I don't know what you've read or what you started to read but couldn't finish. My book recommendations may suit you in your current situation, or they may not. But I do know one thing that can help you: there's a difference between wanting to read and wanting to have read.
If you're someone who wants to read, you'll find the time. You'll follow your instinct in picking titles. And you'll read for pleasure, out of curiosity. My reading is 'cage free'—I give myself permission to pick from a broad variety of topics, I scan books stopping to the chapters that interest me, and I read out of order.
I'm also one of the few people I know who binge reads blogs and articles by one author to gain a sense of that person in the context to their narrative. People rarely make the time to have unscripted conversations with each other anymore. Many interesting people I'd want to talk to are prolific publishers. It's not the same, but it's a silver lining.
When the priority is on wanting to have read, however, the choices change. You plow through 'must reads,' so you can tick them off a list. You'll be very focused on getting the most out of every book. You'll follow the advice of Mortimer Adler in How to Read a Book. Reading to you is serious business.
They're different ways. Just like power and status are different. Or innovation and strategy differ. Or the distinctions between strategy and operational effectiveness. There's no judgement in my short hand for telling which one is which. Just like there isn't in figuring out whether we're lucky or skilled in certain circumstances.
Do you write on the books you read? I take copious notes—in the margins and on my notebooks. Writing is a form of solitary conversation with the topic, it helps me become aware of what I'm thinking and elaborate. Something thoughts are sneaky, they stay on the edge of consciousness. Taking notes brings them to the fore.
It goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway: reading broadly makes me a better writer. It helps me experiment with styles, observe what works and wonder why it does. When people recommend books, I write them down. Because I know the right moment to read them will come.
Here's what I'm reading now.
Technology is not always the answer
Neil Postman's Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology has been on my recommended by others notebook for a while. I picked it up when it became even more relevant for a deeper dive into culture. I came across Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski's distinction between the “technological core” of culture and the “mythical core” via Alan Jacobs and felt it was the right time to explore the role of technology more deeply.
A couple of points about Postman's argument are worth mentioning. Scientific advancement is part of technology, and I do view it as a general stance toward the world in which people see the things around them as objects to manipulate.
Any analytical form of reasoning
through which we seek some form of control
Postman points out how our culture has embraced a scientific approach to life wholesale, which ultimately has no purpose or meaning for its existence. This includes modern philosophy when it moves away from the past and dismisses it as surpassed.
“With the rise of Technopoly, one of those thought-worlds disappears. Technopoly eliminates alternatives to itself in precisely the way Aldous Huxley outlined in Brave New World. It does not make them illegal. It does not make them immoral. It does not even make them unpopular. It makes them invisible and therefore irrelevant. And it does so by redefining what we mean by religion, by art, by family, by politics, by history, by truth, by privacy, by intelligence, so that our definitions fit its new requirements. Technopoly, in other words, is totalitarian technocracy.”
We do need classical elements in our education. I would be lost without an intimate conversation with ancient Greek, Latin, and history, including the history of religions. And we do need a better understanding of what Kołakowski calls the mythical core.
Myth is that aspect of experience that is not subject to manipulation because it precedes human's instrumental reasoning about our environment. People participated in myth as a way of connecting with “nonempirical unconditioned reality” we enter with our full being.
Culture impacts everyone, regardless of whether we acknowledge it.
How to not be prejudiced, lazy, arrogant, and delusional
How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds by Alan Jacobs is a short ode to learning at any age. Jacobs is a Professor or Humanities, and he's brought back many fond memories of my classical studies. Echoing David Bohm, e says that thought indeed tricks us, and we do better when we listen rather than defaulting to our thinking.
We think best when we work with someone with whom we disagree. Jacobs underscores the importance of good disagreement. It's not easy, but I do seek those kinds of collaborations. And some days I do better than others. Two tricks that help me: hold my judgement, and create distance with the topic.
[…] seek out the best–the smartest—most sensible, most fair-minded—representatives of the positions you disagree with. Bering around those people forces me to confront certain truths about myself that I would rather avoid; and that alone is reason to seek every means possible to constrain the energies of animus.
Tough on the issues, soft on the people is a method that has served me well over the years. Perhaps it's worth repeating that algorithms don't do that. They distort human rhythms, trading off uncertainty for the false promise of control. And we should take good care not to delude ourselves that we're flexible when we've merely changed our stance on one point. There's no balance, or habit, in one instance.
Love is an important ingredient
in this conversation.
To say it with Dante, love “moves all the planets,” and it moves us, too. When your disagreement is with a mother you love very much, it's easier to smile internally and let things go. Or perhaps find a way to meet her where she is.
Finally, a thought on having an opinion. I prefer to say, forming an opinion, because it takes work. And most people are not willing to do the work. Human avoid reflection, no matter their status, social class, geography, and/or demographic profile. Is it also a matter of expectations? Are we less tolerant towards people who, on the surface, look like us?
Finally, it's worth remembering that 1./ nobody can make you do anything you don't want to do, and 2./ how to guides are on a spectrum between encyclopedic and unwieldy, or succinct and incomplete. Jacobs' hits most of the high notes in a compact space.
Where there's a will…
“At this point in my life, I’m comfortable in my body. I’m OK with things not being perfect. I don’t have to look right. My mind isn’t drifting to what people are thinking when I walk in anymore. It’s much less performative and conscious.” Will Smith is done trying to be perfect. Results may vary.
Because while it's true that we're much more interesting when we reveal who we are, warts and all, it's also important to pick your unique spots. If I were to compare Will, Smith's autobiography with Mark Manson, to Open, Andre Agassi's autobiography, I'd say Agassi shows us how's it's done.
The tennis player is also a performer with skin in the game. But I felt closer to Agassi as a person after reading his book. His conversation works in my head because he's drawing out insights about life from a sport I know very little about and places and people that are uniquely his, yet I feel their cadence and truth.
“It's no accident, I think, that tennis uses the language of life. Advantage, service, fault, break, love, the basic elements of tennis are those of everyday existence, because every match is a life in miniature. Even the structure of tennis, the way the pieces fit inside one another like Russian nesting dolls, mimics the structure of our days. Points become games become sets become tournaments, and it's all so tightly connected that any point can become the turning point. It reminds me of the way seconds become minutes become hours, and any hour can be our finest. Or darkest. It's our choice.”
Contrast that with what Will Smith says about life. It reads a bit like something anyone could have written. It doesn't work. There are no insights in well-known tropes. You've got to dig deeper and find your truth, how you see things, for it to flow into something that other people can feel. This, for example, feels self-help:
“If you are unwilling or unable to pivot and adapt to the incessant, fluctuating tides of life, you will not enjoy being here. Sometimes, people try to play the cards that they wish they had, instead of playing the hand they’ve been dealt. The capacity to adjust and improvise is arguably the single most critical human ability.”
If you like Will Smith, the actor, the first part of the book makes good reading.
A word about choices
We make the best choices with what we have or think we know. A book can seem good on the spur of the moment, then your enthusiasm may drop. If that's a book that you feel is not for you, don't be afraid to put it down or give it away. I've given away dozens over the years.
For things of greater consequence, there's a word I like to use to acknowledge what's happening: Compassion. A “feeling of sorrow or deep tenderness for one who is suffering or experiencing misfortune” is appropriate to acknowledge and sympathize. Then you move on.
[image of used book fair in Modena]