I didn’t post a book round-up last month, so now I’m lumping together November and December. This marks two years of posting these and it’s proving to be a perfect way to keep track of what I read.
Looking to next year, I definitely want to make a commitment to read more books by women and more diverse authors. Only about 20 of the books I read in 2018 were by female authors. While that represents more of a bias in the publishing industry than on my part, I need to make a conscious effort to ensure I’m not only absorbing a narrow view of the world.
I’m also committing to not working on Sundays and instead devoting the day to reading because I got through far fewer books than usual this year. Yes, it might seem like I read a fair amount, but considering my lack of other commitments, I don’t. Working every day is not productive. Knowing I have boundless time removes any sense of urgency, so I work slower than I should. My intention is to keep work to weekdays, blogging and other projects for Saturdays, leaving evenings and Sundays free for books. I doubt I’ll get less work done, and will hopefully get my reading back on track.
On the plus side, I got a lot better at keeping notes from most of what I read.
Oh, and I used to have a little ebook called Smart Reading available on my site. I removed this as I wasn’t happy with the quality and it proved to not be fully compatible with all Kindle devices. Bringing out an updated, better-formatted version is another goal for 2019.
Here’s what I read over the last two months.
Why Grow Up? : Subversive Thoughts For An Infantile Age — Susan Neiman
I’ve only recently begun to acknowledge that, for whatever reason, I’ve had a horrible fear of getting old since early childhood. I never wanted to grow up and still devote a lot of energy to worrying about wasting time and about the unbearable uncertainty of the future. So I’ve been seeking out books like this one, which is one of my favourites from this year.
In Why Grow Up? Susan Neiman questions the assumption that growing up ‘is widely accepted to be a matter of renouncing your hopes and dreams, accepting the limits of the reality you are given, and resigning yourself to a life that will be less adventurous, worthwhile and significant than you supposed when you began it.’She views our cultural obsession with youth as a means of keeping us infantile, blind to the realities of the world, reluctant to take political action or question things.
Neiman paints a more positive idea of maturity: ‘ With the passing of time and the accumulation of experience, things get repeated and the more the repetition the less the surprise. As surprise recedes, so does passion…Life is dimmer and duller but it doesn’t hurt so much, either. Those of us who once thrilled to dance and dream until dawn are now content to retire earlier to a good bed and pillow. The edge is missing but so is the hangover. You have learned not to count much on things outside you.’
She talks of learning to be self-reliant, comfortable with uncertainty, self-aware and freer. Importantly, she also acknowledges that the times portrayed as the best parts of our lives are frequently the opposite: ‘The time of reaching legal maturity…may be the hardest time of your life. Too much is in the foreground…every choice has so much weight as to feel immovable. The pressure to get it all right is enormous: this course of study, this job, this love will determine your fate ever after.’
There are numerous other significant ideas contained within this book — an emphasis on travel and moving countries as part of the route to maturity (which is what inspired me to make the decision to leave England next year), a look at the way our experiences of books change over time, examining how social media robs us of our lives, questioning the youth=beauty equation, and this sheer gem:
‘Remember thinking you were alone in wasting your nights with uncertainty, anxiety and heartbreak while others were all savoring their youth? Chances are you looked as carefree as they did. Those who looked braver than you felt were feeling as you were, they just whistled louder in the dark. The confidence that arises when you grasp that is itself a tremendous source of pleasure, allowing you forms of boldness and freedom the young rarely know. You discover what you want, not what you are expected to want and you know something about how to get it. You care far less about what people think of you, though you may be more useful to them.’
States of Mind: Experiences at the Edge of Consciousness — An Anthology
A collection of artwork, poetry, science, short stories, and literature extracts from the last five centuries all concerning human consciousness and its more unusual forms. The creators whose work is included look at ideas like language, dreams, truth, amnesia, insomnia, synaesthesia, memory loss, and the like. The mixture is somewhat disjointed, yet thought-provoking.
I read two books on conversation: The Fine Art of Small Talk by Deborah Fine and How To Talk to Anyone by Leil Lowndes, both sent to me by readers (thank you.) To be blunt, both authors sound intolerably judgmental and abrasive. But both books to reiterate the key conversational concepts that don’t come naturally to all of us — reasonable eye contact, asking questions, making a conscious effort, friendly body language, active listening, starting conversations etc.
My Morning Routine — Benjamin Spall and Michael Xander
I’ve been trying to stop reading this type of ‘do what successful people do and you will be successful!’ book and evidently failing. However, if you ignore that implicit assumption, it is genuinely interesting to read about how people start their days. If you’re trying to improve your mornings (as I currently am), it offers a bit of inspiration.
To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Persuading, Convincing and Influencing Others — Daniel Pink
Daniel Pink’s thesis is that we are all salespeople — rather than sales being a niche job occupied by specialists, it is now part of virtually every job and most us of devote a substantial portion of our time to persuading others to give up their time, money and attention. Pink provides a series of exercises and ideas for improving your ability to persuade, while thoroughly debunking the notion of salespeople as sleazy and manipulative. In particular, he emphasises how teachers need to sell their students on ideas. I did find that the sales metaphor is stretched a bit thin at times.
The Science of Meditation: How To Change Your Brain, Mind and Body — Daniel Goleman and Richard J Davidson
‘Ordinarily, our thoughts compel us: our loathing or self loathing generates one set of feelings and actions, our romantic fantasies quite another. But with strong mindfulness we can experience a deep sense in which self-loathing and romantic thoughts are the same: like all other thoughts, these are passing moments of the mind. We don’t have to be chased through the day by our thoughts — they are a continuous series of short features, previews and outtakes in the theater of the mind.’
Unlike most books and articles on meditation, The Science does not lapse into wild exaggerations or misreadings of the research, to the tune of ‘science proves meditating cures depression in just 7 days!’ It doesn’t make any outlandish claims at all. In fact, some parts are quite disappointing if you look at them through the lens of expecting instant gratification. The authors spend the majority of the book explaining the issues and limitations with most research into meditation, the ways findings are often misconstrued, and the process of their own research. It genuinely is about the science of meditation, more than meditation in itself. Even so, it’s practical and taught me an enormous amount, particularly regarding the distinctions between different types of meditation and their unique benefits.
The Lonely City — Olivia Laing
“The revelation of loneliness, the omnipresent, unanswerable feeling that I was in a state of lack, that I didn’t have what people were supposed to, and that this was down to some grave and no doubt externally unmistakeable failing in my person: all this had quickened lately, the unwelcome consequence of being so summarily dismissed.”
Moving to a new city (or even travelling there for a while) can be one of the most alienating and isolating experiences imaginable. All day, you’re surrounded by crowds of people, swamping you on the subway, in coffee shops, in the streets, as you wander.
But when you get back to your apartment, close the door and pull the blinds, you feel like you might as well be stranded on a desert island hundreds of miles from anyone.
To be alone in a crowd is somehow the least pleasant type of solitude.You stand at your window and look out at the lights, at the traffic, at other people in their own homes, Rear Window style. Olivia Laing moved to New York for a relationship, only for it to disappear. Finding herself alone in the city, she opts to sink into and explore the experience instead of immediately rushing to escape it. She finds solace in the lives and works of several lonely artists, including Andy Warhol, Hopper, Valerie Solanas, Henry Darger, and David Wojnarowicz. She visits archival materials and the places they lingered, she inhabits their worlds and their attempts to escape loneliness.
This is what makes the book so fascinating. I’ve never had much interest in Warhol and previously had only a passing awareness of most of the other artists mentioned. Laing’s writing humanises them and sent me down delightful rabbit holes exploring their work.
I expected this to be, as the subtitle suggests, an attack on aiming for mediocrity. In reality, Todd Rose completely dismantles the whole concept of averages (one of those ideas so integral it’s hard to even notice, let alone question) and its pervasive influence on everything from education to neuroscience. For example, neuroscience is often based on studies that scan a lot of people’s brains, then produce an average scan, which is taken as the ideal. But it’s usually the case that none of the individual scans bears much resemblance to the average. In education, the focus in averages obscures the crucial nature of individual variations and flattens everyone towards a non-existent ideal. This is one of the rare books that genuinely has the potential to change how you think. Strongly recommended if you’re still studying (or have children who are.)
Silence: In The Age of Noise — Erling Kagge
Erling Kagge is a wilderness explorer whose exploits have taken him deep into the heart of silence, including a nearly two months long trip alone across Antarctica, on foot. There’s something special and frightening about the solitude people experience on these kinds of trips, hence his nuanced perception of the value of silence.
Kagge views inner silence as a necessity, but also a mirage. True silence doesn’t really exist — even in a sensory deprivation chamber, the sound of one’s heartbeat becomes deafening. Instead, we find stillness wherever we can:
“Standing in the shower, letting the water wash over your head, sitting in front of a crackling fire, swimming across a forest lake or taking a walk in a field: all of these can be experiences of perfect stillness too.”
Silence, Kagge writes, is not about turning away from the world, it’s about diving deeper into it and learning to see things with greater clarity and appreciation.
Silence (Object Lessons) — John Biguenet
This book is part of a series on the hidden lives of ordinary things. John Biguenet explores the meaning and value of silence as an object in itself. He considers it’s different meanings.
Silence is a luxury commodity: just think of airport lounges or expensive cars. Silence is a weapon: think of a terrorist refusing to confess or the way we give people the silent treatment or how the oppressed are denied a voice. Silence is a blank canvas: think of a child’s doll or a ventriloquist’s dummy.
Solitude: In Pursuit of a Singular Life in a Crowded World — Michael Harris
‘Solitude has become a resource. Like all resources, it can be harvested and hoarded, taken up by powerful forces without permission or inquiry, and then transformed into private wealth…we won’t bother to protect our solitude until we realise it has a value.’
The first half or so of this book felt like a forced essay writing exercise. I couldn’t detect a modicum of passion for the topic in the author, nor could I fathom why he was writing about something he appeared to have no interest in. My perspective is skewed because I don’t, for example, find it abnormal to do something like going abroad alone for a few weeks, but Harris’ dives into solitude (e.g. going for a walk alone for a couple of hours) felt shallow. Compared to the other books I’ve read on the topic, he didn’t seem to have much interest in either experimenting with solitude or considering its cultural significance.
I was on the verge of giving up on it when things got more interesting, as Harris started to seemingly put more of himself in the book and talk in more personal terms about the ways we are losing the ability to be fully connected to ourselves and our surroundings. I particularly liked his exploration of how Google Maps prevents us from getting lost, thereby taming unknown surroundings and removing the element of surprise. This inspired me to use Google Maps as little as possible while spending a week walking around Paris alone and I found a lot of enjoyment in letting myself get lost. Pairs nicely with Why Grow Up?
Enemies of Promise — Cyril Connolly
My favourite bookstore in London always has a box of dirt cheap old books outside, from which I pick at random because the owner has amazing taste and I’ve yet to come home with a single mediocre book. This is one of them. This book divides into two parts. In the first, Connolly examines what it takes to write a book that will survive a decade or more (which cannot be said for 99.999% of books.) This part is full of gems:
‘ A writer has no greater pleasure than to reach people; nobody dislikes isolation more than an artist, a difficult artist most of all — but he must reach them by fair means — if he flatters them, if he screams at them, begs from them, lectures them or plays confidence tricks on them, he will appeal only to those worthless elements, and it is they who will throw him over.’
‘…for a book to be produced with any hope of lasting half a generation, of outliving a dog or cat, of surviving the lease of a house or the life of a bottle of champagne, it must be written against the current, in a prose that makes demands both on the resources of our language and the intelligence of the reader…it must borrow art and patience, the striving for perfection, the horror of cliches, the creative delight in the material.’
The second part is autobiographical, describing Connolly’s childhood and education, which was mostly quite tedious. Pairs nicely with This Side of Paradise.
Fight Club — Chuck Palahniuk
Reread. It still hasn’t lost its punch. For some reason, I find this book calming so I like rereading it when things are overwhelming.
What Makes Sammy Run? — Budd Schulberg
‘What the hell makes him important enough to hate?’
From the same second-hand bookstore. I have an unconscious prejudice against books with question/exclamation marks in the titles because it seems to give a cheap paperback trash feel. But I’m glad I did pick this one up. The title is appropriate; the book is devoted to answering that question. In almost any field, there is a sharp divide between those who try to get to the top through sincere, honest hard work and those who do it by taking credit for the work of others, lying, scheming, and manipulating. Sammy Glick is a composite of the latter group, a Hollywood screenwriter who barely writes anything himself, instead climbing to the heights of success by merrily wrecking the careers of others. Ultimately, his success is hollow and empty. Schulberg’s writing is razor sharp (here is an author who enjoys playing with language), as he pulls together this Machiavellian character and the others who swim in his wake. Schulberg is bitter, aggressive, and wonderfully.
Henry Darger — Klaus Bisenbach
The chapter on Henry Darger in The Lonely City was one of my favourite parts. For the uninitiated, Darger was an outsider artist from Chicago, who died in 1973, leaving behind a home crammed to the ceiling with writing and artwork. Darger led a painful, lonely life: he grew up in a series of institutions, never dated, only ever had one friend who died after a short while, and worked the same menial job for decades. He attended church three or four times a day, hoarded art materials and never showed his work to anyone. In addition to a 15,000-page book (the longest work of fiction ever produced), Darger painted thousands of scenes of children, animals, fantasy creatures, evil soldiers, extreme weather events, and landscapes. His work is dark yet innocent, childish yet full of pain.
I found myself crying at his final diary entry, written on new year because it was starkly similar to one last year after spending it alone — I can’t face another year like this. While I couldn’t justify the cost of a book of his work, my landlord lent me this one, which includes reproductions of Darger’s work, discussions of his wider influence, a biography of the artist, and analysis of his techniques. It’s one of those impressive coffee-table type books that gives a real sense of the true visual impact of his work.
Civilisation: The West And The Rest — Niall Ferguson
‘The dead outnumber the living, in other words, fourteen to one, and we ignore the accumulated experience of such a huge majority of mankind at our peril.’
For the last five centuries, the west has dominated the rest of the world, in everything from medicine and warfare, and from education to clothing. But, Niall Ferguson asks, why? Looking back five centuries, Eastern civilisation dominated, while Europe was largely a sickly backwater plagued by disease and conflict. This book is an attempt to identify the factors that contributed to the shift in power.
Ferguson pointed to six ‘killer apps’ that enabled this power shift: competition, science, property rights, medicine, consumerism, and the Christian work ethic. Condensing five centuries of global history into a single book is no mean feat, but it never feels particularly rushed or shallow. He also considers how the balance is now shifting and heading in the opposite direction.
Useful Work vs Useless Toil — William Morris
‘Thus worthy work carries with it the hope of the pleasure of rest, the hope of the pleasure in using what it makes, and the hope of pleasure in our daily creative skills.’
A series of lectures by artist and thinker William Morris, with the first (and most interesting), focused on the question of what makes work meaningful and useful. One Amazon reviewer described it as ‘a must read for anyone who works for a living!’ and I can’t say I disagree, or that much has changed since Morris wrote this, particularly regarding rest:
‘We must feel while we are working that the time will come when we shall not have to work. Also the rest, when it comes, must be long enough to allow us to enjoy it; it must be longer than is merely necessary for us to recover the strength we have expended in working, and it must be animal rest also in this, that it must not be disturbed by anxiety, else we shall not be able to enjoy it.’
Days of Reading — Marcel Proust
‘There are no days of my childhood which I lived so fully perhaps as those I thought I left behind without living them, those I spent with a favourite book.’
Another in the Penguin Great Ideas Series, consisting of a few essays on the joys of reading and Proust’s adoration of Ruskin. Beautifully written and charming throughout.
This Side of Paradise — F Scott Fitzgerald
I bought this from one of the little stalls that line the Seine (and yes, I like recording where my books come from.) I read the whole thing because it’s a classic, but can’t say I particularly enjoyed it, although that may be because of the similarities to Enemies of Promise, which I read shortly before. In summary, This Side charts the life of Amory Blaine, a semi-autobiographical character, as he navigates school, heartbreak, a seemingly unproductive adult life, and so on.