After beginning seemingly every reading round up for the last half a year with the observation that it was an unusually hectic month, I’ve come to accept that this is just my life. I didn’t get a whole lot of reading done, mostly due to a pressing need to sleep 12 hours a day due to a combination of illness and the circadian rhythm confusion the start of winter always throws me into. I turned 21 this month (prompting a small crisis as all birthdays do) and am currently preparing myself for starting freelancing again in the near future.
Here’s what I read this month.
How To Change The World - John Paul Flintoff
Another School of Life book, making an even more audacious claim than the others. It’s an inspiring, not overwhelming, read describing the power we have to create change through small actions - provided we recognise we have the option:
‘An actor lying flat on his face before a seemingly powerful king knows that there is an alternative: at any moment, he could get up and do something else, with tremendous effect. In real life we also have the ability to step outside of our normal role and do something else, but we often forget it - if we ever knew.’
Change is made by people no different to us:
‘...what once seemed impossible looks ordinary after it is accomplished.’
How To Worry Less About Money - John Armstrong
Another School of Life book. Everyone, John Armstrong posits, worries about money - we just all do it in different ways. We try to solve these worries by making more money, or spending less, or managing our money in different ways. But those approaches ignore the origins of our anxieties. These comes from the culture we’re raised in and the beliefs we hold.
Armstrong runs through his own catalogue of money concerns and unpicks
Money is a repository for so much emotional weight which is why this book is so interesting:
‘One's relationship with money is lifelong; it colors one's sense of identity; it shapes one's attitude to other people; it connects and splits generations; money is an arena in which greed and generosity are played out, in which wisdom is exercised and folly committed. Freedom, desire, power, status, work, possession; these huge ideas that rule life are enacted, almost always, in and around money.’
Gossip From The Forest - Sara Maitland
As with the last of Sara Maitland’s books I read, I stretched this one out, reading it slowly and luxuriously over the course of a week. And as with the last one, the location where I ended up reading much of it was perfectly apt. On the coach back from visiting my mother in my hometown, driving through the New Forest and the endless expanse of surrounding woodland, I started this wonderful exploration of the links between fairy stories and forests.
Gossip From The Forest blends together descriptions of Maitland’s own walks through woodlands, canny retellings of traditional stories with a more emotional bent, biology, history, sociology, anthropology, psychology, and every other imaginable topic and its role in the development of lore. Folklore is about more than stories. It’s something we’re losing now, a relic from the days when people had more leisure and fewer entertainment options:
‘Storytelling is economically unproductive - there is no marketable product; it is out with the laws of patents and copyright; it cannot be easily commodified...And above all, it is an activity requiring leisure.’
As a result, we’ve diminished their importance and failed to see them as pure outgrowths of human nature and the way landscapes inspire our dreams and fears:
‘...when people could read and be productive after day, something very fundamentally changed, and there was no longer need or span for the ancient oral tradition. The stories were often confined to books, which makes the text static, and they were handed over to children.’
Fairy stories have their own, twisted logic:
‘In as much as these stories have a peodalogical or ethical thrust, it is not ‘don’t go into the forest’ or ‘stay home and be safe.’ It is, ‘Go into the forest, but go cannily.’ Some strangers are dangerous; some, however, are very helpful - you cannot tell which by appearances...so learn to discriminate. Be polite, caring of your environment and hard working. Above all, keep your wits about.’
‘I believe it a distinct forest magic that grew out of the experience of living in the woods, where you cannot see far ahead and things change abruptly...They are leftover traces of a more chthonic social mode in which animism rules and the spirits of place were powerful and almost divine.’
This book does suffer from a lot of unscrupulous assumption-making and unsubstantiated claims, which I forgave at the time of reading because the writing is a delight, but which bothered me afterwards. I find folklore fascinating (I’ve listened to every episode of Lore and Myths & Legends podcasts, many multiple times) yet still find it worth acknowledging that there’s nothing that makes these stories intrinsically superior to modern entertainments.
How Proust Can Change Your Life - Alain de Botton
I’ve ready most of de Botton’s books at this point, but left this one because I’ve never read Proust (and yes, I probably should.) Still, I read it anyway and the lessons it draws from Proust’s work have value even without much familiarity with it. This book touches on numerous different ideas, with my personal favorite being the link between suffering and learning:
‘..feeling things is at some level linked to the acquisition of knowledge. A sprained ankle quickly teaches us about body weight distribution, hiccups force us to notice and adjust to hitherto unknown aspects of the respiratory system, being jilted by a lover is the perfect introduction to the mechanisms of emotional dependency...we don’t really learn anything properly until there is a problem, until we are in pain, until something fails to go as we hoped.’
‘We suffer therefore we think and we do so because it helps up place pain in context, it helps us to understand its origins, plot its dimensions, and reconcile ourselves to its presence. It follows that ideas that have arisen without pain lack an important source of motivation.’
As well as the need to look at our lives in the right way and discover the meaning and beauty inherent in them:
...our dissatisfaction may be the result of failing to look properly at our lives rather than the result of anything inherently deficient about them.
And the benefits of deprivation:
‘Deprivation quickly drives us into a process of appreciation, which is not to say that we have to be deprived to appreciate things, but rather than we should learn a lesson from what we naturally do when we lack something, and apply it to conditions where we don’t.’
22 Immutable Laws of Marketing - Al Ries & Jack Trout
I am first and foremost a writer, but my work falls under the umbrella of marketing and sometimes I need to remind myself of that by reading books like this. The authors draw on their own experience to compile 22 core marketing principles, each illustrated with instances of companies that violated or compiled with that law. It’s plainly written, but the principles are wildly useful.
No Boundary - Ken Wilber
This review will be woefully incomplete because I haven’t finished process this book yet. Someone recommended Ken Wilber to me a few months ago after I wrote a post about gurus (thank you!) and because it’s an entirely new topic to me, it was hard not to be overawed and slightly shaken by No Boundary. It’s a rare book that benefits from being repetitive at times because the concepts Wilber runs through take multiple reads to begin sinking in.
The basic premise is: we live in a world of boundaries and constantly draw new ones. If asked to draw a boundary around ourselves, most of us will begin with the body as the line between self/not self. But then we’ll also declare we are not our bodies and draw another boundary around the soul. Then we draw more boundaries within the sole - we may say we are ‘not ourselves’ when we are drunk, mentally ill, very tired, or unwell. We keep creating divisions which become battle lines and sources of conflict. Yet these boundaries are artificial. Wilber goes into detail about why that’s the case, how we can begin to dissolve them, and why.
It’s sparked a sudden shift in my perception and is one of the most extraordinary books I’ve read for a while.
Do / Purpose - David Hieatt
Another one of those trite, over illustrated books of vague motivational platitudes which I keep ending up reading out of some sort of selective amnesia.
The Art of Learning - Josh Waitzkin
I listened to Josh Waitzkin’s interview with Tim Ferriss maybe two years ago and intended to read this ever since. The tacky cover is off-putting (let’s face it, we all do judge books by their covers), but inside it’s compelling and beautifully written. Alternating between guidance and personal narrative, Waitzkin describes his rise to the top of the worlds of competitive chess and Tai Chi, and the learning techniques that enabled it. His resilience and ability to turn setbacks into advantages are particularly fascinating.
Dear Ijeawele - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
A funny, sweet little book based on a letter Adichie wrote to a friend, listing her advice for raising a feminist baby girl. Through 15 suggestions, she talks about the burden of tradition (‘People will selectively use 'tradition' to justify anything.’), the need to avoid seeing marriage as a woman’s greatest achievement (‘A marriage can be happy or unhappy but it is not an achievement.’), the importance of encouraging children to read, breaking gender norms, and the ludicrous expectation that being nice is the most important thing (‘Her job is not to be liable, her job is to be her full self, a self that is honest and aware of the equality of all humans.’) I don’t intend to have kids, but would strongly recommend this book to anyone who does or might one day.
The Bloody Chamber - Angela Carter
This was the perfect book to read right after Gossip From The Forests - a late ‘70s retelling of traditional fairy stories which drags them so far from the original bent as to essentially render them almost unrecognisable. Yet the fact that the stories are still, just about, identifiable is proof of the rich role they occupy in our culture. And the fact that Carter takes them to such far flung angles shows that these stories survive because they are so malleable, so suited to oral tradition. It’s a glorious, sensual book that I intend to read many more times.
At times (okay, a lot of the time), the prose feels overworked, reminiscent of the college essays I wrote with a thesaurus in hand, swapping every possible word for a more inscrutable alternative. I had to reach for a dictionary numerous times, which is always humbling as someone who considers myself to have a relatively rich vocabulary.
That’s it for this month - as always feel free to get in touch and let me know what you’ve been reading.