Books! This has been a big part of my life the last couple of years, especially because I suck at reading and used to take so much pride in never reading the book in school and still passing the exam. But this is no longer school, this is life, and reading is starting to feel kind of important now.
I have decided, however, that I’m not going to be intimidated by all these supernerds around me reading like 100 books a year and taking over the world. I’m eager to read more, but now I’m only competing with myself and my only goal is that I read more than I did the previous year. In 2015 I read 11 books, in 2016 I read 12.5! So I’m pretty much a genius now.
If you’re interested, here’s what I was reading this year:
What The Dog Saw | Malcolm Gladwell
“They were there looking for people who had the talent to think outside the box. It never occurred to them that, if everyone had to think outside the box, maybe it was the box that needed fixing.”
Malcolm Gladwell is one of my favourite authors and storytellers, and I generally have to be in a certain headspace to read his books as they’re so thought-provoking and involved. What The Dog Saw is a collection of short essays where he investigates questions such as “Why are there hundreds of mustards but ketchup has never changed?” or “Why do Japanese women have breast cancer rates six times lower than American women?” By looking at these questions from unique angles, or perhaps, just closer than anyone else has, he tends to uncover ideas about us and the world that you don’t see on the surface. It is definitely not his best book, not for me anyway, but if you enjoy innovative, Freakonomics-esque ways of looking at the world, you will love this one.
The War Of Art | Steven Pressfield
“The artist cannot look to others to validate his efforts or his calling. If you don’t believe me, ask Van Gogh, who produced masterpiece after masterpiece and never found a buyer in his whole life.”
What does it mean to be an artist? How, and why, do we create art? Why is it so difficult? And how do we overcome it? Steven Pressfield writes of the debilitating difficulty of simply sitting down to write, or paint, or compose, and how the evils of procrastiation and “Resistance” prevent us from creating great things and reaching our potential. It is war, he tells us. A war against ourselves. A war that any creative will understand intimately. And then he arms us with the mindset to win this war. If you are a creator in any discipline – painting, drawing, writing, singing – it may become one of your bibles. One of the most important books I’ve ever read.
This Boy’s Life | Tobias Wolff
“I was subject to fits of feeling myself unworthy, somehow deeply at fault. It didn’t take much to bring this sensation to life, along with the certainty that everybody but my mother saw through me and did not like what they saw. There was no reason for me to have this feeling. I thought I’d left it back in Florida, together with my fear of fighting and my shyness with girls, but here it was, come to meet me.”
My Kindle continued to recommend this book to me at every turn, so I gave it a go. You may remember the film adaptation, many years ago, which starred Leo DiCaprio as the author. It’s a memoir of a boy growing up with a darling mother and a wack stepfather. It’s set in small town America, between various places, and is mostly about a young boy getting up to mischief while trying to survive boyhood.
I read it back in January/February some time and honestly don’t remember much else from it, other than I read it quite quickly and enjoyed it. Not a fiery endorsement I know, but it’s really well written and if you enjoy memoirs you’ll probably like it. A classic, supposedly.
The Liar’s Club | Mary Karr
“Now, Miss Karr, this looks like a bullet hole.”
Lecia didn’t miss a beat, saying, “Mother, isn’t that where you shot at daddy?”
And Mother squinted up, slid her glasses down her patrician-looking nose and said, very blasé, “No that’s where I shot at Larry.” She wheeled to point at another wall, adding “Over there’s where I shot at your daddy.”
This was tipped as the memoir to rule all memoirs, winning prize after prize, so being a sucker for true stories of course I had to read it.
It’s a very candid story of a looney father, a mother who can’t stop getting married, sexual assault, family secrets, child abuse, guns, booze, and all sorts of other crazy shit set in small town Texas. I found it a little underwhelming. Mary Karr can write, no doubt, but she has a neurotic way of writing things that kind of loses me at times. But nonetheless a fascinating story, and not a bad pick if you’re a fan of memoir. Kind of dark, but funny. I feel like the ladies out there will vibe with it a lot more than I did.
How Not To Travel The World | Lauren Juliff
“I’d read over and over about how one of the most important things a solo female traveller could do is listen to their instincts. How could I, though, when mine always told me I was going to die? Intuition was a thing for me to ignore. If I paid attention to it, I’d never leave the house.”
This is a memoir by my friend Lauren who blogs over at Never Ending Footsteps (I interviewed her a while ago here). It is a classic backpacking tale, through Europe and Southeast Asia, and Lauren talks openly about overcoming her anxiety through travel, finding love on the road with a Kiwi rascal, and dealing with all the shit that the road throws at her along the way. It started slow for me, but once the story picked up I zoomed through the book in a couple of days. Ultimately it’s about finding the courage to follow your dreams, and a real, honest look into the backpacking culture and what a single female traveller can expect when they go to the road.
On a semi-related note, I have spoken before about how there is too much “10 things to do” and not nearly enough storytelling in travel blogging today; most bloggers can’t even knock out 1,500 words of personal narrative, let alone a whole book. So to get this real, honest story from Lauren was super refreshing. Did us all proud with this one.
Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland | Lewis Carroll
‘Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’
‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.
‘I don’t much care where -‘ said Alice.
‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.
‘- so long as I get SOMEWHERE,’ Alice added as an explanation.
‘Oh, you’re sure to do that,’ said the Cat, ‘if you only walk long enough.’
I have been meaning to read this one for a while. It was as great as I expected it to be. Of course the book needs no introduction but if you’re looking the wackiest, weirdest, most cryptic and imaginative story ever, open this one up. Everyone seems to have a favourite chapter – mine was Chapter 7: The Mad Tea Party.
Think And Grow Rich | Napoleon Hill
“Charles Dickens began by pasting labels on blacking pots. The tragedy of his first love penetrated the depths of his soul, and converted him into one of the world’s truly great authors. That tragedy produced, first, David Copperfield, then a succession of other works that made this a richer and better world for all who read his books. Disappointment over love affairs, generally has the effect of driving men to drink, and women to ruin; and this, because most people never learn the art of transmuting their strongest emotions into dreams of a constructive nature.”
The premise of the book is this: Napoleon Hill spent decades studying the most successful people in history. The book was written in 1937, so his subjects were people like Henry Ford and Thomas Edison. His goal was to find out what the true drivers of success were. He found that it started in the mind. Everything that exists in the world started in the form of a thought. Someone thought it, then they did it. Not the other way around. So if you control your thoughts, you control your world. Hence the title, “Think and Grow Rich”. The other big theme is of energy. Where does our energy come from? And how do we use it? How do we harness it? Very interesting.
The content is heavy. I feel like you will need to read it three or four times before you can really understand it as a whole, but more importantly you need to be ready for it. If you’re looking for something in the motivational/self-help space, this isn’t a book I would start with. Had I read this when I was 21 I don’t think I would have got past the first 50 pages. But if you consider yourself open-minded and ready to create something meaningful for the world, it might be for you.
Note: Since the book is so old it’s been revised a few times and it is hard to find the original, uncut version. The one I’ve linked to is the one I bought which was supposedly the original but I still don’t really know. Try hunt for the paperback original if you want to be super sure.
Influence | Rob Cialdini
“A well-known principle of human behavior says that when we ask someone to do us a favor we will be more successful if we provide a reason. People simply like to have reasons for what they do. Langer demonstrated this unsurprising fact by asking a small favor of people waiting in line to use a library copying machine: ‘Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I’m in a rush?’ The effectiveness of this request-plus-reason was nearly total: Ninety-four percent of those asked let her skip ahead of them in line.
Compare this success rate to the results when she made the request only: ‘Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?’ Under those circumstances, only 60 percent of those asked complied.
At first glance, it appears that the crucial difference between the two requests was the additional information provided by the words “because I’m in a rush.” But a third type of request tried by Langer showed that this was not the case. It seems that it was not the whole series of words, but the first one, “because,” that made the difference. Instead of including a real reason for compliance, Langer’s third type of request used the word “because” and then, adding nothing new, merely restated the obvious: Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make some copies? The result was that once again nearly all (93 percent) agreed, even though no real reason, no new information, was added to justify their compliance.”
Funnily enough, while I was reading this book I experienced this exact scenario. I owed a guy 67 euros, and he asked, “Can we just make it 70, because it’s just easier if we round it up?” If he had asked, “Can we just make it 70?” I would’ve said no straight away, but with a (stupid) reason, I was a split second from just saying yes without even thinking. Then I remembered this chapter from the book and caught myself just in time. Interesting.
In this book Rob Cialdini breaks down persuasion into a science, giving real-life examples of when you get persuaded to buy or do things, and why it works on you. For example, when a used car salesman offers you a very low price, what is he actually doing? How does he end up convincing you to pay the higher price in the end anyway? How did a group of monks multiply the donations received simply by giving people cheap flowers on the street? These are all examples you or others will experience in their own lives, and this book explains how and why they work.
The second part of each chapter explains how to recognise these techniques being used on you, and how to resist or even flip the script on the “influencer”. It’s all very interesting. Perfect if you’re in the business of selling, or if you’re one of those hopeless people who can never resist buying stuff.
Into The Wild | Jon Krakauer
“So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more dangerous to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.”
I watched this movie for the first time six years ago, just after my quitting my job. I thought it was just kind of “cool”. This year I watched it again, after six years on the road, and I felt and lived and breathed every minute of it.
The story of Chris McCandless is a polarising one. A boy, wickedly smart, accepted into Harvard, suddenly drops off the grid one day. He donates his $20,000 savings (or thereabouts, I don’t remember) to Oxfam, burns all the cash in his pocket, adopts a new name, ditches his car by the side of the road, and walks out into the wilderness. His two year journey takes him up and down America, into Mexico, and later up to Alaska, where he planned to live off the land for an entire summer. He was found dead, of sickness and starvation, in the Alaskan wilderness in 1992. He was 24.
After his death, McCandless became somewhat of a hero amongst backpackers, nomads, hippies and other counterculture movements. After watching the movie again this year, I became semi-obsessed with the story and had to know everything about it. I whizzed through the book in about two days. What I found most interesting, and satisfying also, was how so many didn’t understand him and thought he was stupid. He was vilified in popular media after his death. Why would you not take a map? Why would you abandon such a nice life? Why didn’t he take a phone? Idiot! When it comes to life on the road you either get it or you don’t. To most it will probably just be an interesting story at best, but if you’re a traveller at heart I’m sure you will fall in love with it.
P.S. The movie is as good as the book.
The Millionaire Fastlane | MJ DeMarco
“In a few short years, JK Rowling, author and owner of the Harry Potter brand, went from being a 32 year old divorced English teacher to a media mogul worth over $400 million. The single mom has sold over 30 million copies of her books in 35 different languages. I guess she didn’t hear the excuse, “I’m a single mom and I don’t have time.” Ms. Rowling recalls the happiest point of her life – not the acquisition of millions, but the point at which she could write full time. Similarly, Dan Brown has sold over 80 million copies of the DaVinci Code in 51 languages. Let me be perfectly clear: If you sell 80 million of ANYTHING, you will be a very rich human being.”
Back when I was a teenager and obsessed with being rich I read quite a few books like this. The premise was always the same – create businesses, not jobs, create passive income, not active income, invest money, don’t spend money, and work really, really hard. So the first half of Millionaire Fastlane was like revision for me, and I actually skimmed most of it. I also studied and worked in finance, so most of the concepts around money and investment were already known to me.
The second half of the book is where he talks about the “Fastlane”; a process that supposedly anybody can use to become a millionaire within 5 years. Again the concepts are nothing new but he does manage to explain them in an easy-to-follow process that a layman can understand. He talks a lot about mindset and lifestyle changes, such as becoming a saver not a spender, a producer not a consumer, and building scaleable businesses through the “Law of Effection”, which states to earn millions of dollars you need to affect millions of people. A coffee shop or a bar does not have the potential to affect millions of people, therefore they are “Slowlane” businesses. To be in the Fastlane you would want to own the business supplying the coffee or beer, which will give you the potential to supply hundreds of other similar businesses as well. He also talks a lot about the potential of the internet, which essentially has given everybody in the world the potential to affect millions and join the Fastlane.
If you can handle his “I’m so much smarter than everyone” tone, it’s a pretty good read.
When Breath Becomes Air | Paul Kalanithi
“Will having a newborn distract from the time we have together?” she asked. “Don’t you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?”
“Wouldn’t it be great if it did?” I said.
Lucy and I both felt that life wasn’t about avoiding suffering. Years ago, it had occurred to me that Darwin and Nietzsche agreed on one thing: the defining characteristic of the organism is striving. Describing life otherwise was like painting a tiger without stripes. After so many years of living with death, I’d come to understand that the easiest death wasn’t necessarily the best. We talked it over. Our families gave their blessing. We decided to have a child. We would carry on living, instead of dying.”
When Paul Kalanithi, a standout neurosurgeon from Stanford, is diagnosed with lung cancer, his world is turned upside down. After years as the doctor, who wrangled patients from the grip of death daily, he was now the patient, fighting the same fight himself. Paul eventually lost his battle with cancer, but not before becoming a father, making peace with his fate, and penning this poetic and heart wrenching memoir in the months before he died. He had dreamed of becoming writer after his surgical career, therefore in a way, this book was not only about his story, but also fulfilling a final milestone before passing to the other side.
The book will mean many different things to different people. There are so many life lessons tangled within each chapter, but ultimately it’s a reminder that we must all face death at some point, and therefore death is not the real challenge. The real challenge is, can we face it with integrity and acceptance? Can we meet death without bitterness and defeat? Can we die with gratitude for a life well lived, no matter how long or short we are given? It’s a difficult yet beautiful story, one we should all read.
The Tender Bar | J.R. Moehringer
“People just don’t understand how many men it takes to build one good man. Next time you’re in Manhattan and you see one of those mighty skyscrapers going up, pay attention to how many men are engaged in the enterprise. It takes just as many men to build a sturdy man, son, as it does to build a tower.”
Saving the best ’til last.
At the end of Andre Agassi’s book Open, he talked about reading a memoir, falling love with it, and later asking the author to help write his own autobiography. The memoir he was talking about was this one, The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer. I added the book to my wishlist and didn’t read it until a few months later. But it didn’t take long before I fell in love with it too.
This is a painfully beautiful story, beautifully written, beautifully honest, with beautiful characters you will come to adore. It is not a crazy story at all, in fact, it’s probably quite an ordinary American story, but the author paints such a vivid picture of his life that you can’t help but feel a part it, like it’s happening before your eyes. He takes you through his childhood growing up with an absentee father, his dream of going to Yale, his love for his trying mother, his rocky adolescence, his first love, and everything else that sent him into manhood. The backdrop of all this, though, is the local bar where his uncle tended each night, and where the characters he met on the stools as a toddler eventually became his father figures who guided him from boy to man. It is an impossibly charming story and easily an all time fave of mine.
What about you? What did you read this year? What were your favourites? Let me know in the comments!