To save me answering questions, I have compiled this curated list of tools, books and services I use.
- Mail Chimp - my service for sending newsletters. Cheap, easy to use and never lets me down, plus there are some cool features. By using this link, you will get $30 credit to start with.
- Evernote - I use this for cataloging drafts, references, quotes and other bits of writing. Evernote is my second brain.
- Cold Turkey - The $25 I spent on this pays for itself pretty much every day in the amount of extra work I get done. I rank it as one of the best purchases I have ever made. Cold Turkey lets you block distracting sites (or the entire internet) on a particular schedule. It also has a feature called Cold Turkey Writer where you are stuck with a blank document until you have either typed a certain number of words, or a time span has passed.
For making my daily plans or writing on the go:
- Moleskine cahiers - I use these for monthly plans and taking notes. Moleskine is the only brand of notebook which doesn't fall apart before I finish using it.
- Lamy fountain pen - the nicest pen I have ever used which makes my handwriting much neater. I'm obsessed with Lamy pens. They're not cheap, but I think they make a good investment as they last years. Plus, they have a sturdy clip on the cap and I keep mine clipped to my jumper at all times which solves the issue of never being able to find a pen.
- The camera I use for all my photography. For the price, this is a brilliant camera for shooting blog visuals. It is lightweight, has a touch screen, powerful zoom and some very useful modes. The film footage it takes is also excellent and the integrated mic is surprisingly good.
- Photography lamp for indoor pictures (so, so useful in the winter when the light is terrible.) This model is cheap for how strong it is and not at all bulky.
- Tripod for self timer pictures. Essential for taking shots independently or if you have unsteady hands.
- Pixlr (my editing software of choice.) It is pretty much the same as Photoshop and is free. I strongly recommend taking a couple on one-to-one lessons in photo editing if you want a workable understanding.
- On the Shortness of Life- Seneca. There's a reason this book remains popular close to 2000 years after being written. It is still relevant and more accessible than many Stoic texts. Seneca is a timeless genius with a remarkable awareness of what matters in life. Realizing how little people have changed since the Roman era is somewhat reassuring. People have always procrastinated, worried about the future and been unsure of their own purpose. Reading Seneca always make me feel less alone on bad days.
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. I read the letter where she describes rescuing two kittens on the night I brought Patti home and cried a bit more.
Siddartha - Herman Hesse. - 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.
- On Writing - Stephen King. I found an abandoned copy of this in the street a few months ago and am super grateful to whoever left it there. This book is a masterclass in writing well by the best-selling author ever. His advice is simple, useful and not at all pretentious. Here's one of my favourite extracts; 'Writing isn't about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. It's about enriching the lives of who will read your work, and enriching your own life. It's about getting up, getting well and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.'
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 (and the perfect complement to Zen & The Art Of Motorbike Maintenance which I also read in December.) 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.
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.
- Mastery - Robert Greene. This might be one of the most important books ever written. It has reshaped my worldview in new and crazy ways. Greene details the process through which people achieve mastery over a particular field, including beautifully described passages about figures such as Leonardo Da Vinci and Temple Grandin. Seriously, this is now one of my all time favorites and it is beyond mind-altering.
- A Nervous Splendor - Frederic Morton. While looking for a book on Vienna, I came across this 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.
- The Epic of Gilgamesh - translated by NK Sanders. I first heard about the story of Gilgamesh on the Myths and Legends podcast (which I listen to before bed every single night.) After replaying the episode on it a dozen times, I was delighted to find a copy of the original story in a bookstore in London. 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.
- Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes - Daniel Everett. Oh man, I love this book. I read it in pretty much one sitting, staying up all night. It is so damn good. 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.
-Into the Wild - Jon Krakauer. Another extraordinary read. This book covers the life of Christopher McCandless, a young guy from a prosperous family who donated all his money, dumped his car and possessions and headed off into the wilderness to live by himself (it's a true story.) Krauker traces McCandless' journey through the people he met and the impact he made on them. His journey ends in disaster (which is not a spoiler, it is mentioned from the start.) 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.
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.
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.
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.
- Walden - Henry Thoreau. This is required reading for all minimalists. 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. Just read it and you'll understand why.
- On the Road, Dharma Bums and Lonesome Traveller - Jack Kerouac. A librarian told me that copies of his books always seem to get stolen, which is why many places don't stock them. I replied that stealing books is a rather Kerouac-esque thing to do. She was not amused. Borrow or buy these and don't steal them. Each is a glorious portrait of a long-gone era and the way people lived during it. They make me nostalgic for a time I never experienced. A time when one could hop in a car with a few friends, $10 and a bottle of whisky and drive across America. Expect lots of dialogue and little plot.
- Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov. Controversial, yes. Nonetheless, it remains one of my all-time favorite books. I also love Laura, the unfinished manuscript of his final book. Considering how meticulous Nabokov was with his editing, reading a draft is intriguing. Some versions include scans of the original pages- a glimpse of his unusual notecard system for writing.
The Third Policeman - Flann O’Brien. This 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. I was lent it by my friend Corrie who asked me to underline the passages which I found meaningful. She asks each person who reads it to do that in a different pen, to see if eventually every part of the book is underlined. The whole thing is so wonderful that I expect this will happen. It's hard to summarize the plot, so just read it.
-Martin Eden - Jack London. Perhaps London's most underappreciated work, I found this in Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris and couldn't believe I hadn't heard of it before. A common criticism is that London writes about animals better than people, yet this contradicts that. It's 500 pages of intense, well-crafted characterization. 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 grueling process of self-education and finding a voice is almost exhausting to read. The book is semi (not quite intentionally) autobiographical and foreshadows elements of London's later life. (By the way, I have no idea why the edition on Amazon has Jensen Ackles on the cover. I highly approve though.)
Ada or Ardor - Vladimir Nabokov. Even better than Lolita. Published when Nabokov was 70, there is a clear sense of his maturation and development of a clear style. There are some elements which reappear in more detail within his unfinished final book, Laura. This was his longest book at 604 pages, long enough to make it immersive. Ada or Ardor is about an inecstous relationship spanning decades, laden with elements of a fairy tale, philosophical passages and constant analysis of the meaning of time. His portrayal of their relationship as adults feels more complete than that as children, no doubt due to his age at the time of writing. I have a fondness for dialogue which co-mingles different languages (being prone to it myself) and the interplay of English, French and Russian is gorgeous. There is no other way to put it. I found myself reading parts aloud to hear the sounds of the words. Nabokov's books demand a lot of attention. Losing focus for more than a few sentences results in total confusion.
The Sense Of An Ending - Julian Barnes. A reader recommended this book to me last year (thank you), I bought a copy in August and only just got round to reading it. Oddly, the copy I got had a slightly water damaged cover so the last letter of the author's first name wasn't visible. I read the whole thing thinking it was by a Julia Barnes and that did shape my view of it- I was impressed by how well the author seemed to understand teenage boys.
Anyway, this is an exquisite book and a perfect companion to Tobias Wolff's Old School which I recently read. 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.