Everything I Read In March
This month's reading was a little lighter than usual and included far more fiction. I don't avoid fiction as such, I just tend to gravitate towards the psychology/science/personal development of bookstores and libraries. Traveling has made finding books in English tricky, so I bought most of these from a dirt cheap second-hand fiction stall in Paris. Quite a few of these were also read in the form of public domain ebooks (free and saves packing space.)
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running - Haruki Murakami. This is the first of Murakami's books I have read and it seemed a good place to start as I am fond of books which talk about writing. In this memoir of sorts, Murakami reflects on the influence running has had on his life and career. It is sprinkled with memories from the days before he began writing, his most memorable races and the aging process. The prose is stunning - intimate and uncomplicated.
Ego is the Enemy - Ryan Holiday. Reading this reminded of the many times I have stood by a stormy sea, watching the enormous waves and receiving a reality check in the progress. It covers the topic of ego, why it is overrated the ways we can overcome an inflated sense of self-importance.
Why We Make Things and Why It Matters - Peter Korn. I am reaching the point where it is hard to find adjectives to describe all the books I read. I loved this book because it's the sort I plan to write - an exploration of what creativity means and how people use it to find themselves. It also compliments Into The Wild (below) nicely as an account of someone choosing a divergent path. As a young, Ivy-educated man, Korn decides to become a woodworker/carpenter/designer of fine furniture. I have always had a fascination with woodwork, probably because my grandfather was a carpenter and I grew up around his work. This book is about the why, rather than the how.
Into the Wild - Jon Krauker. Another extraordinary read. This book covers the life of Christopher McCandless, a young guy from a prosperous family who donated all his money, dumped his car and possessions and headed off into the wilderness to live by himself (it's a true story.) Krauker traces McCandless' journey through the people he met and the impact he made on them. His journey ends in disaster (which is not a spoiler, it is mentioned from the start.) Krauker discusses his own experiences of taking risks at the same age and why solo travel is so compelling for most young people. It is eye-opening in a way, a reminder that being young does not make you invincible. There is also an element, which proved harmonious with my Jack London readings this month, of the struggle between humans and nature. It is obvious that Krauker feels a strong sense of empathy with McCandless, which is what gives the book its emotional edge. Most books, even non-fiction, end up as a portrait of the author. This is no exception, yet that connection between the depictor and depicted turns a tragic account of a short, wasted life into something more.
The Call of the Wild - Jack London. Reread. I have been on a London kick this month, rereading some of my childhood favorites. I must have read this one ten times and still adore it. A dog is stolen from his home during the gold rush and sold to be used as a sledge dog. In the process, his ancient instincts, numbed by domestication are reignited and he eventually joins a wolf pack. London's level of understanding of dogs is as deep as that in scientific books I have previously read. There is nothing cutesy about the portrayal of Buck, yet it's impossible not to end up adoring him.
The Metamorphosis - Franz Kafka. My previous readings of Kafka have always been a slow slog, so I was surprised by this. You no doubt know the story - Gregor Samsa awakens one morning to find he has been transformed into a giant beetle. His family try and fail to deal with it, whilst Samsa struggles with feelings of inadequacy, doubt and shame. After some research, I am not happy with the translation I read (the original text never refers to him as a beetle) and will be looking for a different version.
Martin Eden - Jack London. Perhaps London's most underappreciated work, I found this in Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris and couldn't believe I hadn't heard of it before. A common criticism is that London writes about animals better than people, yet this contradicts that. It's 500 pages of intense, well-crafted characterisation. Martin Eden is a sailor who falls in love with an upper class girl and seeks to 'better himself' in order to win her affection. He becomes obsessed with literature and attempts to become a writer. His slow progress through the gruelling process of self-education and finding a voice is almost exhausting to read. The book is semi (not quite intentionally) autobiographical and foreshadows elements of London's later life. (By the way, I have no idea why the edition on Amazon has Jensen Ackles on the cover. I highly approve though.)
Living on Half a Dime a Day - Sarah Elizabeth Harper Monmouth. I am adding this to my list of reading for minimalists. A Victorian woman finds herself in a situation where, unable to work, she must survive on half a dime a day. Arguably a lot easier a century ago than it would be now, her autobiographical account is still very interesting. Her focus on time over money is refreshing, all too uncommon even now. She also stresses the importance of nourishing the mind through reading, no matter how meager your means. I often get criticised by people who say that reading as much as I do requires being 'rich' and 'privileged.' From now on I will just point them to this book- if a woman living on half a dime a day in the time before Amazon can do it, any of us can. Make it a priority and the rest will follow. ~preach over~
Stumbling on Happiness - Daniel Gilbert. Less about self-help, more about not self-sabotaging. A part which stood out to me is that people's feelings about specific situations do not vary as much as we think. We expect to be happy in a certain situation, even if others are not. The best way to predict how happy something will make us is to just ask someone who is in that situation. My explanation makes zero sense. Otherwise, there is a bit too much humor for my grinchy liking.
A Movable Feast - Ernest Hemingway. The perfect book to read whilst in Paris. Hemingway describes what it was like to be a young, poor writer in the city during the 1920s. Some things have changed, some have not. It is split into short chapters, each describing a person, place or event. I love the connections between his own life and the wider cultural movement of the time, plus the accounts of his friendships with other legendary writers. Reading about their flaws and idiosyncrasies is fascinating. As I retraced his steps through Paris, reading this felt like Hemingway was walking beside me.
White Fang - Jack London. Reread. A half wolf, half dog puppy is taken by a tribe of Indians and forced to learn submission. It is the opposite of The Call of the Wild wherein a tame dog becomes savage. London has a way of personifying 'the wild' until it becomes a key character in the narrative. There is a tangible sense of White Fang achieving a freedom humans could never hope for- a total control over the environment and ability to survive in the harshest conditions. It is a book which takes you so deep into the mind of another creature that is hard to look at the world the same upon finishing it.
Bazaar of Bad Dreams - Stephen King. As much as I love King's mammoth, 1000+ page novels, this 500 page short story collection proved to be fun. Whenever I start one of his books, I know I will not get much done for the next few days. King's autobiographical comments before each story are almost as good as the stories themselves. His favorite themes - mortality, guilt, fractured relationships, the passage of time - are at the forefront. There are also some unexpected gems, including a story about a Kindle - I found myself unable to sleep until it was finished. King has a knack for inventing bizarre, yet believable supernatural powers for his characters. In one story, a man finds he can kill people by writing an obituary for them. I have gotten flack for my enthusiastic love of King's work because he has an ill-deserved reputation for not being a 'serious' writer. Personally, I disagree. He is brilliant and every time I finish one of his books, I feel a hole in my life until the next one. Finishing It (1400 pages) was borderline traumatic.
The Prince - Machiavelli. I actually read this three times to fully get a grasp of it. Being over 500 years old, it is not so easy to enjoy from a modern perspective. Machiavelli unravels the concept of power, how it can be attained and maintained. He combines military strategy with a sort of pre-psychology. By the third reading I was able to understand that the controversy surrounding it is mostly the result of miscomprehension. Just like The 48 Laws of Power, interpretations have been taken as instruction. Although I do not plan on leading a country any time soon, I learned a lot of human nature and history from it. My third reading was whilst in Italy and it was nice to connect what I read with the historical sites I saw. Perhaps it is a case of confirmation bias, but I have a knack for selecting books which align with my life.
To Build a Fire - Jack London. One of London's best short stories. It's powerful, although I prefer his longer works. A man and his dog hike through the Yukon, trying not to freeze to death. When the man's numb fingers prevent him from building a fire, he contemplates killing the dog and warming himself inside it. That moment in itself summarizes the sheer brutality of his books. Again, the physical setting is almost a third character. It's a rare case of a book where there is no particular character to side with - the dog or the man? Neither is quite a hero or a villain.
Lock and Key - Ridley Pearson. A lighter read, devoured on a day when I just wanted to relax in the Italian sun. It's a prequel to Pearson's retelling of Sherlock Holmes. There is not a lot to say about it, aside from it being fast-paced and fun.
Ada or Ardor - Vladimir Nabokov. Even better than Lolita. Published when Nabokov was 70, there is a clear sense of his maturation and development of a clear style. There are some elements which reappear in more detail within his unfinished final book, Laura. This was his longest book at 604 pages, long enough to make it immersive. Ada or Ardor is about an incestuous relationship spanning decades, laden with elements of a fairy tale, philosophical passages and constant analysis of the meaning of time. His portrayal of their relationship as adults feels more complete than that as children, no doubt due to his age at the time of writing. I have a fondness for dialogue which comingles different languages (being prone to it myself) and the interplay of English, French and Russian is gorgeous. There is no other way to put it. I found myself reading parts aloud to hear the sounds of the words. Nabokov's books demand a lot of attention. Losing focus for more than a few sentences results in total confusion. If you only read one of these books, make it this one.