The 13 Best Books I Read Last Year

best books everThese are some seriously great books. How great are they, you ask? Well, let me tell you. See, my 1-10 rating system is actually logarithmic. Meaning the difference between an 8 and a 9 is huge, and that between a 9 and a 10 is even huger. A rating of 10/10 is earned only by the most extraordinary of books, and all of these but one are 10s.

These titles turn out to be about 10% of the books I read last year (13/132). Four of these I consumed in audiobook format (Born a Crime, American Prometheus, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, King Leopold’s Ghost). One of them is technically not a book but a video/audio course from The Great Courses which takes as much time as a long book. Super worthwhile, that one.

Some of these are Herculean works that took a decade or more to write. That we get to hold them and read the monumental effort of these scholars for just a few bucks (or free, if from a library) is an insane privilege. The first 12 are in no particular order. The last two are The Greatest Books I’ve Ever Read. Not just last year, but ever. Seriously.

And if you choose to acquire these books for your reading pleasure, purchasing via the provided Amazon affiliate links deposits several shiny pennies in my account towards supporting this blog and my reading habit. Dig in:

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood (2016) by Trevor Noah (ebook, print & audio). Can I tell you how great this book is? I mean, did you ever wonder how a mixed-race South African kid ended up hosting The Daily Show? This book chronicles that astonishingly unlikely journey from the slums of Soweto where Noah’s mere existence was a crime, since whites and blacks weren’t supposed to talk, let alone have kids together. Growing up “colored” in apartheid South Africa where racism was the law of the land meant Noah didn’t fully belong either the world of whites nor the blacks. But he knew how to hustle. His incredibly poignant relationship with his lioness of a mother had me crying more than once. Damn.

The audiobook benefits from Noah’s comic timing and dead-on rendition of myriad accents and languages. I laughed out loud many times; I don’t think I’ll every forget his story about DJing the bar mitzvah with Hitler (seriously). In the meantime, you and I have no idea how bad black South Africans had it — the shit is bananas. Hilarious, heartbreaking, uplifting and enlightening, this is one extraordinary book to nourish your soul. 10/10

Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions (2016) by Brian Christian & Tom Griffiths (ebook & print). A good popular science book takes a complex topic and makes it accessible to a wide, non-technical audience. A great popular science book also makes the topic engaging, immediately usable, and a catalyst for finding out even more. This is one of the greats.

It turns that a lot of stupendously smart computer scientists have not just thought about our everyday problems, but also came up with mathematically optimal solutions to them. There’s the explore vs exploit dilemma: at what point do you stop searching for a restaurant or date or job, and just settle on one of the available choices? For that, you use the 37% rule: if you’re considering 100 different options, when you hit #37, select thenext candidate that’s better than all you’ve seen so far. That’s from optimal stopping theory. There are more: “Sorting theory tells us how (and whether) to arrange our offices. Caching theory tells us how to fill our closets. Scheduling theory tells us how to fill our time.” I feel like this book initiated me into a secret society that knows a lot more than me about the inner workings of the world. 10/10

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (2017) by Timothy Snyder (ebook & print). “Americans today are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism in the twentieth century. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so.” Tyranny is on the march not only in the US, but all over the world. Snyder reminds us that we’ve seen this movie before, and it does not end well — unless we get off our asses and do something about it. Let this book be your wake-up call. Prescient, cautionary, essential reading for our times. At 128 pages and less than $7, you cannot afford not to read this. 10/10 Continue reading “The 13 Best Books I Read Last Year”

The 25 Most Important Books I Read in 2017

Two things make a book truly important to read. First is urgency. Does it contain information that could immediately protect you from harm? That’s pretty important. Second, could this book change the whole way you look at the world, and maybe even revolutionize the way you live? These books have that potential. Check them out:

Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams (2017) by Matthew Walker (ebook & print). This is easily the most important book I read in 2017. Why? Because there is nothing more important in your life than sleep. And Westerners (especially Americans) are chronically sleep-deprived, leading to unnecessary car crashes, illness, and depression. We also have terrible sleep hygiene. I’ve been researching this topic for my own book, so I know this is the only decent, up-to-date book out there on sleep. And it’s fantastic. Walker is a renowned sleep researcher himself at UC Berkeley, featuring some of his original findings in the book. All adults interested in their own health should read this. 9.5/10

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (2017) by Timothy Snyder (ebook & print). “Americans today are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism in the twentieth century. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so.” Tyranny is on the march not only in the US, but all over the world. Snyder reminds us that we’ve seen this movie before, and it does not end well — unless we get off our asses and do something about it. Let this book be your wake-up call. Prescient, cautionary, essential reading for our times. At 128 pages and less than $7, you cannot afford not to read this. 9.5/10

The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads (2016) by Tim Wu (ebook & print). Our lives are what we pay attention to, so “how we spend the brutally limited resource of our attention will determine those lives to a degree most of us may prefer not to think about.” Prof Tim Wu of Columbia (of Net Neutrality fame) takes us on a ride from the beginning of the attention economy to the age of social media. Benjamin Day, founder of the New York Sun, was the first to sell his paper at a loss to make it up in advertising revenue, figuring out that his readers were not his consumers but his product. The whole advertising and marketing industries originated in patent medicine and propaganda. Heck, all advertising used to be called propaganda. Wu covers a lot of fascinating ground here: the rise of radio and TV networks; war propaganda; Marshall McLuhan, Timothy Leary and LSD; video games and Facebook. This is a thorough history and cautionary tale about the hijacking of our attention by insidious commercial and governmental forces: “Technologies designed to increase our control over our attention will sometimes have the very opposite effect. They open us up to a stream of instinctive selections, and tiny rewards, the sum of which may be no reward at all.” 9/10

Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked (2017) by Adam Alter (ebook & print). While Wu gives you the sweep of history, Alter tells you what’s happening to you right now. Behavioral addiction is affecting millions, making Irresistible one of the most important books I read in 2017.  So how do people get hooked? “Behavioral addiction consists of six ingredients: compelling goals that are just beyond reach; irresistible and unpredictable positive feedback; a sense of incremental progress and improvement; tasks that become slowly more difficult over time; unresolved tensions that demand resolution; and strong social connections.” Remember that thousands of extremely smart, highly-compensated people are on the other side of your screen, thinking of ways of keeping you hooked. This book tells you how they do it.  9.5/10

Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right (2016), by Jane Mayer (ebook & print). I’ve read a lot of depressing books in my day, like Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee or King Leopold’s Ghost, or the one right above about how everything is going to die. But somehow those tales of mass slaughter were not nearly as big a downer as Dark Money. David and Charles Koch are the billionaires at the center of the concerted effort to purchase American democracy to do the bidding of the ultra-rich. Them and other characters who consistently lack decency, like Richard Mellon Scaife and the DeVos family create front companies and multilayered shell entities to pass the Citizens United verdict, and create the Tea Party, and fund it to the tune of hundreds of millions. The detailed account of their successful experiment in South Carolina is particularly chilling. Not fun to read, but fascinating nonetheless, and utterly crucial. 9/10

The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia (2017), by Masha Gessen (ebook & print). I just knew this book had to be dangerously good when I saw all the 1-star reviews by trolls on Amazon. So I bought it immediately. I had read several of Gessen’s meticulous and eye-opening New Yorker pieces, but this book takes it to a whole new level. And happy to report that it has since won the National Book Award, haters be damned.

Gessen tells the story through seven dramatis personae, each “both ‘regular’, in that their experiences exemplified the experiences of millions of others, and extraordinary: intelligent, passionate, introspective, able to tell their stories vividly.” They give first-person accounts of the everyday ordeal of surviving true to oneself in Russia. Like Zhanna, daughter of popular opposition politician Boris Nemtsov and activist in her own right, whose life demonstrates some of the consequences of opposing the regime (e.g. exile, incarceration and murder — y’know, the yoozh). The story of Masha the journalist illustrates the perils of truthtelling. Pioneering psychotherapist Marina Arutyunyan tries to shepherd modern mental health to Russia through lacerating thickets of state-mandated ideology. Openly gay academic Lyosha tries to advocate for oppressed minorities without getting fired from his precarious university post.

Gessen weaves the last century of Russian history through the lives of the protagonists. Stalin’s self-cannibalizing reign of terror is particularly chilling: “Stalin’s terror machine executed its executioners at regular intervals. In 1938 alone, forty-two thousand investigators who had taken part in the great industrial-scale purges were executed, as was the chief of the secret police, Nikolai Yezhov.” Stalin once invited an old friend from Georgia to Moscow for a reunion, and after lavishly wining and dining him, had him executed before dawn: “This could not be explained with any words or ideas available to man.”

And that is the most astonishing aspect of this book: it is not fiction. The protagonists’ experiences are so logic-defying, so disheartening, and such violations of basic human decency as to exist in a separate universe that no novelist could concoct. And yet, this universe has an internal logic. Perhaps it’s best explained through Hannah Arendt, whose three-volume “Origins of Totalitarianism” Gessen deftly scrunches down to a few essential paragraphs: “What distinguishes a totalitarian ideology is its utterly insular quality. It purports to explain the entire world and everything in it. There is no gap between totalitarian ideology and reality because totalitarian ideology contains all of reality within itself.”

And yet, the book reads like a novel, which is why I don’t want to give away too much. Who is Homo sovieticus? For whom do Russians vote in the “Greatest Russian Ever” (aka “Name of Russia”) contest year after year? What’s going to happen to Boris Nemtsov after he defies Putin? Do our heroes avoid getting beat up and arrested at the demonstrations? Why is Putin so popular in Russia?

One pervasive theme of the book is the hegemony of doublethink over the Russian psyche. Coined by Orwell in “1984”, doublethink is the necessity of maintaining two contradictory beliefs for survival, e.g. publicly supporting the government ideology while knowing that it oppresses your very existence.

This is some crazy-making stuff that Russians seem to have been put through for over a century. And yet, there are still people who fight for truth, healing, and freedom. Over and over, they rise to attend banned protests very likely to land them in jail (or worse). Their stories of stupendous bravery and selflessness consistently inspire.

And lest you as a Westerner think that you’re somehow safe because, oh, this is something happening elsewhere, please note that the recent rise of authoritarianism in countries like America takes its playbook straight out of Russia. Attacks on the press, construction of alternate realities, propagation of fake news, persecution of minorities, and the shameless grabbing of executive power: it’s all happening right now.

And you know what else? We’ve seen it all before: Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Mao. So don’t read this book just because it’s a riveting account of life in what’s still an undiscovered continent for most Westerners. Don’t read it just because it’s a tour de force of journalistic craft and bravery. Read it because it also informs your life as an American, German, Frenchman, Hungarian, or anyone who values the freedom of human life and ideas, and so that you may be impelled to action. 10/10

The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World (2011) by Daniel Yergin (ebook, print & audio). Yergin is the pre-eminent scholar on global energy. Intimidated by the sheer bulk of his tomes (the other being The Prize, for which he nabbed another prize called the Pulitzer), I had avoided them till now. But the audiobook was a manageable way to digest this work piecemeal (also, you can’t tell how thick an audiobook is). It’s safe to say no other book has helped me Continue reading “The 25 Most Important Books I Read in 2017”

Dispatch from Barcelona: Las Ramblas, Terrorism, and the Fabric of Trust

If you were to create a river flowing with humans instead of water, it would look a lot like Las Ramblas (La Rambla to the locals). Night and day, at all hours, people walk up and down the middle of the famed boulevard. It’s wide enough to accommodate twenty bodies shoulder-to-shoulder, plus a sidewalk restaurant on each side, plus a lane of traffic in each way, plus conventional sidewalks and stores at the far edge.

And yet, a few days ago, the flow of humanity was so dense and turbulent that I could not walk in a straight line more than 10 meters at a time. The mix is variegated, multilingual, multigenerational. In one five-minute stretch I heard English, German, Danish, Swedish, French, Arabic, occasionally Spanish and even Catalan! Families amble and feud, college kids frolic and gawk, stag parties stagger, and seated white-haired vacationers sip on sangria, watching the river flow by.

The particular threat to straight-line walking is the smartphone-addled amblers – a global phenomenon hardly specific to Las Ramblas, but rendered particularly treacherous here through sheer numbers. People looking at on-screen representations of the world instead of the real thing are liable to plow right into you unless you’re looking sharp and wearing your dancing shoes.

Yet, underlying the seeming chaos, there is an order. People don’t run into each other. The wind-up microcopter salesmen launch their wares skywards but catch them before they land on unsuspecting heads. Nobody trips. And I’ve never seen a fight. All of this can only arise from implicit rules harbored so deeply as to not need to be spoken: We coexist peacefully. We look out for each other. This is a safe place.

Yesterday, at 5.14pm, I got a text from a local friend asking if I was okay. She spoke of a van plowing into the Las Ramblas crowd. The unspoken contract had been violated.

At night, a miasma of pain and bewilderment permeated the air of Barcelona. The Festa de Gracia, the mad weeklong fount of creativity and zest that envelops the Gracia district with miles of offbeat recycled decorations and music, had been put on hold. And, unimaginably, Las Ramblas was shut down. Around 2am, I decided to walk the 1.5km from my neighborhood of Poble Sec to Las Ramblas to see the dried up river from up close. On the way, I walked through several neighborhoods normally bustling at this hour – Raval and Ciutat Vella. No one was there except for homeless folks who had nowhere else to go. And Las Ramblas was cordoned off for the night.

Earlier that evening, I had paid a visit to my favorite local pintxo bar, L’Atelier de Blai. Lisa, the young woman sitting next to me at the bar, worked a block away from where the accident happened. She had heard the screams of the crowd and run out to see the injured folks on the street – bodies with limbs contorted at unnatural angles, some dying, some already lifeless. She ran back into the store and pulled down the metal shutters until the police told them two hours later it was okay to come. She went to a hotel and asked if they could be kind enough to call her a cab: “Yes, after we get one for the other 200 people waiting ahead of you.” She had certainly earned her glass of white wine for the day.

There is an invisible but ubiquitous fabric interconnecting all humanity – indeed, all life on Earth. Whether we realize it or not, we are one giant superorganism, intricately dependent upon one another. It’s easy to see that relationship between, say, a bee and a flower. But it may not be as immediately obvious how my life connects with that rowdy English tourist, or the Catalan grandmother wheeling her groceries home. But it does, and it’s the only way things can ever work.

What the terrorists did was to punch a hole through that fabric of trust and deep interdependence, thereby declaring themselves outside of it. Outside of the fabric there is only death and exile – a fate to which Muslim extremists like the ones who drove the truck routinely consign themselves.

The good news is that the fabric heals itself. And people have the power to accelerate the healing – by choosing to trust, to live, to keep rambling on Las Ramblas. I am happy to report that today, Las Ramblas is open again.

The criminal justice system removes from society those who have willfully damaged the fabric, lest they do more harm.

But state institutions of justice have less latitude to act against those who intend to damage the fabric, even when they declar it publicly – say, through a white supremacist rally. So we must take it upon ourselves to protect it actively.

When someone marches in Charlottesville or anywhere else under a Nazi banner, they are declaring unequivocal intention to do harm. Believe them. Look up from your mere representations of the world and realize that the real world is not as safe as it used to be.

These people want to hurt you if you don’t agree with them, and kill you if you don’t look like them. So you need to let them know that it’s really not okay.

Often they will be too caught up in their own hurt to reason with them. And if you punch them in the face first, you become more like them, defeating our own purpose.

But you can help accelerate their declared intention to exile themselves from society.

The first step is to examine your attachment to aspects of your own identity which you did not get to choose – your nationality, your hometown, your religion, your sexual orientation, name, and even your gender. If you’re doing this because you’re a New Yorker, Jewish, black, Muslim, white, a woman, gay, an immigrant, whatever – it’s already the wrong reason. All those things were just the roll of the dice. Let them go.

Your circle of self either embraces the whole of the world, or you’re just doing this for selfish, tribal reasons that can just as easily turn you into one of the bad guys.

Once you realize that you’re defending all sentient beings, you’re on much better footing. And yes, National Parks contain sentient beings, and you’d better believe they’re under threat, too.

Next, you must seek out and uproot the sources of anger and hatred in yourself. Anger clouds your judgment and makes you less effective, and we need your mind to be sharp here. As William Blake said in Auguries of Innocence, “To be in a passion you good may do/ But not if a passion is in you.” Instead of letting the anger consume you, feel just enough of the anger to let it to propel you.

Hatred is an even bigger problem, as it tends to redound on itself, making you miserable and less effective – and once again, more like your enemy.

The solution? If your circle of compassion embraces the entire world, this has to include your enemies, too. Having compassion for them precludes hating them.

This is probably easier said than done. The central story from the Bhagavad Gita is instructive: Arjuna’s relatives have unfairly usurped the monarchy from him and his brothers. So now his army is arrayed against that of his uncles and cousins. But how can he fight and kill his own relatives?

His charioteer happens to be a pretty wise person – Lord Krishna in disguise, who just happens to be the creator of the universe. And he tells Arjuna that he will do this because it’s his dharma – a mixture of duty and fate: “Put your heart at the lotus-feet of the lord, and plunge into the heat of battle.”

If you are a decent person, then your duty and fate is to protect all sentient beings from forces of harm. You are the guardian of the web of life. Luckily, in America, this dharma thing is a familiar concept. We call it doing your job.

And yeah, it’s your job now. And mine. There isn’t anyone else. So get organized. Protest. Publicly identify white supremacists, Nazis and Trump supporters. Make it difficult for them to have jobs, relationships, permits. Donate to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Southern Poverty Law Center, Planned Parenthood, and any other number of effective organizations that right-wingers want shut down.

And through all of it, above all, maintain your humor. If there’s one overarching thing that Fascists, Nazis, right-wingers and totalitarians have in common, it’s this: they’re utterly humorless. They’re just not funny. How many pictures of laughing dictators have you seen? Exactly. And they can’t stand being made fun of (see: Trump’s reaction to Saturday Night Live sketches). Srdja Popovic’s brilliant Blueprint for Revolution depicts humor as the central tool for nonviolent resistance.

So take a deep breath, and take stock of your own prejudices, and embrace the whole world with your heart. Like a Zen master, detect then uproot the sources of hate. Get clever by reading Blueprint for Revolution, get creative, get motivated, get organized. And see if, instead of getting livid, you can chuckle a little at the absurdity of it all. You’ll be even smarter and more effective that way.

Then go ahead and do your job. The whole river of life is propelling you forward.

Impresssions: Bali

There are no sidewalks in Ubud, the cultural capital of Bali. There are sidehikes, and sidetreks, but no sidewalks. First, there is the matter of elevation. Sometimes the sidewalks are raised 30-60cm from the roadway, then slope down to meet the road at a storefront or driveway, which is every 5 steps. Then the sidewalk disappears without warning, and you’re sharing space with scooters, motorcycles and cars. And by “share”, I mean that, should traffic flow require it, these cars will gladly clamber on to your supposedly inviolate walking territory, exercising right of way by sheer size and made-of-steelness.

Second, there are sidewalk hazards. Many of the sidewalks cover drainage ditches underneath, and they have holes — fist-size, foot-size, leg-size, and whole person-size. And if you’re not watching where you’re going, you can break a fist, foot, leg or whole person. Some holes require jumping over — like, a Carl Lewis-style running leap. As a gesture of courtesy, the locals often put a long stick in these holes, so you can spot them better — or impale yourself on them, depending on how close you’re paying attention. There are also tree branches that cut through the space of the sidewalk at a 45° angle, which means you can easily brain yourself if you’re talking to someone while scanning the ground for person-breaking ditches.

Then, there are the people hazards. These sidewalks are narrow — basically, one Westerner wide. When you come face-to-face with a Balinese person, that’s easy: you break left, because people drive on the left here. But what if you come across another Westerner? There are a ton of Aussies and English people here, who will instinctively break left. But with the right-hand driving folks, you never know. A quick two-step shuffle ensues, usually to the tune of Uptown Funk, and with any luck, both parties pass intact. When in doubt, break left — it’s the law of the land.

Most of the Balinese you encounter on the sidewalk will not be walking; they will be sitting in wait for you. The females will all think your name is Massage; the males will all call you Taxi. Every fourth storefront in Ubud seems to be a spa, and every able-bodied male seems to have a side-hustle as a gypsy cabbie (car, scooter or both). By my estimation, while sidehiking in Ubud, for every minute of walking time, you get 5 offers of motorized transport or professional kneading.

Of course, you only deal with the sidehike nonsense if you’re enough of a chump to walk in the first place. Because every native man, woman and child is on a scooter (aka motorbike, moped, or matic). At first glance, the Ubud scooter traffic looks like madness and chaos — more like the flow of a tropical river than any discernible traffic pattern. Lane lines? Absent. Traffic lights and stop signs? Haven’t seen any yet, and decorative when they do exist. What you do see is people from age 10 to 70 on scooters in every imaginable combination: single, double, whole families, an entire hardware store (while the guy takes orders on his phone), and the winner: a lady nursing her baby.

By law, people are required to Continue reading “Impresssions: Bali”

Hella Important, Mind-blowing, Super-useful and Fun: 100 books I read in 2016

screen-shot-2017-01-03-at-11-26-37-amAt the beginning of 2016, I decided to devote more time to my favorite activity: reading. I set myself a rough target of two books a week, and got through 110 of them. Below are capsule reviews and ratings of about 100 of those, categorized into the following 5 headings: Hella Important; Mind-Blowing; Super Useful; Fun & Fast; Loved it!; Heart-Expanding; and More. Note than I’m counting audiocourses as books, some of which are much longer than the average audiobook (36hrs vs 6hrs). If a book looks like it doesn’t have a review, it means I put it in more than one category and the review’s coming right up.

Enjoy, and please chime in with your own reviews, reflections and recommendations in the comments!

HELLA IMPORTANT!
These books aren’t necessarily the most fun to get through, but they’re talking about something super important that is probably affecting your life right now.

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport (ebook and paper). The most behavior-altering book I read in 2016. Georgetown computer scientist Newport differentiates between deep and shallow work, making the case that a life of meaning has more of the deep than the shallow. A roadmap for fulfilling your purpose in life, which I intend to fully deploy in 2017 and beyond. 10/10

Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Sherry Turkle (ebook and paper). We’re in the midst of a social revolution, and not in a good way: digital communication is eating away at face-to-face interaction, with measurable, scary and disastrous effects on our minds and relationships. Turkle places the problem in its proper apocalyptic context and proposes some solutions. 9/10

The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World, Adam Gazzaley MD/PhD and Larry Rosen PhD (ebook and paper). You can’t multitask. Period. The authors, a renowned neuroscientist and a psychologist, provide the scientific evidence for how distractions and interruptions of high-novelty digital media degrade our brain function, productivity and relationships. An accessible and thorough presentation of an extremely important, timely topic. My full Amazon review here. 9.5/10

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters With the Islamic State, Graeme Wood (ebook and paper). Who really gets ISIS anyway? Even to an educated audience, they seem like a jumble of acronyms, leaders, factions and philosophies falling somewhere between incoherence and chaos. How did they come about? Are they real Muslims? What’s up with the beheadings, amputations, and sex slavery? What compels so many seemingly nice young men to leave everything behind and join them in Syria? This brand-new book places IS in an historical, religious, geographic and ideological context so by the end of it we can all say, “Aahh, now I get it.” The encounters are kinda amazing. Full review here. 9/10

Tribe: On Homecoming & Belonging, Sebastian Junger (ebook and paper). Pretty short as far as audiobooks go, but it packs a wallop. Junger gets deep into the human psyche’s need for affiliation and fellowship, and how that manifests (or doesn’t) in the modern world. 9/10

Blueprint for Revolution: How to Use Rice Pudding, Lego Men, and Other Nonviolent Techniques to Galvanize Communities, Overthrow Dictators, or Simply Change the World, Srdja Popovic (ebook and paper). Loved this book! Enough to review it twice, push it on all my friends, and befriend the author. Srdja knows what he’s talking about. As one of the founders of Otpor!, he masterminded the nonviolence movement that eventually toppled theSerbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic. Later he and his colleagues consulted with the nonviolent movements in the Maldives, Egypt, and Burma. This book draws upon these frontline experiences: what worked, what didn’t work, and how to do it better. Read my rhapsodizing review here. 10/10

Girls and Sex: Navigating the New Landscape, Peggy Orenstein (ebook and paper). Hoo boy. Sobering, sometimes terrifying stuff here. Our girls are in trouble, and Orenstein shows us Continue reading “Hella Important, Mind-blowing, Super-useful and Fun: 100 books I read in 2016”

“When Breath Becomes Air”: A call to life before death

“Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.” — T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

whenbreathbecomesairI picked up When Breath Becomes Air (hardback; ebook; audiobook) at about 10pm on the first day of spring by a recommendation from the inimitable Jesse Kornbluth. From his and other reviews, I roughly knew what the book was about: death. What better time to meditate on death than on the very cusp of Earth’s re-awakening?

In one sitting, it was read. It’s a tonic against the unreality that assaults us in the world today — politics, entertainment, advertising, broken promises, missed meetings — because it’s the most real book I’ve read in recent memory. Paul Kalanithi is 36 years old, and chief neurosurgery resident at Stanford Medical School. Every day, he opens up people’s skulls with a drill and saw, dissecting through the dura and meninges to get to a tiny tumor in the cerebellum. One false move of his scalpel by 2mm, and instead of a productive career and fatherhood, his patient is fully paralyzed for life. This is not about shifting around some spreadsheet numbers or holding meetings with middle management about shareholder value, folks. Kalanithi’s work is at the interface between thriving and withering, life and death, every day.

And then, Kalanithi’s life takes a turn for the even more real: he himself is diagnosed with lung cancer. At that point, he has to decide whether he will be spending the remainder of his time on Earth dying or living — a span of 1 to 10 years, depending on disease progression. He chooses to live: to rehabilitate himself and go back to full-time surgical practice in spite of his exhausting chemotherapy regimen; to repair his marriage; to have a child; and to write this book. I am very glad he made that decision.

It turns out that Kalanithi’s time on earth was much closer to the lower end of the predicted range, which makes his story even more poignant and the creation of this book even more heroic. Between 100hr weeks at the hospital, mind-fogging chemotherapy, and a newborn, when did he write?

This is a book that stays with you. It’s a lucid exposition from a consummate insider on the practice of medicine and work of healing. When can doctors heal? What do they tell patients when they can’t? How do they react when a patient dies? How do they convey that news to the family? Is life always worth living?

Paul’s days were numbered, and he knew the number was small. But so are ours. If you’re 25, that number is 18,000 to 20,000. If you’re 45, it’s closer to 13,000. If your light plane crashes, or you have a mountaineering accident, or have a freak untreated food poisoning, that number could be much smaller, like it was for my three friends who died in the past year, all under the age of 35.

So the bad news is that we’re all going to die, folks. Especially you. The good news is that every moment that you live is a gift. You can have that fact impressed upon you by a terminal diagnosis. Or you can read When Breath Becomes Air. Let that inform your days, and you just may infuse every moment of your existence with greater meaning, purpose, and joy.

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Book Review: On Looking – Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes

A fabulous blogger whom I hold in great respect turned me on to Alexandra Horowitz’s On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes. And who was I to resist eleven walks with expert eyes? If the whole point of life is to see a little better, then I’m all for a book that can expand my vision.

Here’s some of what I really liked about the book:
• The expert walk vignettes are very engaging, and Horowitz has a beautifully poetic writing style. The book is a joy to read. I finished it in two sittings, one of them late into the night. This is thriller-level readability, folks.
• The experts really do have super x-ray vision in their domains. Their vision is so different, in fact, that when you enter their world, you feel as if you’re moving around in a virtual reality overlay of a whole new dimension. Plants, animals, insects, rocks, letters, sounds you had never considered, all rise to attention’s surface in 3-D relief.
• The book is a bounty of Continue reading “Book Review: On Looking – Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes”

“Days of God”: A thrilling firsthand account of the Iranian Revolution

“Is that the sound of firecrackers, Mom?”

“No. That’s the sound of bullets, Ali. You should stay inside.”

That was my first revolution, in January 1979. We lived in the upper-middle class North Tehran neighborhood of Saltanat Abad (“Monarchyville”), but I could still hear the report of gunshots from Jaleh Square far south. What were people fighting over? To a six year old, it didn’t make any sense.

The standard narrative of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 reads something like this: The Shah was a dictator who did a fair amount to build up and reform the country but was also profligate and repressive. He used the Savak, his secret Police, to silence and torture dissenters. Eventually, his time came up, and a monolithic popular uprising brought Ruhollah Mousavi Khomeini, a.k.a the Ayatollah, to power.

That’s not even close to the whole murky, thrilling and heartbreaking story.

James Buchan, the author of Days of God: The Revolution in Iran and Its Consequences, was a student in Tehran in 1973. From that vantage point, Continue reading ““Days of God”: A thrilling firsthand account of the Iranian Revolution”

Life, Death, Youth, the Red Book, Oprah and Truth: Harvard Commencement and Reunion 2013

One of the things that I remember best from my 15th college reunion was looking over at the 20th reunion people and noticing how impossibly old they looked. These were some paunchy, bald folks in dad jeans, with crevasses on their faces and the teenage kids responsible for said erosion. That would never happen to us whippersnappers of the Class of 1993.

Well, it did. And I’m glad it did, since the alternative (e.g. death) is neither novel nor exciting.

Like a wedding, a college reunion is an occasion of almost unalloyed joy. You get several days to catch up with long-lost friends on years of stories, all in the midst of an endless banquet. You meet the heretofore mythical spouses (“Oh! Someone actually agreed to commit her life to you — that’s great!”), you hug their impossibly cute kids, have great conversations, remember old times, and drink far too many Cape Cods strong enough to remove paint and half your liver.

Another similarity with weddings is that a reunion is a gathering of victors. If you’re broke, sick, alcoholic, getting a divorce, grossly out of shape, prematurely aged, going bankrupt, tangling with the law or otherwise on the receiving end of a bad fortune cookie, you’re probably not going to show up. At a place like Harvard, the impulse to avoid the scrutiny and comparison of peers is perhaps even stronger. What, you haven’t published your third bestselling novel yet? How many IPOs? Not the head of Neurosurgery? No tenure? Only spoken at TED Mainstage once? No Pulitzer, MacArthur or Nobel? Why are we friends again?

The Class Report

Exacerbating all of this is the Class Report, better known as the Red Book. Every five years, we are encouraged to Continue reading “Life, Death, Youth, the Red Book, Oprah and Truth: Harvard Commencement and Reunion 2013”

How to Write and Publish Your Book in 30 Days: A Guide for Busy People

Lately, I’ve been talking to many of my friends about getting their books published. Not that they have big, fat manuscripts lying around just waiting to be published. No, no — most of these people aren’t even thinking about writing a book. I’m the one who says they have a book in them that’s itching to come out. They were just minding their business, perfectly happy with their non-authorial existence, until I waltzed along and persuaded them that their lives were empty and meaningless without getting their noble thoughts down in book form for posterity to enjoy.

I’m exaggerating here, but only a little: I do believe that most people have a book in them. I’ve self-published all of my books so far: The Tao of Dating: The Smart Woman’s Guide to Being Absolutely IrresistibleThe Tao of Dating: The Thinking Man’s Enlightened Guide to Success With Women, and Best Dating Advice I Ever Got: 3000 Women Pick Their Favorite Love Tips.* And as an independent author and publisher, it’s my goal to help as many people fulfill their authorial ambitions as possible. Because it has never been easier in the history of mankind to write a book, publish it, and make it available to millions of potential readers — and to even make a buck doing it all.

In this article, I’ll endeavor to tell you about the steps you need to take to write a book and publish it, fast, even ifyou believe you have no Continue reading “How to Write and Publish Your Book in 30 Days: A Guide for Busy People”

‘God’s Hotel’ by Victoria Sweet: A Profoundly Human Book

A book that can delight you through its entertainments or instruct you with useful knowledge is a good book; one that does both is a great book. Rarely, a book comes along that not only instructs and delights but also deepens your humanity, carving out extra space inside us to carry even more compassion. God’s Hotel by Victoria Sweet is such a book. [A hat-tip to Jesse Kornbluth of Head Butler for introducing me to it.]

There were many reasons I enjoyed this book, which is really many books at once:

1) The author, Dr Victoria Sweet, who has a PhD in medieval history as well as an MD, shares the ancient Latin and Greek etymologies of many terms used in patient care today. Hospitality, community, charity – what do they really mean? Through her stories about her time taking care of patients, Dr Sweet shows how those formed the three foundational principles of Laguna Honda Hospital.

Hospital comes from hospitality, the root of which is hospes, which means both ‘guest’ or ‘host’. This is how Sweet explains this: Continue reading “‘God’s Hotel’ by Victoria Sweet: A Profoundly Human Book”

Taoism in Three Easy Pieces

It must have happened to you hundreds of times.

There you are at a cocktail party, holding a mojito in one hand and holding forth on everything and nothing with the other, eliciting nods and knowing chuckles from your audience. You look good. Life is good. Then someone asks out of the blue, “So what the hell is this whole Taoism thing about?”

Aw man. Not that again. I mean, is it Taoism with a T, or Daoism with a D? And what’s that yin-yang symbol thingie anyway? Not your area of your expertise, not your bowl of porridge, not in your wheelhouse. End of your cocktail party mojo.

This is a pretty common condition, as I recently found out. A friend who was intrigued by Eastern philosophy but hadn’t the occasion to study it yet asked me what Taoism was all about. Mojito in hand, three basic principles came to mind which I thought you would find useful as a quick introduction, so you’re properly armed for next time it comes up: Continue reading “Taoism in Three Easy Pieces”

Partial Continuous Ecstasy: Can You Reside in Bliss Around the Clock?

I want you to stop what you’re doing right now and really pay attention to… your breath. Slow down your breath, and make an effort to feel the air as it enters your nose.

Maybe even pinpoint a particular molecule of air, and follow its path as you feel it move along your airways, as you become conscious of every part of your body it touches.

First, feel it slide into your nostril. Then, slowly, it caresses the inside of your nasal passages, up and over into the back of your throat, down into your trachea. Slowly now – become aware of and really feel every little bit of Continue reading “Partial Continuous Ecstasy: Can You Reside in Bliss Around the Clock?”

What I learned at SXSW 2012

I recently got back from the South By Southwest Conference and had a marvelous time. One unusual thing that happened this time around was that several people asked me, “Why are you here?”  It was a bit like asking why do you drink water, or what’s the big deal about this whole breathing thing anyway.

And yet, a trivial question it is not.  In fact, I very nearly didn’t go this year, so it’s important for me to remind myself why I do take 6 days off from work, buy a non-cheap pass, pay for non-cheap airfare and scrounge for accommodations in an overstuffed Austin during the second week of March every year to go to SXSW Interactive (NB: to add the Film and Music portions would frankly be too much). Here are my five reasons:

1) Encountering new ideas.  SXSW consistently pulls to its stages some of greatest minds in science, business, technology, entrepreneurship, journalism and all-around awesomeness.  Because there are so many stages, these speakers have incentive to share their best work with us lest we leave for another of the 35-40 simultaneous talks.  This year alone, I was lucky to catch talks by neuroscientist David Eagleman, inventor Dean Kamen, game designer Jane McGonigal, Mathematica creator Stephen Wolfram, and X Prize founder Peter Diamandis (about all of whom I will share below). Continue reading “What I learned at SXSW 2012”

The Fatal Flaws of Traditional Publishing (or: Why You Should Self-Publish)

In 2005, I left my job at a fancy consulting firm to start an online publishing business.  That’s when I started to go to publishing conferences, just to see how the industry worked (and to wander like a crackhead at a dealer’s convention, but that’s a separate story or two).

Trained as a physician and business consultant, my mind has a tendency to spontaneously diagnose problems and notice what’s weird.  For an industry that is presumably invested in its own perpetuation and success, the counterproductive practices I noticed about the publishing industry were very strange indeed. Some practices (like Continue reading “The Fatal Flaws of Traditional Publishing (or: Why You Should Self-Publish)”

Meanderings Amongst Words: Book Expo America, Chicago, 2-5 June 2004

People have brought to my attention that my blog here has been gathering e-dust, languishing in the vast underworld of unheralded, undersubscribed blogs. It ain’t for lack of material — lord knows all kinds of zany things have been happening. So, best to write up the events of last week before they get corrupted and ultimately deleted by the editorial caprices of that gentle tyrant, memory.

I spent the better part of this past week at Book Expo America in Chicago. I arrived in the Windy City — so-called apparently because of its fickle political affiliations and not the hearty sweep of air through its skyscraper-fortified corridors — on a Tuesday night, and through some strange convergence of fate, all of my Continue reading “Meanderings Amongst Words: Book Expo America, Chicago, 2-5 June 2004”

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