A full list of books I recommend
Each month, I post a list of everything I’ve read during the last four weeks. Here’s a complete list of the books I would recommend from 2017 and 2018 - my absolute favourites, excluding the ones I merely liked or didn’t finish. You can find lists of everything I’ve read in the archive. (These reviews are 100% my own opinion and are never sponsored.)
A History of God — Karen Armstrong. I have to admit it: I chose this book because it seemed like an impossible topic to cover in a single book. Somehow, Armstrong manages to craft a rich, compelling narrative that never feels incomplete or rushed. Considering how sensitive, debatable, and historically questionable much of the content it, Armstrong does a marvellous job of traversing the history of the concept of god and its unique significance in all human societies. She looks at how the three major religions developed, the links between them, the lives of their major figures and early followers, and how they helped them survive. Of particular interest, Armstrong states that many of their early followers were marginalised groups in society, like women and slaves, who were more amenable to a new system of belief that promised to improve their lot in life. Yet as those same religions evolved, they became a tool for subjugating those same people. I learned an extraordinary amount from this book and came away with a multitude of new perspectives. The downside is that the middle third or so gets far too into the weeds with terminology and combines far too many threads of thought for a reader without pre-existing knowledge of the topic to keep track.
Left Bank: Art, Passion, and the Rebirth of Paris, 1940–50 — Agnes Poirier (Indiebound) The sort of non-fiction that shows reality can be even more beautiful than fiction. Left Bank begins with WW2, then tells the story of an intermingled group of individuals — writers, artists, poets, photographers — who inhabited the same social, geographical and philosophical space post-war. Poirier manages to turn the chaos of human life, let alone dozens of human lives, into a neat, elegant narrative. She tells of the every day lives and loves of people like Simone de Beauvoir, James Baldwin, Picasso, Albert Camus and others. The ongoing undercurrent is an attempt to define what gave Paris its cultural significance at the time and since. Visiting Paris, the past always feels present, as if the 1940 and 50s linger around a corner. In London, the past is torn up as soon as possible, to make something new.
What It Means To Be Human : Reflections From 1791 To The Present — Joanna Bourke (Indiebound) This book takes as its starting point a letter written in 1872, by an anonymous person going by ‘An earnest Englishwoman’ who raises the question: are women animals? As with what else I’ve ready of Bourke’s work, she takes this seemingly innocuous starting point and spins out of it an incredibly dense, far-reaching yet organised book that touches on innumerable topics, without straying too far from its starting point. Bourke carries out an extensive exploration of how we define humanity. Throughout history, people have found endless ways to draw the line between human and animal, often to justify the exploitation of certain groups. People have used science as justification for their definitions and created entire pseudosciences to support their views. To discuss humanity is to discuss rights; who deserves what treatment and why. But as Bourke explains, it is more often rights that make the human, not the other way around. There’s a lot in this- Darwin, vegetarianism, cannibalism, medical ethics, cosmetic surgery, segregation, slavery, and more- and I got a lot out of it.
Close To The Knives: A Memoir Of Disintegration — David Wojnarowicz. I first heard about Wojnarowicz from Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City and knew from there that I would adore his work. Close To Knives is a collection of essays about Wojnarowicz’s life, many of them focusing on the AIDs crisis and his experience of seeing almost everyone close to him succumb to the disease as he too was dying of it. He talks about his abusive father, about living on the streets, about his time as a sex worker, about malnutrition and drug addiction, about the suicide of a friend, about travelling and driving, and seeing or being subject to scenes of violence that are entirely unbearable to read. The essay where Wojnarowicz intersperses descriptions of a bloody bullfight he watched in Mexico with descriptions of his abusive father is particularly phenomenal and agonising. Parts lapse into unabashed rants but, as with What Makes Sammy Run? the unrestrained emotion only strengthens the book.
It was remarkable to see how far we’ve come in terms of attitudes to queerness in less than three decades. And how much further we have left to go. And how important it is not to forget how recent the events Wojnarowicz describes were. When I asked my mother about her memories of the AIDs crisis, her response was unintentionally poignant — “I don’t even remember the names of everyone I knew who died.” If you weren’t alive (or aware) at the time, this book does a lot to show, beyond the statistics, the sheer human toll.
Some books simply sink to the back of your memory about the final page, others linger around for weeks, odd words and phrases resurfacing at will. This book is in the latter category and was the first book for a while to make me cry.
Fear of Flying — Erica Jong. Incidentally, I read this on a plane. Not on purpose. It is a good plane read, though. Fear of Flying is sometimes categorised as the first book to portray female desire, except, you know, actually written by a woman. Ground-breaking. It’s a memoir masquerading as fiction, though interesting enough to get away with that. Isadora, the protagonist, is at a Freudian analysts’ conference with her analyst husband, when she finds a suitable figure to project her fantasies on in the form of another analyst. In a bid to find a simulacrum of freedom, she leaves her husband and goes on a road trip across Europe — which sounds romantic but has about the same miserable, charmless sense of impending doom as the road trip in Lolita. Along the way, she reflects on writing, femininity, her family, children, her early relationships, her mother, her husband, and all that.
I don’t agree with those who categorise this as erotica. There are very few actual sex scenes and I can’t recall one that wasn’t tragic in some way or even enjoyable for the protagonist. Fear of Flying might have been a bit far out at the time, but I don’t think Jong was trying to be titillating. If she was, she fails. It makes more sense as a book about women and art, as Isadora tries to reconcile her desire to be a writer with the expectation that she be a good wife and mother (favourite line: ‘But I was not a good woman. I had too many things to do.”) Personally, I found parts of it — in particular the descriptions of her mother and her conflicted, casual relationship with Judaism — incredibly relatable. It’s the sort of book I wish I’d read as a teenager.
Shakespeare: The Biography — Peter Ackroyd. When this book arrived in the mail, I felt wildly sceptical about how anyone could possibly write a 500-page book on Shakespeare. Surely we know almost nothing about him? Doesn’t his biography fit onto a couple of pages, at best?
Somehow, Ackroyd achieves the impossible and writes what must be the most comprehensive biography of Shakespeare around, filling every page with rich detail without ever seeming to waffle or include irrelevant tangents. His research clearly left no stone unturned. Ackroyd’s underlying intention appears to be proving that Shakespeare did write his own plays, by tracing the links between events and influences in his life and his work — e.g. looking at the references to his father’s profession in his plays, or people from his hometown showing up as characters. It clearly takes enormous skill to build a narrative out of the fragmentary, often controversial and often contradictory, bits of information we have about the bard.
There is a bit of repetition which is perhaps to be expected in a book of this length and which I probably wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn’t read it over the course of a few days. There are also points where Ackroyd assigns motivations to Shakespeare or makes strong assumptions based on tenuous evidence. This does make the book come alive a bit more and go beyond listing facts, yet it does require reading with the awareness that Ackroyd’s interpretations are subjective.
The Story of Pain: From Prayer to Painkillers — Joanna Bourke. This is a unique book in the way it takes an abstract, seemingly mundane concept (pain) we’re all familiar with and crafts a whole new way of viewing it. Bourke traces the way people have experienced pain over the centuries, covering pain relief, medicine, empathy, religion, metaphor, and other angles.
The main thesis of The Story of Pain is that pain is not an objective experience, nor is it an entirely physical one. The way we feel pain is tied up with every other aspect of our lives; our understanding of our own anatomy, the availability of pain relief, our sense of pain as something strengthening or weakening, our sense of purpose, or the presence of others. It’s not physical, it’s social. It is used as a form of social control — groups in power at any point in history will often claim that marginalised groups are less able, or even altogether unable, to feel pain than them as a form of dehumanisation. To deny that someone can feel pain is to deny them relief or sympathy, or to reconstruct their experience as a form of weakness or malingering.
Love, War and Circuses: The Age-Old Relationship Between Humans & Elephants — Eric Scigliano. It’s not hard to argue that elephants captivate us in a way no other animal does.
Love, War & Circuses traces the relationship between us and elephants, beginning with how they may have directed our early evolution and migrations. Scigliano looks at the way elephants have inserted themselves into religion, superstition, industry, art, geography, entertainment, conservation and more. We worship them. We tell stories of their antics to our children. We revere their teeth in much the same way as gold. We go on borderline pilgrimages to see them. We paint and sculpt them in countless ways. Yet at the same time, we also take them into battle. We slaughter them in the millions for their body parts. We treat them as slaves. We confine them in zoos and abuse them in circuses. We destroy their habitats and kill them when they become inconvenient. As Scigliano points out, they are the only zoo animal a keeper would even think of striking in response to bad behaviour. It’s as if we so absolutely believe our own stories that we accord malicious intent to their natural behaviour. We forget the reality of elephants, as creatures in their own right and not just in relation to us.
This is an exquisitely researched book, dense with rich detail and accounts of the author’s trips to visit elephants in different places. It was published 15 years ago so parts are presumably quite out of date (especially around conservation), which doesn’t make it any less worth reading.
The Artist and The Mathematician: The Story of Nicholas Bourbaki, The Genius Mathematician Who Never Existed — Amir D Aczel. In the late 1930s, a mysterious mathematician, Nicholas Bourbaki of Poldevia, set about revolutionising the way mathematics was taught. But despite his wide influence, Bourbaki never existed. He was the creation of a group of prominent mathematicians who collaborated on a series of books intended to form the basis of future teaching. Their methods were unorthodox, but their output was incredible. Aczel tells the life stories of the group’s members, examining how the cultural landscape of the time brought them together with the shared belief that mathematics needed updating. He also explains how the rise of structuralism at the time played its part.
This might be one of my new favourite books, although it’s the sort you need to read with an open mind, without expecting it to be any one thing in particular. It’s not really about maths, biographies of the people mentioned, history, art, structuralism, France or any defined topic. It’s a fascinating mixture of all of the above without covering anything in detail. Best viewed as a jumping off point for exploring other topics.
The Year of Magical Thinking — Joan Didion. It’s embarrassing to admit that I’m only just getting into Joan Didion. There are so many books and time is finite and sometimes wonderful authors slip through the cracks. After repeatedly coming across references to Didion in a short time, I finally got a copy of this and now can’t wait to read the rest of her books. The Year of Magical Thinking is about the time following the death of her husband, John, at the same time as her daughter is in hospital. It’s lucid and painful, raw and still measured. I don’t get the impression this was a therapeutic book to write. Sometimes those with the ability and inclination to write about painful experiences have a responsibility of sorts to do so.
Queer City : Gay London From The Romans To The Present Day — Peter Ackroyd. There’s always something delightful about learning the history of where you live and Peter Ackroyd’s books about London are no exception. Queer City traces the lives of queer people who have lived in London from the time of the Romans, tracking the changing legal limitations, the role of certain industries (like theatre) and places (like public bathrooms, bathhouses, and bars), the AIDs crisis, and moral panics. The book is exquisitely researched, although it does devolve into slightly disorganised lists of information pulled from sources without much analysis at times.
The main appeal of this book is the way it shows that attitudes are never fixed and that history is not linear. Throughout the centuries, the laws and beliefs surrounding queer people have gone through cycles of acceptance and ostracisation. Mostly, changes in attitudes are the result of the preferences of whoever was in charge at the time — one person has the power to skew an entire society’s beliefs. But it seems safe to say that things are on a strong upward trend since the end of the Second World War and that’s one of the things I love the most about this city and have benefitted from the most since moving here.
Women and Power: A Manifesto — Mary Beard. In this timely perhaps a little too brief, book based on two lectures, Mary Beard looks at the historical link between women and power; the way it has been denied, subverted, ridiculed, ignored and sometimes grasped. Ultimately, she views the existing power structures as something which need redefining to fit everyone, instead of adhering to a template built for and by men. In the same way that Queer London does a wonderful job of showing how the past links to the present; the line between the trolls who harass Beard on Twitter and the way women were shut up in their homes in ancient times.
We Are Never Meeting In Real Life — Samantha Irby. (This was sent to me by a reader — thank you.) Sometimes in the rush to read books that teach us things, it’s easy to forget just how funny books can be too. We Are Never Meeting In Real Life is one of the funniest books I have ever read and I’m sorry for anyone who had to sit next to me on public transport as I made my way through it. In each of series of essays, Samantha Irby obliquely tackles a wider issue — race, relationships, her family, job applications — through tales of ash scattering road trips, her maniacal antichrist cat, junk food and television. It’s a beautiful thing to behold and I can’t wait to read her other books.
Men Explain Things To Me: And Other Essays — Rebecca Solnit. It’s odd to think how easy it is to get used to not being heard. I’ve become resigned to it in certain environments, but this book forced me to consider how and why it happens, and why I should confront it more often. This book is maddening in the best possible way, the arguments constructed with enviable skill and the writing elegant even on the darkest of topics.
Into The Woods: How Stories Work & Why We Tell Them — John Yorke. (This was sent to me by a reader — thank you.) A truly brilliant and illuminating research read. I studied film at college and one of my favourite units dealt with the notion of archetypal stories and characters. This book looks at the underlying patterns that unite narratives, with a particular focus on TV and film. Yorke also considers why these patterns exist and what they can teach us about ourselves.
Why Grow Up? : Subversive Thoughts For An Infantile Age — Susan Neiman. This book 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.’Neiman 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 and 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. 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.
The Lonely City — Olivia Laing. Moving to a new city alone (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.
The End of Average: How To Succeed In a World That Values Sameness — Todd Rose. 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.)
What Makes Sammy Run? — Budd Schulberg. 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.
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. 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.
Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery - Henry Marsh. An experienced neurosurgeon shares the (frequently grim) reality of his work, covering the highs and lows of decades of surgery. It's an emotional, frequently jarring book that gives a unique perspective on the reality of medical practice: that doctors and surgeons and nurses are human beings who, regardless of their intentions, make mistakes. Even more so, Do No Harm cuts through the image of the callous malpracticing surgeon and shows the lasting emotional repercussions errors leave behind. Marsh doesn't shy away from getting slightly technical about surgeries, without lapsing into inscrutable jargon or sensationalism, which gives an accessible look into a widely feared area.
Scattered: How Attention Deficit Disorder Originates and What You Can Do about It - Dr Gabor Mate. I was mildly interested in ADD before reading this as a couple of people close to me have it, but this book is interesting enough to engage anyone. Reflecting on his own experience of having ADD and that of his three children (who also have it), Mate covers the basics of how a baby's brain develops, the ways adverse events can lead to the development of ADD, the role of families, teachers and doctors in managing it, and how individuals can work to get better. He doesn't take the perspective of blaming either genetics of faulty parenting, instead viewing it as a complex interplay of factors. If you have people in your life with ADD or even a rudimentary interest in childhood brain development, I strongly recommend this book.
The End of Money: Counterfeiters, Preachers, Techies, Dreamers--and the Coming Cashless Society - David Wolman. I remember a moment from my first day of school, age 5, vividly. A teacher held up a pound coin and a bank note and told us all - not too young to have learned to covet money - that they were nothing more than paper and metal which have value because we believe they do. He said we were about to spend maybe twenty years studying in order to get a good job and earn those pieces of paper. It was a bit far out for the first day of school, but his words stuck with me and I've long enjoyed reading about the fundamental nature of money. The End of Money is about the move towards a cash free future, as physical money loses its role and digital systems take over. It's notable how, in the five or so years since this edition was published, far things have progressed. Wolman speaks to those who believe digital systems are the work of the devil, those who have tried to make their own money, coin collectors, and other eclectic characters. He covers the environmental cost of cash, counterfeiting, and our emotional connection to it.
Is Shame Necessary?: New Uses For An Old Tool - Jennifer Jacquet. I expected this book to be a rejection of shame in the radical honesty vein, but it proved to be the opposite. Jacquet argues that shame is an essential part of maintaining social contracts and a powerful tool for helping individuals, companies, groups and nations improve. Shame is an inexpensive, not too harmful (if used correctly) means of reinforcing social norms. Shame is inflicted by others, guilt is internal and self-inflicted. We shame people, such as by exposing their actions, to force them to conform to our ideals. The threat of shame can be a powerful tool for behaviour change, even if it never occurs. In particular, she looks at how we can use shame effectively to deal with the challenges posed by climate change - such as by exposing the environmentally damaging actions of corporations.
Emotional Intelligence - Gill Hasson. Reading books like this one is showing me that so much of the pain I've dealt with in my life could have been avoided or benefitted from if someone had taught me to manage emotions properly. This book is entirely bland, basic, and frequently states the obvious (the first line is 'emotional intelligence is being intelligent about your emotions'), but as an introduction to the topic it has the potential to be groundbreaking. I wouldn't recommend it if you're familiar with emotional intelligence. Each chapter runs through a different component, including coping with anger and helping other people with their emotions. This is illustrated with practical examples and exercises.
Isn’t This Fun? - Michael Foley. Isn’t This Fun? Is about the serious business of fun - the pursuit of enjoyment for its own sake. Foley investigates some of the key areas regarded as fun (going on a cruise, cosplaying, salsa dancing, stand-up comedy, swinging etc) in a bid to understand their cultural roots and enduring appeal. He traces the way current pursuits link to those of the past, and how the religious frequently leads to the secular. Thankfully, the book goes beyond description and into analysis. Reading it was fun, anyway.
How To Worry Less About Money - John Armstrong. 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.
The Science of Meditation: How To Change Your Brain, Mind and Body — Daniel Goleman and Richard J Davidson. 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.
Gossip From The Forest - Sara Maitland. 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.
No Boundary - Ken Wilber. 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.
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. 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.
Essays in Love - Alain de Botton. Ostensibly fiction (though I question whether any book about love can be truly fictional), it plots the narrator’s relationship with Chloe, beginning with their initial meeting on a plane, then delving into the crisis of confidence her reciprocated affection provokes.
The Gifts of Reading - Robert McFarlane. First of all, this one was disappointingly short - essentially a single essay, which makes it hard to write about it as a book. Still, it seems written more as a device for sparking thought than as an end in itself. McFarlane reflects on books he's received as gifts, and how both the books and the act of being given them changed him. Books, for me, are the sweetest gift of all (even if they're just lent because, as we all know, people rarely return them.) So if you want a book that can be read in the time it takes to drink a coffee, but which will leave you with enough psychological caffeine to last days, try this one.
Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About The World - Tim Marshall. Main lesson: I am amazingly ignorant about 99% of the planet I live on. Marshall uses geography as a lens to explain different parts of the world: the way people live, how they think, how they relate to the rest of humanity, how they thrive or suffer, how they think about themselves, how they fight. Everything is shaped by geography. The landscape of a country shapes everything and dictates all it has been and can be. We are, literally, prisoners of geography. Mountains, rivers, oceans, forests, resources, climate and soil decide our destiny and in turn, direct the destiny of surrounding areas. Geography is what makes us believe we're more different from each other than we truly are. But as we look to the stars, we're forced to confront the ludicrous nature of that belief.
Somewhere Towards The End - Diane Athill. A fascinating, moving reflection on how it feels to reach your ninth decade of life and reflect on the richness of the past, the value of the present, and the scarcity of the future. Athill takes an exquisite, wise view on old age and the futility of regret.
The Wind Up Bird Chronicle - Haruki Murakami. I read Norwegian Wood and What I Talk About When I Talk About Running last year and lumped Murakami in the category of naturalistic, vaguely relateable authors without delving any further into his work. But I was recommended this one, took the best part of a weekend to read it cover to cover, and would have been happy for it to be twice as long. It's one of those rare books that resists definition, merging too many genres and strands of plot to fit neatly into any single category, or to be possible to summarise. There's no final sense of all the threads tied up neatly - it's simply a book where a lot of discordant stuff happens and that, in itself, seems to be the point.
The Book of Books: A Biography of the King James Bible, 1611-2011 - Melvyn Bragg. The story of the best-selling book ever in the English speaking world can't not be interesting and despite my general lack of interest in the subject matter, it highlighted some new thoughts about the nature of books in general. Bragg plots the history of the King James Bible (another one I read in primary school and never revisited), charting the ways it has been used to oppress and to liberate, to restrict and to free, to make peace and to spark conflict. This book also makes clear the sheer power books have to spread ideas and shape those they touch, particularly when Bragg describes the lengths people went to in order to bring English translations to the masses - they were literally willing to die for it.
Books V Cigarettes - George Orwell. This is a collection of Orwell’s essays, which I enjoy far more than his fiction. In the first essay, Orwell discusses a topic as relevant now as then; if reading is really an expensive, time-consuming hobby (spoiler: it’s not.) But it’s the final essay about his school days that had the most impact for me, proving both charming and chilling.
Junky - William Burroughs. Junky is a frightening account of his heroin addiction, told in the scrambled, plot-less stye Kerouac was known for. Burroughs documents the endless attempts to secure his next fix, the times when he sinks into the depths of addiction, and his attempts to get clean in the early days of criminalising addicts. He flips between documenting and advising, denying and condemning, glorifying and fear-mongering. At times, the writing is lucid and factual, at other times it spins into manic poetry. Mostly, it shows how addiction robs you of what makes us human.
The Brain: The Story of You - David Eagleman. The Brain is a glorious explanation of the way neuroscience shapes all that we are: our memories, our sense of ourselves, our senses, our perception of reality, our relationships. It sent my mind spiralling as Eagleman unpicks all that seems concrete and shows the interplay of factors that create our identities.
How To Age - Anne Karpf. This book highlights and questions the ageist ideas that have become so ingrained in our society, presents suggestions for changing that narrative, and reimagines our lives as one whole instead of multiple stages. Regardless of your age, I think anyone could find both encouragement and comfort in this book.
How to Thrive in the Digital Age - Tom Chatfield. How To Thrive looks at how constant connection is affecting us and how we might carve out much-needed space in our days. Unlike most books on this topic, it's neither alarmist nor dogmatic. Chatfield remains neutral in his view of technology and instead encourages conscious usage.
The Ascent of Money - Niall Ferguson. A fascinating account of the history of money and how it has both shaped the world, and been shaped by it. The chapters trace the origins and significance of the most important inventions: stocks, bonds, loans, banks, insurance, real estate, and more. This book has drawn criticism for Ferguson's political opinions, but I read economics books for the fundamental ideas, not prescriptive statements, so didn't find that relevant.
Hunger - Hamsun Knut. This one was dark. Painful. Haunting. The unnamed protagonist is a young writer who can be best encapsulated by a line from one of Conor Oberst's old songs: I tried to pass for nothing / but my dreams gave me away. His attempts to destroy himself are always thwarted by his wish to write something magnificent. I've said before that Scandinavian books always seem to lose something in translation, which is clearly the case here. A certain nuance is missing. That doesn't detract from its fascinating, powerful literary punch though.
Bright Lights, Big City - Jay McInerney. This book fits into the same category as Hunger: a book about an unnamed young male writer crashing around a big city, frittering away their money, struggling to find the motivation to take their work seriously, fixated on a woman whose true personality clearly has little to do with their image of her. In Bright Lights, Big City, the protagonist meanders around New York in search of something to numb the pain of his model wife leaving him. It's told in the third person which is unusual and difficult to pull off, but when it works (as it does here), it has a way of hitting uncomfortably close to home. It's a little Bret Easton Ellis-esqe: a medley of cocaine-fuelled nights, casual anger and numb relationships. At the same time, McInerney goes deeper beneath the surface and the whole thing takes an unexpected turn. The protagonist recognises that his alienation has a lot to do with unresolved grief over the death of his mother, and after reconnecting with his brother, he recalls her last days with surprising tenderness. As the book ends, he begins to heal. Some books need to be read at the right time. For me, now was the right time. I guess you could call is the Catcher in the Rye of the '80s - but, like, actually good.
London Under: The Secret History Beneath The Streets - Peter Ackroyd. The rambling prose, flitting between topics with little organisation or structure, and focus less on what's physically there and more on what it says about us, takes some getting used to. Still, I found it fascinating to be able to know what lies beneath my feet as I travel around, the thrill of knowing there's an underground river or network of tunnels or set of catacombs under the pavement as I go about my day. The area where I live now features prominently which shifted my perspective on it.
The Pleasures & Sorrows of Work - Alain de Botton. De Botton charts visits to a series of under-studied locations with the sensitivity of a naturalist visiting an island in the Galapagos: a logistics warehouse, a tuna supply chain, an aviation convention, an inventors' show and club, the office of a career coach, a repair yard for old planes, the patch of electricity pylons, and the headquarters of an accounting firm. In the process, he pushes us to see the beauty and sadness in the myriad systems that make our world work, and the people who absorb themselves in minutiae that forms part of the bigger picture. As with all de Botton's work, it's heavily subjective and opinion based, but full of gems.
Three Tales - Gustave Flaubert. This book, perhaps his most successful work in his own lifetime, consists of three unrelated short stories. Much like de Maupassant, his stories centre on painstaking observations of people and the way they act and relate to each other. Unlike his protege, the scenarios and settings are far from mundane or every day. The first story tells of a girl who spends her life as a servant to a rich woman, devoting herself to each child she looks after, before becoming obsessed with a parrot once she is left alone in old age. It might be the most depressing short story I've ever read. I'm half hoping it had some influence on the Monty Python pet shop sketch. The second is a slightly Narnia-ish modern folktale of a sadistic young man obsessed with hunting and killing animals, as he runs from a prophecy that foretells he will kill his own parents. The third is a reworking of an old religious story, full of heady descriptions of incense-scented banquets and concealed treasures.
Feet of Clay: A Study of Gurus - Anthony Storr. 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. 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.
Churchill's Black Dog - Anthony Storr. 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.
Selected Short Stories - Guy De Maupassant. Translated by Roger Colet. 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.
Touching The Void - Joe Simpson. 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. IAs 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. 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 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.
This Boy's Life - Tobias Wolff. This Boy’s Life is a memoir of Wolff’s childhood. A childhood which is perhaps not too unusual or extraordinary. A childhood marked by the struggle to assert his identity, against the backdrop of an ever-changing cast of dysfunctional adults. What makes it work is the level of detail and how sensitive Wolff seems to be to his childhood emotions. He doesn’t belittle his younger self, portray his actions as naive or discredit the significance of how he felt. Wolff treats his younger self with a sort of respect. By describing his experiences with such specificity, he ends up writing a book which is wildly relatable.
The Night In Question - Tobias Wolff. A collection of short stories, some clearly autobiographical, some simply describing the kind of situations one dreams up and can’t shake loose. Powerful and poignant.
The Sense Of An Ending - Julian Barnes. The pacing is just perfect. The characters are intensely believable. The plot twists are devastating. The novel (and I don't read enough novels these days) follows a placid middle-aged man as he is forced to confront his past. A series of figures from his adolescence re-enter his life, shattering the peace and forcing him to confront the darker side of his personality. We all like to think of ourselves as good people - and 99.9% of the time, 99.9% of people are. But I also think we all have a venomous side, the side that comes out during jealous teenage brawls, during those moments when we are backed into a corner, our sense of self in tatters. The side which is such a departure from our day to day selves, that we don't want to remember it’s there. We don't want to remember that we are capable of being truly vicious. We don't want to know about the fight part of the flight or fight instinct, or that primal instinct can be so strong. So it surprises us when that side comes out. It scares us. We tell ourselves it was a fluke, and forget that it is a part of our nature. That is, for me, what this book is about. It's about the horror of having no choice but to confront that reality. The Sense of an Ending is about a particular cast of characters, yet it’s really about all of us and the stuff we hide.
Shrinking Violets: A Field Guide To Shyness - Joe Moran. Shrinking Violets is about shyness. Or rather, it's about the ways in which shyness manifests. How it affects us. How we deal with it. Why some people feel it and others don't. Why it varies between different situations, even between different days. Moran attempts to recast shyness as a personality feature, not a personality flaw. Shyness and introversion are often regarded as interchangeable concepts. But they are actually separate things. Many shy people, myself included, would love to spend more time around others. I would love to be able to go to parties or clubs, to comfortably hang out with a gang of friends, go on dates or talk to interesting looking strangers. In practice, it’s very difficult to do. Our society is run by and designed for confident extroverts. Shyness is all too often taken as a sign of incompetence. If you come across as shy in a job interview, for instance, you’ll probably get passed over in favor of a more confident person, regardless of skills. The only recourse is to portray yourself as a reclusive asshole genius (many of the people Moran describes in this book take that route) - except that doesn’t work if you’re not a genius. Most of us aren’t.
Solitude - Anthony Storr. Since the Freudian view started to take hold, psychology and psychiatry have tended to focus on relationships as the basis of mental health. The assumption is that all of our problems relate to our relationships and they are the sole source of satisfaction. Anthony Storr posits that our interests and work are an equally big part of the equation - in some cases, they can be more satisfying than our relationships. Solitude can be therapeutic or even enlightening at times. Interestingly, Storr also takes an in-depth look at the harmful effects of enforced solitude as a counterpoint.
Damn Good Advice For People With Talent - George Lois. Offbeat advice on building a creative career from George Lois. While there's some solid guidance for generating ideas, Lois also discusses negotiation, leadership, managing your own psychology, and motivation.
Ten Discoveries That Rewrote History - Patrick Hunt. The listicle-style title nearly put me off, but it proved to be a thorough look at ten key archeological discoveries and their lasting impact on our understanding of the past. It is not a full explanation of those discoveries, just of their significance. What made it work for me was Hunt's personal involvement in some of the artifacts and digs described.
Liar's Poker - Michael Lewis. Somehow, this felt more like a coming of age novel than a book about banking in the 80s. Sure, it's about the crazy indulgences of the traders, the minefield of bonuses, the profitable attempts to deceive customers, the lawlessness, the market crash. Equally, it's about Lewis' younger self and his improbable path towards writing.
Love Yourself (Like Your Life Depends On It) - Kamal Ravikant. This book is a perfect example of how powerful the cliched fundamentals can be. Its written in a very clear, uncomplicated way. Short sentences. Large type. Short book (it took me half an hour to read.) Nothing that hasn't been said before. So at first glance that disguises the fact that the ideas in this book aren't simple or uncomplicated at all. They're actually quite hard to stomach. And very hard to internalize. It's a book about learning to love yourself. Ravikant's directive for that is straightforward: you repeat that idea in your head all day until it cancels out negative thought patterns.
Old School - Tobias Wolff. It's about a boys' boarding school in the 60s, with a core group of students who are obsessed with literary greatness. A few times a year, the professors organize a visit from an esteemed writer. The students compete to win an audience with them with a writing competition. When it is announced that the next visitor will be Hemingway, the narrator's hero, he becomes desperate to tell his true story, without pretension. I didn't realize until I'd finished it that Old School is based on Wolff's own experiences. Knowing that recast the book in a new light. Because mostly, it's about the process of trying to find a concrete identity. Of compressing your life into a story even as you live it.
On Grief & Grieving - Elisabeth Kubler-Ross & David Kessler. There are few books anyone could benefit from reading. This is one of them. Kubler-Ross and Kessler provide the lesson few of us learn early in life (or ever): how exactly we should deal with grief. It's not an instruction manual, though. The main focus is on explaining the wide array of possible reactions to loss and that all of them are valid. Understanding that powerful emotional responses are natural has helped me a tremendous way towards understanding my own behavior.
Deep Work - Cal Newport. This book transformed the way I work and is one I revisit on a regular basis. This is the book which prompted me to quit social media and start training myself to do better work.
Portrait of a Man - George Perec. This was Perec's first novel, yet it was the last published. The original manuscript was found a few years ago and translated into English. I love how it flits between 1st, 2nd and 3rd person in a manner which keeps you on your toes throughout the book. It's about an art forger who kills his (sort of) manager and then has an existential crisis. Very little happens, it's mostly about his thoughts. Perec is perhaps one of the most creative writers imaginable.
Walden - Henry Thoreau. My copy recently fell apart from being carried about and referred to several times a day. It's hard to explain how much I love this book, or how much it has altered my perspective. Read it and you'll understand why.
Practical Ethics - Peter Singer. Extremely dense, almost a textbook and rather enlightening. Singer examines and appears to resolve many of our biggest ethical dilemmas. It's basically a book to read if you want to be a decent human and understand the viewpoints of others.
The 48 Laws of Power - Robert Greene. Where do I even begin? This monster of a book is incredible. It has opened up whole new strata of understanding of the world for me. Every page provoked epiphanies. I have never felt more equipped to take on the world. The bibliography is also a goldmine of book recommendations, many of which I plan on reading. Power is an extremely topical concept and there is no better way to understand it than by reading this. It is 100% worth the investment of time and money. Greene's books are usually controversial, though I find that the people who criticise them miss the point. The 48 Laws of Power is more of an expose than a handbook, something which puts people on a more even playing field.
How to Live On 24 Hours a Day - Arnold Bennett. Absolute brilliance. This was published in 1910 and is concerned with teaching white collar workers how to actually live their lives, rather than just existing. It will come as no surprise that it is still very relevant. If you hate your job or feel as if you have no spare time, read this. Some books give you back 100x the time it takes to read them and this is one of those. Side note: it’s in the public domain so you can read a PDF for free.
On The Road - Jack Kerouac. I read this often to remind myself how to live. It makes me nostalgic for an era I never lived through.
Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes - Daniel Everett. Everett is a linguist who spent 30 years living with the Piraha people in the Amazon. This book is part memoir, part linguistics, part anthropology. It's funny, endearing, eye-opening and always respectful of the people described. If you want to alter the way you view humanity for good, read this.
The Tiger - John Vaillant. It is difficult to even explain this book. A man-eating tiger terrorises a village in Siberia- a true story. Yet it covers so much more; the relationship between humans and predators, the tenuous boundaries between us and them, the strange almost post-apocalyptic part of Russia and much more. Russia, in general, tends to be a huge blind spot for most British people. This is a country where people consider a three-hour drive to be an epic voyage, so the size and scope of Russia give it a mythical quality. If I hadn't become a writer, I would have studied biology and books like this indulge that interest.
Why We Make Things and Why It Matters - Peter Korn. 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 Krakauer. 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.) Krakauer 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.) Krakauer 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 Krakauer 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.
Martin Eden - Jack London. Perhaps London's most underappreciated work. 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.
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck - Mark Manson. As always, I love it when bloggers I follow publish a book and this one is a lot of fun. Manson rejects the focus on positive thinking in most self-help books and discusses realistic guidelines for finding happiness. As a chronic over-thinker and perfectionist, I found the approach very refreshing. There is also a liberal sprinkling of references to Stoicism and historical anecdotes. The middle chapters are a bit befuddled, but I adored the last couple.
Linchpin- Seth Godin. 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 opting for a safer path or continuing my risky path as a writer. Except, it has never been much of a choice for me.
When Breath Becomes Air - Paul Kalanithi. 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.
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 idiosyncrasies. It's funny without ever mocking the people and places he encounters and the whole book gave me a serious case of wanderlust.
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.
Norwegian Wood - Haruki Murakami. I read most of it in one sitting, alone in a dark bar with whiskey because that felt like the most appropriate setting. On the whole, Norwegian Wood is about the slow, introspective unfolding of the protagonist (Toru Watanabe) as he experiences a succession of sort of mundane events; friendships and the ends of friendships, relationships and the ends of friendships, movement and stillness, travel and finding a home. The only criticism I have is that four suicides is a bit excessive, and it seemed to be used as a convenient way to get certain characters out of the picture.
Siddhartha - Herman Hesse. A beautiful, simply written book set in ancient India at the time of the Buddha, wherein Siddhartha (the son of a Brahmin) sets off from home looking for enlightenment. He travels the countryside, meets different religious groups whose teachings he ends up rejecting, falls in love, has a son who abandons him, becomes rich then gives everything away, becomes a ferryman and eventually sort of understands the meaning of life. The society in which it is set is an alien one, yet I think the appeal of this book lies in the universal resonance of Siddhartha’s search for meaning and the many mistakes he makes along the way.
The Third Policeman - Flann O’Brien. Probably ranks as my favorite fictional book. Although the exact plot is impossible to define in any meaningful way, the book takes place in a strange, surreal world which has its own peculiar logic. None of it makes much sense if taken out of context. Space and time are subverted, eternity can be reached via a lift, a color exists which sense people mad if they see it, bicycles are sentient, death is predicted by the color of the wind when someone is born. It is a book which demands to be read again and again because it is somehow too indistinct to feel like the same story each time. It's hard to summarize the plot, so just read it.
A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole. One of the funniest books I have read. The humor lies in the ridiculous characters. The protagonist, Ignatius J. Reilly, is surely the most obnoxious figure conceivable and the characters who animate the various subplots are all brilliant. The book mostly revolves around Ignatius’ attempts to hold down a job, which involves him attempting to rally factory workers into a rebellion, using a hot dog stand to store illegal porn, getting arrested a lot and never managing to make any money. Of course, the whole thing is tinged with sadness on account of Toole’s suicide prior to the book’s publication. We all have a tendency to glorify dead authors, to see their depression as having contributed to their creativity. I avoid that view. It is tragic that Toole wasn’t able to write more novels and it is tragic that publishers failed to see the genius of this one.
Tiny Beautiful Things - Cheryl Strayed. I cried a lot at this book. I cried so much that I had to ration it out bit by bit because I have a rule about only crying once a week, maximum. For the uninitiated, Tiny Beautiful Things is a collect of agony aunt columns written by Cheryl Strayed. She answers letters from people grappling with love, loss and finding meaning - more often than not by reflecting on her own life.
Black Swan- Nassim Taleb. It has taken me far too long to start reading Taleb's work and, although my Amazon wishlist has about 500 books on it, his others are now at the front of the queue. Black Swan took me about a week to read - it's dense with important ideas and the margins of my copy are covered in notes. A Black Swan is any highly improbable event which we seek to explain away or ignore in hindsight, anything revealing the flaws in predictive models. The highest leverage books are those which include versatile, foundational knowledge because they make reading others easier. Read this if you want to better understand human irrationality, probability, statistics and the role of chance (in a format that makes sense and includes the right dose of sarcasm.)
The Year of the Hare - Arto Paasilinna. I often find that books in Scandinavian languages tend to lose some crucial element in translation, some cultural undertone that doesn't work through an alternate lens. Even so, I adored this book. A discontented journalist quits real life after encountering an injured hare. With the hare as his companion, he lives in the woods, avoiding responsibility and stumbling into a series of odd situations ranging from bear hunts to a forest fire. It's a timely reminder of the importance of freedom and unstructured time outside, something I have missed of late. Pico Iyer's introduction is a wonderful compliment to the story too.
You Are Not A Gadget - Jaron Lanier. A disconcerting, non-sensationalist, considered exploration of digital culture written by someone who was part of many pivotal moments in the creation of the internet we know today. Lanier looks at the ways the internet is subverting our individual and cultural identities, changing the way artists work and creating a false meritocracy. If your living depends on the internet (as mine does), it's essential reading for understanding the deeper implications. I recommend getting familiar with some key aspects of postmodernist theory (simulacra and the panopticon come to mind) before reading.
On Writing - Stephen King. Part memoir, part guide, Stephen King shares the rules he follows in his own work and the techniques he has developed or learned from decades of literary mastery. Someone once criticised me for reading so much Stephen King, claiming his work isn't 'serious literature.' I disagree. He's an absolute genius with a wonderful ability to craft fantastical narratives which revolve around core human themes and remain gripping from the first to last page. He's a genius and I'm always willing to defend his honour, usually by lobbing one of his 1000+ page books at any critics.
The Old Man And The Sea - Ernest Hemingway. Considering how much I read, people are often surprised when I haven't read a particular classic, with this being a prime example. I read this in one sitting and I'm still confused about how a book about fishing can be so suspenseful. It's almost painful in many parts. I guess that's a testament to Hemingway's brilliance.
In Cold Blood - Truman Capote. Chilling and masterful, proof that the truth can sometimes be more bizarre than fiction. This type of journalism is a dying art.
The Dip - Seth Godin. I cried when I read the first page of this book, where Seth Godin writes that he often feels like quitting. I cried because it is unimaginably comforting to hear that someone as incredible as him feels like that. It can be hard not to put extraordinary people on a pedestal and assume they never have off days or feel like giving up. To see it in plain language - "I feel like giving up. Almost every day, in fact." - is almost surreal. This is a book about when to quit, when to stick and how to quit the right way. All too often, we praise persistence, doggedness, determination. But, as Seth Godin writes, sometimes quitting is a smart choice. It's about the difference between a Dip (the point where something gets hard before the real rewards kick in), a Cul De Sac (where nothing gets better) and a Cliff (which has a drop-off point where everything falls apart.) One of the most significant parts for me is an idea drawn from ultra marathon runners: "Write it down. Write down under what circumstances you're willing to quit. And when. Then stick to it." I love this because quitting can so often be a spontaneous, in the moment decision. The idea of deciding, before going into an endeavour, the exact circumstances in which you will quit is brilliant and not something I would have ever considered.
The Quiet American - Graham Greene. This book is wonderful, with each sentence crafted so perfectly that I found myself reading parts aloud, and rereading sections several times before I felt able to move on. Condensing the plot into a few sentences feels wrong, so I'll just say that it's about a love triangle set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. More than that though, it's about the way people relate to each other and the way we try to fit other cultures into neat boxes, ignoring when they spill out and subvert our expectations.
Perennial Seller - Ryan Holiday. Being a deadpan, relaxed person gifted with great patience, I naturally sprinted down to my local bookstore the day this came out to avoid waiting for it to be delivered, pushed several people aside and grabbed the sole copy on the shelf. I just love books about making art and the long game perspective this book espouses is far too rare. Also, Ryan Holiday's books always have the best bibliographies and give me endless ideas for what to read next.
We Learn Nothing - Tim Kreider. I haven't laughed as much at a book since A Confederacy of Dunces. It's a collection of essays on Kreider's life - with far more coherence and less of a blog post-y feel than most essay collections. The wild anecdotes range from getting stabbed in the neck, adventures with a friend who was paranoid about peak oil, attending political rallies, reading to his invalid mother, meeting his biological half sisters for the first time, and a bunch of glorious drinking stories. It's an emotional rollercoaster. Read it on public transport if you want to ensure no one has the audacity to sit next to you. The 'Lazy: A Manifesto' chapter is obligatory reading for anyone who likes moaning about how busy they are.
Principles of Microeconomics - Gregory Mankiw. Yes, this is a textbook. And a fairly hefty one. I think it took about 30 hours to read and was worth every minute. After I started to get interested in economics, I figured the best place to start was with a textbook covering all the basics. It's easy to understand, free of unexplained jargon, written in an engaging style, and it's the perfect crash course in economics. Reminder: you don't need to be a student to read textbooks. Be a student of life and keep learning because there's a lot of value in choosing to educate yourself on topics like this.
Fight Club - Chuck Palahniuk. Aclassic that always hits me between the eyes. I realized that, for some reason, I didn't own a copy of this and finally bought one this month. Like many people, my first brush with Fight Club was an explosive, life changing experience. I admit I saw the film first. We watched it at college and I remember how each scene struck me, how it felt to walk home in the dark afterward, my head spinning. It's one of those books (and films) that you can never be quite done with. The day after reading/watching it, I always find myself walking around in a daze, seeing everything with new eyes.
The Conquest of Gaul - Julius Caesar. Fascinating in terms of the depiction of historical events and lessons in tactical thinking in the kind of clear, uncluttered, well-paced writing that is far too rare. Caesar’s descriptions of battle scenes are so vivid and carefully crafted that even the most complex maneuvers are easy to visualize. Covering the Roman conquest of parts of Europe between 58 and 50 BC, it is part memoir, part propaganda. It has sent me down a rabbit hole of other books on Ancient Rome in a bid to understand parts.
A Nervous Splendour - Frederic Morton. A glorious gem, recounting ten pivotal months in the life of the city - ending with the birth of Hitler in 1889. Although in a sense a historical work, it’s clear that Morton is a novelist at heart. He goes to great lengths to imagine the inner motivations and thoughts of the figures populating the pages - Prince Rudolf, Hugo Wolf, Freud, Klimt and other icons who walked the same streets in the same days. That does make it border on fiction, but I like the way Morton slotted that year into its historical context and tried to consider why the characters acted as they did. Running through it all is the undercurrent of Prince Rudolf’s love affair with Mary, their tragic suicide, and her erasure from history. Morton also manages to drop hints of the growing tensions that would soon contribute to Austria’s role in the first world war.
All The Pretty Horses - Cormac McCarthy. Three kids run off to Mexico to play at being cowboys, bringing with them their horses. Except, being McCarthy, it’s horribly dark and brutal. I have a fondness for books which, in the spirit of Kerouac, lapse into pages and pages of descriptions of landscapes, meals, towns, journeys. The dialogue is electric - evocative and tinger with the slow burn of naivety. McCarthy manages to fit in a classic ill-fated love affair, between descriptions of the violence of a Mexican prison and the art of breaking horses. One of the best novels I have read for a while.
The Roman Way - Edith Hamilton. There are countless books that tell of the technical side of the Romans - their military strategies, their architecture, their conquests, their entertainment. In The Roman Way, Hamilton takes a different approach and attempts to understand who they were as people. Each chapter centers around a figure or two that we have sufficient information on. Hamilton’s lifelong love of Roman history is clear in the tender, empathetic way she describes each historical figure like each is familiar to her. She traces the growth of Rome, up to the point of its demise, pulling from plays, poetry, and letters. Each figure becomes a lens to see the city through, with their quirks, flaws, and talents evoked alongside sensitive translations.
Obliquity: Why Our Best Goals Are Achieved Indirectly - John Kay. Kay uses the word 'obliquity' to refer to processes that achieve goals in an indirect way (the whole book borrows heavily from Charles Lindblom's work.) It's a lovely book, if you can ignore the repetitive nature and Kay's blatantly incorrect assertion that oblique approaches are the ONLY way to get anything done. Still, certainly worth reading for the unusual perspective.
Filters Against Folly - Garrett Hardin. Hardin outlines three filters - numeracy, literacy, and ecolacy- that we can use to understand reality and process complex issues. Filters Against Folly is best described as a guide to cutting through the crap and getting to the core of a topic. Although it was written thirty years ago, the guidelines for rational, clear thinking are as valuable as ever. Essential reading for anyone looking to broaden their mental models.
Tweak: Growing Up On Methamphetamines - Nic Sheff. I decided to stop reading addiction/mental health memoirs a while back. Most are sensationalized accounts that do little more than hammer home just how unique and serious the author considers their experiences to be. Someone recommended this one to me though, and I am glad to have read it. Books like this - honest, frank, unflinching accounts of the struggles many people hide - are important. They need to be written. Nic Sheff does a wonderful job of conveying the destruction his drug addiction caused for him and his family, the tedium of cycling through rehab programs, the struggle of committing to recovery, and the guilt of relapse. My only criticism is that the diary style is a bit dull in places, and there's no attempt to look beyond his personal experiences
Boomerang: The Meltdown Tour - Michael Lewis. A masterful work of journalism with a sensitivity to the idiosyncrasies of individuals and nations. Boomerang looks at the reality of financial meltdowns, as Lewis visits different areas affected by economic disaster. In a way, it is a look at how the character of people in each place led to its predicament, a search for the human causes. There is some disconnect between chapters, although that reflects the space between the events described.
Einstein's Dreams - Alan Lightman. Lightman imagines what Albert Einstein might have dreamed of in the nights preceding the completion of his theory of relativity. Each chapter covers a different dream, each set in a different world, each with its own version of time. They make for provocative thought experiments. What would our lives be like if we knew when the world would end? What if time ran at a varying speed in each place? What if effects preceded causes? The resulting book is dreamy and a little disorienting.
How To Fall in Love - Katherine Baldwin. I met Katherine through work and she was kind enough to give me a copy of this. It's a very warm, non-condescending book about what it takes to fall in love. But it's much more than plain relationship advice. I've struggled with relationships for a while (something I haven't written about although I intend to) so it was a timely read, and practical enough to make a real difference to my attitudes.
Benedict's Brother - Tricia Walker. I was incredibly lucky to call Trish my friend for six months before she tragically passed away. In that short time, she brought an indescribable amount of light into my life, supporting and mentoring me through a tough time. Trish was the warmest, kindest, more inspiring person I’ve ever met. In addition, she was a wonderful writer and her legacy lives on in this beautiful book.
Emergence: From Chaos To Order - John Holland. A book with an excellent premise and skilled author that unfortunately fell flat in places. The first few chapters are well crafted and engaging, but after that, it lapses into the academic writing style that the author claims in the introduction to have worked hard to avoid. I have read perhaps a hundred papers and articles on the topic of emergence over the last month so I could grasp a portion of the technical parts. Even so, I felt that Holland could have better conveyed his expertise through a more concise, accessible writing style. The best popular science writers are those who can make their work simple without dumbing it down. This isn't the place to start if you are looking for an introduction to the topic of emergence, although it's worth reading for those more familiar with the area.
The Epic of Gilgamesh - translated by NK Sanders. Some historical context: the epic of Gilgamesh is one of the oldest surviving texts, and perhaps the first serious work of literature. It is a testament to human creativity and the power of oral tradition. The story was written over the course of a millennium, with countless unknown authors chipping in. Tablets recording the story began to be found a century ago, and scholars have since been working to translate them and compile them into a coherent narrative. For its history and cultural significance alone, The Epic of Gilgamesh is worth reading. Yet it's not just a historical curiosity - it is a vivid, poetic work that offers us a glimpse into the minds of people living four or five thousand years ago. The themes - fear of death, friendship, power- are timeless. This is an astonishing book.
Where Good Ideas Come From - Steven Johnson. This book seeks to answer a simple, fascinating question: where exactly do ideas come from? Johnson breaks down the patterns of innovation into seven types, from the adjacent possible to serendipity. A lot of interesting material is succinctly summarised, with intuitive links drawn between disparate areas.
Emotions - Dylan Evans. Very far reaching for a relatively short book. Evans covers the basic science of emotions, contemplates perspectives from evolutionary psychology, looks at cultural differences and similarities in how people express their moods and explains the value of emotions. I plan on writing a fuller exploration of what I learned from his book at some point.
The Pope's Elephant - Silvio A Bedini. t is impossible not to love the premise: in the 16th century, the pope had a pet elephant named Hanno. This book traces the story of Hanno, from his journey to Rome, participation in events, and last influence on the art and writing of the time. Bedini's research skills are extraordinary and it's hard to comprehend the sheer amount of work it must have taken to piece together this book from fragments of documents, letters, surviving journals, official reports and artwork. When reading about historical figures, it's often hard to truly see them as 'real' people. Their lives and surroundings can seem too alien to have much resonance today. Something about the story of Hanno humanizes the people who were affected by him, including Pope Leo X and the numerous Renaissance artists who painted and drew him. This book has been criticised for being too dry and wordy, but personally, I found Bedini's writing to be warm, engaging and well-crafted.
The Creative Habit - Twyla Tharp. A practical guide to cultivating creativity in our everyday lives, rather than waiting for rare flashes of inspiration. Tharp explains what it takes to make a career out of your ideas, looking at the importance of daily rituals, finding the right inputs, and letting that lead to consistent outputs. My forays into using her advice in my own work have been valuable so far.
30 Lessons for Loving - Karl Pillemer. Pillemer interviewed about seven hundred people over sixty-five on their views about love and marriage. From what must have been an enormous amount of data, he distills thirty key lessons. A guidebook to love, if you will. I liked the perspective of viewing elderly people as 'experts on life.'
Emergence - Steven Johnson. A superb introduction for those unfamiliar with this fascinating topic. Johnson has a knack for turning science into narratives, and for drawing topics together. The topics are scattered yet cohesive: slime mold, ants, the structure of cities, the media, evolutionary programming and more.
Shop Class As Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work - Matthew B. Crawford. This may be one of the most important books I've read this year. The author is both a philosopher and a mechanic and manages to merge together the two very different disciplines. It's a book about work - why we do it, how we derive meaning from it, the contrast between mental and manual work, and the psychological value of getting your hands dirty. Crawford points out that manual work has been unnecessarily labeled as inferior, or as the domain of unintelligent people. His argument is that working with your hands and seeing a physical manifestation of your efforts, can be truly fulfilling. His perspective is fascinating.
Fahrenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury. Bradbury points out at one point that there's no difference between people burning books and people just not reading them. That's why I started writing about books in the first place - it scared me to see a growing preference for clipped, bitesize nuggets of information. I strongly believe that reading makes us human. It's what allows us to see perspectives beyond our own, trains us for life, and grow as individuals. Bradbury's portrayal of a future where books are banned just hits that home.
Warren Buffett's Ground Rules - Jeremy Miller. This book uses the letters Buffett wrote to his partners between 1956 and 1970 to extrapolate his guiding principles and fundamentals. It probably shouldn't be treated as a guidebook, but Miller offers some valuable insights into Buffett's approach to rational thinking.
Four Queens: The Provencal Sisters Who Ruled Europe - Nancy Goldstone. A dense, obsessively researched account of the lives of four Provencal sisters who all became queens and go on to influence the trajectory of their kingdoms. The book follows one of the sisters at a time, covering their life over the course of several years. Battles, conquests, weddings, funerals, and coronations blend together in an intoxicating mix. What stood out to me the most is how badass and in control the women are in this book. I expected that 13th-century queens would have very little power, but the opposite is true. One of them gets enraged by some guests her husband invites over, so she throws everything they touched out the window and locks her husband out of the castle for a week. On numerous occasions, one or the other takes the reins while her husband is occupied. Sometimes history - with its medley of revenge, passion, hatred, and jealousy - is wilder than fiction. The main downside is that there must be about a hundred characters, many of them with the same names, and keeping track gets exhausting.
The Half-Life of Facts - Samuel Arbesman. Most of us have a tendency to forget that facts are not set in stone. We are predisposed to ignore anything that contradicts our prior beliefs, and to stay beholden to whatever we learned at school. For that reason, I think this is an important book. Arbesman covers the ever-changing nature of facts, how everything we know is always in flux, and how disciplines develop over time.
Zen & The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance - Robert M. Pirsig. There are two ways to view it: as a book about philosophy, or a book about a journey. I took the latter view which results in a different experience of Pirsig's writing. Yes, some of the monologues are a bit too long and the ending feels rushed. The endless discussions of what 'quality' means don't strike me as particular inspired - if you dismantle the definition of any word, you'll find that its meaning falls apart. But the book remains a magnificent journey through the author's mind, as he synthesizes his past and works on his relationship with his son.
An Unquiet Mind - Kay Redfield Jamison. This book manages to avoid the usual pitfalls of mental health memoirs. It's impeccably written and Jamison knows what she's talking about - she's spent her life studying, teaching about, and treating manic depression, all the while suffering from it herself. She doesn't end it with a false claim of a miraculous recovery. Instead, Jamison shows that for most people, these issues don't go away. But managed well, they also don't prevent you from living a full, vibrant life.