July was quite possibly the best month I've had for a year and a half, in terms of general happiness / well-being / good life choices. I've spent a lot more time outdoors, meeting new people, and engaging with life and things are generally looking up. It's been jam-packed, but I still got through a bunch of good books.
Here's what I read in July.
Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things - William McDonough and Michael Braungart.
I read the majority of this book underground after my train broke down for nearly an hour, which felt somehow apt. Cradle to Cradle is a radical reimagining of the way we approach manufacturing, questioning the assumption that human industry must always be damaging to the environment, and instead presenting a vision of a world where our economic activities nourish the earth. It’s a look at the way toxic materials have come to pervade every area of our lives, often unnecessarily, and how we might change that without depriving ourselves.
What struck me most about this book was its incredible focus on design as a means of overcoming any environmental problem. On some level, I’d assumed that certain issues were inevitable - litter damaging the landscape, for example - but the authors show that it is possible to design solutions. That’s the beauty of this book; it pushes you to think differently about the way the world around you fits together.
The Last Bachelor - Jay McInerney.
McInerney's debut novel, Bright Lights Big City was a luminous, haunting work so I decided to try out some of his other work. The Last Bachelor is a collection of short stories, most focused on the interplay of wealth, status, and attraction among an assortment of New Yorkers whose lives revolve around parties, weddings, divorces, affairs, and downfalls.
Considering the protagonist of Bright Lights didn’t start to feel particularly human until near the end, the characters are similarly inscrutable - it’s the situations that carry much of the emotional weight. A family argument over a holiday dinner. A husband watching his wife get ready before they go out to pick up men together. A woman seeing her former lover talking to her niece on the beach on the day before his wedding. Many of the stories simply concern people watching and spying on each other, drawing inferences and then seeking their revenge.
Books V Cigarettes - George Orwell.
Oddly, I intended to buy this book in a bookstore in Paris last year, then ended up getting a different one and forgetting about it until I recently ordered a used copy. When it arrived, I realised it had the stamp of the same bookshop and had originally been brought there. Coincidences aside, this is a collection of Orwell’s essays, which I enjoy far more than his fiction (but you could also blame that on the fact that I read his complete works when I was 9 and haven’t made much effort to revisit them.)
In the first essay, Orwell discusses a topic as relevant now as then; if reading is really an expensive, time-consuming hobby (spoiler: it’s not.) But it’s the final essay about his school days that had the most impact for me, proving both charming and chilling:
"A child accepts the codes of behaviour that are presented to them, even when it breaks them...All throughout my boyhood I had a profound conviction that I was no good, that I was wasting my time, wrecking my talents, behaving with monstrous folly and wickedness and ingratitude - and all this seemed inescapable because I lived among laws which were absolute, like the law of gravity, but which it was not possible for me to keep."
The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck - Mark Manson. Reread. (Thanks to whoever sent me a copy of this.)
I read this last year, but at a bad time so it didn’t leave much of an impression. Upon rereading and annotating heavily, I got a lot more out of it.
First of all, I find it hard to see this as anything other than an essay collection masquerading as a book. Not a criticism per se, just an observation. Secondly, I do think the way people perceive this book has a lot to do with where they are in life, and therefore with age. The kind of insights and lessons one would naturally accrue by their 30s, presented in a funny, offbeat way, will inevitably seem profound to someone in their twenties and painfully banal to someone in their forties or above.
Again, this isn’t a criticism or a suggestion that this book is only suitable for a particular age range. It’s not. But many self-help books are simply based on the kinds of lessons we all pick up at some point, we just struggle to articulate them. With all that said, The Subtle Art is a genuinely useful, motivating book that I’ll be returning to again.
The New New Thing: A Silicon Valley Story - Michael Lewis.
I read this one for work, as part of an attempt to understand the enduring power of Silicon Valley. If anything, it left me more confused - though I don’t doubt that was intentional. As with his other books, Michael Lewis has a knack for sliding into bizarre worlds and befriending oddballs with undue influence. In The New New Thing, Lewis follows Jim Clark on his endless pursuit of the new new thing - the latest technology set to change the world.
Lewis attempts to understand the minds of Clark and his loyal band of engineers as they fly helicopters, sailboats, start multi-billion dollar companies, and chase the future as the dot-com boom unfolds, then begins to cool. For those who didn’t get a chance to witness or learn from the insanity of that era, it’s a valuable read.
How To Be Alone - Sara Maitland.
I read (and utterly adored) Sara Maitland’s A Book of Silence in February, so was excited to see she’s also written this little book on solitude. How To Be Alone deals with the benefits and beauty of spending time away from other people, whether that’s in a mountain cave or a tent in your own backyard. She also looks at strategies for practically carving out solitude amid the chaos, and for easing yourself into it if you’re not accustomed to spending much time in your own company. Although I much preferred A Book of Silence, this is an excellent introduction to Maitland’s ideas.
Junky - William Burroughs.
As far as I’m aware, this is the first time I’ve read Burroughs (I’m woefully behind on the beat writers.) Junky is a frightening account of his heroin addiction, told in the scrambled, plot-less stye Kerouac was known for. Burroughs documents the endless attempts to secure his next fix, the times when he sinks into the depths of addiction, and his attempts to get clean in the early days of criminalising addicts.
He flips between documenting and advising, denying and condemning, glorifying and fear-mongering. At times, the writing is lucid and factual, at other times it spins into manic poetry. When it comes to his own motivations, Burroughs is almost flippant:
"You become a narcotics addict because you do not have strong motivations in the other direction. Junk wins by default. I tried it as a matter of curiosity. I drifted along taking shots when I could score. I ended up hooked. Most addicts I have talked to report a similar experience. They did not start using drugs for any reason they can remember. They just drifted along until they got hooked. If you have never been addicted, you can have no clear idea what it means to need junk with the addict’s special need. You don’t decide to be an addict. One morning you wake up sick and you’re an addict."
Mostly, Junky is a portrayal of the way addiction robs people of what makes us human:
"Junk turns the user into a plant. Plants do not feel pain since pain has no function in a stationary organism. Junk is a pain killer. A plant has no libido in the human or animal sense. Junk replaces the sex drive. Seeding is the sex of the plant and the function of opium is to delay seeding. Perhaps the intense discomfort of withdrawal is the transition from plant back to animal, from a painless, sexless, timeless state back to sex and pain and time, from death back to life."
The Brain: The Story of You - David Eagleman. (Thanks to Susan for sending me a copy of this.)
Daniel Eagleman’s TED talk left a big impression on me, but for whatever reason, I never dove into his writing. The Brain is a glorious explanation of the way neuroscience shapes all that we are: our memories, our sense of ourselves, our senses, our perception of reality, our relationships. It sent my mind spiralling as Eagleman unpicks all that seems concrete and shows the interplay of factors that create our identities. It all boils down to the brain:
"What if I told you that the world around you, with its rich colors, textures, sounds, and scents is an illusion, a show put on for you by your brain? If you could perceive reality as it is, you would be shocked by its colorless, odorless, tasteless silence."
How To Choose a Partner - Susan Quilliam.
I’m continuing to work my way through the School of Life series, which is pushing me to read about topics I wouldn’t otherwise have much interest in. I went into this book with a hefty dose of scepticism, as I don’t particularly believe in monogamy, lifetime partnerships, or soulmates (which is a topic for another day.) But this book is more open-minded than I expected and reads more as a guide to understanding what motivates you to be close to other people, and how to figure out who is worth our time.
I’ve spent a lot of time in recent months trying to understand and question my own beliefs around relationships, so How To Choose a Partner brought up a lot of food for thought:
"It’s not only that our past partnerships have been preparation for this moment, giving us both ability and vulnerability around loving. It’s also that every event in our past, from the moment we were born let alone the moment we began to date - has taught us messages about partnership and choice. Whom we choose may be our decision alone, but why we choose will be influenced by a whole lifetime's cast of characters and scenes."
And some useful directives for what to consider:
"If we can, we’re likely looking at connection across three elements; values, life goals, and personality traits:
Values; what makes our existence more worthwhile; safety, excitement, social recognition, happiness, self-respect, status.
Life goals: the achievements we crave during a lifetime: career success, financial security, travel, adventure, marriage, children.
Personality; a combination of character and temperament; honesty, mental acuity, kindness, generosity, bravery, commitment, to hard work."
Another one for work which proved tremendously enjoyable and valuable. Former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss shares the techniques that can help us get what we want in life by understanding the unconscious motivations and desires of others. Although it’s presumably intended for high-stakes situations, I found much of it useful as a person who is bad at conversation/communication.
"Once you understand that subterranean world of unspoken needs and thoughts, you'll discover a universe of variables that can be leveraged to change your counterpart's needs and expectations. From using some people's fear of deadlines and the mysterious power of odd numbers, to our misunderstood relationship with fairness, there are always ways to bend our counterpart's reality so it conforms to what we ultimately want to give them, not what they initially think they deserve."
That's it for July. As always, feel free to get in touch and let me know what you've been reading/enjoying.