Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested. - Francis Bacon
I set myself a goal of ‘reading with a purpose’ last year and being more diligent about note-taking and connecting ideas from my random reading selections. Here’s a log of what I’ve read and what I recommend. There’s a little bit of everything here, from war & genocide to meditations on memory to pop business books. I’ve left it unorganized to reflect my random reading patterns.
Starbucked: A Double Tall Tale of Caffeine, Commerce, and Culture, Taylor Clark
As a Starbucks’ customer, I’m always surprised by the intense emotions and sometimes disgust the company generates in people. Some are loyal patrons, gripping their paper cups proudly as they do their errands, while others are devoted boycotters who feel the brand represents everything that is wrong with corporate America and the world. I admit there is a sameness to their store design and menu, but maybe it is this predictability of a retail experience I find so comforting. I’ve noticed when I travel to a new country this sameness is the perfect foil to understanding something of that culture’s relationship with coffee, class and ‘Americaness’. For example, in Jordan, some would sport the branded cups like luxury items while others sympathetic to the Palestinian cause found the CEO’s pro-Israeli views reason enough to boycottt the brand for life. In Amsterdan, the Venti cup sizes were an economical bargain for those making their morning commute while others saw it as an American Godzilla invading their streets. And finally here in the States, the common criticism is that Starbucks destroys local businesses. I find the ways in which we try to broadcast our identity by the things we consume or abstain from – by the brand allegiances we make – so fascinating. So I decided I needed to learn more about the company and the industry. Clark starts off with the history of coffee in the United States, using this development as the roots for how Starbucks came to be. The struggles of the aggressive company are built from multiple sources, not just the convenient narrative the company and Howard Shultz frequently share. My favorite chapter is on the effect a store has on a city, specfiically small towns in America. Some historically disenfranchised towns see it as a sign of prestige and development while some larger and prosperous cities see it as a blemish to their uniqueness. He uses research and anecdotes of local merchants to downplay the idea that Starbucks destroys local businesses, instead the tendency is actually the opposite; the ubiquitiy and sameness of its stores introduces the novice to the world of coffee and espresso-based drinks they might not otherwise know about. As some of these novices develop their palate, they naturally seek out more higher quality experiences in local establishments. His point is that the global rising tide of coffee consumption lifts all boats, not just Starbucks’. I found this unbiased, even-handed critique of the company and the effects of its presence on both the global and local level refreshing and recommend it to fellow customers and boycotters alike.
The Art of Thinking Clearly, Rolf Dobelli
I love and hate books like this. Since I started reading Gladwell several years ago, I’m a sucker for books that deal with cognitive biases and why we make irrational decisions. The theme of such books is that you and I are not as smart as we think and that common-sense is commonly wrong. Here Dobelli offers a laundry list of 99 cognitive errors we make with our lives and our money. They’re each insightful, some of the errors will probably remind you of follies you’ve made in your own past decision-making. In each short chapter, he offers solutions and ways of reframing a specific kind of dilemma for the future. But he leaves it up to the reader to devise any kind of checklist or classification to these errors. In my opinion a narrative is always easier to hold onto, and use as a tool, then a list of seemingly unrelated observations. This is why I find myself always going back to Gladwell, while his specific narrative and conclusions might at times feel a little too convenient, he’s a genius at carrying the reader through a small set of carefully chosen anecdotes and weaving those memorable stories into a clear prism for seeing the world and ourselves differently.
The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time, David L. Ulin
We live in an age where the written word has never been as accessible. From tweets, to emails, to posts we’re bombarded with information and pages and pages of ideas and thoughts. But this is all fragmentary, not part of one narrative, and less about meaning and more about information. Ulin makes a pretty solid case for the importance of reading books, both stories and nonfiction that forces you down a particular journey, through a specific place, breaking away from the cacophony of our constant distractions. He does so with a gentle voice, never prescribing a specific ‘must-read’ reading list, but making the case that the medium of book reading is a unique and maybe essential human experience with passages like:
Reading is an act of contemplation, perhaps the only act in which we allow ourselves to merge with the consciousness of another human being. We possess the books we read, animating the waiting stillness of their language, but they possess us also, filling us with thoughts and observations, asking us to make them part of ourselves.
He also reminded me of the power of the physical book, the allure of personal libraries, versus weightless digital copies. This short and inspiring read will remind you to always carve out some time, away from the net or another season of your favorite show, to drown deeply in your favorite books.
Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud
This was an unplanned read. Over at The Atlantic website, they’ve proclaimed February is ‘Graphic Novel Month’ – so they’ve created a curriculum based on readers’ votes and I thought I’d follow along as I know very little about this artform. McCloud’s classic is the first before diving into some masterpieces like Maus and V for Vendetta. I read this in one sitting which should tell you how much I enjoyed it. It’s an entertaining and philosophical comic book about comic books. McCloud starts off with the history of using images and words in storytelling, slowly building the case that comics can aspire to the same cultural importance as novels and fine art. He also shows how flexible the medium is, and the cultural differences between Eastern and Western comics are one example of this. As a filmmaker I couldn’t help but draw parallels between film and his discussions on iconography, the merits of abstraction, negative space, ‘closure’ and audience participation. He ends the book with an interesting six-part outline for artistic creation that in a sense predicts once artistic trajectory, regardless of medium, depending on which of the six aspects you choose to emphasize. I recommend this book to any storytellers out there, especially filmmakers who’ll be reminded of the power of images and inspired to question if cinema is as flexible. BTW, you can read some of my favorite quotes from McCloud here.
Quiet, Susan Cain
I was very excited to read this based on the early reviews and excerpts. Cain discusses the benefits of introversion despite our culture’s tendency to prize extroversion, self-marketing and multi-tasking. There’s little time or value for introspection or solitude, as they are both considered vices and for anti-social types (like me). While I agree wholeheartedly with her message and argument, I’m dissatisfied by the actual book. In my opinion this is another case of using more than enough examples to prove each nuance and milking the crap out of one central idea in order to fill a book. And it fits in with the recent trend of business books to reshape what’s already been said on a particular sub-subject. For example, she quotes pop business authors (not researchers) like Gladwell, Coyle and Gallaghner – whose recent ideas I’d assume her audience would probably be already familiar with. I can’t help but feel this would’ve been better off as a series of articles. But then again, if you haven’t read anything on the creative process, the development of talent and ideas, etc then this might be a good starting point for you.
Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World, Sam Sommers
Didn’t enjoy at all – if you’ve read Gladwell’s Tipping Point & Blink then I don’t think you’ll learn anything new here about the power of context in determining a person’s behavior.
You Are Not So Smart, David McRaney
A great summary of the biases that hijack our decisions and opinions so easily. Written in short chapters based on well-chosen examples and studies. There’s been a boatload of these kinds of books, that leverage recent neuroscientific and psychological findings to explain why we do stupid things. Despite that, this is a good reference and you’ll learn a couple of strategies to counter some of your cognitive imperfections when you need to.
Visions of Islam, Sachiko Murata & William Chittick
It’s easy to overcomplicate religon. And I’ve found myself doing exactly that when it comes to my own faith – Islam. I first read this book about ten years ago and really enjoyed how it cuts through to the essentials – so I thought I’d revisit it to remind myself of the basics of Islam.
The book is structured around a simple story, or hadith – the ‘Hadith of Gabriel‘. The story goes that one day a stranger came to Prophet Muhamed while he was sitting with his friends. He sat down next to the Prophet and began quizing him about the basics of his religon. The Prophet answered each question to the stranger’s satisfaction. After the stranger left the Prophet told his companions that this man was actually an angel, Gabriel, in the garb of a human. So these questions and answers were not meant for the Prophet, but rather for his friends and future Muslems as a reference of what the essentials of Islam are.
The first three questions Gabriel asked the Prophet were: ‘what is faith‘, ‘what is islam‘ and ‘what is ihsan‘. The book treats the Prophet’s succinct answers to these questions as the three dimensions that make up Islam. And it fleshes out these three concepts by utilizing the Koran, sayings of the Prophet and interpretations of respected theologians.
This textbook is used in many ‘Intro to Islam’ type classes across Western universities and is a great read for non-Muslems and Muslems alike who are trying to learn more about the religion’s central concepts and themes.
Uncommon Genius, Denise Shekerjian (reread)
Another classic text that I like to revisit when I get blocked. Shekerjian does a great job of demystifying the creative process by interweaving interviews with forty MacArthur Genius Grant recepients with her own reflections on genius. I have a lot of favorite quotes which I’ve tumblered here. Also just found out she has her own blog where she continues investigating creative practice and how one attains mastery of their field – looks like something to add to your RSS reader.
Child of God, Cormac McCarthy
The more I read McCarthy, the more I fall in love. I’m working my way backwards, from his more popular work like The Road and No Country for Old Men to his lesser known stories. In this short novel we follow the morbid ‘hero’, Lester Ballard, as he indulges in a killing spree against the people of a small town in Eastern Tennessee. He is unforgettable as one of the most grotesque but interesting of characters, and a forebear to McCarthy’s later nemeses.
The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje (reread)
One of my favorite novels, and the kind of language and themes that I aspire towards in my own writing. If you enjoyed the film then I think you’ll love the book. This meditation on memory and history is far more fragmentary then Minghella’s adaptation, yet you leave with clear narratives for each of the characters. The plot is more distributed across the histories of the four – Hana, Caravaggio, Kip and Almasy – with the abandoned villa the common geography between them. The end with Hana & Kip is especially touching.
In the Skin of a Lion, Michael Ondaatje
This is a sort of ‘prequel’ to Ondaatje’s The English Patient. It takes place in Canada and includes the stories of Caravaggio and Hana’s parents. Really enjoyed this, for the language, characters and themes. But whereas Patient submerged us into the past, here we move with the ever-changing present. The structure weaves several lives, intersecting over and over again, like ghosts of one’s life reuniting. It’s a meditation on how one’s past shapes their future.
Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke
I was inspired to read this because of an article at the 99% website about Rilke’s letters. The book is a collection of ten letters he wrote to a young aspiring poet who was at a crossroads in his life, trying to choose between the uncertainty of a poet’s life and a military career. His letters are compassionate and inspiring, highlighting the trials and tribulations of being an artist but also the intrinsic rewards of staying the course. The fact he took the time over the course of ten years to correspond and help someone he never met is inspiring. In my own career I try to seek out such noble, wise mentors and I’m happy I ‘found’ him. If you want to learn more, I would start with the 99% article to see if his wisdom on solitude & hard work resonates before purchasing his entire collection of letters.
The Way of the Screenwriter, Amnon Buchbinder
I was looking forward to reading this based on word of mouth. But overall there’s better books out there depending on what exactly you’re looking for from a screenwriting manual. It covers the basics, scene & script structure, character development, with an esoteric, ‘inside-out’, tone. I don’t feel I necessarily ‘learned’ anything new but was reminded again of the fundamentals. Based on what your looking for I suggest alternatives. For inspiration and to get you through the first draft of your script, I recommend the fiction writing classics Bird by Bird and Writing Down the Bones. For the fundamentals of dramatic construction, from writing scenes to short scripts, I recommend Crafting Short Screenplays that Connect. And to explore how more advanced screenplay structures, involving flashback and multiple storylines & protagonists, are put together (e.g. The Usual Suspects, The Sweet Hereafter) investigate Screenwriting Updated.
TokTok (Arabic), comic book magazine
TokTok is an Egyptian comic book written and drawn by several contributors. I’ve read Issues 1 & 2 so far. You can read back issues online. You won’t necessarily learn anything new about the revolution or what it felt like, but it is entertaining, very Egyptian and I guess you could say a different kind of insight into how the culture tries to remedy social ills with humor. Again, it’s in Arabic, mostly Egyptian dialect, which is rare to find in written texts, so great practice for those of you trying to improve your fluency. You can learn more about the project and it’s genesis here.
Drive, Daniel Pink
I was reluctant to read this, based on it’s description. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of Daniel Pink and his last book Whole New Mind – he helped me make the shift from a design engineer whose job would eventually be outsourced to a filmmaker. But Drive for the most part was a summary of ideas I had been exposed to long before, either through classics like Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow or even Pink’s TED talk. After reading it I wasn’t surprised to find that I had already read most of his suggestions for further reading. There’s always been genre of business books that popularize and shape scientific or sociological discoveries into tools for the laymen or manager. Some authors, like Malcolm Gladwell, do it better than others in my opinion. So instead of reading Pink’s book, I recommend his 15 minute talk and this great 11 minute animated summary. After that, if you’re still interested in learning more about this exciting field of motivation, you can start on such classics as Flow, Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences and/or Dweck’s Mindset.
The 10X Rule, Grant Cardone
The central idea of this book is that the difference between success and failure, in all areas of life, is due to the kinds of goals and corresponding actions we take to achieve them. What Cardone proposes is we succeed to achieve our goals when we make them hard, 10 times what is considered normal. We are then inspired to work harder, applying 10 times the normal effort and actions to achieve those dreams. While there’s a lot of filler material and anecdotes, this simple idea resonates with a lot of my recent readings into why people succeed and fail and where does ‘talent’ ultimately come from. Is talent a gift from God or the result of a lot of trial and error, fueled by insane ambition? I think we would all agree with Cardone that we have a tendency to aim for smaller versions of our dreams. And then we try to pursue them with less effort we know it will take to achieve them. Maybe there is no ‘right move’, no ‘right moment’, no 90-day program that will allow us to effortlessly achieve our dreams – maybe it’s all about the basics: hard goals & hard work.
The Great Fitness Experiment: One Year of Trying Everything, Charlotte Hilton
I totally love the concept behind this short fitness book. It’s based on a blog and for the book Hilton summarizes twelve fitness experiments she ran on herself with friends. She does a good job of summarizing each methodology, everything from Crossfit to Tracy Anderson, and her physical and emotional results. The major lesson I took away from her journey is that there’s more than one solution to reach your goals and ultimately you should steer yourself in the direction of what kind of ‘hard exercise’ you actually enjoy doing. Because of her I feel less guilty about including many different approaches into the same training sessions, like interweaving kettlebell lifts with TRX training. I’ve become less reliant on the sage advice of one fitness expert or the fitness craze of the moment. I’m now more willing to be my own trainer, to experiment and try out crazy stuff in the gym while tracking my results in search of the methods that actually work. Highly recommend this if you’re addicted to fitness and looking for ways to make it less routine and more interesting.
Self-Reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson
If you’ve ever read an Emerson quote chances are it was taken from his book Self-Reliance, a collection essays by the transcendentalist. I bought a Kindle version published by the Domino Project, but you can read a pdf of it for free here. Nothing earth-shattering here, just great reminders on the value of honest creative work, non-conformity and maintaining your belief in your own innate genius. I recommend it as a nearby friend to push you on in your creative adventures.
War, Sebastian Junger
If you’re interested in experiencing the microscopic details of war and its physical and mental toll on a group of men then this is the book for you. It’s based on one journalist’s embedded experience with an US platoon and led to the documentary Restrepo with Tim Hetherington. You’ll be easily disappointed If you’re looking for easy explanations and righteous meditations, or a clearer idea of what it means to serve and sacrifice your life for your nation. But it does leave you with some sense of the human toll of the Afghanistan conflict. As the platoon struggles against a seemingly endless guerrilla force, they must also fight the alien-like terrain of Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. I felt it was sadly ironic that the very war that shaped these men into superhuman specimens of mental and physical endurance betrayed them in the end when it was time to ‘come home’. Where they once had purpose, many weren’t able to transition back to civilian life. Understandably, this war had taken its toll, seeped into their bones like a drug and split their psyches at the seams.
Moneyball, Michael Lewis
This is a testament to the benefits of breaking from the ‘common sense’ of your industry and looking for reliable tools to achieve success. I’m sure by now with the movie adaptation starring Brad Pitt people are familiar with the basics of the story: a baseball team finds a way to compete and win despite being significantly less financed than their competitors. If you found the concept of sabermetrics fascinating, and how it shattered the wisdom of traditional baseball scouting, then I recommend the book as a way to delve deeper into how it was developed by a motley crew of avid outsiders. You can read the story narrowly, to better understand how the collective wisdom of a group of men in the baseball industry was highly subjective and usually wrong, or you can read it as a source of inspiration for your own personal ambitions: you can consider the possibility that most industries and fields are guilty of their own particular kinds of collective error which you can take advantage of if you’re courageous enough to go against their respective common sense.
War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, Chris Hedges
One of my favorite books of the year. He makes a compelling case for the addictive, seductive nature of war, both for armies and societies. He deals with the gritty details of death and survival ballasted by the almost sacred, premordial mythos surrounding armed conflict. I have to share an excerpt for you to get a sense of how the book is as much about the effects of war on the soldier as it is about the ordinary civilian:
I learned early on that war forms its own culture. The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug, one I ingested for many years. It is peddled by mythmakers-historians, war correspondents, filmmakers, novelists, and the state-all of whom endow it with qualities it often does possess: excitement, exoticism, power, chances to rise above our small stations in life, and a bizarre and fantastic universe that has a grotesque and dark beauty. It dominates culture, distorts memory, corrupts language, and infects everything around it, even humor, which becomes preoccupied with the grim perversities of smut and death. Fundamental questions about the meaning, or meaninglessness, of our place on the planet are laid bare when we watch those around us sink to the lowest depths.
War exposes the capacity for evil that lurks not far below the surface within all of us. And this is why for many war is so hard to discuss once it is over.
The enduring attraction of war is this: Even with its destruction and carnage it can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living. Only when we are in the midst of conflict does the shallowness and vapidness of much of our lives become apparent. Trivia dominates our conversations and increasingly our airwaves. And war is an enticing elixir. It gives us resolve, a cause. It allows us to be noble.
What the Dog Saw, Malcolm Gladwell
There seems to be a lot of Gladwell haters out there. But for those of you who’ve read and appreciated his trifecta – Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers – I think you’ll enjoy this. The book is a collection of his best New Yorker articles, most of which were written before his three books. I think you can read all of them for free here. This is an important addition for the Gladwell fan because you get a sense of the groundwork for his later works. I left with a new appreciation of his ability to lend credence to the contrarian interpretation of common phenomenons. Many of the stories are connected by individuals working outside of what is considered ‘common sense’ in their fields, who have found that what we think is a simple problem is actually complex and vice versa.
I’ve spent this past year reading what I can about talent, problem-solving and how to spread ideas and I keep coming across the same research and kinds of ideas, albeit watered down into simple advise. And so, for this reason they haven’t had a lasting effect on me. In fact many of those books are actually pamphlets in disguise. Not so with Gladwell’s work; his books have ‘fiber’ to them and he leaves you in wonder at the world around you. By his own admission he is not an originator of a single idea, but rather his talent is connecting them, regardless of the field, into insightful understandings. I guess some of 2012 will be spent rereading him.
Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell (reread)
Rereading this book now, I’m struck by how the ideas on talent Gladwell popularized 3 years ago are so commonplace now. By now everyone’s heard of the theory that it takes ’10,000 hours’ of ‘deliberate practice’ to achieve mastery in a field. Yet in the blogosphere there’s a serious abuse of the concept, many believing that because they’ve been ‘working’ in a field for 10+ years then that makes them an ‘expert’. For a preview of the book check out his interview with Charles Rose. For genuine ways to apply these concepts of talent-building in your work check out Talent is Overrated and The Talent Code.
The Gendarme, Mark T. Mustian
Really enjoyed how this novel interwove the present and past, flashes of memories, building into a narrative of what one man is ultimately guilty of. It reminded me of my own project because of the structure and details of the Armenian genocide. If you enjoy historical fiction give this a read.
Black Dog of Fate: A Memoir, Peter Balakian
A powerful memoir as Balakian slowly discovers his heritage and the stories of his family members’ survival & death during the Armenian genocide. Leaves you with a strong sense of the enormous human suffering and loss that took place in Turkey in the first genocide of the 20th Century. I feel as though this genocide is still taking place because it hasn’t been officially recognized by many countries (e.g. United States) and it is actively denied by many Turkish historians. As Balakian writes:
- the denial of genocide is the final stage of genocide; the first killing followed by a killing of the memory of the killing. The perpetrator’s quest for impunity by denying continues to abuse the victim group by preventing the process of healing for the survivors and the inheritors of the survivors. In denying the crime, the perpetrator seeks to rob the victim of a moral order. Clearly, denying genocide paves the way for future genocide, for it suggests to the world that governments can commit mass murder with impunity. Hitler in 1939 was inspired by the collective absence of memory of the Armenian Genocide.
Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite, Robert Kurzban
Really enjoyed. Kurzban explains that because our brains are made up of different parts, or modules, that evolved for specific purposes, our conscious self is made up of many voices. So in a sense there is a committee of modules, each with their own needs and wants and the self in a sense is a kind of ‘prime minster’ of these various voices. Inconsistency and hypocrisy are the manifestations of this modularity. A good place to start if you’re interested in learning more about evolutionary psychology.
The Road, Cormac McCarthy
Highly recommended. After reading ‘No Country for Old Men’ and now this, I’m convinced I need to complete McCarthy’s body of work before he’s eventually awarded the Nobel Prize. Written in clear, terse language, he never leaves you confused as to what is happening or bogged down in metaphors and symbolism, leaving room for your own imagination to fill in the gaps. The plot is threadbare: a father and son (‘the good guys’) going from point A to B through a post-apocalyptic world. In this odyssey you’ll witness some of the most horrific scenes even written of what man can do when the civilized world falls apart. But McCarthy doesn’t dwell too long on these images, it’s really about a father and son trying to hold on to each other when there’s really no reason to hope for anything else.
A Guide to the Good Life : The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, William B. Irvine
If you’re trying to learn more about Stoicism and it’s applications for modern life then you’ll enjoy this. Irvine does a great job of summarizing the tools and mindset of Stoics and I think they have real use in dealing with our chronic dissatisfaction and anxieties. The advice resonates with Aurelius’s Meditations, another book I highly recommend.
The Quran, translated into English by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem
I’ve read every major English translation of the Quran at least once and so I was pleasantly surprised by Abdel Haleem’s nuanced effort to translate this complex work. Clear, contemporary language, retaining something of the cadence of the original Arabic. Also he goes very light on the footnotes and has a useful index to connect similar verses if needed for further understanding. In my opinion this is the best translation currently on the market for the non-Arab Muslem or the non-Muslem wanting to learn more about Islam.
Architecture of the Novel, Jane Vandenburgh
This novel writing book, written in the vein of Lamott’s Bird by Bird and Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, has become my new classic, and my first suggestion to budding writers regardless of your medium. You’ve probably heard enough about the benefits of outlining and planning your story before you actually start writing. But Vanderburgh suggests you try something radically different. She just wants you to write, to find your story organically, and the idea is that as you build up material the story itself well tell you what else it needs. After you have that first shitty draft, you’ll see more clearly the story’s potential structure and plot. While I can appreciate the safety net that outlines and pre-arranged index cards offer a writer, I believe writing with these blueprints can be suffocating at times. If you’d like to try ‘letting go of the wheel’ on your next novel or screenplay then I strongly suggest you read her advice.
Reviews still pending:
- The Gun, C.J. Chivers
- A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership & Mental Illness, Nassir Ghaemi
- Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, Art Spiegelman