Tag: books

The calm of rereading

A list of books that you reread is like a clearing in the forest: a level, clean, well-lighted place where you set down your burdens and set up your home, your identity, your concerns, your continuity in a world that is at best indifferent, at worst malign.

L.E. Sissman1

Even in normal times, reading is my primary hobby. In the midst of a pandemic, with none of the usual work travel that a typical year involves, that’s even more the case. My time for reading has easily doubled and, as importantly, is no longer interrupted by timezone changes and long flights.

One of the most calming ways to spend that time has been to reread favorite novels. These are those enjoyable stories that I find easy to reside within. They don’t have to be profound works of Literature, just books that I connect with.

Rereading brings something familiar back into the day. You catch an echo of previous readings and past versions of yourself. As the poet quoted above notes, rereading provides a piece of understood continuity in a world that can be anything but.

James Hilton’s Lost Horizon is near the top of this list for me. Pretty much anything by Hermann Hesse is, too, though The Glass Bead Game remains a particular favorite. And Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series held up unexpectedly well despite (or maybe because of?) a 20-something year gap from my last reading.2

If you’ve not read a favorite novel in years, pick it up again. Give your brain a break from the world and any desire to be productive, just let it fall back into a familiar story and pattern at a time when we lack those things.

  1. Poet (slash advertising executive) and winner of a Guggenheim Fellowship as quoted in Alan Jacobs’ The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction.
  2. Try to ignore the cover art on the current edition, which feels very non-canonical; such is the problem of locking the first edition you read in your mind as The Right Edition.

2019 in books

Building off of 2018’s more organized list of books, I logged each book I read over the course of 2019. It was a more reading-filled year in which I finished 72 books. A big part of that came from making more time for reading in my vacations; the early morning hours are just the perfect time for a cup of coffee and a book.

Most of that reading happened over a digital format. The new(er) Kindle Oasis from Amazon is a near-perfect device, at least for my habits, and its adjustable warm light is one of those instantaneous difference makers I can’t imagine going without. While I still prefer hard copy books the convenience, portability, and single-purpose nature of the Kindle win out for day-to-day reading.

My favorites on the nonfiction side were Alain de Botton’s Status Anxiety and The Goodness Paradox by Richard Wrangham. They’re very different reads as one is more philosophical and the other more popular science. Status Anxiety considers why, both historically and ideologically, we feel such a need to gain and compete for status (and all the anxiety that comes along with that). The Goodness Paradox is a fascinating look how humans exhibit extremely peaceful day-to-day relations alongside vicious forms of planned violence. The discussion of bonobo and chimpanzee behavior and habitat was one I found particularly worthwhile.

On the fiction side, my standout favorites were three Classics-related books: The Song of Achilles and Circe by Madeline Miller, and The Odyssey by Emily Wilson. Miller’s books are retellings of myths from Ancient Greece. She really masters the storyline in a way that makes them accessible even if you’re unfamiliar with the history. Wilson’s book is a new translation of the Homeric poem. While it’s all written in iambic pentameter she relies on a voice that makes Odysseus’ journey engaging and easy to follow.

There’s a lot from 2019’s reading that has stuck with me and, I hope, will continue to filter into my thinking. A 2020 personal goal is to get more of my reading notes into a public, online format. Over the course of a typical nonfiction book I’ll take a few thousand words of notes, but they sit in raw, local text files. There’s some sort of editorial process those need to go through, though, to be intelligible outside of my own brain.

My 2020 reading list is up and running. And as I figure out how to best share reading notes I’ll link to them from that page.

2018 in books

Last year was the first year in which I kept a more organized list of what I read. I had a loose goal to read a book a week and ended the year having read 48 books. Given that a few of the books were significantly denser academic ones I consider that close enough.

The two best work books I read were Management Lessons from Mayo Clinic and Freedom from Command and Control.

Management Lessons from Mayo Clinic is an in-depth look at how Mayo Clinic works and the service mentality that’s embedded within their operations. I posted some high-level notes over here. If you work in any kind of service team it’s a worthwhile read. It captures in a more structured and easy-to-name way some aspects of effective service that you likely already intuit.

Freedom from Command and Control covers how to apply ideas from Toyota’s production system to service teams of all types. John Seddon is a consultant and covers a bunch of case studies and models for how to evaluate service team performance. Reading it got my mind working more than any service industry book in recent memory. As an aside, it’s $50 on Amazon so I’d generally recommend reading it only if you can find it at a local library. The first two-thirds of the book are fantastic. The last third is more of a rant by Seddon against certain standards bodies.

On the fiction side of things my favorite reads were when I branched out from the science fiction I typically read. Pachinko, Into the Distance, and The Sympathizer were three great ones.

I also refreshed my main reading list to start logging things as I go through 2019. I have a vacation coming up over the next week and a half so that list will grow quite a bit by the end of the month.

Thinking in bets

As a kid I’d occasionally watch World Series of Poker events on ESPN. During the broadcast they’d show the percentage likelihood each player had for winning the hand. I remember thinking, “How in the world do players remember all of this information…”

It certainly didn’t occur to me that some of the betting strategies players applied would also be effective in the business world. That’s part of why I found Annie Duke’s Thinking in Bets a worthwhile read. Duke is a professional poker player and her book is a guide to making decisions within uncertain environments.

She views a bet as, essentially, a decision about an uncertain future. To make effective bets we have to learn how to separate outcome quality from decision quality. The quality of our decisions is all we’re able to control. Yet we tend to evaluate our decisions by their outcomes; if the outcome is good then we made a good decision. The problem is it doesn’t work that way. A bad outcome can stem from a logically sound and effective decision.

Duke doesn’t advocate that we try to change this cognitive tendency through willpower alone. She holds that our capacity for deliberative decision-making is already maxed out. Instead she frames it this way:

The challenge is not to change the way our brains operate but to figure out how to work within the limitations of the brains we already have. 1

A path toward better decisions is to leverage our competitive drive to change our routines. We can change the features by which we compare ourselves (e.g. work to be the best credit giver rather than work to receive the most credit).

If we approach the decisions we make as bets then we can explore alternative reasons for why a given outcome came to pass. If we dismiss another’s good outcome as simply luck then we close down opportunities to learn from their expertise and skill. And it’s those lessons that we can apply to our own decisions.

A big part of what helped Duke in her career was having a decision group to deconstruct and debug situations with. It’s the Mertonian values of such a group that matter most. As she writes:

As a rule of thumb, if we have an urge to leave out a detail because it makes us uncomfortable or requires even more clarification to explain away, those are exactly the details we must share. The mere fact of our hesitation and discomfort is a signal that such information may be critical to providing a complete and balanced account.2

  1. Thinking in Bets, pg. 14.
  2. Ibid, pg. 154.

My list of books to read is immense, and only keeps growing at a rate which outpaces my reading speed. That means there are many canonical books that I’ve never read. In the last week and a half I picked two of them off the list, and loved both.

The first, A Canticle for Leibowitz, is a wonderful science fiction book written in the late-1950s. The focus is a plausible future where humans have annihilated the vast majority of the world’s population through nuclear weapon strikes. Written knowledge, seen as the foundation for that nuclear arms race, becomes both rare and hated.

The second, Fahrenheit 451, is Ray Bradbury’s classic about book burning and the role knowledge and conversation have (or rather, don’t have) in a dystopian future society. Short read, finished in a day, but really fantastic.

I read two articles about books and their future this morning. The Millions has a feature on Tumblr’s Reblog Book Club. It’s a refreshing example of creating space for productive discussion online. Om Malik also has an interview up with Matt MacInnis, CEO of Inkling. The idea of unbundling everything we use the book for into its component pieces really appeals to me.

A few days ago I finished Haruki Murakami’s, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Loved it; great book. It’s a book about running that, really, is about far more than running. Murakami weaves an engaging memoir together that illustrates the place running has in his life, work, and personal happiness.

An upside to tracking my reading is knowing that, so far, I’ve read 34 books this year. 1 I’ve been aiming for one book a week and am close to that goal; just 7 books short.

Those 34 books break down as 19 non-fiction and 15 fiction. I’ve been on a bit of a sci-fi kick this year, reading 11 books. That will soon be 12 sci-fi books as I’m nearly done with Abaddon’s Gate.

Notes:

  1. Pardon the dust on that linked page. Still need to work out how best to display books with this new theme.

New Reading Material

IMG_2874.JPG

I’ve been reading a lot more recently, about a book every week. This should keep me busy for a while; a benefit to living three blocks from Powell’s.

As an aside I find it really beneficial to read one fiction book in conjunction with one non-fiction. Ensures I have reading material no matter the frame of mind I’m in.

What Is the Business of Literature?

the book is a technology so pervasive, so frequently iterated and innovated upon, so worn and polished by centuries of human contact, that it reaches the status of Nature.