive deeper into memory techniques and learn how to improve his own recall. In the process, he meets a medley of impressive, interesting people, looks into Greek philosophy and how our perception of memory has changed over the millennia. Although it's not a self-help book, some of the techniques have proved wildly useful for me. In particular, I have been using them to deal with my chronic inability to remember people's names. The research into the effect of novelty on our perception of time is important:

Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it. You can exercise daily and eat healthily and live a long life, while experiencing a short one. If you spend your life sitting in a cubicle and passing papers, one day is bound to blend unmemorably into the next - and disappear. That's why it's so important to change routines regularly, and take vacations to exotic locales, and have as many new experiences as possible that can serve to anchor our memories. Creating new memories stretches out psychological time, and lengthens our perception of our lives.

The Lost Diaries of Adrian Mole - Sue Townsend. The first book in the Adrian Mole series was one of those formative books that shaped my childhood - which I am always a little embarrassed about. I started reading them when I was about 8 and got away with it because they sound like kids books (they're not.) I was too young to understand satire and took the whole thing very seriously - only upon rereading this one after a gap of a decade did I get the humor. The series widened my younger self's vocabulary a lot. I recall sitting with a dictionary, looking up words like 'naive' and 'au pair.' Not quite sophisticated literature, but it was a lot of fun to relive the memories.

Showing Up For Life - Bill Gates Sr. I bought this thinking it was written by THE Bill Gates, but it's actually his father. There is nothing particularly original here - it's a collection of anecdotes covering the lessons he has learned throughout his long life. Even so, it is always a treat to read the wisdom of people in their eighties and beyond, to get a sense of their perspective on the world. This was the section I found most significant:

'As we work and acquire assets of various kinds, there's a tendency to credit ourselves for our successes and achievements. If we're generous by nature, we also may include at least some good luck and timely help from friends. But all of that overlooks the obvious. Those of us who live in a free and open society owe a very large debt to our country as well. To make that point I sometimes give the example of my son's success. I'm among the first to give him credit for hard work, a keen intellect, perseverance, a passion for technology and innovation and a powerful analytical approach to work and life - all characteristics we capitalists believe deserve a reward. But what if he'd been born in the mountains between Pakistan and Afghanistan? or in Darfur? There would have been no Microsoft, not Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.' 

Tools of Titans - Tim Ferriss. Reread. I spent an enjoyable half a day going over this book to make notes and type up sections. It is worth putting up with the overlong anecdotal sections for the sake of the best 20 or so interviews, several of which have had a profound influence on me.

Fooled By Randomness and Antifragile - Nassim Taleb. Very few books truly change the way we think. Nassim Taleb's glorious trio, which I read over the last two months, have managed to do that. As a series, they have completely changed the way I think, destroying inaccurate paradigms learned in school, giving me a richer understanding of mental models I have built up, generally altering how I see the world. Antifragile might be the most revolutionary nonfiction book I have read to date. Every page is dense with insights and new ideas. I won't attempt to summarise it - there are far too many concepts to cover in any meaningful way. 

Principles of Microeconomics - Gregory Mankiw. Yes, this is a textbook. And a fairly hefty one. I think it took about 30 hours to read and was worth every minute. After I started to get interested in economics, I figured the best place to start was with a textbook covering all the basics. It's easy to understand, free of unexplained jargon, written in an engaging style, and it's the perfect crash course in economics. Reminder: you don't need to be a student to read textbooks. Be a student of life and keep learning because there's a lot of value in choosing to educate yourself on topics like this.

Siddartha - Herman Hesse. Reread. A beautiful, simply written book set in ancient India at the time of the Buddha, wherein Siddhartha (the son of a Brahmin) sets off from home looking for enlightenment. He travels the countryside, meets different religious groups whose teachings he ends up rejecting, falls in love, has a son who abandons him, becomes rich then gives everything away, becomes a ferryman and eventually sort of understands the meaning of life. The society in which it is set is an alien one, yet I think the appeal of this book lies in the universal resonance of Siddhartha’s search for meaning and the many mistakes he makes along the way. His ultimate revelations have a sense of elegant wisdom:

“I have had to experience so much stupidity, so many vices, so much error, so much nausea, disillusionment, and sorrow, just in order to become a child again and begin anew. I had to experience despair, I had to sink to the greatest mental depths, to thoughts of suicide, in order to experience grace.”

Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad. Reread. Each month, I try to reread at least one older classic and it was time to dip back into Conrad. Heart of Darkness is haunting. It's uncomfortable. There are always points where I want to give up on it (the part where the narrator describes a white necktie worn by a dying African man he encounters always makes me shiver for some reason.) I've read this a few times and Kurtz remains an enigma whom I categorize with Tyler Durden and Dean Moriarty as part of the hall of shadowy, magnetic fictional male characters. The horror...

Fight Club - Chuck Palahniuk. Reread. It's a classic that always hits me between the eyes. I realized that, for some reason, I didn't own a copy of this and finally bought one this month. Like many people, my first brush with Fight Club was an explosive, life changing experience. I admit I saw the film first. We watched it at college and I remember how each scene struck me, how it felt to walk home in the dark afterward, my head spinning. It's one of those books (and films) that you can never be quite done with. The day after reading/watching it, I always find myself walking around in a daze, seeing everything with new eyes. The edition I got also has an extraordinary afterword from the author.

Dreamland: Adventures In The Strange Science of Sleep - David K. Randall. A look at the science of sleep, perhaps the most understudied, underappreciated, misunderstood part of our lives. Lately, I have been shying away from anecdote heavy non-fiction (most of it is pseudo-science filled trash) so I was wary about buying this book. But it's a topic I want to dive into and this book is the best I have read on the subject - it has the perfect balance of science and stories, not leaning too heavily on the usual cliches. Randall walks through various facets of sleep research, then lets the inferences naturally surface without preaching. 

As always, feel free to send me an email if you have strong opinions on any of these books, or would like to recommend one. Recommendations always go on my Amazon wishlist and I love getting them (although the list has over 600 items on it now so it will take me a while to get through them.)

the creative sandbox: where interdisciplinary ideas intersect

The creative sandbox is a concept I have of a space where interdisciplinary ideas combine to form something else. 

It could be the marginalia in a book. A notebook with random thoughts and jottings. The types of conversations where anything goes. Weird projects. 

But it’s a space where we bring together different disciplines and parts of our lives to form something new. It's a space where we look at the gaps in between and the overlaps.

You know those moments as you fall asleep when a weird medley of images drift through your mind? When nothing feels concrete and everything mixes together?

That’s what it feels like when you combine disciplines in this unpressured way. Like laying film negatives over each other, finding new images.

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