Everything I read in May

Estimated reading time: 10.5 minutes

Pico Iyer and my little succulents. I have finally invested in a decent duvet cover and it makes a perfect back drop for pictures.

I'll admit this straight off: I have been slacking a bit with my reading  (and posting) lately. I have been skim reading about 10 other books a week for work purposes which has left me with less time for my own reading. Still, I got through 13 good books. Here's a summary of each.

Gut- Giulia Enders. If I hadn't become a writer, I probably would have ended up studying biology. This book reminded me of my childhood obsession with the topic and how, despite everything, our own bodies remain a partial mystery. Enders takes an in-depth look at the inner workings of the gut - the most underappreciated and misunderstood organ of all. Some interesting gems from this book include:

  • The surface area of our gut is about 100 times that of our skin.
  • Gut health impacts mental health (I found this mind blowing.)
  • The gut is controlled by a nervous system as complex as that of the brain.
  • Higher hygiene standards lead to higher rates of allergies and auto-immune diseases.

And perhaps my favourite line from the book is this:

 “Looking closer at human beings, it becomes clear that each of us is a world of our own. Our forehead is a breezy meadow, our elbows are arid wastelands, our eyes are salty lakes, and our gut is the most amazing giant forest ever, populated by the weirdest of creatures.” 

Eyes Wide Open- Isaac Linsky.  A memoir of sorts, covering Linsky's extraordinary life. At thirteen, he learnt he would eventually lose his eyesight, by 25 he was fully blind. Despite this, he becomes a successful lawyer, runs a formidable company, raises triplets and develops a deep understanding of what vision truly means. 

It's not quite a memoir though. Eyes Wide Open is about many things - cognitive biases and shortcuts ('backwards swimming fish'), our ability to adapt to challenges, overcoming self-critical tendencies, crushing self-imposed limitations. Linsky's thoughts on the nature of proper communication are especially luminous and I have been trying out some of his techniques.

Blood and Guts - Roy Porter. A concise history of humanity's meandering path towards the healthcare we have today. Although a bit too short to fully explore the topics, it is a good overview of how people have sought (all too often in vain) to extend their lifespans and avoid pains. 

Linchpin- Seth Godin. By some luck, I found Linchpin in my local library (which was surprising as they mostly stock books on knitting and crystal healing.) It is a fantastic book, both a manifesto and a guide to building an indispensable career through art. Godin describes art as our obligation, an opportunity to avoid soul-crushing work. This is something I am currently thinking acutely about. I have the choice between (as I discussed in my TED talk), opting for a safer path or continuing my risky path as a writer. Except, it has never been much of a choice for me. Put it this way: back when I lost confidence in my writing and started applying for jobs in supermarkets and fast food restaurants, I was rejected by every single one due to my lack of experience. Yet I am now finding more and more work as a writer, work which I love and which allows me to express my thoughts. In the conclusion, Godin writes: 

"It's easy to view your current situation as a box, a set of boundaries from which there is no escape. Of course, you need to keep living your life the way you've been living it because to do anything else it too scary, too risky, too bold. Especially given your health, your family, the economy, your age, the neighbourhood, your organisation, your education, your dreams. Everyone feels the same way. And yet. And yet every day a few people change everything. You can do it. You can embrace a new path and take it. Don't settle. You're a genius and we need your contribution. Do the work, please.”

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - F Scott Fitzgerald. Reread. I try to reread at least one or two classics each month, mostly ones which I enjoyed when I was 8 or 9 and haven't picked up since. It is rare that I say this, but this is a rare case of a story (like Coraline and Holes) which works better as a film than a book.

Finding Flow- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. This is the sucessor to Flow, which looks at how we can incorporate more flow experiences into our lives and the benefits of doing so. Csikzentmihalyi comes up with answers to some of the big questions: how can we make our lives meaningful? What actually makes us happy? Why is work so crucial  to our well being? How can we make our free time enjoyable? Why do we crave structure and is it more important than freedom? I plan on rereading this book a few more times because it is so rich with fascinating insights. The lessons from Csikzentmihaly's research are actionable and I have been implementing many of them to great effect. Finding Flow compliments Linchpin nicely, as it looks at work as an art form.

"Even the most routine tasks, like washing dishes, dressing, or mowing the lawn become more rewarding if we approach them with the care it would take to make a work of art. The next step is to transfer some psychic energy each day from tasks that we don’t like doing, or from passive leisure, into something we never did before, or something we enjoy doing but don’t do often enough because it seems too much trouble. There are literally millions of potentially interesting things in the world to see, to do, to learn about. But they don’t become actually interesting until we devote attention to them...It is how we choose what we do, and how we approach it, that will determine whether the sum of our days adds up to a formless blur, or to something resembling a work of art” 

When Breath Becomes Air - Paul Kalanithi. I brought this book one morning and sat down to read a few pages while I drank my coffee. 4 hours later, I looked up and realised I had read the entire book in one sitting without even realising time was passing. It's that absorbing. I cried as I finished the last page. When Breath Becomes Air is the true story of Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon who is diagnosed with terminal cancer just as he finished his training. In his remaining few months of life, he continues to save the lives of his patients while struggling with his own. It's not like any other memoir of terminal illness I have read. Kalanithi never lapses into self-pity or morbidity or bitterness. Yet he also never seems depressed or resigned to his fate. The subtitle describes it as being about finding a way to live in the face of death, but it's so much more than that.  

A particularly poignant moment is when Kalanithi addresses his daughter, born a short time before his death:

 “That message is simple: When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.” 

Reasons To Stay Alive- Matt Haig.  Every so often I read a book which is so perfectly aligned with my feelings and needs at the time that it seems to have been written for me. Some books make me feel as if I am in my own version of The Truman Show and a Christof style director is nudging me towards them. Some books just turn up and make everything feel better for a while. This is is one such book. I read it in one sitting, staying up until the sun rose and I finished the last few pages outside on the dewy grass. I try to be as frank as possible about my own ongoing struggles with depression, but I will never come close to the accuracy and honesty with which Haig describes the impact of the illness on his life. My absolute favourite part of the book is when Haig explains how books helped him through the worst times. This resonates deeply with me;

Light was everything. Sunshine, windows with the blinds open. Pages with short chapters and lots of white space and short paragraphs. Light was everything. But so, increasingly, were books. I read and read and read with an intensity I'd never really known before. I mean, I'd always considered myself to be a person who liked books. But there is a difference between liking books and needing them. I needed books. They weren't a luxury good during that time in my life. They were a Class A addictive substance. I'd have gladly got into serious debt to read (indeed, I did.) I think I read more books in those six months than I had done during five years of university education and I'd certainly fallen deeper into the worlds conjured on the page.

Global Soul - Pico Iyer. How has it taken me so long to discover Pico Iyer? I read 3 of his books this month and adored every page.  I first came across him in an article by (I think) Rolf Potts and have finally gotten around to diving into his work. 

This is a book about the search for a home in a world where everyone is always on the move. It is a look at the impact of globalisation on the race of individuals it has created;  free floating, jet lagged, bilingual nomadic people. Parts are dense and dizzying, but that was part of the appeal for me. It's the kind of feeling I got when I (an Israeli living in England) sat down to dinner with a Spaniard who lives in France and an American who lives in Russia - a convoluted mess of languages and cultural references which left everyone confused. 

Humans A-Z - Matt Haig.  I actually bought this book by accident, intending to order something else. It's a short, funny look at the quirks of humanity as seen by an alien. 

Torch - Cheryl Strayed. Much like Pico Iyer, I cannot fathom how it has taken me this long to start reading Strayed's books.  This is a hopelessly beautiful book about a family dealing with the sudden loss of a mother. Strayed has a knack for imbuing mundane situations with significance, and portraying the rich world in each character's head.

Grief was a clear unintentional theme throughout this month's reading. I don't tend to pick books with the intention of them following a theme, but it always happens. I have lost (in different ways) a number of people who were close to me over the last couple of months, and have been looking for answers as to how to fill the blank spaces left behind. Just like Reasons to Stay Alive and When Breath Becomes Air, this was exactly the book I needed at this point in time. 

Falling Off The Map - Pico Iyer. A collection of essays about the lonely places of the world- discordant, misfit countries which aren't quite like anywhere else. He covers his time in a handful of mismatches places: North Korea, Argentina, Cuba, Iceland, Bhutan, Vietnam, Paraguay and Australia. Having been written in the 80s and 90s, parts of the book are quite dated yet that makes me love it all the more. Iyer manages to preserve some essence of each place, depicting crystalline moments with locals, the diverse landscapes he encounters, the bizarre cultural idiosyncracies. It's funny without ever mocking the people and places he encounters and the whole book gave me a serious case of wanderlust. 

“Lonely Places, then are the places that are not on international wavelengths, do not know how to carry themselves, are lost when it comes to visitors. They are shy, defensive, curious places; places that do not know how they are supposed to behave... Lonely Places attract as many lonely people as they produce, and the loneliness we see in them is partly in ourselves.” 

Around The World In 80 Days - Jules Verne.  Reread. Another childhood favourite which brings back vivid memories of the days when I used to read under my desk at school. It goes well with Global Soul, as a look at the frenetic nature of a globalised world and questions the intrinsic value of endless movement about the globe.