The books I read in 2016 to restore sanity and try and help me be nice

Part One Non-Fiction

1.      Utopian Dreams by Tobias Jones

There doesn’t seem to be an awareness that choice, like freedom, is only a means to an end, not the end itself.

This book was highly recommended to me by my atheist, mindfulness loving host in Sicily. It’s a book about communes in Italy and England. Since when I started travelling the Mother told me she feared that I’d shave my head and join a commune, I had to read the book.

The book challenges several notions about the importance of individuality that interest me. Whilst the idea of individuality is prized in modern society, I started to wonder how important it was relative to the comfort of being the same and belonging to something communal.

I’ve come to conclude an odd observation: when I’m surrounded by people who I expect to be very different to me, I’m more attuned to ways I’m the same. Oddly, this means, away from my familiar surroundings, I’m more aware of feelings of belonging. When I’m travelling, the people I’m staying with work hard to demonstrate that for this temporary moment, their home is my home. Whereas, at home, or with close friends where belonging is taken for granted, I’m acutely aware of the things that make me feel like I don’t belong.

2.      Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland by Bryan Sykes

Grand-meré, who has Scottish roots, was reading this book whilst I was staying at the farm in France. Every now and again she’d delight me with another fact about my ancestry, so when she finished the book, I pounced on the opportunity to discover more.

3.      Quelques Philosophes by Jean-Jacques Sempé

Some very clever cartoons, in French.

4.      Ernest Hemingway on Writing by Ernest Hemingway

and

5.      A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

The first book is a collection of excerpts from novels, memoirs and letters written by Hemingway about writing. The second is an account of his early years living in Paris, meeting Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and developing a discipline around writing. I read A Moveable Feast because I enjoyed the extracts from it in Ernest Hemingway on Writing.

Discipline is what I took away from the book. Not just about the practice of writing, but across life. If you want to achieve anything creative you must get on and do it. I’ve never read a Hemingway novel, but I imagine I will soon.

It was necessary to get exercise, to be tired in the body, and it was very good to make love to whom you loved. That was better than anything. But afterwards, when you were empty, it was necessary to read in order not to think or worry about your work until you could do it again.

6.      Fluent in 3 Months: How Anyone at Any Age Can Learn to Speak Any Language from Anywhere in the World by Benny Lewis

Read it. Mostly agreed with it. Ignored it.

7.      Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

I started reading an older translation with rather archaic language, and then I switched to the Gregory Hays translation which is the one I would recommend. The book reminds me of a book of poetry my sister owns. It’s composed of lots of profound ideas that come illustrated with metaphors. Gregory Hays does a great job of making the language feel a little poetic.

To shrug it all off and wipe it clean – every annoyance and distraction – and reach utter stillness.

Child’s play.

I had one of those embarrassing moments reading this book. I was sitting out reading in the French sunshine. Grand-peré came over and asked what I was reading. It’s a bit awkward telling someone you’re reading Roman philosophy. They immediately want to know if it’s for your studies, and when I explain that I’m reading this serious toned ancient stuff for fun I’m embarrassed. Whilst Grand-peré knew the book, he knew the French version of the author’s name, so we had an extensive conversation where I was trying to be totally modest about reading and Grand-peré was trying to work out what it was I was reading. Then he made the connection and laughed at me.

8.      The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell

and

9.      Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell

These books are super easy to read. Some of the stories stick in my mind, many don’t. They’re what I would call the perfect book for an aeroplane or train journey. They need just enough thought to keep you engrained, but not so much that changing trains is an inconvenience.

10.  Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy: The Harvard Medical School Guide to Healthy Eating by Walter C. Willett

This book made me sceptical of everything I’ve ever read or ever been told about diet. It’s to blame for my insistence on whole-wheat pasta.

11.  How We Learn: Throw out the rule book and unlock your brain’s potential by Benedict Carey

Wrote a blog post thinking about this one. I often read the book on the train between my Catalonian village and Barcelona.

12.  Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us by Seth Godin

This is a manifesto. It’s a plea for a sort of marketing that’s more inclusive and driven by the consumer. Short and aggravating rather than strategic.

13.  The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm

I first thought that what I was learning was what love was – care, respect, responsibility and knowledge. But what I really gained was a different way of looking at the importance of having faith in those people you love.

To have faith requires courage, the ability to take a risk, the readiness even to accept pain and disappointment.

14.  Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Todd Gilbert

I learnt that, disappointingly, you can’t plan happiness. We’ve not evolved that skill yet. We’re all rubbish at predicting what will make us happy. Our memory doesn’t include emotions like feeling of happiness – which is why for me keeping a diary is so important. When we remember something, or read a story, we recreate the emotions entirely from scratch.

Couples whose relationships have gone sour remember that they were never really happy in the first place.

And…

We are more likely to generate a positive and credible view of an action than an inaction, of a painful experience than of an annoying experience, of an unpleasant experience, of an unpleasant situation that we can’t escape than one we can. And yet, we rarely choose action over inaction, pain over annoyance and commitment over freedom.

15.  The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World by Desmond Tutu

We live surrounded by so much love, kindness, and trust that we forget it is remarkable.

I also wrote a blog post about this one.

16.  Rising Strong by Brené Brown

Embracing the vulnerability it takes to rise up from a fall and grow a little stronger makes us a little dangerous.

If you haven’t watched Brene Brown’s TED Talk, then do. I don’t care if you’re too ‘hard’, don’t have emotions or think it’s silly. Drown your ego and watch it. And then watch it again and then keep watching it until you can recite it to your heart.

I own, and have read, both The Gifts of Imperfection and Daring Greatly. This book, Rising Strong is a continuation on a theme, but it felt like a slightly different way of writing. It was nice, easy to read and the content useful, but I occasionally felt myself craving the more direct approach of Daring Greatly.

I regularly refer back to the bit that is on ‘the story I’m telling myself’.

17.  Fidelity: How to Create a Loving Relationship That Lasts by Thích Nhat Hanh

and

18.  The Art of Communicating by Thích Nhat Hanh

We think that because we find someone attractive, they have some kind of purity that is meaningful to us. But every person is made up of the pure and the impure, garbage as well as flowers.

It’s not often, but sometimes I start unhealthy thinking habits. Rather than laugh at my humanity, I feed the habit. It starts a spiral of negativity that I know if I keep feeding will only lead to one place: place of nothingness in which I am nothing.

Thích Nhất Hạnh writes short books. Beautiful, elegant, positive books which repeat again and again the thoughts I’m supposed to have engrained in my heart. They are forgiving books. Books which encourage space. And when I start biting at my own self-worth, they provide an anchor back to a gentle place.

19.  Me, Myself, and Us: The Science of Personality and the Art of Well-Being by Brian R. Little

Creative lives can be chaotic.

I find myself difficult company. My standards can be impossibly high, both of myself and others. I’m intensely introspective. In fact, I’m intense. I’m not your typical ‘fun’ person to hang around with. I’m hard work and exhausting. Stay in my company for too long and you’ll probably end up crying. If an experience has failed to make a significant mark on me, I deem it as a failure. I’m useless company on the sofa watching TV and I struggle to have the patience to finish a jigsaw puzzle. My sense of humour is described as ‘different’ and when I’m travelling my hosts regularly tell me to ease up on the studying.

In contrast, at other times I’m eccentrically playful. I’ll make decisions that feel crazy. I’ll skip down moors and tease silly American young men about being to coward to clamber down mountainsides. If necessary, I can do a great impression of a dying dragon.

I probably have what the psychologists call low latent inhibition. My filters of what is important and what isn’t important are a bit skewed. Perhaps it’s why I have a box of pretty pictures cut out of magazines which I cherish dearly, but a distinct lack of steady income, plan of where to live next month and shoes.

There is an upside to having low latent inhibition, however: it opens the individual to a rich array of remotely connected thoughts and images that those with more effective filters would have screened out. This can be a fertile ground for creative insights, heightened sensitivity, and novel ways of seeing the world. On the downside the unfiltered mind risks becoming overwhelmed and the ability to cope compromised.

But back to the cheerful subject of vulnerability and expressing your grief, shame and ugliness:

They [Jamie Pennebaker and his colleagues] have also shown that if you open up about the suppressed aspects of your life by writing or talking about them, something interesting happens to autonomic arousal. First, when opening up, the arousal level briefly increases – it isn’t easy to talk about that which you have been suppressing. But after opening up, arousal diminishes and not only goes back to the prior level of arousal but is actually lower than it was before the opening up. Those who open up are healthier, and this is in part due to enhanced immune system functioning.

20.  Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull

This is the book that unmasks the magic of Pixar. It’s a book about mistakes and failures, repairing broken trust, being candid, vulnerable about emotions and letting go of the ego.

Which is, amusingly, what I was trying to avoid reading about. I told myself that I’d had enough wallowing in the re-education of my emotional mind and I needed to do something creative instead.

Mistakes aren’t a necessary evil. They aren’t evil at all. They are an inevitable consequence of doing something new (and, as such, should be seen as valuable; without them, we’d have no originality). And yet, even as I say that embracing failure is an important part of learning, I also acknowledge this truth is not enough. That’s because failure is painful, and our feelings about this pain tend to screw up our understanding of its worth.

It’s an excellent book, with some excellent stories.

21.  The Dance of Connection: How to Talk to Someone When You’re Mad, Hurt, Scared, Frustrated, Insulted, Betrayed, or Desperate by Harriet Lerner

This was my first book into psychoanalysis. I’d read several self-help books with the wild aim of working out why I so often get lost in not-quite-belonging, not-quite-honest relationships and a not-quite-sure identity. I’d read some nice idealistic promises from a mindfulness perspective. I’d read Erich Fromm telling us to tough it up and love. And I wanted more.

Honestly, I was hugely sceptical. But I was desperate to read something where someone would give me enough of an idea that I could design a strategy for getting on with my life and putting quality into my relationships.

This book has ended up on my reread list. If you’ve read Brené Brown and are wanting more concrete examples of people screwing up being vulnerable, this is the book to remove the sweetness of Brené Brown’s work and add a bit of salt.

Speaking out and being ‘real’ are not necessarily virtues. Sometimes voicing our thoughts and feelings shuts down the lines of communication, diminishes or shames another person, or makes it less likely that two people can hear each other or even stay in the same room. Nor is talking always a solution. We know from personal experience that our best intentions to process a difficult issue can move a situation from bad to worse. We can also talk a particular subject to death, or focus on the negative in a way that draws us deeper into it, when we’d be better off distracting ourselves and going bowling.

22.  The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves by Stephen Grosz

Like in The Dance of Connection, this book is composed of encounters with clients that the psychotherapist Stephen Grosz has had over his career. The encounters are frustrating, because in the clients you see yourself and the people you care about. You see that we are like we are for reasons more complicated than we might imagine, and that change doesn’t happen overnight, if at all.

I found the use of dreams interesting. Particularly how Grosz used the clients’ interpretations of their own dreams – not his own interpretations – as an external arena where ideas could be placed and tackled.

I was touched by the following passage:

My experience is that closure is an extraordinarily compelling fantasy of mourning. It is the fiction that we can love, lose, suffer and then do something to permanently end our sorrow. We want to believe we can reach closure because grief can surprise and disorder us – even years after our loss.

23.  Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage by Elizabeth Gilbert

and

24.  Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert

I like Elizabeth Gilbert because she is slightly screwed up, and people who are slightly screwed up aren’t so threatening as those with scary pretend smiles like waxworks. Committed was written before Eat, Pray, Love went crazy and it feels like her audience is simply herself. She’s trying to convince herself that her necessary marriage is a good idea for reasons other than a visa. It’s an interesting read, and discusses the history and cultural position of marriage in good detail. But the standout factor for me, in relation to couples making success of marriage was the need for humility.

Her book on creativity was in some spots too ‘spiritual’ for my tastes, but I enjoyed it all the same.

25.  The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain de Botton

and

26.  How to Think More About Sex by Alain de Botton

Although this point is not typically dwelt on in art-historical discussions or museum catalogues, the Mother of Christ can often be an unambiguous turn-on.

                I don’t want to fish tuna or label biscuits. This probably doesn’t surprise you. Almost a year on, I remember many sorrows of work, but I’m struggling to remember what pleasures Alain de Botton eluded to. His books are gentle reads that involve art, history, travel and, for me at least, some occasional spontaneous snorting. His books throw out ideas that challenge and entertain. But they do it in such a way that you imagine he irons his shirts with true dedication.

27.  The Wonderbox: Curious histories of how to live by Roman Krznaric

Roman Krznaric and Alain de Botton work together. This is obvious as soon as you start reading The Wonderbox. However, The Wonderbox does manage to get to many points quickly, and cover a range of topics including love, family, money and death. I was most fascinated by the chapter on death which pointed out the huge distance at which we keep death.

However, the quite that I scribbled down in my diary was from the section on creativity.

‘To blossom forth,’ said Picasso, ‘a work of art must ignore or rather forget all the rules.’ If we wish our lives to blossom, we should do the same, and transform creativity into a philosophy of personal independence, which shapes how we approach our work, our relationships, our beliefs and our ambitions

28.  The Life and Works of Picasso by Nathaniel Harris

During this year, I treated myself to visits to the Picasso museum in Malaga and the Picasso museum in Barcelona. I really like Picasso’s work. I can’t quite articulate why. Others with their audio guides wander past me while I remain lost in feelings conveyed to me by eyes that are simple, blunt, brush strokes. I don’t know why I have the reaction I do. I’m a visual person and put excessive importance on my emotions, so I’m definitely more susceptible than many others. But still I can’t explain.

The book was a way of constructing a timeline around Picasso’s different periods of art. I found it useful.

29.  Get Some Headspace: Ten Minutes to Calm Through Meditation by Andy Puddicombe

I endorse the Headspace app, and if you haven’t tried meditation, or want a way into meditation then the Take Ten (ten ten-minute meditations) series is worth trying. This book is much of the same content as the app but in a different format and with some added autobiographical stories which are entertaining.

30.  Sane New World: Taming The Mind by Ruby Wax

Whilst mindfulness is of course great – if you’re a monk/nun, practice regularly and have great disciple to not be swayed by small or large emotions – but it’s also highly frustrating. The thoughts that I’m best letting float by, as if on a gentle breeze, are those of ‘I should sit and meditate now’.

It can be frustrating reading books by people like Andy Puddlecombe and watching TED Talks by monks, because, whilst modelling success, they do give you a feeling of it being a really long journey.

Ruby Wax is great, because her mind seems completely wacky, her emotions or depressions seem incredibly bold, and she gives you a sense of journeying without shoes but making progress regardless.

31.  The Little Book of Clarity: A Quick Guide to Focus and Declutter Your Mind by Jamie Smart

There are some good ideas hidden behind this book, but it’s wordy, repetitive, uses too many vague metaphors and lacks any story. Strict Vipassana meditation temporarily declutters your mind. This book does not.

32.  The Ragged Edge of Silence: Finding Peace in a Noisy World by John Francis

I used to look at houses as little boxes that we lived in waiting to die.

I learnt that my concept of silence is different to most. My silence isn’t an absence of noise, but what might be called noble silence, the silence of voice, body and mind. It’s a silence that prohibits reading and study. There is no writing. It’s the silence of deep meditation.

But there’s a silence that’s somewhere in between. A silence that is used as a tool to become a better listener and to avoid meaningless arguments, bickering and unkind words.

John Francis is a weird guy. An extreme person. Someone who isn’t ruled by the same incredible desire for validation and social acceptance as me. His perspective and thoughts make an interesting read.

He chose not to speak for 17 years, and he chose not to ride in a motorised vehicle. And he chose to make the world a better place.

33.  A Book of Silence by Sara Maitland

The book was lovely, although it did have a sedating effect on me. Being in the moment is great, but sometimes it’s useful to think about where the moment’s going to get you.

Anyway, Sara Maitland, who writes elegantly, concludes that there are really three types of silence. That dangerous silence which is forced upon you: school playground silent treatment, prisoners held in isolation and people with secrets that can’t be said through fear of shame.  Then there’s meditation and the quiet finding of space within one’s mind to reduce the ego. This is what most religious silences tend to be. And then there’s the necessary solitude and silence often required by an artist to create, which utilises the ego as a tool.

Silence shapes the silent. Which leads me to a question, what silence do I want in my life, and how do I hope for it to shape me?

34.  The Art of the Siesta by Thierry Paquot

The originality of the work that each of us hope to achieve depends largely upon our retaining control of our own time.

I wanted this book to provide evidence that me taking an afternoon nap is a perfectly valid choice. However, this book wasn’t about sleeping. It was about time management, but it approached it’s subject from a variety of unusual perspectives, like descriptions of great paintings that depict a post lunch humanity: a lull in efforts, an increase in sexual arousal, and an appreciation for the moment.

35.  The Battersea Park Road to Enlightenment by Isabel Losada

I like Isabel Losada. I’d genuinely like to have coffee with this woman. If anyone wants to get me another of her books they’re more than welcome.

She’s a scientist, although I don’t think she’d really go for that label. She takes things that may or may not help her deal better with her life, and where many of us would chicken out, she sacrifices her ego and goes for it.

Her experiments include staying in a convent, weekends away to find your inner goddess or some angels, tai chi, numerous massage therapies, and sessions to express your anger.

She’s also done a Vipassana meditation course – which I am of course impressed by because I know how hard that it.

36.  Walden & Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau

You start reading, and a few pages in, you wonder if you’re ever going to see the end of this book. I read it, because it’s one of those books that are regularly referenced. It offered some interesting opinions on what factors you might want to consider when trying to identify how to live your life. It also went on a lot about things like how ants fight. Pages and pages on three ants fighting to the death. Thinking about the dying ants makes me feel quite uneasy.

37.  Shaking hands with death by Terry Pratchett

This tiny book is a speech that Terry Pratchett gave about his opinions on death and the right to die. It’s a good read, and thought provoking.

38.  Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela

The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.

Long but worth it. I also wrote a blog post about this one.