I read approximately 50 books this year that were new to me and re-read a few others that were important to me for various reasons. At this time of the year, I try to narrow down the dozens of books that I read to a list of five or six that I drew the most from or were the most interesting or beneficial to me for some reason. People are very busy, and most of you do not have time to read everything you’d like to read. The same is true for me. No matter how much you read and learn, there will always be an infinite amount that you haven’t read or learned. The key is to use the time that you have, and pick the right books when you read.
I read more this year than I have in the past few years, but not as much as four, five, and six years ago. I’d like to think that increasing trend will continue for 2016 and beyond. I read less fiction this year, and was focused on reading a lot of books that I hoped would provide insight into mindfulness and clearer insight into appreciating the everyday moments of life. Here’s the list, in no reasoned order:
Rebecca Solnit – A Field Guide to Getting Lost
This year I spent a lot of time reading books and thinking about the hidden uncertainties in nature and life and whether there were ways I can access them more easily. The product of this, I hope, will be a more immediate and creative life. Solnit’s essay collection is a marvelous and enchanting inquiry into what it means to be “us,” and how the unknown can affect us. Reading this, I was genuinely jealous of Solnit’s insight and approach to what it means to human. She writes, “The question then is how to get lost. Never to get lost is not to live, not to know how to get lost brings you to destruction, and somewhere in the terra incognita in between lies a life of discovery.” Ultimately, Solnit’s view is that living life well requires surrendering to uncertainty and lack of control, which is advice that I am trying to take to heart as the year turns.
This books pairs wonderfully with A Field Guide to Getting Lost. If you live and work a typical life in today’s world, you almost certainly struggle with the unrelenting press of productivity – email alerts, text messages, to-do lists – that presses further and further into our private spaces as time goes on. Knowledge workers sacrificed evenings and weekends long ago, and now it is common practice for people to check their phones for new emails as the very first task of the day. Recognizing the serious negative consequences to this trend, Pico Iyer shares a recipe for reclaiming space and ultimately, envisioning a pathway to mental piece. This book gave my struggling meditation practice a big boost in 2015, reminding me to take time to simply sit still and pay attention to the life in front of me, even if for only five or ten minutes each day. In a world that presents us with more and more easily and immediately available information, Iyer succinctly argues that sitting still and freeing yourself from information is a “necessity for anyone who wishes to gather less visible resources.”
This was the most exciting book I read this year, and centered around a World War II story that I had never heard. In April 1944, Nazi General Heinrich Kreipe disappeared without a trace and without any bloodshed on the island of Crete. McDougall then reveals this fascinating tale of the Cretan resistance against the Nazi occupation and a British clandestine operations agency known as “the Firm,” whose greatest stunt was kidnapping Kreipe and then leading Nazi forces on a wild chase over mountain ranges and throughout the treacherous island. What makes McDougall’s book more than a history text is his exploration of “becoming a hero.” Crete is known as the “Island of Heroes,” and McDougall uses the kidnapping story as a kernel to sprout a much larger study of the tools and methods of heroes. Comparing the British commandoes to the exploits of mythological characters and historic Greek champions, McDougall explains how “the art of the hero wasn’t left up to chance; it was a multidisciplinary endeavor devoted to optimal nutrition, physical self-mastery, and mental conditioning.” This is a fantastic read and a reminder to develop competence in as many areas of life as possible.
Sam Harris – Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion
Neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris delivered a book on mind, meditation, and mindfulness that is unique in its reliance on scientific analysis and secularity. Harris’s thesis is two-fold: first, with a basic practice of mindfulness meditation, you can achieve insight into the nature of consciousness through the relentless chatter in your mind; and second, with that insight, you can develop an increased sense of pleasure in your life. Bookstores are cluttered with self-help books that are useless in their tautologism: if you want to feel better, understand the world, find peace, etc., you just need to feel better, understand the world, and find peace. Harris is different because he writes with razor sharp insight explains a method to insight:
[O]nce a person has his basic needs met, how he uses his attention in every moment will spell the difference between happiness and misery. In particular, the habit of spending nearly every waking moment lost in thought leaves us at the mercy of whatever our thoughts happen to be. Meditation is a way of breaking this spell. Focus is one aspect of this: One discovers that being concentrated—on anything—is intrinsically pleasurable.
Harris is a wide and varied thinker who writes on topics including religion, artificial intelligence, free will, and moral realism. I’ve enjoyed all of his books, but I think that Waking Up is his most important book because it offers a blueprint for meaningful change to anyone willing to look into the nature of his or her own mind.
Homer – The Iliad (trans. Robert Fagles)
I read the Iliad during my freshman year of college, which is to say that I glanced at a few pages of it before being sucked back into more important things like Super Tecmo Bowl and donut holes. I’ve recently investigated the idea of building for myself a great books curriculum for the next few years, and The Iliad was a natural place to start. What struck me in returning to this book after so many years was how remarkably human it is. The book occupies in collective consciousness the position of a classical war epic, but the book is essentially about the consequences of human folly – of conceit, narcissism, jealousy, and revenge. The book starts with the rage of Achilles, who after ten years of bloody war, leaves the Greeks in the lurch by abandoning the fight when the Greek king Menelaus wrongs him. The book circles back to the same rage of Achilles, who has vanquished and dishonored the Trojan hero Hector in vengeance for the death of Achilles’s companion Patroclus. In between these bookends, men die terrible wartime deaths. The book sets humanity against – and frames humanity within – violence, time and time again. It is a strong reminder for our present times exactly what violence against another human being entails, requires, and leaves behind.
Daniel Tammet – Thinking In Numbers
I wrote a piece about this book just a week ago and detailed the remarkable ability of Tammet to find hidden beauty and patterns in what would otherwise pass as arbitrary or unorganized moments in life. This light-hearted collection of essays carries an ultimate point: that mathematics offers a reminder of our own finite capacities, and an opportunity to discover new beauty in patterns within our reach. “Properly understood,” Tammet writes, “the study of mathematics has no end: the things each of us does not know about it are infinite.” This book shatters the parochial viewpoint that relegates math to the classroom and textbook.
I read a lot books on food and cooking, as the kitchen is a place for my restorative and creative time. In that vein, I really enjoyed La Bonne Tableby Ludwig Bemelmans, a collection of essays about kitchens, dining, and good food. Also Dane Huckelbridge’s Bourbon: A History of the American Spirit. Mark Divine’s The Way of the SEAL is a great business planning book that provides great tools for defining your mission and setting goals to make you and your organization accountable through the year. Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire is a magnificent meditation on the American West and the change that modernity has brought to it. I didn’t read nearly as many biographies as I would have liked in 2015, but the Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant was a great read and full of strategic and moral lessons for life drawn from Grant’s Mexican and Civil War experiences.
That’s it for the year. Enjoy, and please let me know what made an impact on you this year.
Best wishes for 2016!