Everything I read in January

Before we get started with January's books, I want to answer a question I've received a few times, regarding replacing social media with reading. A few people have said they are trying to do it, but find reading requires far more effort and doesn't feel relaxing in the same way as scrolling Twitter does.

I experienced the same thing when I started quitting social media and for a good reason.

As you gaze at your Facebook feed you're just absorbing stuff engineered to be as digestible and enticing as possible. It's easy, it's fun, it takes no effort. I always find myself seeking that out when I'm tired or frustrated. (I'm not talking about purposeful use here which is completely different.)

Reading is not addictive in the same way. It's words on a page not a glittery all singing all dancing cast of kittens and evil politicians and amusing juxtapositions of cartoon characters and text. In the long run, social media can be bad for you if used excessively(reduces ability to focus, uses up time, worsens sleep, increases stress, worsens mood) while reading is extremely good for you (anecdotally improves focus, anecdotally improves ability to connect ideas, increases intelligence and empathy, may help decrease chances of cognitive decline in old age, widens vocabulary and a ton of other benefits.) 

Switching Twitter for Von Clausewitz straight off the bat is tiring. It's like trying to swap cigarettes for carrot sticks. Not the same thing. The approach that worked for me was to allow myself to read easy books: short books, young adult novels, bestselling thrillers, even rereading books I liked as a child. Anything that took minimal effort to read. Even audiobooks, which I don't otherwise like. In short: make things easy


January was a strange reading month. I ordered a lot of new books (maybe 30)which always results in me having too many on the go at once. Right now,  I'm part way through half of them which is not something I otherwise do - it gets confusing. Here's what I read this month.

Our Kind Of Traitor - John Le Carre.  I think I bought this one because Stephen King mentioned it somewhere. Although decidedly not my type of book, there's something nice about reading a thriller in one sitting on a rainy day. Our Kind of Traitor is exquisitely paced with the kind of obsessive detail that reads like a screenplay. The characters didn't feel much like believable people despite it being well-written but the plot is just unpredictable enough to be compelling.

 Damn Good Advice For People With Talent - George Lois. Offbeat advice on building a creative career from George Lois. While there's some solid guidance for generating ideas, Lois also discusses negotiation, leadership, managing your own psychology, and motivation. 

Ten Discoveries That Rewrote History - Patrick Hunt. The listicle-style title nearly put me off, but it proved to be a thorough look at ten key archeological discoveries and their lasting impact on our understanding of the past. It is not a full explanation of those discoveries, just of their significance. What made it work for me was Hunt's personal involvement in some of the artifacts and digs described.

Liar's Poker - Michael Lewis. Somehow, this felt more like a coming of age novel than a book about banking in the 80s. Sure, it's about the crazy indulgences of the traders, the minefield of bonuses, the profitable attempts to deceive customers, the lawlessness, the market crash. Equally, it's about Lewis' younger self and his improbable path towards writing. 

Love Yourself (Like Your Life Depends On It) - Kamal Ravikant.  In a recent post, I mentioned the idea that the best advice is simple and obvious, yet we ignore it in favor of ineffective niche hacks. This book is a perfect example of how powerful the cliched fundamentals can be. Its written in a very clear, uncomplicated way. Short sentences. Large type. Short book (it took me half an hour to read.) Nothing that hasn't been said before.

So at first glance that disguises the fact that the ideas in this book aren't simple or uncomplicated at all. They're actually quite hard to stomach. And very hard to internalize.

It's a book about learning to love yourself. Ravikant's directive for that is straightforward: you repeat that idea in your head all day until it cancels out negative thought patterns. In the middle of a miserable time in his life, he made that decision his focus:

"And in that desperation I climbed out of bed, staggered over to my desk, opened my notebook and wrote: This day, I vow to myself to love myself, to treat myself as someone I love truly and deeply - in my thoughts, my actions, the choices I make, the experiences I have, each moment I am conscious, I make the decision I LOVE MYSELF.'  There was nothing left to say."

Part of the genius is recasting self-love as something natural which we inherently know how to do:

"What if you don't believe that you love yourself? Doesn't matter. Your role is to lay down the pathways, brick upon brick, reinforce the connections between neurons. The mind already has a strong wiring for love. The body knows it as well. It knows that love nurtures, that love is gentle, that love is accepting. It knows that love heals."

The Return of Depression Economics - Paul Krugman. Finding an economist who both knows what they're talking about and how to present it in a way that makes sense to non-experts is a rare treat. Krugman does it perfectly (as does Gregory Mankiw.) This book covers how and why economies experience depressions, and how we try to deal with them. As it's an updated version of a book that's nearly as old as me, I wasn't familiar with most of the global downturns he describes and found it fascinating. 

Old School - Tobias Wolff. I opened this book while making coffee and ended up reading the whole thing in one sitting. Novels about kids at boarding school were, for some reason, always my childhood favorites (Harry Potter, Narnia, Series of Unfortunate Events, various Enid Blyton series.) So the first part of this book felt somehow familiar and nostalgic. It's about a boys' boarding school in the 60s, with a core group of students who are obsessed with literary greatness. A few times a year, the professors organize a visit from an esteemed writer. The students compete to win an audience with them with a writing competition. When it is announced that the next visitor will be Hemmingway, the narrator's hero, he becomes desperate to tell his true story, without pretension. 

I didn't realize until  I'd finished it that Old School is based on Wolff's own experiences. Knowing that recast the book in a new light. Because mostly, it's about the process of trying to find a concrete identity. Of compressing your life into a story even as you live it. 

On Grief & Grieving - Elisabeth Kubler-Ross & David Kessler. There are few books anyone could benefit from reading. This is one of them. Kubler-Ross and Kessler provide the lesson few of us learn early in life (or ever): how exactly we should deal with grief. It's not an instruction manual, though. The main focus is on explaining the wide array of possible reactions to loss and that all of them are valid. Understanding that powerful emotional responses are natural has helped me a tremendous way towards understanding my own behavior. 

Hegarty on Creativity: There Are No Rules - John Hegarty. Quite similar to Damn Good Advice - a pithy little book of observations on the creative process from John Hegarty. In particular, much of the advice was surrounding confidence in your work and valuing what you create, with the main ideas captured simply:

"If confidence is one key to success, enjoying your work is another. Even more than confidence, the sense of excitement that accompanies being creative will spur you on."  
"What does it take to be creative? Fearlessness."
"If you don't believe in what you're doing, why should anyone else?"

Other stuff:

- This is my current playlist for listening to on repeat while writing; a mix of beautiful, gentle songs. I discovered Mary Gauthier's music recently and am completely in love with it. Although I don't normally listen to country, she's a moving songwriter.

- I bought myself half a dozen bunches of flowers (which I keep in my shower so my cat doesn't eat them.) Then I wrote a piece based on some of my notes on self-care for Creative Cafe. I also wrote about regrets and a film that changed my life on Quora.