In January I started doing this cool new thing called ‘leaving the house sometimes’ which has been wonderful and rewarding so far but has also meant a lot of challenges in figuring out how to allocate my time and mental energy outside of work. As is often the case when that happens, both my reading and my blogging have taken a hit. So I’m hoping March will be a little more balanced — but ultimately, I’m at a point where I am happy to prioritise engaging with life over writing/reading about it, nor do I feel bad about that. Anyway, here’s what I’ve read lately.
After spending the majority of his life afraid to pursue his childhood dream of founding his own company, Jia Jiang recognised that his overwhelming fear of rejection was his main impediment. Drawing, intentionally or not, on exposure therapy (deliberately subjecting yourself to what you fear most to desensitise yourself to it), he decided to spend 100 days seeking out opportunities to be rejected. In the process, he learns that ‘no’ is often just the start of a negotiation, that outlandish requests sometimes get a yes, that persisting can pay off, and numerous other lessons.
Although this book doesn’t have a tremendous amount of depth, it did have a surprising influence on the way I personally view rejection. After finishing it, I found myself being far more willing to risk rejection, and far more capable of not taking it as a slight against me as a person. In fact, I’ve made a number of deliberate attempts to make requests I knew would almost certainly be met with a no to likewise make myself less sensitive to it.
Carpe Diem Regained: The Vanishing Art of Seizing The Day — Roman Krznaric
‘Carpe diem’ is one of those inescapable, sometimes empty feeling pieces of instructional advice. It’s become associated with reckless hedonism, with mind-numbing self-help platitudes, consumerism, and the like. Carpe Diem Regained is both an attempt to return to the original meaning of the term as used by the poet Horace in his Odes from over two thousand years ago, and to reimagine it for the modern age, where our use of smartphones and social media threaten to fracture our connection with the present moment. Roman Krznaric explores how we can apply carpe diem to a range of areas, from politics to mindfulness. Overall, it’s far more analytical than prescriptive — less of a self-help book than a lens for viewing life advice.
Better Than Before: What I Learned About Making And Breaking Habits — Gretchen Rubin
I didn’t really take much from this one — far too many unexciting anecdotes about the idiosyncrasies of Rubin’s friends and family, I doubted the rigour of many of the studies cited and questioned the value of the constant categorising of people based on their approach to various things. Can we all just accept that Charles Duhigg nailed it when it comes to writing about habits and go home?
Number: The Language of Science — Tobias Dantzig
“The peculiar fascination with numbers as individuals has exerted on the mind of man since time immemorial was the main obstacle in the way of developing a collective theory of numbers…just as the concrete interest in individual stars long delayed the creating of scientific astronomy.”
It’s hard to write about Number because I struggled (a lot) with the more technical chapters (as one might expect of a book blurbed by Albert Einstein) and probably wouldn’t have finished it if it hadn’t been necessary for ongoing research. Dantzig covers the way our understanding of numbers has evolved over time, covering the universals in the way cultures approach it, the way we conceptualise the concrete and the abstract, and the disorganised progression of mathematics.
Queer City : Gay London From The Romans To The Present Day — Peter Ackroyd
“ Sexuality is not a free agent in society; society defines and dominates sexuality.”
There’s always something delightful about learning the history of where you live and Peter Ackroyd’s books about London are no exception. Queer City traces the lives of queer people who have lived in London from the time of the Romans, tracking the changing legal limitations, the role of certain industries (like theatre) and places (like public bathrooms, bathhouses, and bars), the AIDs crisis, and moral panics. The book is exquisitely researched, although it does devolve into slightly disorganised lists of information pulled from sources without much analysis at times.
The main appeal of this book is the way it shows that attitudes are never fixed and that history is not linear. Throughout the centuries, the laws and beliefs surrounding queer people have gone through cycles of acceptance and ostracisation. Mostly, changes in attitudes are the result of the preferences of whoever was in charge at the time — one person has the power to skew an entire society’s beliefs. But it seems safe to say that things are on a strong upward trend since the end of the Second World War and that’s one of the things I love the most about this city and have benefitted from the most since moving here.
Women and Power: A Manifesto — Mary Beard
“ It is still the case that when listeners hear a female voice, they do not hear a voice that connotes authority.”
In this timely perhaps a little too brief, book based on two lectures, Mary Beard looks at the historical link between women and power; the way it has been denied, subverted, ridiculed, ignored and sometimes grasped. Ultimately, she views the existing power structures as something which need redefining to fit everyone, instead of adhering to a template built for and by men. In the same way that Queer London does a wonderful job of showing how the past links to the present; the line between the trolls who harass Beard on Twitter and the way women were shut up in their homes in ancient times.
Letters From A Stoic — Seneca. Reread.
(The translation I have is out of print and not currently available on Amazon which is a pity because it’s my personal favourite version.) Per Seneca’s own advice, I try to reread this collection of letters by the Stoic philosopher at least yearly.
Lonesome Traveller — Jack Kerouac. Reread.
“Everything is perfect on the street again and the world is permeated with roses of happiness all the time but none of us knows it. The happiness consists in realising this is all a great strange dream.”
The essence of Kerouac’s writing is the lack of a narrative arc and the sense that things simply happen without it building towards any sort of character development or conclusion. Lonesome Traveller is my favourite of his books because it bucks that trend just enough to feel a little more satisfying. This time, Kerouac’s travels take him beyond America and Mexico, to Paris and London. Along the way, he records the onslaught of people, places, ideas, and sensations he experiences.
“ Movement makes richest sense when set within a frame of stillness.”
Pico Iyer spent years traversing the globe as a travel writer, fuelled by the joy of incessant movement, before deciding to stop and explore stillness. As part of the TED books series, Iyer looks at the way artists like Leonard Cohen and Marcel Proust have taken up residence in disconnection, turning away from the world as a means of gaining deeper insights about it.
Thinking In Systems: A Primer — Donella H Meadows
“ A system is a set of things…interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behaviour over time.”
I’m currently researching systems theory for work, so it was essential to revisit this classic primer on the topic which I’ve somehow never read in its entirety before. Donella Meadows frames a sometimes technical topic in concrete real-world terms that make it straightforward for a reader to see how to apply it to tangible problems. Unlike many similar books, Thinking in Systems detaches systems as a concept from any particular discipline, meaning it’s hard to imagine it not being a useful read for anyone. It’s accessible, positive, and practical.
The bottom is a rock you’ve got to push uphill until you drop, goes the chorus of a Mother Mother song. That’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately; the way the less savoury aspects of our pasts linger as a burden we must content with even as we move further and further away from them.
Hillbilly Elegy is a vividly painted memoir that uses the author’s own experience of growing up in a white working-class American family to shed light on the wider culture that surrounded them. It’s very much framed as an attempt to explain the way a lack of upwards mobility leads to the kind of hopelessness and desperation that results in dubious political choices. As someone who does struggle not to dismiss those with certain attitudes as ignorant, this book helped me inch a little closer to taking a more nuanced view. It certainly doesn’t give a comprehensive picture (no single book could), but it’s well-written and engaging.
Thinking Like Your Editor — Susan Rabiner & Alfred Fortunato
“ Establish your givens and do your best to win concurrence on them before attempting to build on them.”
Susan Rabiner draws upon many years of experience working as an editor and literary agent to explain what they look for at every stage from the initial proposal to the final manuscript. I read this for work and although parts are somewhat outdated, it sheds a lot of light on what it takes to put together serious non-fiction, especially the chapters dealing with constructing arguments and incorporating a narrative thread.
Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race — Reni Eddo-Lodge
“ …this claim not to see race is tantamount to compulsory assimilation.”
It’s a common fallacy among British people to say that seeing as this country ‘didn’t really do slavery’ that means we didn’t, and still don’t ‘do’ racism. That’s part of why this is such an important book. Reni Eddo-Lodge places the current state of race relations in England within its much ignored historical context. It’s notably missing from our formal history education and is something I’m now trying to educate myself about. It does have the definite feel of an extended blog post.
We Are Never Meeting In Real Life — Samantha Irby
(This was sent to me by a reader — thank you.) Sometimes in the rush to read books that teach us things, it’s easy to forget just how funny books can be too. We Are Never Meeting In Real Life is one of the funniest books I have ever read and I’m sorry for anyone who had to sit next to me on public transport as I made my way through it. In each of series of essays, Samantha Irby obliquely tackles a wider issue — race, relationships, her family, job applications — through tales of ash scattering road trips, her maniacal antichrist cat, junk food and television. It’s a beautiful thing to behold and I can’t wait to read her other books.
On Dialogue — David Bohm
“ We may imagine that the source of the problem is that somebody over there is thinking these wrong thoughts — or that a lot of people are. But the source of the problem is much deeper. It is that something is going wrong in the whole process of thought which is collective and belongs to all of us.”
(This was sent to me by a reader — thank you, Christine.) Genuine dialogue is so difficult to enact. So often, talking becomes an exercise in persuading others of our opinions, to the point where we can’t really listen. On Dialogue covers how we can learn to have true dialogues: conversations without end goals or agendas, without winners and losers, without conflict or concession. In Bohm’s ideal world, a group of people can talk in harmony and create their own meaning. As hard as it can be to converse with those we disagree with, it is an essential skill.
Men Explain Things To Me: And Other Essays — Rebecca Solnit
“But explaining men still assume I am, in some sort of obscene impregnation metaphor, an empty vessel to be filled with their wisdom and knowledge.”
It’s odd to think how easy it is to get used to not being heard. I’ve become resigned to it in certain environments, but this book forced me to consider how and why it happens, and why I should confront it more often. This book is maddening in the best possible way, the arguments constructed with enviable skill and the writing elegant even on the darkest of topics.
Into The Woods: How Stories Work & Why We Tell Them — John Yorke
“The endless recurrence of the same underlying patterns suggests psychological, if not biological and physical reasons for the way we tell stories. If we don’t choose to tell them that way, perhaps we are compelled to.”
(This was sent to me by a reader — thank you.) A truly brilliant and illuminating research read. I studied film at college and one of my favourite units dealt with the notion of archetypal stories and characters. This book looks at the underlying patterns that unite narratives, with a particular focus on TV and film. Yorke also considers why these patterns exist and what they can teach us about ourselves.