Seeing as I wrote a few posts about books in March, I decided to combine my reading lists for March and April. So here's the mega list from the last two months. (And here's something I wrote about my favourite album of all time.)
The Prince - Machiavelli. Reread. I heard that some of the recent translations of The Prince have strayed a little too far from the flavour of the original text, so I decided to try a different translation. As expected, it made far more sense than the version I previously read. (As an aside, a lot of people skip translator's introductions - don’t do that, they’re essential for understanding how a book is constructed.) Machiavelli has been misunderstood and maligned for centuries, so he deserves some recognition for his shrewd genius. The real message of The Prince is this: you can either see the world as you want it to be and fight against that, or you can accept it as it is and work with that.
Feet of Clay: A Study of Gurus - Anthony Storr. This book prompted an entire blog post so I won’t go into too much depth with this review. Needless to say, it’s an underrated, important exploration of an intriguing topic. Storr looks at gurus - what they are, how they become gurus, what they mean. He begins by describing the lives of several significant gurus and touching on their teachings. Many authors would have left it at that and at first I was worried the book would be purely descriptive. But it finishes with an analysis of why we follow gurus and what that can tell us about ourselves. Even if you wouldn’t think of yourself as someone who follows gurus, this book reveals that we all have our leaders, they just take many forms.
A Book of Silence - Sara Maitland. One of my favourites, if not my favourite, so far this year. After living an endlessly noisy life, Sara Maitland decides to search for silence, spending periods of time in remote, isolated locations and documenting her experiences. Books in this vein all too often end up choked with self-obsession, but Maitland has a knack for fitting her own experience within a historical and cultural context, drawing links between herself and other solitude seekers. The topics she explores against the backdrop of her life range from religion and etymology, to geology and feminism. Few books have gone so far towards helping me to understand my own drives. Some reviewers have complained that parts of this book are too slow and drawn out which is ironic - that’s a reflection of the culture of noise and speed Maitland tries to escape. I liked the calm, gentle pace of it all and found myself reading slowly, looking for quiet spaces to sit with it. I took A Book of Silence with me to Copenhagen, where I stayed in a lovely, simple Airbnb with a big window looking across the street at the windows of others. I enjoyed sitting by it reading, pausing sometimes to watch a few other solitary figures, like James Stewart in Rear Window.
Part of One: The Loner's Manifesto - Anneli Rufus. I really wanted to like this one: it’s a look at loners in all their guises and a defence of the desire to spend time alone. Which is a topic I can certainly get behind. But it’s written in such a self-righteous, repetitive, self-congratulatory way and brims with so many heavy-handed generalisations that much of the book reads like an elongated Reddit rant. There are a few lovely, insightful passages, they just get drowned out by a weird need to associate solitude with everything good in the world and company with everything bad. I transcribed the best parts which produces what would be a very nice blog post, the whole book just ends up perpetuating the idea that loners are snobbish and out of touch with reality.
I was however struck by a passage where Rufus describes someone she knows who buys all her books, stacks them in their room and never reads them. They proudly tell her I bought your book! without ever reading a sentence. That’s something I can relate to. The people I know don’t read my stuff - at best, someone might tell me I saw that thing you wrote, it looked good or they might highlight what they think is a reference to them (it never is)- but there’s never any actual engagement. I’m used to that, yet it was nice to see that it is perhaps quite common.
Churchill's Black Dog - Anthony Storr. Why yes, I am working my way through everything Anthony Storr wrote. This book is a collection of his essays and the ones examining Churchill and Kafka are probably the highlights. Although a few of the essays are outdated and worth skipping, the book as a whole highlights the breadth of Storr’s incredibly intellect (and you can’t help but be struck by what a nice guy he must have been.)
The Writing Life - Annie Dillard. When you make stuff for a living, it’s often hard to convey to people what your day to day life is like. The reality is that it’s rarely glamorous and much of the time it’s a slow, unrewarding, ego killing grind. The pay-the-bills stuff is more straightforward, has a deadline and a clear roadmap so although there’s less room for creativity, it’s usually easier to do. It’s the stuff you do for love which can be the most merciless- you know that the world isn’t waiting for it, there’s no deadline unless you set one and no one will really care or perhaps even notice if you don’t do it. Much of the time I live in a twilight world, in my office before it’s light and home after dark, hoodie pulled up to block out my vision, white noise playing loud to block out sounds, spending every waking hour writing and reading. It all blends together. This book is about that grind, that strange world you inhabit as you try to tease enough content out of your brain to meet deadlines, pay the bills and satisfy your own drives. Very compelling and a stunning book.
Love That Moves The Sun & Other Stars - Dante. The final part of Dante’s Inferno as a separate volume. In March, I made the decision to revisit a place that was once my own personal hell, a place where I went through things that continue to haunt my nightmares. It was not a light decision and it was not an easy thing to do. Part of me, that illogical, primal, fearful part we all have, felt as if I would be sucked back into the past. As if I would blink and find that my escape had been a dream all along. But I had promised myself that one day when I truly knew it was all over and I was healing, I would revisit that place and know that I was finally free. After going back and forth on the decision for a while, I finally did it and it was as anti-climatic and mundane as I’d hoped. And then I left that place and read this little book - Love That Moves The Sun & Other Stars- where Dante climbs out of hell and into the light as a symbolic gesture. It’s a stunning poem, even more so than I’d expected. Perhaps the circumstances imbued it was greater meaning. Still, this is a glorious, powerful poem.
Selected Short Stories - Guy De Maupassant. Translated by Roger Colet. I read this entire collection on a long coach journey and it’s just wonderful. The first Spring sun sends young men half-mad. Pretty Parisian girls twirl their hair and bat their eyelashes. Behind the happy facade of every couple lies a twisted web of infidelity. Prostitutes, dressed in sequined dresses and feathered hats, command the respect of sleepy little towns. Prussian soldiers stroke their moustaches and make threats. Bourgeoise men hunt and fish, ignoring the scenes of love and death.
This is the intoxicating world you step into the moment you start reading Guy De Maupassant’s short stories. Most tell of simple events: a first communion, a country walk, a coach ride - perhaps with a twist at the end. But the twist is never the point. Maupassant’s charm lies in his ability to observe people’s true motivations, to draw out their fears and hopes, to recognise the lurking taboos. He knows how to see. The resulting stories, with their specificity and focus on minutiae, can teach us a lot about human nature. Even aside from that, de Maupassant captures a world that, of course, no longer exists. I was ecstatic to find that he wrote hundreds more short stories and look forward to delving into more. Also, I’ve had a few people ask for recommendations for books that are easy to read whilst training your ability to focus. Short story collections are a great option, so this one goes on that list.
Contagious: Why Things Catch On - Jonah Berger. Not particularly gripping: one of those watered down business books mostly drawing on dubious studies to make debatable assertions. But Berger does make enough valid, useful points about marketing for it to be worth reading, despite the endless repetition.
Touching The Void - Joe Simpson. In terms of nail-biting, agonising tension, this book is on par with The Old Man & The Sea, except, you know, it’s a true story. It’s a few decades old and the story has absorbed into popular culture to the extent that I had no idea it actually happened. The abbreviated version is this: Joe and his friend Simon climbed a mountain in bad weather (I have no knowledge of mountaineering so had to gloss over a lot of the details and frequently struggled to understand what exactly they were doing), Joe fell and broke his leg which is generally a death sentence in those circumstances, Simon was forced to cut the rope to prevent them both dying, he left the mountain assuming Joe was dead. Joe wasn’t dead and spent several days descending alone with broken bones, no food and no shelter in the snow. It’s fairly intense, at times it’s hard to resist the urge to just skip to the part where he gets saved.
Negotiating With The Dead - Margaret Atwood. I’m tempted to give this a bad review because of Atwood’s comment about publishing on the internet being the lowest thing a writer can do, but I guess she grew up in a different era so I’ll let that purist rubbish go. As with The Writing Life, it’s a writer writing about writing, with the thesis that we write in an attempt to thwart death. Or perhaps, to quell our fear of death. I liked the point about shirking responsibility for your writing because you have become a new person since the last paragraph. While I’ve never gotten on with her fiction (may give it another go), this is a masterful exploration of the craft.
On Roads: A Hidden History - Joe Moran. Wonderfully nerdy. An exploration of the history and cultural significance of British motorways and roads. Moran covers it all: road rage, how motorways are constructed, the materials, how attitudes towards them have changed from admiration to hatred, the history of anti-road protests, our seeming obsession with extracting meaning from them. It sounds like a dull topic, but the sheer depth and breadth of the research and Moran’s obvious enthusiasm makes it all work.
The Consolations of Philosophy - Alain de Botton. After watching hundreds of his Youtube videos at uni, this is the first time I’ve actually read one of his books. Which had the fun side effects of meaning that, although I don’t usually subvocalize, I read the whole book in de Botton’s voice. Couldn’t help it. This is a sweet explanation of some of the key philosophical works and I sort of took delight in the knowledge that philosophy snobs probably get a hernia from reading a single page. Yes, it’s simplified. So fucking what. Many of the great philosophers spoke simply in their own time - philosophy is there to be used, not to be studied. I love his friendly writing style (reminds me of my godfather’s emails) and also found it delightful to read a book with pictures included for the first time in a while.
The Signal & The Noise: The Art & Science of Prediction - Nate Silver. I brought this book a year ago and since then it has glared at me from my shelf. I usually end up procrastinating reading heavy, hardback books because they're such a pain to lug around. Plus, this version had a typo on the cover (and quite a few inside) which didn't fill me with much enthusiasm. No, typos are not an indicator of intelligence and we all make them, especially in blog posts, but you'd expect better on the damn cover after someone has been paid to edit it.
This did, however, prove to be a fascinating read - last weekend I went to a friend's house party (something I do about twice a year) and ended up sneaking away to read a few times. The Signal & The Noise is about forecasting and prediction, namely why we are so bad at it and how we can improve. Unlike many books in a similar vein, (i.e. Contagious), it's in-depth, doesn't keep repeating the same few points, doesn't parrot the same few outdated studies, and is packed with the results of original work and interviews. Silver actually wrote a book, rather than drawing out a blog post (assuming he actually wrote it, which is debatable these days.) Silver looks at the topic through the lens of a few relevant areas- baseball, meteorology, political polls, epidemiology- and explores the role predictions play in our world, and the harm done by their inevitable failures. It's thoughtful, incredibly well-researched, witty in parts, and profound in others. Any books that explains Bayesian thinking in accessible terms is worth reading, as far as I'm concerned.
Onward: How Starbucks Fought For Its Life Without Losing Its Soul - Harold Schultz and Joanne Gordon. Harold Schultz, founder of Starbucks and former CEO, returned as CEO in 2008 to help pull the company out of a sales slump. More importantly, Schultz felt that the company was deviating too far from his original vision. This book tells the story of how he led the company through a recession and realigned its values. Yes, this is essentially an extended advert for Starbucks. I don't normally even like Starbucks coffee (I prefer Costa or Coffee #1) but whilst reading this book I found myself switching to Starbucks. However, this is less interesting as a story about Starbucks and more interesting as a book about branding and marketing. Seen from that angle, it's a brilliant exploration of how a powerful brand is created and all the details that go into that.
Other stuff I liked this month:
- This Body Shop hemp hand cream has done wonders (I have hands like a Victorian potato farmer.)
- This rose castile Dr Bronner soap was first given to me by a tattoo artist for washing a fresh tattoo and has become my favorite for everything.
- I've been looking for a cat food with decent ingredients but that my incredibly fussy cat will actually eat and was recommended this one which is 90% meat, 10% vegetables and 0% grain with all sorts of fancy ingredients like aniseed, marigold petals and yucca extract. My cat loves it, the smell is considerably less vile than other cat foods and her fur is looking super shiny.
- Long time followers of this site will know that I follow a minimalist lifestyle and keep my belongings to a minimum. My wardrobe usually consists of about 3 outfits which is great, but it means my clothes wear out very fast. If you have one jumper and wear it everyday, for example, it's completely worn out within 3 months at best. So I was happy to discover Weekday, a company that do reasonably priced, good quality, minimal clothing - probably a bit like Everlane, but available in the UK. At the moment, I'm pretty much living in this shirt, this hoodie, and these trousers.
And as always, feel free to get in touch and let me know what you've been reading/enjoying this month.