- The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry Selected and with an Introduction by Paul Kingsnorth
I think I first heard of Wendell Berry last year in Nick Offerman’s book Gumption. Since then, his name has come up in my reading of Michael Pollan, two separate coffee time chats at work, and probably some other contexts I am not remembering. When I encounter a figure or idea multiple times in unrelated areas of my life, I take that as an indication that I should explore further. I’ve only recently picked this book up, but I am excited to learn more about Berry in his own words.
Carried over from 2020
- Ten Percent Happier by Dan Harris
This book is likely just the kind of introduction to meditation that would help a lot of people be more open to the practice.
- Human Scale Revisited: A New Look at the Classic Case for a Decentralist Future by Kirkpatrick Sale
I have long said that if I were to write a book, it would be about distributed systems in the world, decentralization. But my notions were fairly narrow and thinking mostly of examples rather than creating a systematic ecological philosophy. I’m glad I came across Human Scale Revisited because it’s exactly the kind of book I would have hoped to write only many times better. It’s helped solidify a lot of my own inchoate thinking and also to understand why some things just don’t resonate with me, which is one large part of why we ended up in Olympia rather than Seattle or Portland. It’s a long book and fairly detailed, but I highly recommend it.
Completed in 2021
- Pottering: A Cure for Modern Life by Anna McGovern
This book was quick to read and the pacing and tone reminded me of “How to Be Alone“ in its gentleness and playfulness.
This is the first book I have read in a very long time where I intentionally put it down several times because I wanted to savor the experience of reading it for the first time. Since reading this book, I have started writing some haiku myself, just including them in my bullet journal in the flow of the rest of the content. I may eventually split them out into a separate collection, but for now, they live in their rough, immediate form frozen in the moment that they first arose for me.
- On The Shortness Of Life by Seneca, tr. C. D. N. Costa
- Rumi: Poems, edited by Peter Washington
- The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right by Atul Gawande
- The Story Of More: How We Got to Climate Change and Where to Go from Here by Hope Jahren (Thanks to my friend Patrick for turning me on to this book and continuing to be one of the people whose recommendations are reliably on point.)
- Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (and the Next) by Dean Spade
The River Of Heaven: The Haiku of Basho, Buson, Issa, and Shiki by Robert Aitken
- A World Without Email by Cal Newport
I was so excited about this, I had to bug the staff at Browsers to allow me to pre-order it back in August. Cal Newport’s work has been very influential on me, going back to So Good They Can’t Ignore You, but even more still in the last couple of years with Deep Work and Digital Minimalism, and it’s no stretch to say that he’s influenced the way I think about work more than any other single writer. A World Without Email falls right in line with the other monographs, but if you’re a listener to his podcast or have read his articles in places like The New Yorker, there’s not a lot new here.
- The Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Teach, and Appreciate Haiku by William J. Higginson and Penny Harter
- Resilient Management by Lara Hogan
Whether you’re a manager or a managee, Lara’s book is full of gold. If you’re lucky enough to have a good manager, Lara gives a lot of insights into why they might do what they do. If you have a bad manager, you can learn to recognize a lot of poor management practices and even toxic patterns as a result of her descriptions of effective management. And if you’re thinking about management or organically stepping into more people leadership skills, she’s got the tools you need to find your footing fast. Highly recommended.
- A Place of My Own: The Architecture of Daydreams by Michael Pollan
Given my ongoing obsession with broad and ecological thinking, Pollan’s work continues to delight me. His methodical but curious exploration of a topic is unparalleled, and diving into this earlier work after reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food reveals how long he’s been able to carry it out.
Ranging through topics such as wood and lumber, the development of balloon framing and its contrast with traditional timber framing and the supplantation of the master builders by architects, a survey of architecture, especially in the 20th century but also delving as far back as Vitruvius, a discussion of the development of glass and windows, and more, Pollan also manages to weave this in with a description of his own learning and foibles in actually building the house he set out to raise on his property. Pollan delights in things just as they are in a way that draws me in as opposed to the cloying romanticism that often flattens others’ writing.
This book is an enlightening comparison of the current attention economy and online advertising to the subprime mortgage crisis and arguing convincingly that we are primed for a similar economic crisis once someone somewhere announces that this current emperor is also not wearing any clothes.
Overall, while interesting, the economics take a back seat for me to two other points that Hwang makes:
- Legibility is the characteristic of something that makes it intelligible, especially by computers. I have been thinking a lot lately about how even language dilutes our ability to directly experience the world. This started back when I read Why We Sleep (2019 I think) and contemplating the way a dream can feel so real when we wake but then evaporates as we try to describe it. It has continued as I learned more about the duality of our brains (L-mode vs R-mode thinking in Pragmatic Thinking and Learning; rationalization of actions in split brain experiments in The Power of Habit; and the misattribution of bodily sensations and experiences to emotion categories in How Emotions Are Made) and this is an idea I continue to pay attention to and try to notice when it’s showing up in my own life.
The influence of the systems we build on our interactions with each other.
“We have been taught to interact with other people online by platforms built to buy and sell attention. One wonders if that will constrain the social possibilities of the future…Our ingrained approach to interacting with others online assumes the features of an advertising-driven internet. This may make it hard or impossible to build alternative online social networks that do not collapse into anarchy.
I have been off Twitter and Instagram for around a year now. And in the last few months, I have also not been active in my Discord communities. In retrospect, I realized that one of the experiences of social media of all kinds is of a lack of significance. If social networks gain traction through the network effect, then the corollary also seems to hold: the system is not materially affected by the presence or absence of any one user. For me, this presented as a perceived lack of significance because when I am absent from Discord (not to mention Twitter or Instagram) the stream of activity continues without any qualitative difference. In place of these systems, I have been pursuing more relationships in the real world, from being intentional about introducing myself to people at local establishments such as the coffee shop I walk to or the Thai food place we frequent to regular coffee time calls and in-person hangouts with friends.
I heard Kaufman on You Are Not So Smart and his story and the passion with which he talks about Maslow in particular and humanistic psychology more generally was so engaging that I immediately wanted to read this. The book is full of detailed explorations of a plethora of topics related to overall well-being. Much of the book reflected topics I have been thinking about as mere reckons without any scientific or systematic thinking. If you or someone you know is struggling to find purpose and direction in life, you could do a lot worse than starting with this book rather than the vast majority of the self-help section of the book store or podcast directory.