📚Reading Stack for June 2023
a healer, a monk, a muckracker, an irish classic, a climate gem, and japan's finest
I’m proud that I spend my down time reading, but sometimes I wonder if I read too much. Books, after all, are just books. They’re not the real world, nor a substitute for experience. I read for a lot of reasons, one of them being that books allow me to travel through time, geographically, and into different perspectives. Perhaps the desire to not be here is a character flaw, but I’m not mad about it. Reading and writing are close to as human as it gets. And there’s even science that language is what began man’s evolution from chimps.
I’ll tell you this—even though I’ll be in grad school in the fall, I’m going to stay vigilant.
Like we talk about on Good Scribes, I want my love of language to keep me rooted in the real, rather than fall into the weeds of academia, or what the stoics and buddhists call a “pointless enthusiasm for useless knowledge.”
I don’t want to read for reading’s sake, but I do plan to maintain a very intentional1 reading practice. Because I believe, through an intentional combination of books + experience, we can learn a hell of a lot about ourselves, and about the world.
Appreciating this sub? The Oldsletter 🌍 📚 🧠 💡 is a reader-supported pub. Jus sayin’ ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Thanks for listening to my soapbox 💫
📚 Now, my friends, it’s time for the goodies. (Don’t sleep on #7!!)
I put this book first not because it’s my favorite of the month, but because it feels extremely important, and because most anyone could benefit from it. It’s not an ‘easy’ read, but the world ain’t an easy place. Vaclav Smil is a data-minded climate scientist who analyzes the ways that modern science and technology that make our lives possible. It’s an ambitious title, but I think Smil went Shohei Ohtani on the game with this one.
The book is divided into seven chapters:
At it’s core, How the World Really Works is a thought-provoker. Smil is progressive on climate issues, but also acknowledges that each tomato you buy at the supermarket requires five tablespoons of diesel fuel to grow(!!). The book is filled with data like this. Another example: at present, there is no way to produce steel, cement or plastics at scale using sustainable natural resources.2
Ultimately, Smil lunges at a question that’s crossed the mind of almost anyone alive today: are we done-for, or is there brighter future ahead? I’m not at all a numbers-mind, and this book’s quantitative lens was still fascinating to me.
This was the first time I’ve ever been in a fight on a podcast. Dan hated it, and I loved it. Granted, I have a slight romance with the author; I read my first Murakami (The Wind Up Bird Chronicle) while studying in Madrid, and the man has left his mark. He also has run over thirty marathons in his life (and an ultra, which I hope to do at some point) so I feel kinship to this Japanese literary giant. If I had to make a comparison, he is the Christopher Nolan of novel writing.3 If you do choose to pickup 1Q84, prepare for the utterly bizarre.
The novel 1Q84 is Murakami's most ambitious work. It’s a 1,000 page story of love, mystery, fantasy, self-discovery, and dystopia that rivals George Orwell’s 1984. The book was an instant best seller in his native country and, in my view, is just a tremendous feat of imagination. Still, to anyone who has not gone down the Murakami-rabbit-hole, I wouldn’t recommend 1Q84 from the jump. Kafka on the Shore, Hard Boiled Wonderland, and Norwegian Wood are good starting points.
People throw the word genius around more than they should. Some may disagree, but I think there are a lot of parallels between Joyce and David Foster Wallace. It demeans people like JJ and DFW who were true genius, generational talents.
It’s hard to describe a novel like this. At times it’s a treatise on Christianity, in other moments a coming-of-age novel, and all throughout is staggeringly well written—borderline poetry. The short novel traces the religious and intellectual awakening of young Stephen Dedalus, a fictional alter ego of Joyce and an allusion to the greek Daedalus. Stephen questions and rebels against the Catholic and Irish conventions under which he has grown, culminating in his self-exile from Ireland to Europe. The book morphs as you read it and, though not easy, is extremely gratifying for anyone up for the challenge. Still, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is far less challenging than his most famous novel, Ulysses, and could be a good place to start.
PS: Colin Farrell narrates the audiobook
This was the first I’d heard of the buddhist monk, Ayya Khema. I can’t help but wonder if this is because she is a woman. For whatever reason, buddhist teachers skew significantly male. I was quite pleased by this philosophy-meditation book and will definitely read more of her in the future.
Here are a few of my favorite quotes:
“We can never get to the end of our problems. There’s always a new one arising”
“Peace and happiness are not our birthright They have to be attained by effort. And that can be done if we recognize who our enemies are, then throw them out of the house.”
“Renunciation starts when one gives some thing one does not want to give and feels no trouble from it. That is non-attachment.”
“There is an empty spot in the heart that we constantly try to fill with other people, projects, materials, but nothing will work. Only a spiritual practice can fill that spot.”
This novel was first published in a socialist newspaper in 1905—so you know straight away that it’s political. Upton Sinclair was considered a muckraker, or investigative journalist, who exposed corruption within government and business. A year prior, Sinclair spent seven weeks researching the story, which meant working in a meatpacking plant in Chicago. The result is a harrowing, hopeless, brutal depiction of how the working class was treated at the time. Working and living conditions for workers were so bad that people died on the job. Like, regularly. Meanwhile, those in power lived lavishly in mansions, throwing Gatsby-level parties. And that’s only the social component.
The Jungle’s main contribution was exposing the dismal sanitation standards at food processing plants. For some color, there’s a point where a slaughtered hog falls into a toilet, and they treat it like nothing happened. A worker hands it back on the rack, and the soiled pork is processed for distribution.
On the whole, it read more like a piece of non-fiction than a novel, but was interesting nonetheless.
Damn am I conflicted about this book. If we weren’t reading this in Book Group, I probably would never have picked it up. To quote one of my amigos in the group: “it feels like I’m reading a hippy’s book report. I’m pretty underwhelmed.” But then there’s the flipside: “it’s mindblowing how few neurons are in insects, and they still show signs of intelligence.”
My strongest complaint is with the title. As done in The Cosmic Serpent, Narby has a slight tendency of overreaching. While the factoids about curiously smart behavior in birds, ants, fungi, bees, and so on, are fascinating, I’m put off by the word “intelligence.” How can you search for it in other animals and plants when we don’t even fully understand what intelligence means in humans? To me, this was just a reiteration of Evolutionary Theory4. That said, I always enjoy learning about evolutionary adaptations in nature. Maybe I’m jealous. We have the same name and he’s sold a zillion more books than me ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
For a while, I was allergic to books aimed at millennial-meditator-yogis. I wanted to better myself through old school, practiced buddhists, stoics, philosophers, and scientists.5 Though the ancients and the acclaimed still make up the majority of my reads, Yung Pueblo whose pen name means “young people” is changing my mind. The pen name was carefully chosen to align with his core beliefs, of which I agree. He believes that humanity is entering an era of growth and healing—once people expand their self-awareness and release old burdens, the world will improve.
I read a few pages each morning and found the reminder to focus on ‘healing’ as a nice way to start the day. In many ways, healing and growth are synonymous in this discussion, and the narrative shift has been refreshing.
Shout out to Daniel D for hitting me at just the right time with this recommendation 🎯6
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 great books out there. Surprisingly, I felt freer to commit to a life filled with books of all kinds, not just the greats. 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.
Happy summer 💪 ☀️
Orlando by Virginia Woolf
Breath by James Nestor
Mastery of Love by Don Miguel de Ruiz
El Hombre en Busca del Sentido Ultimo by Viktor Frankl
Something by Mark Twain ;)
A far superior author than I once recommended that whenever I’m enjoying a book I need to pause and explicitly ask myself what I like about it and why. It has transformed my reading. Intentionality === king
Except Nuclear! But, of course, nobody wants that now… 🤦🏼♂️
Who’s as excited for Oppenheimer as I am???
Insofar as beings have evolved strange, intuitive behaviors over time as a means of survival
More likely, I was in denial
He’s also a Boston guy!!