January 2016 Reading List

In Philosophy, Reading, Self Improvement

One of my goals for 2016 is to read as much as possible, as I realised that it is something that I love doing, and that will always be easily accessible to me due to it’s simplicity and low cost.

Many philosophers have advised that we should want whatever it is in our power to have, because that is the fastest and surest way to contentment and happiness, and for me reading fits the bill perfectly.

I was even more fortunate that my brother decided to gift me a Kindle ebook reader for my birthday, which falls on the last day of the year. This was the best possible way to start the year, and straight away I started to purchase books that before were inaccessible to me (I’m a reverse-immigrant, moving away from Europe to live in a third world country).

I’ve discussed in previous essays how reading is such an important thing, but I couldn’t possible say it better than the ever-likeable Mark Twain:

I’ve discussed in previous essays how reading is such an important thing, but I couldn’t possible say it better than the ever-likeable Mark Twain:

The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.

I follow this by modestly quoting myself:

You know what’s the really amazing thing about reading? It allows you to experience other people’s ideas and points of view, as well as other cultures without having to leave your front door. It’s almost like teleportation. Reading also works like a time machine. You get to have wonderful conversations with people who lived hundreds, if not thousands of years ago.

I don’t think I really have to sell anyone on the benefits of reading, as it’s an obvious thing to anyone with a certain degree of intelligence. It’s a shame that the majority of the world prefers junk television shows to the incredible adventures that you can have while reading.

I don’t plan on reviewing the books that I read as such, but it’s more about giving you my personal impression of them. After all, something that highly resonates with me you may find boring, and vice versa.

The key point in listing these books is to help myself keep a list of what I’ve read (I know that there are tools for that, but this is not a terrible way either) and also to help others find new material to read.

After all, if you’re reading this website, you’ll probably like some of what I read.

An Absent Mind

This title has the privilege of being one of the only two fiction books in my list.

It’s the story of a man suffering from Alzheimer Disease, told from the viewpoint of himself and his family and doctor. Alzheimers is a terminal disease that affects the function of the brain so that person slowly, normally over the course of years, shuts down and dies. It starts by affecting the memory and reasoning functions, and eventually inhibits motor functions such as walking and even swallowing, and eventually the person passes away.

I actually picked this book up the day after I had the news that my dad had passed away, and I was busy cancelling my whole week ahead and booking flights to the other side of the world to go to the funeral. My dad had something called Vascular Dementia. While this has a different cause than Alzheimers, the symptoms are virtually the same, and I actually lived with him for almost three years in Italy before moving to Asia, and so I knew first hand the difficulty in dealing with something who is alive, but is slowly fading before your very eyes. I recognised many of the situations described in this book. It makes you realise that the troubles in our lives and shared by many others, and while that shouldn’t make us feel better, we can at least rest slightly easier knowing that we’re often not stepping in virgin territory.

The book itself uses this interesting technique of writing each chapter from the viewpoint of a different character in the story, so you build a holistic image of exactly how each event affects the people involved. I don’t often read fiction, but I remember that the excellent book “Private Dancer”, about a British man in Thailand who falls in love with a prostitute, uses the same technique and I found it a fascinating read.

This is quite a strong read, and not a lighthearted book. However, I believe that thinking and considering death is something that everyone should do fairly regularly, and reading about someone dying can help us appreciate our own life for what it is. That’s why I am also planning to read Christopher Hitchens’ Mortality, in which the infamous author discusses his battle against cancer and contemplates his own pending death.

What I find interesting about death is that it’s coming for us all, but yet we act like that’s not actually a fact, and live our lives wasting our potential. This is something I want to work on in 2016, and so I am sure that my reading list will be peppered with books discussing life and death.

Courage Under Fire

One thing you will note as you go down this list is how many of the books are about Stoicism. I make no secret of being a Stoic, and many of my essays explicitly discuss Stoic philosophy and practical advice on how to live life according to their principles.

In a way, this book is a breath of fresh air compared to reading the usual Stoic texts because it deals with someone who was put through a really tough situation – being held hostage by enemy forces for years on end – and still managed to get through it in one piece.

This is not to say that the ancient texts are flawed or unusable, but this book puts to bed any doubts that one may have on whether Stoic philosophy is practical for the modern man (or woman).

It’s also an incredible quotable read, and here are a few of my favourite sections:

You can only be a “victim” of yourself. It’s all in how you discipline your mind. Who is your master? “He who has authority over any of the things on which have set your heart.” “What is the results at which all virtue aims? Serenity.” “Show me a man who through in danger is happy, who though in prison is happy, and I’ll show you a Stoic.”

But thats not half the revelation that is the realisation of your own fragility – that you can be reduced by wind and rain and ice and seawater or men to a helpless, sobbing wreck – unable to control even your own bowels – in a matter of minutes.

So make sure that in your heart of hearts, in your inner self, that you treat your station in life with indifference, not with contempt, only with indifference.

The Power of Habit

One of the other books that I read this month, “Stoic Living for the Modern Soul” starts off in a really beautiful manner:

Life is habits. The quality of life one has corresponds directly to the habits one keeps.

and then it continues:

Some live a life devoid of any distinguishable habits and are ruled by chaos. Others live a life of destructive habits which over time chip away at the mind, the spirit, and the body.

The reason I mentioned this book before discussing “The Power of Habit” is because I wanted to highlight the importance of daily habits. I am actually planning of writing a huge essay on habits, because I truly believe that they are the most important aspect of our lives, and something which should have our full attention.

As I have slowly began to master my daily habits, I’ve noticed marked improvements in my own wellbeing, and eventually I will want to share what I learn with others.

“The Power of Habit” is great read to understand how habits are formed and how, theoretically and neurologically, they are replaced, but the author makes it clear that it’s not a book about change. He stays clear of giving recommendations on how to change, and which habits to focus on. So this is a slightly academic read on habits, but one that I feel is very necessary for anyone to be able to truly understand how habits are formed, and to then go away and devise a plan to replace or create new habits.

God is Not Great

This is truly a fantastic book. At times so unintentionally funny that I had to stop reading. Christopher Hitchens is an unapologetic and unforgiving atheist on a crusade to end the religious madness that has gripped humanity for so long.

This is a brilliant, if somewhat difficult – mostly on the account of the author’s florid style and sizeable vocabulary. However, I think this is a good thing. I had to look up many words as I read, but this is exactly how one develops such a vocabulary.

Hitchens makes what I feel is a water-tight argument against religion, and shows it for exactly what is it: a man-made fable that has been twisted through history to serve the interests of those who command it.

I’ve always been a staunch atheists, and this book has only given me further ammunition in my arsenal. Even – or should that be especially? – if you’re religious, you owe yourself to read this.

This is the type of book that doesn’t take any prisoners, and chapter titles like “Is Religion Child Abuse?” give you just a preview of how strong a position it argues.

This will definitely be a book that I will pick up again and again.

Meditations

So much has been said about Meditations by Marcus Aurelius that I don’t feel I need to add much, if anything.

It is one of the key surviving Stoic texts, and it’s also a fascinating glimpse into the life of one of the most successful leaders in Roman history.

The fascinating thing about this text is that it was never meant for publication, it was actually a private life journal of sought, and that makes it even more interesting, because there is no hidden agenda behind the writing.

Again, this is the type of book that one reads and re-reads throughout life, and each passage will take on a different meaning as you experience life.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

This is the second of the two fiction books that I have read this month. I actually hated this book to begin with, and I only continued reading it because I had heard so much about it.

I guess what I didn’t about the start is that it’s essentially a description of a fairly boring road trip where nothing much happens, but soon enough the true essence of the book shines through.

It is a tranquil meditation on modern life, and our relationship with technology. As I currently work at a design agency – shameless plug: Whisper & Company – I find our relationship with technology a very interesting subject. I recently gave up Facebook, and I feel my life has improved, but reading this book made me wonder if perhaps the problem was with me, instead of the ubiquitous social network. Perhaps I need to learn to appreciate social media, and find the self control and willpower to not let it take over my life?

Normally I am a fast reader, but with this is a book I found that I needed regular breaks to ponder the ideas contain within, and I would then come back several days later and reread certain sections.

On Desire

This was also a reread. I had read this book in August 2013 and it played a big role in me having two of my most productive and life changing months in September and October 2013. I had the luxury of having finished my work for the summer, and I had to decide whether to leave Europe for Asia or not (I did leave, in the end). I spent two months doing nothing but cycling, reading, writing, and walking. During that time I cemented my commitment to Stoicism, following another of Irvine’s books, “A Guide to the Good Life”, which I will discuss after this book.

The main takeaway from “On Desire”, is that our desires are the dominating factor in how we live our lives. That’s an important realisation, and one that, while it may at first appear obvious, is actually quite critical.

I’ve trained myself every time that I have a strong desire, for a cake, for sex, for water, etc, to think about the desire and what it will lead to, and think about how I will feel if I consciously fight that desire.

This didn’t actually work very well for my first two years in Asia, as I became very undisciplined, stopped exercising, gained weight, and yet I also had some positives such as starting a couple of good businesses (and also failing a third!).

Now I’ve had a swing back towards discipline, and I am writing again, I’ve put this book on my monthly reading list because mastering desire is perhaps the most important thing we can do to live what anyone can consider a good life.

Sure, it’s a tough nut to crack, but the rewards are far greater than the temporary pleasures that we can gain from sex, alcohol, drugs, television, pornography, junk food, and sleeping late.

A Guide to the Good Life

This is the first book I read from William B. Irvine and it was a real eye opener. It wasn’t my first foray into Stoicism, I had already read the Enchiridion of Epictetus as well as Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius.

However, this is a great read for the aspiring Stoic because it gives a precise set of steps on how to become a Stoic, and also explains the main concepts clearly.

I find that this book is best read in conjunction with “On Desire” as there are plenty of overlapping themes.

It’s also the type of book that can trigger a life-crisis in the positive sense. It will make you think long and hard about the way you currently live your life, and it might just be the spark that ignites the fire of change.

Stoic Living for the Modern Soul

This is a book that I pick up once a week, especially the part regarding the body. If I were to write a book on Stoicism, it would probably be something similar to this.

Clear, concise advise on how to life.

It does required some prior knowledge regarding Stoicism, but that’s not a bad thing per se.

I find the section of the body to be absolute fascinating, and I’ve hardly ever seen anyone pack so much wisdom in a short chapter.

Power Negotiation

This was a brilliant book that was recommended to me by my business partner when we first started, and I decided to reread it this month to make sure I set myself up well for the rest of the year in terms of negotiating.

It essentially gives you an outlook that life is one long negotiation, and for me, the best part of the book is when the author states that everything is negotiable, no matter if it’s written on an official looking contract or not.

Another very astute recognition is that when companies give discounts, you see a clear example of someone, somewhere, having guessed the price of the product or service incorrectly in the first place.

This is really an eye-opened into the world of negotiation.

The Four Hour Work Week

I’m not a huge fan of Tim Ferris, and I think that in the Four Hour Work Week (FHWW) there is a lot of exaggeration, generalisations, and some very strange advice.

Perhaps there is some jealously playing part here because he’s written books etc, while I just have this little website that’s not so well read. I guess I take the high moral ground and I don’t publicise it, but that’s my choice. Can’t have the cake and eat it, as many a philosopher would remind us.

That said, there are also some real gems in FHWW. I like the part where Tim decides to travel abroad and weighs up the worst that can happen, vs the best that can happen.

The issue was that his business might completely fail while he is abroad, which would lead his life to take a temporary 4/10 rating. However, if he could travel and make the business work, then he could probably reach a permanent 8 or 9 out of 10. The tradeoff and risk was worth it.

I think this is very sound advice. Thinking about the worst possible case scenario (negative visualisation) is a technique that can help anyone, and most of the time we realise that the worst possible thing that can happen in a given situation is actually not that bad.

What I really don’t like about the FHWW is that there is an un-relentless goal towards having to get what you want. As we’ve seen before, this only leads down a disastrous path. We should be actively striving to want less things in our lives, not more. Tim then makes a slight dodge from the usual materialistic arguments by saying that you should focus on experiences. That is better, but you can just as easily fall into the usual misgivings of materialism by wanting experiences instead of things. The issue is that we should be concentrating on diminishing our desires, not increasing them.

It’s a tough lesson to swallow (after all, who doesn’t want to go snorkelling in an exotic country?) but it’s the fastest way to happiness. This doesn’t mean that you can’t or won’t go snorkelling, it just means that you treat it as an indifferent. If you can go snorkelling while remaining true to your beliefs, great. If not, then you need to take a long hard look at your own priorities.

On a closing note regarding this book, it reminds me very much of Casanova’s autobiography, although that comes in several volumes. If you don’t know already, Casanova was an 18th Century adventurer (awesome, eh?) and writer. If he seen as one of the most authentic sources of customs and norms during his time, and he is now famous for his sexual exploits, that you can be referred to as a “Casanova”.

His life story does indeed read like an adventure, and it almost appears as if he had a magical helping hand, always available to get him out of trouble at the last minute.

Nassim Taleb, author of the Black Swan, would think otherwise. He convincingly argues that there were, in fact, thousands of men during that century that behaved just like Casanova, lying, cheating, having high profiles affairs, but they all ended up either in jail, or shot by jealous husbands. When looked at it from this point of view, it was almost inevitable that one of these men would make it through to old age, and then would be able to write a biography, giving all types of reasons why his life turned out in that way.

I feel the same could be said of Tim Ferris. Yes, he took risks and it paid off, but how many others took similar risks that didn’t pay off? How many people quit their job to start a business that eventually failed? In his book, he obviously only cherry picks the successes that have followed his method and got lucky, not the majority of failures that didn’t make it.