October was mostly spent being disgustingly ill and sleeping 20 hours a day (I do love British winter and its itinerant maladies) so the reading suffered a bit. On the plus side, I finally joined my local library for some serendipitous book discovery which has been good fun. Here’s what I read in October.
Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery - Henry Marsh
An experienced neurosurgeon shares the (frequently grim) reality of his work, covering the highs and lows of decades of surgery. It's an emotional, frequently jarring book that gives a unique perspective on the reality of medical practice: that doctors and surgeons and nurses are human beings who, regardless of their intentions, make mistakes.
Even more so, Do No Harm cuts through the image of the callous malpracticing surgeon and shows the lasting emotional repercussions errors leave behind. Marsh doesn't shy away from getting slightly technical about surgeries, without lapsing into inscrutable jargon or sensationalism, which gives an accessible look into a widely feared area.
Sleep - Nick Littlehales
Since returning to freelancing, I've spent a lot of time working to fix my disorientated sleeping patterns and to lose certain bad habits - snoozing the alarm repeatedly for an hour every morning, getting a healthy 3-5 hours on weeknights then sleeping pretty much all day at weekends, using devices up until a minute before going to bed, and generally lacking a solid routine. I'd become unbearably cranky and lethargic at times, hyper from too much caffeine and sugar (in the form of fruit that is, never refined sugar) at others. While this book didn't mention anything I didn't already know, it's a succinct, practical explanation of the core components of healthy, refreshing sleep. The key lessons I took away and have been applying include:
- Altering your sleeping pattern too much (e.g. sleeping in at the weekends) essentially gives you jet lag. A consistent wake time, and ideally sleep time too, is vital. There's a reason our parents insist on this when we're kids: it works.
-Stop drinking caffeine AT least 8 hours before your bedtime. Personally, I'm bad at this because I'm not at all sensitive to caffeine - past experiments have shown I can down 4 cans of Red Bull and then go straight to sleep with no problems. But even if, like me, you don't feel the effects of caffeine, it's probably degrading your sleep quality.
- We sleep in 90 minute cycles. Your sleep time should be a multiple of that, or you'll feel groggy if you wake midway through a cycle. This can vary - I strongly suspect my sleep cycles are closer to 2 hours.
-It's not healthy to rush around the last thing at night or first thing in the morning. We're meant to take it slow, so it's important to allow enough time (if you can) to wind down and wind up. Since reading this, I've incorporated a wind-down routine at night and a morning routine. Taking it slow first thing, when our cortisol levels are highest, has made a huge difference.
I first heard Gabor Mate on Tim Ferriss' podcast and promptly listened to his 2.5 hour interview three times in a week because he's an incredible person with a career spanning numerous areas, from palliative care to psychedelics. That personality and depth of expertise comes across crystal clear in Scattered. I was mildly interested in ADD anyway as a couple of people close to me have it, but this book is interesting enough to engage anyone.
Reflecting on his own experience of having ADD and that of his three children (who also have it), Mate covers the basics of how a baby's brain develops, the ways adverse events can lead to the development of ADD, the role of families, teachers and doctors in managing it, and how individuals can work to get better. He doesn't take the perspective of blaming either genetics of faulty parenting, instead viewing it as a complex interplay of factors. If you have people in your life with ADD or even a rudimentary interest in childhood brain development, I strongly recommend this book.
I remember a moment from my first day of school, age 5, vividly. A teacher held up a pound coin and a bank note and told us all - not too young to have learned to covet money - that they were nothing more than paper and metal which have value because we believe they do. He said we were about to spend maybe twenty years studying in order to get a good job and earn those pieces of paper. It was a bit far out for the first day of school, but his words stuck with me and I've long enjoyed reading about the fundamental nature of money.
The End of Money is about the move towards a cash free future, as physical money loses its role and digital systems take over. It's notable how, in the five or so years since this edition was published, far things have progressed. Wolman speaks to those who believe digital systems are the work of the devil, those who have tried to make their own money, coin collectors, and other eclectic characters. He covers the environmental cost of cash, counterfeiting, and our emotional connection to it.
Emotional Intelligence - Gill Hasson
Lately, I've also been focused on learning about emotional intelligence and getting better at understanding and managing my own brain. It's one of the many vital life skills we're not taught in school. Reading books like this one is showing me that so much of the pain I've dealt with in my life could have been avoided or benefitted from if someone had taught me to manage emotions properly.
This book is entirely bland, basic, and frequently states the obvious (the first line is 'emotional intelligence is being intelligent about your emotions'), but as an introduction to the topic it has the potential to be groundbreaking. I wouldn't recommend it if you're familiar with emotional intelligence. Each chapter runs through a different component, including coping with anger and helping other people with their emotions. This is illustrated with practical examples and exercises. Some key extracts:
‘Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand and manage emotions. It's using your emotions to inform your thinking and using your thinking to understand and manage emotions.’
‘Judging emotions as positive or negative, good or bad isn't very helpful....all emotions have a positive purpose - to keep you safe...The idea that we should aim to only have good emotions, such as happiness and compassion, although well intentioned is not helpful because it suggests that we should try to eliminate anger and jealousy and other painful emotions.’
‘Deconstructing an emotion - disentangling what triggered the emotion from the thoughts, feelings, and behaviour that occurs - can help you see it as just emotion rather than getting caught up and overwhelmed by it...Taking time to deconstruct an emotion can give you the space and time you need to respond appropriately.’
‘Labelling your emotions is also helpful...Emotions do not define you, remember they are simply temporary internal messages to yourself that prompt you to act.’
‘Own your own emotions. Don't blame them on other people. Recognise when you try to blame other people and situations for how and what you feel. Taking full responsibility for your emotions will help you better manage them. Why? If you can take responsibility for owning your emotions then, like anything else that belongs to you, they are yours to manage - to influence and direct.’
Is Shame Necessary?: New Uses For An Old Tool - Jennifer Jacquet
I expected this book to be a rejection of shame in the radical honesty vein, but it proved to be the opposite. Jacquet argues that shame is an essential part of maintaining social contracts and a powerful tool for helping individuals, companies, groups and nations improve. Shame is an inexpensive, not too harmful (if used correctly) means of reinforcing social norms. Shame is inflicted by others, guilt is internal and self-inflicted. We shame people, such as by exposing their actions, to force them to conform to our ideals. The threat of shame can be a powerful tool for behaviour change, even if it never occurs.
In particular, she looks at how we can use shame effectively to deal with the challenges posed by climate change - such as by exposing the environmentally damaging actions of corporations. If you've read So You've Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson, this is a nice counterpoint. A few extracts:
‘...shame is inextricably linked to norms and norms are always changing.
...an audience is a prerequisite for shame, even if that audience is imagined.
With language, we no longer needed to see someone's behaviour to learn about it.
The threat of shame may be more effective than the actual experience.
Guilt is the cheapest form of social enforcement.
Negative opinions are more contagious than positive ones.
...individuals who receive feedback about their performance often change their behaviour.
Each generation has its own brand of cynicism.
People tend to calibrate their actions to what they see or hear is common behaviour’
How To Have A Good Day - Caroline Webb
I nearly bought this in a bookshop a couple of years back but changed my mind after opening a few pages at random and seeing the same tired psychological studies 99% of non-fiction business books. I expected this book to cover ways the average person can improve their day - sleep, nutrition, meditation, productivity etc. Instead, it's aimed at the fraction of the population who inhabit a corporate office fantasy land and spend their days getting hernias and throwing tantrums over meetings that start late.
These are the people I overhear on the tube ranting at the nearest person about how angry they are that Bob didn't send them a document in time, or Sheila messed up the formatting on a spreadsheet. Or the guy I saw walking down the fire escape of an office building during an evacuation with his laptop held up in one hand, still typing with the other. While walking. Down stairs. In an evacuation. I digress. I did enjoy parts of this book, I just have a deep, foaming-at-the-mouth hatred of the world it's aimed at. The other parts could be replaced with the simple statement 'just stop giving so many fucks about stuff that doesn't matter.’
The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat - Oliver Sacks
Oliver Sacks is another on the long list of authors people get mad at me for not having read yet. Do the maths. I've read about 3000 books so far in my life. There are roughly 65986498 bajillion of them out there. There's a lot left to get to. Anyway, this is a classic compilation of neurological case studies, including the man who mistakes his wife for a hat, but also the woman who loses her prioception, sufferers of tourettes and the like. It’s beautifully written but somewhat exploitative and insensitive from the modern perspective.
Isn’t This Fun? - Michael Foley
I’m not very good at / interested in most of the things that seem to fit into the category of ‘fun’ for people my age - I hate sports, anything involving crowds or loud music, dancing, staying up late, partying, and most group pursuits. I truly wish I could enjoy, say, clubbing or rock climbing, I just don’t. So I was drawn to this book and ended up sharing most of the author’s opinions, despite an age gap of half a century. Isn’t This Fun? Is about the serious business of fun - the pursuit of enjoyment for its own sake. Foley investigates some of the key areas regarded as fun (going on a cruise, cosplaying, salsa dancing, stand-up comedy, swinging etc) in a bid to understand their cultural roots and enduring appeal. He traces the way current pursuits link to those of the past, and how the religious frequently leads to the secular. Thankfully, the book goes beyond description and into analysis. Reading it was fun, anyway.
Also, I recall not getting on with Foley’s other books, but I read them when I was 13 so should probably revisit at some point.
How To Develop Emotional Health - Oliver James
Another School of Life book. I think I’ve nearly finished the whole series now. The premise of this book is that we were not put on this earth to be happy. Happiness is psychological snake oil, a false god peddled by hucksters with something to sell, and an ideal few of us can achieve.
Instead, we should aim for emotional health:’ Emotional health is the sense that what is happening, is happening now...You feel real rather than false. You are comfortable in your skin...You know what you are thinking and feeling, even if sometimes that only means knowing you don't know...You have the capacity for insight into your own actions...This gives you the nectar of the soul, the capacity for choice, and therefore change.’
As always, feel free to let me know what you’ve been reading lately.