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Books I finished reading in March

books
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 books I finished reading in January

James Allen Kaleidoscope quote

What I Know For Sure by Oprah Winfrey

Borrowed from The Mother.

I’ve learned from my experiences of getting sucked into other people’s ego dysfunction that their darkness robs you of your own light – the light you need to be yourself for others.

What I Know For Sure is a collection of short pieces written by Oprah Winfrey that are meant to guide you around the core components of living contently.

This was one of those books that I enjoyed tremendously, much more than I rationally thought I should. It gave me a beautiful sense of assuredness, a few techniques for thinking about my dysfunctions and niggles more productively, and an admiration for Winfrey.

One of the lines that really stuck was the suggestion to ask yourself: what am I afraid of?

Asking myself this question, and forcing myself to be specific about my answers, seems to be poison for fear. Each time I ask, I find it harder and harder to answer the question. The fears I have seem weak and silly. There are many things I don’t want to happen, but few that to think of instil a physical apprehension.

I guess I am blessed.

Think!: Before It’s Too Late by Edward De Bono

According to Edward De Bono, all our thinking is ‘excellent, but not enough’.

Clearly this chap is a genius. He tells you often. And it seems to make sense to me that rather that bumble along in our ignorant and repetitive manner we would benefit from fine tuning our thinking skills and broadening our thinking techniques. Society, after all, is ‘excellent, but not enough’.

And yet, I can’t stand his writing. If I had been reading this book – which I wasn’t, I was listening to it as an audiobook library loan – I would never have got to the end.

So, I’m at a tricky point. My options are ‘excellent, but not enough’. I really am intrigued about his ideas… which are used by so and so Noble prize winners, governments, geniuses etc. But at the same time, I really want a less ‘me, me, me’ book to access them from.

I have De Bono’s ‘A Beautiful Mind’ on my bookshelf. It’s borrowed from one parent or other, and I’ve been meaning to read it for years (I’m sure it tells me things are ‘excellent, but not enough’), yet I failed to get into it last time I tried. Now I’m intrigued by the content again, but I’m afraid of the anger the writing is inevitably going to induce.

Ten Poems to Change Your Life by Roger Housen

Borrowed from The Mother.

Each chapter of this book starts with a poem that the author believes illuminates a fundamental component of the experience of living. Now, I’m not exactly a person who’s experienced in poetry. It took me a bit of time to get into the flow of the dancing metaphors and imagery that made up Roger Housten’s style of writing. The first chapter was ok. The second chapter felt beguiling to me. And then at some point I suddenly began to feel like I was being carried through a story. Through a series of expressions that made me think of this book of poems as a step-sister of the self-help books I read last year.

My favourite of the poems was ‘Love after love’ by Derek Walcott.

The Brain Audit by Sean D’Souza

I’ve read a lot of stuff on marketing. After university, when I first went into digital marketing, I kept a list of marketing terms stuck to my desk because everything I read would involve all these terms that being a physics graduate I just didn’t know.

It was an intense self-education. I watched videos, listened to podcasts, downloaded reports and scoured through blog posts trying to work out what I was supposed to be doing. Marketing, I learnt, is a time suck.

Unsurprisingly, from my position in the middle of an open office, I found myself intrigued by a marketing podcast called the ‘three-month vacation’. What I really wanted to be doing was travelling, so it called to me in a way that other podcasts didn’t. Podcasts stuffed with irrelevant small talk and laden with advertising don’t interest me.

So I listened. And I took notes. Notes including how to research, how to name your products and how to pronounce ‘himalayas’: ‘Hi-MAH-li-ahs’. And eventually I bought myself the book.

Where I discovered that, like Dale Carnegie in ‘How to Win Friends and Influence people’, Sean  believes his book is so vital that he advises his readers to go through it a minimum of three times. I have. Which tells you a lot about the book and probably something about me too.

As A Man Thinketh by James Allen (1902)

Downloaded for free from the Gutenberg project.

“The world is your kaleidoscope, and the varying combinations of colours which at every succeeding moment it presents to you are the exquisitely adjusted pictures of your ever-moving thoughts.”

Whilst reading about marketing, I came across a link to a very small self-help book, written in 1902 by an English chap called James Allen.

The point that gets reiterated from the title to the close is that your thoughts make you who you are. You are what you think.

I began thinking, if indeed ‘man is the master of thought, the moulder of character, and the maker and shaper of condition, environment, and destiny’, then rigorously excluding negative feeling should be a doddle. I nod as I read, yes, ‘doubts and fears should be rigorously excluded.’

However…

How many of us believe ourselves to be the masters of our thoughts, or the moulders of our own character. A disciplined monk perhaps, but not me. I am very much an apprentice of thought and a mostly willing participant in the moulding of my own character. Like sitting at the pottery wheel, feeling the smooth wet clay shaping beneath the gentle pressure of my fingertips. Sometimes it feels effortless. I am in control. Then the clay flops, or slides out, my finger pokes through and mud splatters on the wall.

I Wrote This For You: Just The Words by Iain S. Thomas (a.k.a. pleasefindthis)

Borrowed from Midget.

Poetry. Although, not exactly what I would call poetry. Poetic writings perhaps, some poems, some musings. Some words to make you cold inside, inspire a glow to your cheeks, or remind you of that torturous feeling of loss.

Somehow hauntingly beautiful.

Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf (1938)

The Mother gave me this book, along with ‘A Room of One’s Own’ which I also remember enjoying.

Consider next time you drive along a country road the attitude of a rabbit caught in the glare of a head-lamp – its glazed eyes, its rigid paws. Is there not good reason to think without going outside our own country, that the ‘attitudes’, the false and unreal positions taken by the human form in England as well as in Germany, are due to the limelight which paralyses the free action of the human faculties and inhibits the human power to change and create new wholes as much as a strong head-lamp paralyses the little creatures who run out of the darkness into its beams?

Virginia Woolf’s voice is opinionated, argumentative, stubborn and yet elegant. She’s fierce, but don’t we need to be. Don’t things need to be said, different things maybe from 1938 (or perhaps not), but said all the same? And doesn’t someone articulate need to be building these arguments, creating a momentum, challenging beliefs?

rabbit in head lamp
Does fear paralyse you, or make you act falsely?

I feel my writing is cowardly. I have opinions, but I am the rabbit caught in the glare of the head-lamp. Not wishing to say the wrong thing, I add unnecessary words like ‘perhaps, ‘maybe’, ‘might’.  Yet I’m also scared of being imprecise.

I’m not sure I know how to begin constructing such a wondrous argument. Especially one that can be admired for its depth and wit. But I enjoyed hers.

 

What have you read this January?