📚Reading Stack for April + May 2023
a lost theory, two titans of american lit, a physicist, a tour around the world
It’s pretty wild to think that 21 weeks have passed already in 2023, and 2024 is 31 weeks away.
As we near the mid point of another year of reading, it’s sometimes useful to reflect. What do I have to show for 2023 thus far? What have I learned? How much time have I devoted to books that challenge / teach / change me? If the answer isn’t something you like, you’ve got time to change that.
Appreciating this? The Oldsletter 🌍 📚 🧠 💡 is a reader-supported publication. Jus sayin’ ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
If you read these emails, you’ll probably notice certain themes across the months. Usually, this is some combination of my own fixations and us chasing down themes for the podcast. I read all kinds of books: new fiction and classics, philosophy and memoir, history and sci-fi. For the last few months I’ve been reading fiction from around the world as a way of experiencing other cultures while I enjoy staying still for a little.1 On the non-fiction side, I’ve been following a thread in the mindset / therapy-world that’s been both fascinating and rewarding.
Anyway, here’s the spring stack 📚:
I was recommended this book by my friend Zac and was, frankly, blown away.
Most of us know of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, but have you heard of their brilliant competitor, Alfred Adler? This book, written in the form of a Socratic dialogue, follows a fascinating conversation between a philosopher and a troubled young man on a quest of liberation. Over the course of five conversations, the ‘philosopher’ uses the wisdom of Adlerian psychology to help his student identify how all people are capable of determining the trajectory of their lives, regardless of the expectation and trauma they’ve suffered.
To me, The Courage to be Disliked embodies what philosophy is for2: it is a plainspoken and profoundly relatable work that moves one, without ever dipping into the well of self-helpy language, to question self-imposed limitations, develop the courage to change, and face in the direction of growth. This is a book that's changed the way i view many life situations and am already looking forward to rereading in a few years.
Welcome to a paragraph that tries to summarize one of the best books ever written 🎯
For whatever reason, my public school and college college curriculums skirted around John Steinbeck, and I’m grateful he wasn’t wasted on that moody teenager. This novel is an astonishing, mesmerizing, heartrending window into a time that is at once completely singular as well as shockingly relevant to life a century later.
Published in 1939, the Grapes of Wrath follows one family's repeated collisions with the hard realities of life in America during the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. What emerges is an intensely human yet majestically stirring view into those who find (or fail to find) dignity in hard times. A snapshot of the tension between high and low class America, of one man’s inspired responses to societal manipulation, and one woman’s unrelenting grit, the novel probes the very core of equality and justice in America. At once a naturalistic tale, road novel, social commentary, and philosophical discussion, Steinbeck’s magnum opus may be the most American book in the canon of North America's best literature. I can’t wait to read more of his work in the coming months.
If you want to learn more before diving in, we discussed Grapes of Wrath on Good Scribes Only
I listened to this entire book in one sitting on my drive to Colorado last month. I’m not sure a better voice could have been cast than Nick Offerman (Parks and Rec, Devs) to narrate Mark Twain’s books.3
"Being paid to perform such a gratifying activity as reading Mark Twain aloud felt powerfully akin to Tom Sawyer hoodwinking other boys into paying him for the privilege of whitewashing a fence. Let's keep that between us." —Nick Offerman
Unlike The Grapes of Wrath, this book is one I was forced to read at least twice in school and wasn’t particularly moved. Upon revisiting this classic, however, I was struck by Twain's ability to crystallize those conflicting emotions we all felt as children—a longing to be free from rules and obligations, a love of the macabre, a general lack of concern for consequences / mortality, and the guilt that comes from knowing what’s right and doing the opposite. This was the perfect road-trip audiobook, and now I’m looking forward to Elijah Wood on Huckleberry Finn for my next drive.
Richard Feynman has a reputation as one of the most important physicists of the 20th century, but few know just how eccentric, creative, and engaged he was with the world around him. This entertaining and expansive book is derived from a series of lectures and demonstrates how deeply Feynman considered religious, political, and social issues. It shows us the lesser known philosophizing side of Feynman, as he discusses the inherent conflict between science and religion, people's distrust of politicians, and man’s unrelenting fixation on UFOs, faith healers, and telepathy. In these lectures, Feynman was in rare form, at one point nearly bursting into a Navajo war chant, then pressing for an overhaul of the English language. It’s quintessential Feynman: pensive, amusing and, as always, enlightening.
I first learned about Loch Kelly on Sam Harris’ Waking Up app, and from my co-host, Daniel Breyer. Like Jon Kabat-Zinn and Jack Kornfield, Loch is an important hinge in the order of teachers that have westernized mindfulness and eastern philosophy. Though some purists may take issue with their changes, it’s all done in an attempt to help Americans and Europeans adjust to the west’s self-inflicted pressure, activity, stress and constant need to ‘do more.’ They are, in a word, adapting ancient teachings for the world we live in.
Unlike some of his contemporaries, Kelly’s approach is rich in metaphor. As a visual/kinesthetic person, I found his analogies interesting and helpful. The book focuses on his concept of effortless mindfulness, which encourages students to “unhook” awareness from the chattering “office of the head” and shift down to the more effortless, spacious awareness of the heart. From there you can “receive messages via wi-fi” from the office manager without going their directly. The Way of Effortless Mindfulness is less of a meditation manual than a guide to living fearlessly, honestly, peacefully, and compassionately.
Some would say that Miguel Ángel Asturias was perfectly situated to tell the story of 20th century authoritarianism. As a heavily censored journalist, his boots were on the ground in Guatemala as he and his countrymen suffered through a devastatingly corrupt regime. He was forced into exile and took up residence in France, where he wrote and published the novel. Having this distance gave Asturias both the safety he needed and the space to sufficiently see what was going on in his home country. What followed is what many consider to be the best novel on Latin American corruption ever written.
If you listened to the episode on Good Scribes, you’ll have heard me blather about the power of comedy, and how Asturias used irony and surrealism to a masterful degree in The President. At the beginning of each episode we cast actors for the movie. Because we found this book’s use of humor to be so effective, we booked: Louis CK, Javier Bardem, Oscar Isaac, America Ferrara, Ana de Armas, and Benicio Del Toro with Bong Joon-ho as director for this black comedy.
Humor aside, this was one of the best depictions of totalitarianism I’ve ever read.
I was drawn to this book for a few reasons:
Alharthi is the first Arabic writer to win the Man Booker prize
It’s quite different from books I normally read
In the village of al-Awafi, Oman, we encounter three sisters: Mayya, who marries following a heartbreak; Asma, who marries from a feeling of duty; and Khawla, who refuses all marital offers and awaits a reunion with her true love, who has moved to Canada. Against the backdrop of a country modernizing from a traditional, slave-owning society, we follow the losses and love affairs of these three women and their families. Through the sisters, we’re provided a panoramic view into Omani society from the poorest slaves to the families who profited off capitalism, globalism, and modernization.
I learned a lot about Oman from reading this novel, but ultimately had mixed feelings. The story is spread over several decades and, while I found the narrative structure original and impressive, the overall readability was disjointed and confusing for me. But that is the beauty of fiction: what strikes true for me may not be true for all, and what I find taxing may be a downhill sprint for you. If you want to learn about Omani culture, I wouldn’t dissuade you from giving Celestial Bodies a go.
If you want to learn more before diving in, we discuss it on next weeks episode of GSO.
At once the tale of an African boy's coming of age, a tragic love story, and the corruption of traditional African patterns by European colonialism, Paradise, presents a major African voice to western readers, depicting how natives had to adjust to the new reality of European colonialism. What emerges is a page-turning saga covering the same territory that other novelists have attempted to chronicle, but does so from a perspective previously unavailable—a talented storyteller who actually lives there.
Champions of the ‘immersion’ school of thought (contrasting the two books above,) could argue that those who live within a culture, like Gurnah, understand it more than those who look in from the outside. Rather than read another ex-patriot or westerner, we wanted something emblematic for the African stop on GSO’s world tour, and this book did not disappoint.
A favorite passage:
“The air was sharp under the mountain, and the light had a purple tint which Yusuf had never seen before. In the early morning the top of the mountain was hidden by clouds, but as the sun strengthened the clouds disappeared and the peak congealed into ice. On One side, the level plain stretched away. Behind the mountain, he was told by the others who had been here before, lived the dusty warrior people who herded cattle and drank the blood of their animals…A lutheran pastor announced to them that work was God’s divine edict, to allow humans to atone for their evil. His church was also a school outside the hours of worship, and there he taught his flock to read and write.”
If you want to learn more before diving in, we discussed it on an episode of GSO.
Warning: I haven’t read enough Australian writers to be confident in this claim, but between Richard Flanagan and Gregory David Robert’s Shantaram, Australian fiction seems staggeringly poetic. There were moments where I had to pause and re-read a line three times to let it process. Despite all its poetry, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, is a tragic book about war’s cruelties and the impossibility of love. This a rich, diverse, intense work that follows a single day in the life of Dorrigo Evans, an Australian doctor working as a slave in a Japanese labor camp in 1943. The novel stokes the mind by jumping around in time and setting, journeying from Tokyo to the Burma railway, from the caves of Tasmania to a pre-war beachside hotel, ultimately providing the reader a view into just how challenging it can be to find meaning and love after an intense war experience.
Love and war, could you imagine anything more human?
If you want to learn more before diving in, we discussed it on an episode of GSO.
A long time ago
I came to realize that I even if I read non-stop from birth until death I still would not come close to reading all the greatest books ever written. Surprisingly, it took the pressure off trying to check off only the ‘greats’. So, in my early twenties, I committed to a life filled with books of all kinds. Reading time gets more scarce every year, but this relationship has led me to view reading as a privilege and a practice. Now, I pickup whatever sounds compelling, and write whenever I can free up a moment.
Books are magic. Learning is magic. And my biggest wish is that you treat your mind with the books it deserves.
Ok, amigos, that’s all for now.
Feel free to email me questions or thoughts for discussion, should any come to mind. Likewise, if you have a good book to recommend, please pass it along. It’s always great to hear back, especially if one of these books comes to mean something to you.
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
Breath by James Nestor
Being Nobody Going Nowhere by Ayya Khema
Lighter by Yung Pueblo
At least until summer 🎑
It is more dense and intellectual than most “self-help,” and took me a while to read, but in a good way. I often found myself needing time to process what I had just read.
I know many actors are extremely intelligent, but I didn’t quite grasp who Nick Offerman really is until listening to his conversation with Krista Tippett. This man === a treasure. Also, it’s free if you have an audible account.
I did, however, have an excellent Omani pita in while in Tzfat and ended up writing a short story about the store owner and his daughter