11 Non-Money-Related Summer Reads
Need a digital detox this Summer? These books require no cords, batteries. If it’s dark out, you just need a candle. Here’s a random bunch of good reads that have nothing to do with investing, markets, biz, money. Buying the print versions lets you banish gadgetry altogether.
At Play in the Fields of the Lord by Peter Matthiessen
Plot, writing, characters, big ideas — this book has it all. The last novel I worked through this quickly was The Razor’s Edge, and I will read this book again in a year or two. Unlike many novels, and almost every non-fiction book, this book gets better as it goes along. If you have a vacation coming up this summer and like a good novel, this is perfect. An instant classic.
For men like himself the ends of the earth had this great allure: that one was never asked about a past or future but could live as freely as an animal, close to the gut, and day by day by day…That’s the only way to do it—go. When there’s a jungle waiting, you go through it and come out clean on the far side. Because if you struggle to back out, you get all snarled, and afterwards the jungle is still there, still waiting.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
This is a gutting read, but it is also beautiful and life affirming. It is the memoir of a successful neurosurgeon who is diagnosed with lung cancer. What a man Dr. Kalanithi was, and what a talented writer. As a parent who now understands the abiding joy of children, the last paragraph of this book was one of the most moving things I’ve ever read. You are going to love this.
How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life
by Scott Adams
I’ve been fascinated by Scott Adams’s blog posts on Master Persuaders (How to Spot a Wizard), so I read his book. It is colorful and enjoyable. I love his exploration of hypnotism and his destruction of the “goal-oriented” mindset. He is a systems-over-goals guy after my own heart.
To put it bluntly, goals are for losers. That’s literally true most of the time. For example, if your goal is to lose 10 pounds, you will spend every moment until you reach the goal—if you reach it at all—feeling as if you were short of your goal. In other words, goal-oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary. That feeling wears on you. In time, it becomes heavy and uncomfortable. It might even drive you out of the game… If you achieve your goal, you celebrate and feel terrific, but only until you realize you just lost the thing that gave you purpose and direction. Your options are to feel empty and useless, perhaps enjoying the spoils of your success until they bore you, or set new goals and reenter the cycle of permanent pre-success failure.
Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words
by David Whyte
You can read this one in an hour or two. If the following passage appeals to you, you’ll really enjoy this well-written book.
Being alone is a difficult discipline: a beautiful and difficult sense of being solitary is always the ground from which we step into a contemplative intimacy with the unknown, but the first portal of aloneness is often experienced as a gateway to alienation, grief and abandonment. To find ourselves alone or to be left alone is an ever present, fearful and abiding human potentiality of which we are often unconsciously, and deeply afraid. To be alone for any length of time is to shed an outer skin. The body is inhabited in a different way when we are alone than when we are with others. Alone, we live in our bodies as a question rather than a statement.
This reminded me of a great passage from one of my all-time favorite books, The Tiger:
“The most terrifying and important test for a human being is to be in absolute isolation,” he explained. “A human being is a very social creature, and 90% of what he does is done only because other people are watching. Alone, with no witnesses, he starts to learn about himself—who is he really? Sometimes, this brings staggering discoveries. Because nobody’s watching, you can easily become an animal: it is not necessary to shave, or to wash, or to keep your winter quarters clean—you can live in shit and no one will see. You can shoot tigers, or choose not to shoot. You can run in fear and nobody will know. You have to have something—some force, which allows and helps you to survive without witnesses… “Once you have passed the solitude test,” continued Solkin, “you have absolute confidence in yourself, and there is nothing that can break you afterward.”
The One Sentence Persuasion Course —
27 Words to Make the World Do Your Bidding
by Blair Warren
I am a sucker for books on influence. You can read this in 30 minutes; it has several great reminders. As always, the key to influence is a complete suppression of one’s own ego and needs in favor of others. This idea is useful in practice, but I find it ends up making you happier, too.
Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind by Al Ries, Jack Trout
I found this book through a work colleague used to work in advertising. He described it as a sort of bible early in his career. It is a really great book about communication. In a way, the book itself is “antifragile” (read my review of Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder) because it’s all about communicating well amid more and more noise. As the world gets even noisier, the lessons in this book get more and more valuable.
As with most books on this topic, the authors believe that good positioning is all other person/client/prospect. Don’t talk about how great you are, or how great your widget is. Instead, start with someone else’s mindset and work backwards.
The basic approach of positioning is not to create something new and different, but to manipulate what’s already up there in the mind, to retie the connections that already exist.
The easy way to get into a person’s mind is to be first. You can demonstrate the validity of this principle by asking yourself a few simple questions. What’s the name of the first person to fly solo across the North Atlantic? Charles Lindbergh, right? Now, what’s the name of the second person to fly solo across the North Atlantic? Not so easy to answer, is it? What’s the name of the first person to walk on the moon? Neil Armstrong, of course. What’s the name of the second?
Natural Born Heroes:
How a Daring Band of Misfits Mastered the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance
by Christopher McDougall
If you liked Born to Run (another book by the same author), you’ll enjoy this story.
The Razor’s Edge (Vintage International)
by W. Somerset Maugham
The best fiction I read recently because I’ve never before so identified with a main character (Larry).
He said that the world isn’t a creation, for out of nothing nothing comes; but a manifestation of the eternal nature; well, that was all right, but then he added that evil is as direct a manifestation of the divine as good. They were strange words to hear in that sordid, noisy café, to the accompaniment of dance tunes on the mechanical piano.
Walking (Annotated Edition)
by Henry David Thoreau
A short, relaxing essay that shows how walking leads to a better, fresher mindset. I wrote about it in my personal blog.1
The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild; and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the World. Every tree sends its fibres forth in search of the Wild. The cities import it at any price. Men plow and sail for it. From the forest and wilderness come the tonics and barks which brace mankind. Our ancestors were savages. The story of Romulus and Remus being suckled by a wolf is not a meaningless fable. The founders of every State which has risen to eminence have drawn their nourishment and vigor from a similar wild source. It was because the children of the Empire were not suckled by the wolf that they were conquered and displaced by the children of the Northern forests who were.
Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration
by Ed Catmull & Amy Wallace
This book was launched with tons of buzz, and deservedly so. It’s one of the most entertaining and useful business books I’ve ever read. The story behind Pixar is fascinating, but so are the management tactics used to keep the company edgy and creative. I found many ideas applicable to my job and my business. For those that follow asset management companies, there are many similarities between Pixar and Bridgewater. The emphasis on constant candor, honesty, and feedback are essential cultural elements at both firms. I particularly enjoyed the discussion of randomness. Here are a few teaser quotes:
What is the nature of honesty? If everyone agrees about its importance, why do we find it hard to be frank? How do we think about our own failures and fears?
This principle eludes most people, but it is critical: You are not your idea, and if you identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when they are challenged. To set up a healthy feedback system, you must remove power dynamics from the equation—you must enable yourself, in other words, to focus on the problem, not the person.
When I mention authenticity, I am referring to the way that managers level with their people. In many organizations, managers tend to err on the side of secrecy, of keeping things hidden from employees. I believe this is the wrong instinct. A manager’s default mode should not be secrecy. What is needed is a thoughtful consideration of the cost of secrecy weighed against the risks. When you instantly resort to secrecy, you are telling people they can’t be trusted. When you are candid, you are telling people that you trust them and that there is nothing to fear.
The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe
One final fun read for summer. Tom Wolfe’s writing is electric, and his subject matter fascinating. There are no modern equivalents to the test pilots and astronauts of the 1950s and 1960s. I wonder how people of the internet age would react to the constant death defying, or death inducing, stunts like those undertaken by these pilots. These crazy bastards put their lives on the line to test the limits of speed, space and technology. Imagine volunteering to be a test pilot knowing the following:
In 1952 sixty-two Air Force pilots died in the course of thirty-six weeks of training, an extraordinary rate of 1.7 per week. Those figures were for fighter-pilot trainees only; they did not include the test pilots, Bridgeman’s own confreres, who were dying quite regularly enough….56 percent probability, to be exact, that at some point a career Navy pilot would have to eject from his aircraft and attempt to come down by parachute. In the era of jet fighters, ejection meant being exploded out of the cockpit by a nitroglycerine charge, like a human cannonball. The ejection itself was so hazardous—men lost knees, arms, and their lives on the rim of the cockpit or had the skin torn off their faces when they hit the “wall” of air outside—that many pilots chose to wrestle their aircraft to the ground rather than try it … and died that way instead.
One figure showed that there was a 23% probability of death if you were a part of the program. But the book is about the right stuff, and those with the right stuff didn’t sweat figures like these because “The figures were averages, and averages applied to those with average stuff.” You have to love the attitude and egos of these men. Oh, and they were always drunk:
Every young fighter jock knew the feeling of getting two or three hours’ sleep and then waking up at 5:30 a.m. and having a few cups of coffee, a few cigarettes, and then carting his poor quivering liver out to the field for another day of flying. There were those who arrived not merely hungover but still drunk, slapping oxygen tank cones over their faces and trying to burn the alcohol out of their systems, and then going up, remarking later: “I don’t advise it, you understand, but it can be done.” (Provided you have the right stuff, you miserable pudknocker.)
I loved Wolfe’s description of astronauts as the cold war equivalents “single combat warriors”:
Just as the Soviet success in putting Sputniks into orbit around the earth revived long-buried superstitions about the power of heavenly bodies and the fear of hostile control of the heavens, so did the creation of astronauts and a “manned space program” bring back to life one of the ancient superstitions of warfare. Single combat had been common throughout the world in the pre-Christian era and endured in some places through the Middle Ages. In single combat the mightiest soldier of one army would fight the mightiest soldier of the other army as a substitute for a pitched battle between the entire forces.
If you like American History and/or stories of pushing the limits of human capability and endurance, this book is for you.
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