1 January, 2020
I deliberately tried to up my reading in 2019, inspired in part by some of the books I actually read. Here’s a quick list.
And yes, I count audio books as "reading". You do you!
This is Water, by David Foster Wallace – I try to listen to this commencement speech regularly. It always makes me cry, knowing how the story ends for him years later. A valuable reminder that we can have no idea about what is going on in other people’s heads, and our default assumptions are actually within our control to choose. A great perspective shifter for when you’re feeling annoyed at the world.
Circe, by Madeline Miller – holy moly. I haven’t had this deep an emotional reaction to fiction since… I’m actually not sure I’ve ever had this deep an emotional reaction to fiction. Circe is wonderfully written, compellingly told, and an urgent read for anyone trying to get a handle on what it might mean to say that everyone has their own "version" of events.
The Odyssey, by Homer, translated by Emily Wilson – prior to reading this translation, my main familiarity with The Odyssey was with through the kids’ cartoon Ulysses 31 (sing along now – UlysEEeeEEeeEEEEES! Soaring through the GALAXEEEEES!). Turns out that adaptation wasn’t a million miles from the mark, but this new translation sticks to the poetic format, with an emphasis on recreating the intended effect on the audience. The introduction serves as its own standalone history of The Odyssey, providing essential context for a noob like me.
Alien III, by William Gibson – an odd one to include, perhaps. This audio dramatisation of Gibson’s unused draft for a sequel to Aliens was a delightful surprise when I heard about it. One of my earliest memories of the internet was using it to track down a rumoured treatment by Gibson for this film, so I was familiar with the general story. A completely different take to the film we eventually got–much more of a sequel to the ideas in Aliens than a continuation of Ripley’s arc–this presentation sees the return of Michael Biehn and Lance Henriksen as Hicks and Bishop. Short, punchy, compelling, and an absolute must for an Alien nerd like myself.
Margin, by Richard Swenson – a fascinating read, half of which comes from the content, the other half from the fact that the book assumes an audience of devout Christians looking to increase the time they have available to spend worshipping. Lots of good stuff in here about becoming aware of your "hard limits" (e.g. in time, emotion, exertion), and being more intentional about ensuring that your "load" (your external commitments) does not exceed them. I must confess I dropped to skimming after about 2/3 of the book, as the practical examples melted away to be replaced by appeals to proof-by-scripture, but the author is a bona-fide GP, and most of the practical content is backed by science and research. As I said, a fascinating read.
Mindset, by Dr Carol Dweck – people had been recommending Mindset to me for years by this point, and when I had time between jobs this year I decided to pick it up. The ideas are great, and the final chapters of practical advice on how to change your mindset from moment to moment based on your situational requirements are fantastic, but I found it took way too long on the sizzle before getting to the steak: Examples of different mindsets in practice continued long after I was sold and wanted to get to the practical applications.
Sapiens and Homo Deus, by Yuval Noah Harari – I’m a sucker for books that dig into how we got to here from first principles, and Sapiens is probably the best example of this I’ve ever read. Part history, part biology, part anthropology, and part psychology, Harari injects humour and urgency into the story of us. Teetering sometimes on the brink of uncomfortable ideas, Sapiens refuses to shy away from exposing some of the nastier sides of where evolution has taken us, but like This is Water, reminds us that we are (perhaps uniquely) free to make our own choices and decisions. Homo Deus is a worthy follow up, proposing an answer to the question "What did we do next?", but reading them back to back is a little disappointing – much of the latter book is revision of the ideas in the former. Still, that which is new is worth the slog.
Atomic Habits, by James Clear – reading this immediately after Sapiens and Mindset was like having a clever professor tie together two seemingly unrelated lectures into one mind-blowing reveal. Atomic Habits presents habits as the atomic units of who we are, the shortcuts and learned behaviours our Sapiens minds have evolved to build learning through our experiences. Once you understand what habits are really for, you can expand upon the ideas in Mindset to hack them to your advantage. Clear’s writing is simple, direct, and powerful. If you’re at all interested in understanding who you are, and taking control of who you’d like to become, this is a must read.
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, by Mark Manson – if Sapiens and Mindset give you the background, and Atomic Habits give you the tools, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck gives you an illustration of why you might want to reach into that toolbox. The takeaway here is summed up in a simple idea – our goals cannot amount to solving our problems, since solving problems really just means swapping our existing problems for other (hopefully better!) problems. Instead, we should be intentional about choosing which problems we would like to have, and pursuing them. Manson’s bluntly offensive language sugar-coats a deeper idea – if we’re not changing things, maybe we’re choosing them.
Digital Minimalism, by Cal Newport – I read Newport’s Deep Work a couple of years ago, and it opened my mind to a whole load of possibilities I’d never considered before around how we choose to spend our time. While that book focussed on how to use that knowledge to be more "productive", Digital Minimalism presents a cultural manifesto. Part self-help book, part curmudgeonly warning, all thought-provoking and timely, what if we chose to be more intentional with our time?
Reclaiming Conversation, by Sherry Turkle – it’s rare that I’ll read a book referenced in another book. I tend to assume that the relevant parts have been effectively summarised and move on. Digital Minimalism made so many references to this book, though, that I felt it was worth a look, and I was right. Turkle uses Walden as a jumping off point to present her research into our relationships with ourselves, each other, culture, and our digital devices, and paints a picture both horrifying and hopeful. We should talk more, and text less, and as an introvert who saw the rise of non-face-to-face conversation while I was in my late teens as a deliverance from awkwardness, I’m now looking back and wondering if being able to avoid facing that awkwardness hasn’t contributed to many of the ills I’m now talking to a psychologist about.
How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie – After all that, I decided to go back to the source. Reading this book is like watching Citizen Kane. It’s all clichéd now, but that’s only because everyone else copied the hell out of it. Despite being "updated", some parts of this book are excruciatingly dated. There’s a lot of truth in here, though. Basically, to be successful, get interested in other people and in their wants, desires, needs, and aspirations. Not as some gimmick, or some con, but because that’s where the magic happens. As Carnegie says, this isn’t about flattery – it’s about a new way of living.
So there we go – 2019 in reading. What have you been working through in the last twelve months, and what does 2020 hold for you?