Everything I read in February

It's almost unnerving to think of how fast time goes if you don't make an effort to mark its passing. This last month certainly went fast. I spent February mostly immersed in various projects (including setting up a separate website for my freelancing) although I did fit in a trip to see my brother and saw a friend I've known since preschool which was lovely. March is kicking off with a long-awaited trip to Copenhagen to get some inspiration. Anyway, here's what I read in February.

This Boy's Life - Tobias Wolff. Last month I read Old School, which is the sequel to This Boy's Life. Reading them out of order was a strange experience. This Boy’s Life is a memoir of Wolff’s childhood. A childhood which is perhaps not too unusual or extraordinary. A childhood marked by the struggle to assert his identity, against the backdrop of an ever-changing cast of dysfunctional adults.

What makes it work is the level of detail and how sensitive Wolff seems to be to his childhood emotions. He doesn’t belittle his younger self, portray his actions as naive or discredit the significance of how he felt. Wolff treats his younger self with a sort of respect. By describing his experiences with such specificity, he ends up writing a book which is wildly relatable. My own childhood had some marked similarities to Wolff’s, although the general context was completely different. As I read, I found myself recalling forgotten memories and seeing events in a new light.

The Night In Question - Tobias Wolff. Back when I first started blogging as a 13-year-old, it was considered acceptable to indicate strong appreciation for something with a keyboard smash. This book was indeed very nbghjkopntyj. It’s a collection of short stories, some clearly autobiographical, some simply describing the kind of situations one dreams up and can’t shake loose. Powerful and poignant.

The Sense Of An Ending - Julian Barnes. A reader recommended this book to me last year (thank you), I bought a copy in August and only just got round to reading it. Oddly, the copy I got had a slightly water damaged cover so the last letter of the author's first name wasn't visible. I read the whole thing thinking it was by a Julia Barnes and that did shape my view of it- I was impressed by how well the author seemed to understand teenage boys.

Anyway, this is an exquisite book and a perfect companion to Tobias Wolff's Old School which I recently read. The pacing is just perfect. The characters are intensely believable. The plot twists are devastating. The novel (and I don't read enough novels these days) follows a placid middle-aged man as he is forced to confront his past. A series of figures from his adolescence re-enter his life, shattering the peace and forcing him to confront the darker side of his personality.

We all like to think of ourselves as good people - and 99.9% of the time, 99.9% of people are. But I also think we all have a venomous side, the side that comes out during jealous teenage brawls, during those moments when we are backed into a corner, our sense of self in tatters. The side which is such a departure from our day to day selves, that we don't want to remember its there. We don't want to remember that we are capable of being truly vicious. We don't want to know about the fight part of the flight or fight instinct, or that primal instinct can be so strong. So it surprises us when that side comes out. It scares us. We tell ourselves it was a fluke, and forget that it is a part of our nature. That is, for me, what this book is about. It's about the horror of having no choice but to confront that reality. The Sense of an Ending is about a particular cast of characters, yet its really about all of us and the stuff we hide.

Shrinking Violets: A Field Guide To Shyness - Joe Moran. Completely adored this book. For a start, it has one of the best cover designs I've ever seen. Let's face it, we all do judge books by their covers. An ugly cover won't stop me buying a book, but a beautiful, minimalist design like this one will make me leap to buy a book without knowing anything about it.

Shrinking Violets is about shyness. Or rather, it's about the ways in which shyness manifests. How it affects us. How we deal with it. Why some people feel it and others don't. Why it varies between different situations, even between different days. Moran attempts to recast shyness as a personality feature, not a personality flaw.

Shyness and introversion are often regarded as interchangeable concepts. But they are actually separate things. Many shy people, myself included, would love to spend more time around others. I would love to be able to go to parties or clubs, to comfortably hang out with a gang of friends, go on dates or talk to interesting looking strangers. In practice, it’s very difficult to do. Our society is run by and designed for confident extroverts. Shyness is all too often taken as a sign of incompetence. If you come across as shy in a job interview, for instance, you’ll probably get passed over in favor of a more confident person, regardless of skills. The only recourse is to portray yourself as a reclusive asshole genius (many of the people Moran describes in this book take that route) - except that doesn’t work if you’re not a genius. Most of us aren’t. So this book is an illuminating look at a misunderstood topic. It certainly made me feel less alone. I ended up highlighting half the pages - it’s so good.

“Shyness is a low intensity, mundane, chronic, nebulous and hard to define condition. It has none of the pathos of afflictions such as madness and melancholia, and none of the drama of major life experiences like love, loss, and grief. It leaves little evidence behind for historians to consult...A history of shyness would have to be a suitably tentative one, assembled from shards and fragments just as a scholar might piece together papyrus scraps, aware of all the ellipses in the records, the words and feelings for which there is no historical trace.”  

Rework - Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hansson.  I LOVE the 37signals blog, I love their uncomplicated writing, I love the way those guys think. Each of the short, 1-3 page sections is smart, concise and packed with valuable insights. Fried and Hansson share some of the key lessons they have learned from growing 37signals, mostly ideas that go against the grain of typical business advice. In particular, I found that the parts cautioning against premature scaling or hiring for the sake of it were timely. Lately, I've found myself under pressure to grow my business beyond myself. To hire other people and split the different types of work.

But I find the idea entirely aversive. For now, I like it being just me, in my office surrounded by piles of books- aside from when I occasionally need to hire another freelancer for something small I can't do. So that's a valuable message and one I encourage anyone in my situation to take on board. Turning into an agency or even a 'creative team' shouldn't be considered the ultimate goal for freelancers. If that works for you or makes sense in the long run, fine. No need to push it. Some of my favourite points included:

"Planning is guessing...writing a plan makes you feel in control of things you can't actually control...Start referring to your business plans as business guesses, your financial plans as financial guesses, your strategic plans as strategic guesses.

...To do great work, you need to feel that you're making a difference. That you're putting a dent in the universe. That you're part of something important...You should feel urgency about this too. You don't have forever. This is your life's work...What you do is your legacy. Don't sit around and wait for someone else to make the change you want to see.

...Sell your byproducts...Software companies don't usually think about writing books. Bands don't usually think about filming the recording process. Car manufacturers don't usually think about selling charcoal. There's probably something you haven't thought about that you could sell too.

...Imagine that someone wanted to make a reality show about your business. What would they share? Now stop waiting for someone else and do it yourself...People are curious about how things are made...They'll see the sweat and effort that goes into what you sell. "

However, this book suffers from what I, unimaginatively, call 'blog-post-as-book-syndrome.' It's not really a book. It's a collection of blog posts without much continuity. Plus, each essay begins with an illustration that takes up a full page. As nice as the illustrations would be as part of a post, they are poorly printed in grey ink and don't add anything to the book. They just bulk it out without saying anything. And I do think there should have been some sort of acknowledgment of the fact that, just because a particular approach worked for 37signals, it's not going to work for everyone. Or that luck is part of the equation.

The (Longer) Long Tail - Chris Anderson. I’m late to the game with this one. Much of its content seemed obvious, although it probably wasn’t a decade ago. Anderson explores the cultural shift from hits to niches - from crowds to tribes, from mainstream to personal. Aside from the odd bit of verbose over-fitting, it contains lots of valuable insights.

Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life - Adam Phillips. I'm torn in my opinion of this book. When I saw the title, I immediately loved the premise so much that I ordered it straight away without researching anything, then waited impatiently for 3 weeks while it was shipped from the US.

It alternates between being a well-written, lucid book wherein a clearly intelligent, qualified author explores an unusual topic - and between being an inarticulate, rambling mess of directionless words. The contrast is so pronounced that I struggle to see how it could have all been written by one person. Cut those parts out and it would be an exquisite, albeit much shorter, book.

But the good parts are strong enough for it to be very much worth reading. Phillips explores our collective obsession with the paths we don't take, the lives we don't get to live. In the first chapter he writes of this:

"The unexamined life is surely worth living, but is the unlived life worth examining? It seems a strange question until one realizes how much of our so-called mental life is about the lives we are not living, the lives we are missing out on, the lives we could be leading but for some reason are not.

...What was not possible all too easily becomes the story of our lives. Indeed, our lives might become a protracted mourning for, or an endless tantrum about the lives we were unable to live.

...Our lives become an elegy to needs unmet and desires sacrificed, to possibilities refused, to roads not taken."

The rest of the book explores the practice of, to paraphrase Nico, sitting and thinking of all the things you didn't do. Phillips attempts to reframe our unlived lives as a part of who we are, an integral yet often ignored piece of the mystery of ourselves. If you can keep in mind the fact that psychoanalysis is pseudoscience and Phillips isn't trying to be scientific, and get comfortable with skipping a few pages, this is an underappreciated gem.

Solitude - Anthony Storr. This book pairs perfectly with Missing Out and Shrinking Violets. Since the Freudian view started to take hold, psychology and psychiatry have tended to focus on relationships as the basis of mental health. The assumption is that all of our problems relate to our relationships and they are the sole source of satisfaction. Anthony Storr posits that our interests and work are an equally big part of the equation - in some cases, they can be more satisfying than our relationships. Solitude can be therapeutic or even enlightening at times. Interestingly, Storr also takes an in-depth look at the harmful effects of enforced solitude as a counterpoint. He also raises a point about meditation which I also made in a previous post:

“The current popularity of techniques like transcendental meditation may represent an attempt to counterbalance the absence of silence and solitude which the modern urban landscape inflicts upon us. Removing oneself voluntarily from one's habitual environment promotes self-understanding and contact with those inner depths of being which elude one in the hurly-burly of day to day life.”

Other stuff:

I read 3/4 of Euclid's Window by Leonard Mlodinow but found myself slogging through the last part, so I'll probably finish it at some point in the future. It's a very witty, well-explained look at the history of geometry and the key figures who shaped its development. I had no idea before reading it that Euclid was essentially a cult leader during his time and may have inspired the biblical portrayal of Jesus - he spread rumors that he could walk on water and faked a resurrection. I also had no idea just how much pushback mathematicians faced throughout history and how hard many of them had to fight to get heard. 

I've been playing this Felice Brothers album several times a day for the last week. They are a bit of a departure from my usual music taste. But I've seen them live twice (they are currently playing with my all-time favorite musician/favorite human in general, Conor Oberst) and their particular brand of rowdy Americana has grown on me. Speaking of Conor, this slowed down live version of Cape Canaveral might just be one of the most beautiful things I've ever heard.

Another thing I discovered this month is white noise and it has been mildly life-changing. For a long time, I've struggled with middle of the night panic attacks which completely ruin my sleep (and which I've always been ashamed to talk about.) My usual recourse has been playing one of my favourite songs on repeat all night, although this still messes with my sleep. White noise never made much sense to me - but I tried it out and found it to be very comforting, provided I play the same track all night and not on a timer. I've also found that listening to it during the day helps with the tension headaches I'm equally prone to. While this isn't a permanent solution and doesn't completely eliminate the problem, it's a small thing that has made my life a little easier. 

As always, shoot me an email and let me know what you've read/enjoyed this month.