Tag Archives books

The way books make me feel (and other tangents)

Penistone Hill, West Yorkshire
Across the moor where I go to think. July 2017

On reflection, I feel that my reading had been a tad different this year.

My thinking has changed, mostly due to a combination of therapy and time. I have less anxiety that needs soothing. Lots of sadness still, but less anxiety. I used to think of books as the solution to anything I felt uncomfortable (read anxious) about. You can read non-fiction that tells you what to do and think, or fiction that gives you a place to escape. Or non-fiction that gives you a place to escape and fiction that gives you clues on how to live. Nowadays I’m much more aware that books don’t solve problems and I use them as a prop. They might be great for learning too, but mainly they’re a distraction or an illusion of a solution. Some weeks back I raced through five in seven days, six if you include me rereading of my own novel. This last week my reading has been sparse.

Books fill my mind with words, leaving less space for negative thoughts. I like books filled with eloquent phrases that push language to its boundaries. I find the woven texture of a scene, the colours, smells, shadows and rhythms get closer to my actual emotions than a statement declaring an emotion. Good books give me something to relate to. Maybe my excessive use of metaphors during therapy is a consequence of how much I read.

“How do you feel today?”

“Like a cat locked in a basket on its way to the vets.”

Wild orchid
Wild orchid, Penistone Hill. July 2017

What would I do without books? Would I watch more television?

When I’m struggling, when I’m exhausted, I sometimes revert to hiding in an episode of something captivating. An episode swiftly becomes a series. And then, without warning, I become bored. Books I can take at my own pace, I can entwine myself in them, I can pull back if one gets overwhelming. I can pretend to myself that all the reading I do is good for me, and good for my writing. I can be reading six, seven, eight books simultaneously, and that’s okay. Television on the other hand still feels passively indulgent.

That said, I don’t have the jolliest reading list so far for this year. Thankfully it’s a lot less ‘how to sort your life out’.

I’ve read Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, which struck me as a very sad story. In case you were under the illusion that it’s a great romance, it’s not. It’s a book about domestic abuse and destructive obsession. Love is absent.

Penistone Hill, West Yorkshire
Up the hill from the Bronte Parsonage. July 2017.

It’s a book I’ve been meaning to read for some time. I have, after all, walked (and run) the same moors as the Brontë sisters. Yet, for whatever reason, I’ve put Wuthering Heights off until now. The writing, I admit, is rather pretty in places – less archaic than I imagined. It’s not one of those tedious books where you can’t follow a sentence from beginning to end. The reading itself is easy. Except when the manservant Joseph speaks in a thick Yorkshire accent (translations in the footnotes). There is a glossary of Yorkshire terms at the front of the book, of which I knew only one: lug. Yet, as picturesque as the writing was (and as wonderful as the setting is), I couldn’t like any of the characters. They’re miserable sods.

On my trek through literature these last few months, I also read Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. I read it not knowing the ending, although it seems the ending is common knowledge. I also had no idea how long the book was because I read it on my e-book reader (nearly 900 pages). If I had known, I wouldn’t have leaped in with such enthusiasm, but when it finally reached the end, I was disappointed that it wasn’t longer. To me, with my limited grasp of the ways of literature, it seemed to prove that you can write a good book without obeying the so-called rules. I am so enamoured with it that I have this idea that I will even re-read it at some point… or maybe even War and Peace.

Then there was Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. My intrigue of Hemingway developed from watching the film Midnight in Paris. Recognising the name, I’d picked up his account of his time in Paris, A Moveable Feast, from a bookshelf belonging to the library of my Sicilian travel hosts back in 2016. The autobiographical account was fascinating, and heart-breaking. He writes of his marriage falling apart with a reflective sense of regret and responsibility. It left me with little idea of what to expect from his novels, but a strong desire to read them. I went on to read the neighbouring Hemingway’s On Writing, which is more a quote collection than a book but intriguing none-the-less. He’s disciplined but not pushy when it comes to making himself work. When he’s not working, he’s not working. He’s not even thinking about working. My diary for that week recalls that ‘this is the kind of attitude that I want to develop towards my novel’.

For Whom the Bell Tolls had my attention from beginning to end. I loved the way Hemingway moved through each of the characters stories. As a reader you start out with a bunch of odd people who are thrown together by the Spanish Civil War. As the story progresses and you’re led through each of their individual histories you develop sympathy for them, one by one. The women were interesting characters, which brings me to a bit of a tangent. I guess it’s inevitable that when a character portraying trauma takes stage, especially one who’s been raped, I pay closer attention.

This isn’t to say that I read with a critic’s eye. I become so well immersed in any good story that I’m reading that I fail to analyse. Yet, the moment in which rape appears in a novel, I’m forced to confront it. The narrative jolts me back into my own past. I am stopped. Sometimes I feel a sense of disgust for the writer. For example, when I read Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle recently, I found such a scene jarring and the character unbelievable. The references to rape in the beginning of the book felt so disconnected from the actual event when it was told. I couldn’t put it all together. What’s more, the language changed. Like the author* felt that ‘rape’ was too ugly a word and that he needed to soften the experience and make it more magical as it got closer to describing the act itself. Yes, I get that the book is magic realism, but the weirdness of it made me feel worse not better. I wasn’t relating to the characters. I was getting angry at the author.

I cringe at the need to portray sexual abuse for dramatic effect. Yes, Murakami manages to incorporate elements of dissociation and such like, but he seems to forget that within the victim is a young woman. Her trauma is told as if it is known and understood, whereas my experience of trauma is that there is always more unknown than known, and little can feel understood.

I guess to me it’s always going to be personal.

Sometimes something in what I’ve read resonates and lodges in my mind for good reasons. In For Whom The Bell Tolls, there is a young woman called María who suffers atrociously when her town is taken. Hemingway, consciously or unconsciously I don’t know, does something different with María’s story. Whilst each of the characters seem to take turns in telling their stories, or the stories of each other, María’s story is repeatedly glossed over. She brings it up time and time again, causing a discomfort to others. She gets asked to speak of it no more. The characters go to great lengths to protect her (to feel like they’re doing the right thing), whilst failing to listen to her (and so avoid acknowledging their own insurmountable grief, or hers).

Hemingway sticks with her. She’s small, weak, feeble and obedient to those around her, making her seem like anything but a strong, independent woman. And yet, when I read her she is the strongest of all the characters. Pablo drinks, Robert works, Pilar bosses everyone around. María keeps on bringing up her story, her fears, her hopes. In the dire situation that unfolds, she has the ability to believe in a nicer life, to plan for a future and a different way of living.

María takes control of her own story.  She’s not naïve. She’s pragmatic, carrying a razor blade with which to end her own life if she is captured again. I can understand an exaggerated need for control. She refers to her sense of being broken and vocalises her fears of now being an inadequate lover. As someone who feels the need to issue a warning statement before allowing herself to be kissed, I understand this too. She continues throughout the novel to speak her own truth, forcing those around her to open their eyes and start to see her as more than a serving girl, more than a victim, a fellow combatant.  

Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, although a book that fascinated me (I love his writing), was spoilt by the references to rape because he never made Creta, the victim, feel human. To me this felt like an insult.

Rape is useful to a novelist. It’s dramatic. It’s a moment of conflict that forces characters to change. Rape and sexual abuse is also, unfortunately, much more common that we’d like to think, and it would be bad to not to acknowledge these crimes through literature. But, in my opinion, if you want to write it well, you must also write the social silencing that comes with it and show the humanity of the victims. Murakami made me uncomfortable in the way reading sensationalised newspaper articles used to. I’ve stopped opening newspapers. Hemingway made me feel heard in the way that talking to a good friend does.

*Or translator…

Sheep on Penistone Hill, West Yorkshire
A watchful sheep on Penistone Hill. July 2017.

On moving house

moving house
Some things you have to leave behind, like a pair of knickers painted on the kitchen wall.

My parents are combining two, fully furnished, over-crowded houses into one house.

You might think that having all my belongings here would be an inconvenience. Especially if you have even seen me move to a new house. However, the impact of me having things seems to be negligible. I might own a few tables, my gorgeous desk and many books, not to mention a few items of clothing, and enough kitchen equipment that we could easily run our own Great British Bake Off, but this has negligible impact.

Yesterday morning the father and I set out in the big van to go and collect some more of the furniture. The day was always going to be chaos for me as it involved me switching beds. However, the father assured me that we would be fine when it came to packing up the books from the wonderfully big living-room bookshelf. He’d packed six suitcases for them.

I couldn’t hide the scepticism from my face. Six? Last time I measured my books in suitcases I could fill eight of them. And I know that I have a lot of books. Half my allocated space in the roof is a combination of mine and my sister’s books. Then there’s the 6.6m of books on my bedroom wall. And the Ancient Egypt collection which is currently in my wardrobe. But my parent’s bookshelf in the living-room takes up most of the wall, only just fit in the large van if tilted, and has only one place it will fit in when it finally gets into this (smaller) house.

We had to resort to cardboard boxes.

Understandably, this morning, before we take the big van back to get more furniture, I’m hiding. My own room is chaos. I swapped beds yesterday and the bed drawers in the new beds are smaller than the ones in the old beds. Today I think we’re going to switch over my wardrobe. I’m trying, very hard, to accumulate the smallest furniture so that I can put up my easel without causing a major problem in getting to bed. It is a very nice bed.

Ideally, I wouldn’t be here at all. I’d run away somewhere with sunshine. The furniture lifting would be done by The Midget, with her muscles that make many men look weak, and The Blacksmith with his, which make the Midget look weak. And should I be passing by, then I’d be sat on the floor in front of the bookshelf half engrossed in reading something. Lovingly putting books on the shelf.

But reality is that there are two dining-room tables, multiple sofas, too many wardrobes, cabinets and pictures and me. Reality is that I am here and the Midget isn’t. It’s my muscles which are the ones that ache.

Amazingly the Mother is taking this all in her stride. She’s flourishing in the chaos.

But I’m reading Ruby Wax’s A Mindfulness Guide For The Frazzled.

Books I finished reading in March

They say never judge a book by its cover, but I have to disagree.

Ok, this is a lie. I finished The Consolations of Philosophy on the 1st of April, on the drive home. The first time I’ve listened to an audiobook in the car. Otherwise my March reading has been conducted as if on a constant caffeine high. A stack of books sit on my shelves, half finished. And going to Portugal meant I switched back to the books on my e-reader, none of which I finished as I leapt from book to book. To have multiple books on the go is normal for me, but not quite so many.

Do you read one book at once or dip into many?

The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton

Audiobook borrowed from the library.

I’m almost annoyed that I listened to this book, because I haven’t taken any notes and have no quotes to refer to. It was a book full of beautiful quotable passages.

My knowledge of philosophy is limited. There’s a vast amount of terminology which as combinations of letters I feel a familiarity to. But as concepts, these are alien. I have recently given up on a weighty introductory volume to a variety of different philosophers deciding it was inaccessible (I’d rather blame the writers than myself). Philosophy I figure is one of those topics, like politics, which will open to me when I am ancient. By which point it will be too late.

However, Alain de Botton gives me hope. I understand his sentences, and the images and examples he uses are relatable. Having read the consolations, and heard a little about the variety of tragic lives the philosophers themselves lead, I’ve developed an itch to read more. Particularly, Epicurus (I’m curious about his ideas of the necessity of community in achieving happiness) and Nietzsche (who is of the opinion that you can’t feel pleasure without being willing to feel pain).

“…no one is able to produce a great work of art without experience, nor achieve a worldly position immediately, nor be a great lover at the first attempt; and in the interval between initial failure and subsequent success, in the gap between who we wish one day to be and who we are at present, must come pain, anxiety, envy and humiliation. We suffer because we cannot spontaneously master the ingredients of fulfilment.”

Mindfulness for Beginners by Jon Kabat-Zinn

I keep returning to mindfulness and meditation. And then, because I’m human, things get out of shape. My mind straps itself in on the nearest rollercoaster ride and I forget who’s driving the machinery. Me.

Reading over the concepts, again and again helps. When reading about mindfulness, I calm down and become focused. It makes me think, yes, maybe I should sit down, cross-legged and do the whole following your breath thing. Even though my breath is following my thoughts and my thoughts are galloping off like a child who’s eaten a whole packet of jelly babies without sharing. I know being mindful is good for me (and for the people who put up with me). It’s just hard to do.

“At the same time, the work of cultivating mindfulness is also play. It is far too serious to be taken seriously – and I say this in all seriousness – if for no other reason that it’s really about our entire life.”

The Mulberry Empire by Philip Hensher

For the charity shop box.

It had a slow start, got a little better when some characters did something more than sit around waiting to have a conversation and, for a moment, it looked like it was going to go somewhere… which turned out to be a long and irrelevant tangent which appeared to have absolutely no relevance to the rest of the story. Disappointing.

It ended on the massacre of an army of 16,000. By this point my investiture in the characters was empty (especially the women). The ones who remained alive seemed ridiculous. It was like it was written by someone who had learnt about loss in the dictionary.

That said, some of the writing was pretty. If it had been given a plot, not just a series of historical events, it might have been a good book.

What’ve you been reading?

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

 books 2016

Part Two Fiction

39.  The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde


40.  An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde

“Ah! The strength of women comes from the fact that psychology cannot explain us. Men can be analysed, women… merely adored.”

These two are both plays. I probably preferred ‘An Ideal Husband’ because the female characters had a bit more substance to them, but both plays made me giggle and were a gentle, light relief.

41.  Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw

The third play I read was Pygmalion, which is better known perhaps as My Fair Lady. I particularly like My Fair Lady. I found the afterword ever so entertaining.

42.  Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald

I needed fiction, and this was a short literary book that studied the lives of some less than lucky folk living on the Thames. It gave me what I needed, a glimpse into someone else’s life, a perspective on worries that were not my own. It won the Man Booker Prize in 1979, but whilst it was nice, I didn’t feel it moved me enough to be worthy of being considered great.

43.  The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

I wrote an entire blog post on this one book, which touched me more than I expected.

44.  The Call of the Wild by Jack London

I remember reading White Fang when I was quite small, late at night at my grandparents’ house. I read a lot of books there, but White Fang stood out because it was more gory and violent than the others. In the first stories I wrote as a child, the characters were dogs, and I think Jack London was probably a great influence on this.

The Call of the Wild however felt like more than just a tale of a rather big dog being drawn by his instincts into the wilderness. It’s about a psychological battle. Fitting in, belonging, being responsible for those around you, versus being something that feels a little reckless. Or maybe, that’s just how I interpreted it.

45.  The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka


46.  Hero and Leander by Christopher Marlowe

“These lovers parleyed by the touch of hands;

True love is mute, and oft amazed stands.”

I enjoyed this more than I imagined.

47.  I, Claudius by Robert Graves

Ok. Perhaps it’s based on rumours, propaganda and creative scandalous claims. And perhaps it uses its licence as fiction to streamline a few characters into caricatures. But it’s an excellent book, a compelling read, and fascinating all the same. For a giggle read this excellent blog post on Caligula.

48.  Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel García-Márquez

This is a murder mystery. It’s also a beautiful book. Elegantly sad; poetic but compelling.

49.  The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver


50.  Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver

The Lacuna is still my favourite of the books by Barbara Kingsolver that I’ve read, but I enjoyed these two immensely. Flight Behaviour was more like the Prodigal Summer with ecological themes, it centred on monarch butterflies and a broken family. Whereas The Bean Trees was a much shorter read, and centred on ideas of home, belonging and motherhood.

51.  Truckers: The First Book of the Nomes by Terry Pratchett

There is too little Terry Pratchett on this list. I shall have to remedy this.

52.  Mortal Designs by Reem Bassiouney

In Cairo, there is a rather lovely little bookshop on a triangular square, a short walk from Tahrir Square where I decided to buy and read two books written by Egyptian women. This is the first of the two, and it centres around characters from across the social spectrum. It made a good read.

53.  Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne

This book was hilarious and often had me laughing. In some ways, I’m reminded of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop.

54.  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Considered in another blog post. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is downloaded on my ebook reader.

55.  The Symposium by Plato

I hesitated before classifying this as fiction. It’s really philosophy, but the line between philosophy and story is rather blurred, and I read it as fiction that could instruct me through empathy rather than self-help with instruction through bullet point lists and sound bites. Plus, it’s funny.

“…let me recommend you to hold your breath, and if after you have done so for some time the hiccough is no better, then gargle with a little water; and if it still continues, tickle your nose with something and sneeze; and if you sneeze once or twice, even the most violent hiccough is soon to go.”

56.  The Lion and The Rose by Kate Quinn

Sometimes you need to be lost in a fantasy, another world, with fancy dresses, exotic perfumes and a giddy, excited compelling plot. Kate Quinn always delivers.

57.  The Wedding Officer: A Novel of Culinary Seduction by Anthony Capella

Like with The Lion and The Rose I wanted something light to read, and this book delivered. There were some scenes that were excellent. There were some that felt like they’d been put in afterwards to hang the whole thing. I would have started it later, finished it sooner, and accepted it as a shorter book.

That said, I’ve never read historical fiction set in Naples or in World War Two. And I’m glad I now have because it’s opened my mind up to a whole new set of questions to ask.

58.  Leaf by Niggle by J.R.R. Tolkien

This tiny book was recommended and leant to me by DeepThought. It generated deep thoughts.

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


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


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.


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


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


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


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.