The Best Books I Read in 2015

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.

Pico Iyer – The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere (TED Books)

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.”

Christopher McDougall – Natural Born Heroes: How a Daring Band of Misfits Mastered the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance

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.

Miscellaneous Others

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!

Savant Daniel Tammet on Finding Beauty in the Mathematical Patterns of Life

I had the pleasure this weekend of devouring Daniel Tammet’s 2012 essay collection, Thinking in Numbers.  Part mathematical inquiry, part memoir, Tammet’s wonderful collection offers a wonderfully creative window into a new vision of life – a vision in which we are able to separate ourselves from a rigid common view of life and find awe and beauty in the swirling patterns that we pass each day without notice.

Tammet was born in London in 1979, and experienced early childhood epileptic seizures and unusual behavior.  In 2004, at the age of 25, he was diagnosed with high-functioning autistic savant syndrome.  The same year, he set a European record at the Oxford Museum of the History of Science when he recited from memory the mathematical constant of pi to 22,514 places.  It took him 5 hours and 19 minutes, and he made no errors in the process.

Tammet began writing in 2005 with the autobiographical account of his childhood and young life, Born on a Blue Day.  He followed soon after with his overview of contemporary neuroscience, Embracing the Wide Sky.  Thinking in Numbers is his first book of essays and draws inspiration to live a more complete and wide-open life from the mathematics he observes in subjects including snowflakes, chess problems, and Anne Boleyn’s sixth finger.

Tammet starts his collection with the essay “Family Values,” in which he describes his family relationships with his eight siblings as an example of set theory.  Set theory is the branch of mathematics that is concerned with sets, or collections of objects.  In describing his his siblings and himself together, Tammet described them as a set:

We are, my brothers, sisters, and I, in the language of mathematics, a “set” consisting of nine members.  A mathematician would write:

S = {Daniel, Lee, Claire, Steven, Paul, Maria, Natasha, Anna, Shelley}

Put another way, we belong to the category of things that people refer to when they use the number nine.

In considering his familial set, Tammet ponders the number of potential combinations of different Tammet children in any given location at a random time.  Mathematics tells us that a combination of two, three, or seven siblings is a subset of the Tammet family set, and that the number of subsets in any set is 2n, where represents the number of set members.  The potential combinations of the author and his siblings in any place and time is 29, or 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2, or 512.  To Tammet, a visit to the bakery with one brother and one sister represents just one of a defined 512 combinations of family members that might show up in that store that day.

Tammet explains the significance of this mathematical representation of his family.  Viewed through this lens, his family instantly shares some a communal aspect with other sets that have this characteristic.  These include members of a baseball team (9), planets in the solar system prior to 2005, before Pluto’s demotion (9), and United States Supreme Court Justices (9).  New commonality appears where before were only family boundaries.

Reminding us that “Our mind uses sets when we think and when we perceive just as much as when we count.”  Tammet then marks a consistent theme of his book, that familiarity with mathematics can change one’s point of view in everyday life:

Defining a set owes more to art than it does to science.  Faced with the problem of a near endless number of potential categories, we are inclined to choose from a few of those most tried and tested within our particular culture.  Western descriptors of the set of all elephants privilege subsets like “those that are very large, and “those possessing tusks,” and even “those possessing an excellent memory,” while excluding other equally legitimate possibilities such as Borges’s “those that at a distance resemble flies,” or the Hindu “those that are considered lucky.”

Tammet’s point is that our descriptions, categorization, and even view of the objects and people in our lives are mechanical, when so many different and accurate points of view are available to us.

In “Eternity Within an Hour,” Tammet begins a discourse that spans several essays regarding the numerical mysteries that surround us during every waking moment.  He recounts discovering that, as a child on his walk to school, that it took him eight seconds to travel from one lamppost to the next.  These regular intervals repeated themselves, eight seconds to each lamppost.  It occurred to Tammet that at four seconds, he was halfway to the next lamppost.  He halved the distance again at six seconds.  One second later – seven seconds had elapsed – he had cut the distance in half again.  This would repeat itself infinitely, over and over again, with the intervals becoming half as long and taking half as much time.  But the presence of infinity was obvious to Tammet, who marvels over this hidden dimension of the “infinity of fractions that lurked between the lampposts on my street.”

Tammet reveals observations like these to be much more than mere curiosities.  They are, in Tammet’s view, moments in which we may find meaning as human beings.  In his essay Einstein’s Equations, Tammet considers the explosion of meaning that comes from the analysis of whether a number – 75,007 – is a prime number.  In wrestling with this question, Tammet processes the subject number, first to a sum of 74,900 and 107.  As 74,900 is 10,700 x 7, 75,007 becomes 10,700 x 7 + 107.  More precisely still, the number becomes 1o7 x 100 x 7 + 107.  Tammet notes that the mathematician’s “blood leaps with joy to recognize the repeated factor: 107.”  The problem solved, he writes 75,007 = 107 x 701.  It is not a prime.

This is a moment of human meaning, revealing natural beauty:

Human beings’ quest for meaning is perpetual; lack of meaning is offensive to the mind, and whatever the scale of the problem, a solution is a thing of beauty.  Einstein’s equations solved problems such as “What do we mean by the words ‘time’ and ‘mass’?” A mathematician could tell us that the number 75,007 means to travel from 0 to 107, and then repeat the same distance successively 701 times.  Other meanings, like those found in music or cricket, while more intimate and inexpressible, can prove just as powerful.  Where chaos is subdued and the arbitrary averted, there lies beauty, and it is all around us.”

This discovery of beauty in the natural order hearkens all the way back to Pythagorus and his followers, who believed that the identities of all objects depend on form and not substance, and could be described using numbers and ratios.  Thus, Pythagorus taught that the “entire cosmos constituted some vast and glorious musical scale.”  Tammet admires the group as “the first to understand the world not on tradition (religion), or observation (empirical data), but through imagination – the prizing of pattern over matter.”

Tammet’s greatest successes in this book is his ability to extrapolate these abstract appreciations of natural beauty to an application of mathematics to life.  In A Novelist’s Calculus, he reminds us of Leo Tolstoy’s considered use of calculus as a metaphor for the story of history in War and Peace.

As geometers study shape, the student of calculus examines changes: the mathematics of how an object transforms from one state into another, as when describing the motion of a ball or bullet through space, is rendered pictorial in its graphs’ curves.  In these curves, smooth and subtle, girding the infinitesimal movements behind every human life, Tolstoy thought he was the blindness of contemporary historians.

Specifically, Tammet explains how Tolstoy believed calculus’s ability to identify and analyze the rates of change of extremely small events was akin to study of history:

The movement of humanity, arising as it does from innumerable arbitrary human wills, is continuous.  To understand the laws of this continuous movement is the aim of history… only by taking infinitesimally small units for observation … and attaining to the art of integrating them (that is, finding the sum of these infinitesimals) can we hope to arrive at the laws of history.”

Tammet summarizes, “Kinds and commanders and presidents did not interest Tolstoy.  History, his history, looks elsewhere: it is the study of infinitely incremental, imperceptible change from one state of being (peace) to another (war).”  Ultimately, “change appears to us mysterious because it is invisible.”  Nonetheless, Tammet recognizes that the impact of change renders a writer powerless to control his or her message to an ever-shifting audience.

If Tolstoy is right, his book cannot be understood with prior assumptions, rules, and theories.  Everything has its moment, its context.  Earlier, in one state, you began this essay, and now later on, you finish it in another.  What do you think?  I cannot tell you.  In everyone and everything, the process of change always asserts its own meaning.

Tammet’s ultimate point is that mathematics simultaneously 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.”  He closes his opening essay on his family and siblings with these fine words:

Like works of literature, mathematical ideas help expand our circle of empathy, liberating us from the tyranny of a single, parochial point of view.  Numbers, properly considered, make us better people.

 

 

Richard Feynman on the Value of Straight Talk

Do you speak freely and communicate your ideas directly?  Or do you filter, hedge, calculate, or adjust your message based on what you believe your audience wants to hear?  Richard Feynman highlights the value of straight talk through a short story found in his collection of autobiographical adventures, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character).

Richard Feynman’s Direct Communication

Feynman (1918-1988) was an American theoretical physicist, lifelong learner, and academic adventurer.  His work spanned many decades, and he made gigantic contributions to the fields of quantum mechanics, quantum electrodynamics, and particle physics.  He participated in the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb, taught at Cornell University and the California Institute of Technology, and assisted in the investigation of the Challenger Shuttle explosion.

Aside from his professional accomplishments, Feynman is often admired for his humorous and bawdy adventures in life.  His direct communication style often startled conventional thinkers: when learning feline anatomy, for example, his question was reported to be, “Do you have a map of the cat?”

Deliver an Honest Opinion Directly

In Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, Feynman recalls the opportunity to meet and work with Niels Bohr, the Danish physicist and Nobel laureate, in Los Alamos, New Mexico during the Manhattan Project.  At the time, Bohr was a giant in the field, while Feynman was still in the early stages of his career and relatively unknown.

“I also met Niels Bohr.  His name was Nicholas Baker in those days, and he came to Los Alamos, with Jim Baker, his son, whos e name is really Aage Bohr.  They came from Denmark, and they were very famous physicists, as you know.  Even to the big shot guys, Bohr was a great god.

[…]In the morning of the day he’s due to come next time, I get a telephone call.

‘Hello-Feynman?’

‘Yes.’

‘This is Jim Baker.’ It’s his son. ‘My father and I would like to speak to you.’

‘Me? I’m Feynman, I’m just a-.’

‘That’s right.  Is eight o’clock OK?’

So, at eight o’clock in the morning, before anybody’s awake, I go down to the place.  We go into an office in the technical area and he says, ‘We have been thinking how we could make the bomb more efficient and we think of the following idea.’

I say, ‘No, it’s not going to work.  It’s not efficient …Blah, blah, blah.’

So he says, ‘How about so and so?’

I said, ‘That sounds a little bit better, but it’s got this damn fool idea in it.”

This went on for about two hours, going back and forth over lots of ideas, back and forth, arguing.  The great Niels kept lighting his pipe; it always went out.  And he talked in a way that was un-understandable -mumble, mumble, hard to understand.  His son I could understand better.

‘Well,’ he said finally, lighting his pipe, ‘I guess we can call in the big shots now.’ So then they called all the other guys and had a discussion with them.

Then the son told me what happened.  The last time he was there, Bohr said to his son, ‘Remember the name of that little fellow in the back over there? He’s the only guy who’s not afraid of me, and will say when I’ve got a crazy idea.  So next time when we want to discuss ideas, we’re not going to be able to do it with these guys who say everything is yes, yes, Dr. Bohr.  Get that guy and we’ll talk with him first.

I was always dumb in that way.  I never knew who I was talking to.  I was always worried about the physics.  If the idea looked lousy, I said it looked lousy.  If it looked good, I said it looked good.  Simple proposition.

I’ve always lived that way.  It’s nice, it’s pleasant – if you can do it.  I’m lucky in my life that I can do this.”

An honest opinion delivered directly can be of immense value.  Don’t waste your opportunities to share them.  Over time, the reputation as someone who shares ideas candidly will become even more valuable to your audience than the individual opinions.

Commonplacing – Do You Remember What You Read?

Do you read books?  Do you read a lot of books?  Do you remember all of the great information, lessons, and points you might take from the writing you ingest?

I read a lot of books.  I also do a poor job of retaining the information I read with memory alone.  As a result, I began to look for a system to capture in an efficient manner the parts of texts that I read.

During my school days, I took copious marginalia notes in books, which I still do and highly recommend.  Marginalia, however, are only retrievable if you pick up the book again and find the page on which you took the note.  In other words, in recording your note, your observation will forever be captured and stored on a page in another writer’s book.  It is not portable, searchable, or usable in that form.

Enter the commonplace book.  A commonplace book is, in its simplest terms, a centralized collection of the notes and excerpts a reader takes from books that he or she has read.  The practice is one that was particularly popular centuries ago.  Robert Darnton described the idea in a 2000 article in the New York Review of Books:

Time was when readers kept commonplace books. Whenever they came across a pithy passage, they copied it into a notebook under an appropriate heading, adding observations made in the course of daily life. Erasmus instructed them how to do it; and if they did not have access to his popular De Copia, they consulted printed models or the local schoolmaster. The practice spread everywhere in early modern England, among ordinary readers as well as famous writers like Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson, John Milton, and John Locke. It involved a special way of taking in the printed word. Unlike modern readers, who follow the flow of a narrative from beginning to end, early modern Englishmen read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book. They broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks. Then they reread the copies and rearranged the patterns while adding more excerpts. Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality.

A commonplace book can take any number of forms, from a journal, to an electronic database, to loose scraps of paper.  (Thomas Jefferson apparently collected loose scraps for his commonplace collection, and then had them bound later in his life).  I use a system that is heavily promoted by Robert Greene (author of books including The 48 Laws of Power) and Ryan Holiday (author of books including The Obstacle is the Way).  When reading a book, I mark pages and passages I find worthwhile or particularly insightful.  I also take margin notes and otherwise mark up my books.  When I finish a book, I set it aside for a period of days.

After some days have passed, I return to the book, and I review my marked passages and notes.  With the passage of time, some of the marked passages no longer seem worth recording to me, and I ignore those.  I write down those that remain onto paper notecards.  I write the quote, along with the author, title, and page number on the card.  In the top right corner of the card, I label the card with a theme.  I have no predetermined themes or any limit to the number of themes that I may use, although themes are obviously more useful if you pick topics that are applicable to a broad enough set of quotes that you can gather related ideas.  Examples from the last four or five books that I’ve read might be: “zen,” “stoicism,” “cognitive bias,” “leadership,” and “work.”  Placing them on notecards as opposed to a fixed journal allows me to organize notes, or take a small set of notes with me if traveling or working remotely.

As you collect more and more notes, you will find that these themes develop and emerge across multiple texts.  This will allow you to become a comparative and a more analytical thinker.  How do different texts and different writers illuminate these themes in different ways?  What similarities do you find?  What differences?  Ultimately, your focus should shift to developing your own analytical viewpoint and insights into these areas of thought.  When that happens, you know that you have moved from just “reading” to “thinking,” from “consuming” to “analyzing,” and ultimately, from “observation” to “creation.”